4 min

Behind every tree

Restoring some justice for Aaron Webster

There were lesbians everywhere in the apartment block, having the kind of rowdy, drifting, happy party that lesbians have. Then the men arrived. Swarms of them, all wearing red shirts. All looking for us, to do us harm.

They chased us and trapped us and taunted us. Not outright killing, not at first.

Some of us ran but there was no way out because they were at all the windows and doors, like angry human locusts. You could smell fear everywhere, sharp as curdled milk, but the dancing continued frantically.

I looked for a leader among the men, someone to approach, talk to, reason with, but there was no leader, just a mindless merciless swarm…

I woke up from that dream on the day I was scheduled to attend the restorative justice conference with one of the youth who had beaten Aaron Webster to death almost five years ago in Stanley Park.

The youth and his family were the last to arrive at the conference.

Webster’s cousin Fred and his wife Denise, the two facilitators, his sister Pam and her husband Wayne from Edmonton, and the pastor who had counselled the young offender in prison were all sitting in the circle by the time the youth arrived with his partner and his mother.

By convention, the offender speaks first. With the occasional interjection or question from the facilitators, the youth (who can’t be named by law) described how one member of the group of friends he had hung with since grade school told him he’d been to Stanley Park with his girlfriend when a peeping tom came to bug them.

The friend then suggested they go to Stanley Park in search of peeping toms. He already had baseball bats and golf clubs in the back of his car. (The youth explained they were there because his friend was being hassled at school and felt he needed the protection.)

When they got to Second Beach, the youth and his friends spied the light of a burning cigarette in the bushes near the seawall. It was Webster, naked. He ran. They caught up to him at his car.

And before Webster could open the driver’s door they began to beat him.

“That’s enough, guys,” Webster said. But they kept beating him. They beat him to death.

I haven’t recovered from hearing the youth describe the particular blows that he struck. From hearing him say that he knew that if he had told his friends to stop, they would have, but he said nothing.

From hearing how he conspired with his friends afterwards not to talk about the beating but one of them did anyway.

I am still reeling from the news that the youth’s girlfriend said she was the first to know, but she didn’t really take it very seriously till the police came to take him away.

They didn’t realize that they were in a gay area, the youth maintained. They didn’t think anything of the fact that Webster was naked.

Webster’s family spoke next.

Then it was my turn.

The image of the four men, waling on a defenceless, naked man who did not fight back, in the parking lot of the park a stone’s throw from my office, makes me crazy.

I had been invited there to talk about the effect that Webster’s murder had on our queer communities.

As I listened to the others, it dawned on me that this was the very first time in my 56 years that anyone has invited me to talk about the effects homophobia has on us. Over the years, I have, like many others in our community, made lots of noise to make sure people had to listen to us. But no one has ever asked me before.

I told the youth that to understand the effects of his crime he had to know our history.

I began with the Nazis’ pink triangles for gay men and black triangles for lesbians and mental patients, that marked us for the ovens. I told him that when I came out as a lesbian it was both a crime and a mental illness.

I told him how the police used to harass us–in the bars, on the street–and what the cost of being outed was, in those days. I said that until the late 1980s, most lesbians, gay men, and bisexual people in Canada had no human rights protection.

But we have fought hard, on many, many fronts, I told him. And as the law and the culture began to accept and respect our rights, we began to exhale, just a little.

Webster’s murder ripped the heart out of that fragile, nascent sense of security.

But our communities will no longer take it. We insist, we demand, our place. And we demand that our place be safe.

It is not tolerance we’re after, I told the youth. Tolerance means you can hold your nose and tell stories about someone behind their back as long as you are polite to them when you meet them face to face.

It is genuine acceptance that we want. For there to be acceptance, straight people have to figure out why they are afraid of queers.

My voice shook with tears, but I didn’t care if the grief showed.

“And as to the question of whether you were out queerbashing, or looking for a peeping tom. As to that question,” I said to the youth, looking him straight in the eyes, “we do not believe you. We will never believe you.”

Then I told him that I refuse to live my life as someone afraid to go out in the dark. “But,” I said to him, “when I walk down the street, any street, you are behind every single tree.”

The image of that conference remains seared onto my eyeballs.

Everyone’s mouth opens and closes but no sound comes. And I cannot shake the image of this tall, tall youth with a baseball bat in his hand, beating on Webster’s legs so he would go down.

But the youth is also a man redeemed. That is a word I have never used about anyone before. But there it is.

He apologized for what he did. He talked about the changes he has made in his life, about his daughter, his family. He was humble, and I believed him.

He agreed to do high school speaks with Fred when he finishes his plumber’s apprenticeship. And he said, though nervously, that it would be okay for me to write this article.

At the conclusion of the meeting, I told him I would stand beside him, and be proud.

I still have bad dreams. And I check every tree.