Valerie Bustros was just trying to use the bathroom at the Absinthe Pub in York University’s Winters College on April 5 when, she says, she was attacked by three young men who accused her of using the wrong washroom.
“As I went to the ladies' room, head down, minding my business, some guy said, ‘Hey, that’s the ladies' room,’” Bustros says. “I said, ‘I’m a lesbian, not a dude,’ and he said, ‘Fuck you, motherfucker.’”
On her way back to the bar, one of the men shoved her while questioning her gender, and then all three punched and kicked her.
“I ended up on the floor, but the doorman grabbed me and pulled me into the bar,” Bustros says. “By the time the security showed up, the guys were gone.”
Bustros gave a statement to police, but the attackers were long gone by then. Security video of the attack was salvaged, and Toronto police released photos of the attackers on April 10. Police confirm they are investigating the incident as a possible hate crime.
Police encourage anyone with information to contact police at 416-808-3100, or anonymously at Crime Stoppers at 416-222-TIPS (8477).
Bustros, who works at the school’s Underground bar, did not suffer serious injury but felt it was important to go public with her attack because of the frequency of violent attacks on women at York.
“If no one knows about it, maybe it’ll happen to someone else,” she says.
York students wasted no time responding to the incident. The York Federation of Students issued a press release denouncing the assault, which it linked to a long history of violence and sexual assault against women on the York campus.
Approximately 60 students gathered at Winters College April 8 to discuss what can be done about homophobic and sexist violence on campus, and many took the opportunity to criticize the school’s slow response to a well-known problem.
Many of those gathered called on the university to fully implement the recommendations of the Metropolitan Action Committee on Violence Against Women and Children (METRAC), which was struck in the wake of a high-profile rape at Vanier College in 2007. The chief outstanding recommendation is that the school implement a mandatory anti-oppression and equity course for all students. At the end of the meeting, the students agreed to form a working group, which would continue to meet over the summer, to pressure York into addressing the security issues and hate crimes on campus.
YFS president-elect Vanessa Hunt says adding equity to the school’s mandatory curriculum would help reduce the number of violent incidents as well as the racism, sexism and homophobia that some students say is pervasive on campus.
“It’s an ongoing issue at York,” Hunt says. “The [anti-oppression] course has to be more than a one-time class. It has to bring a depth of understanding.”
Many students criticized the university’s response to the assault. The university’s official statement about the incident simply says that “a female member of the York community was verbally and physically assaulted,” neglecting to note that Bustros is a lesbian or the homophobic nature of the assault.
“It wasn’t just an assault. It was a targeted assault on a queer member of the York community,” says Krista, a second-year student at the school’s Glendon College.
Other students spoke up about incidents of homophobia and transphobia they’d experienced on campus.
“It also rears its ugly head in terms of racist/homophobic graffiti,” says Alistair Woods, VP external of Trans, Bisexuals, Lesbians, Gays, Allies at York. “I’ve definitely experienced verbal attacks when I’m walking home from the pub or from class.”
Another student told how he felt he had to resign from his job as a residence don when the school disclosed his transgender status to other dons without his consent.
“It took them four months to give me an apology,” the student said.
Bustros made a brief appearance at the meeting, as she was in the middle of a shift at the campus restaurant where she works. While she declined to speak about the incident itself because of the ongoing police investigation, she did say York needs to do more to improve campus security.
“I’ve seen campus security three times and I’ve worked here for six months, and I work late hours,” she says. “This is such a removed place. There’s nothing around here.”
But Bustros added that she feels the university is taking the matter seriously.
“I got a call from the president of York,” she says. “He said they’re looking at the METRAC report again to implement some of the recommendations there.”
York University president Mamdouh Shoukri could not be reached before press time.
Two Toronto police officers and Egale executive director Helen Kennedy also showed up for the meeting but were asked to leave by the students.