Bruce McArthur pleaded guilty to eight counts of first-degree murder today. This is good news.
The families and friends of his victims may find some form of solace in this admission of guilt, and may, in time and on their own terms, discover what exactly happened to the men McArthur has pleaded guilty to killing.
The investigators who combed through the grisly evidence may get a much earned sense of satisfaction from the news, regardless of what we think of the overall handling — or mishandling — of the various investigations leading up to this moment.
And finally, the LGBTQ2 communities will be spared the media circus of a full and contested trial. We will also be spared an unwanted (and likely misinformed) mass media scrutiny of our sexual practices, dating and hook-up rituals, and, by extension, queerness itself and its many manifestations.
Several months ago, I wrote an article begging the mainstream media not to conflate the kind of kinky sex McArthur is known to have enjoyed with criminality or unlawful deviance, to remember that plenty of people are fetishists and/or into sadomasochism but aren’t serial killers.
Because queerness has for centuries been paired in the popular imagination with deviant violence, reporters needed to be reminded, not to repeat this pattern by making what McArthur liked to do in bed the focus of their coverage. The fact that he has pleaded guilty to murdering his sexual partners is the story, point blank.
But, had a contested trial proceeded, I strongly doubt my request would have been granted, if it was ever even heard. Can you imagine, for instance, the daily headlines in right-leaning publications, like the Toronto Sun — outlets that are always happy to present queer communities in the most unflattering light? Can you imagine how media would have made lurid to the point of sensation what they learned from a quick glance at sex hook-up sites such as Recon, Grindr or Fetlife? What is mundane to queer men is exotic and profitable to them, a shock sell.
Look at how reporters covered the case of Luka Magnotta, who killed and dismembered an international student in Montreal in 2012. In a Toronto Star column during Magnotta’s trial, for instance, Rosie DiManno could not wait to alert her readers to the supposedly bizarre and supposedly careless way men meet other men for sex. The subtext of her reporting was not subtle: gay men are risk takers who play fast and loose in the dating game, so what do they expect to happen?
Never forget that at one point in the investigation into the Village’s missing men, Toronto police flipped the burden of safety (and thus culpability) onto gay men themselves by issuing warnings about dating apps, as if dating apps were something new and untested, as if gay men needed any help from the police in figuring out how to be safe when cruising.
When the sexual freedom of queer people is described by mainstream media, it is never with the same joyful tone LGBTQ2 folks experience from their hard-won sexual liberation. Rather, it is presented at best as strange, at worst as something likely to lead to misfortune; the reporting is a clumsy, tripping-over-biases dance between sympathy and blame that we always have to endure when crime visits our places and our people (which is really only one step from implying, as the media used to in my living memory, that queers who are sexually active deserve any bad fate that befalls them).
Even today, reading a report from on McArthur’s court appearance, one reads the phrase “with ties to the city’s gay village” to describe McArthur’s alleged victims, as if simply saying these men were gay or bisexual, as if naming the beautiful particularities of their queerness, is something shameful to be treated with indirection, nods and winks.
And that’s where the good news stops, if you can call a resigned acknowledgement that things could be worse “good news.”
The worry now is that the court proceedings will be swift at the expense of a long and loud airing out of exactly how McArthur was able to move so easily from victim to victim, of how the various agencies and authorities paid to protect all citizens failed our queer communities.
There will be an impulse to wrap this case up as tidily as possible in order to avoid the unpleasant work of taking a hard look at relations between police and LGBTQ2 people. And the general population will quickly forget the brutality of McArthur’s crimes and dive instead into the inevitable psychological speculations over his motives (the “why” will always be more entertaining for many than remembering the victims).
And then will come the commodification. Books, movies, television series: it’s not outside of the realm of imagination that McArthur’s crimes will be molded into entertainment for the masses. You only need to look as far as Netflix’s multi-part documentary about Ted Bundy, or the 2017 biopic on Jeffrey Dahmer to consider how McArthur’s case will play out over time.
In the former, Bundy’s crimes are positioned as strange coming from someone as good looking and well spoken. There is barely a word about his victims. In the latter, Dahmer is painted as misunderstood, even suggesting an ounce of empathy for the man who took 17 lives. Framed in a similar way, McArthur could easily enter the folkloric realm of modern-day serial killers — a mall Santa, a friendly landscaper — and his victims quickly forgotten.
The tidiness of an uncontested plea unfortunately makes it more likely that queer communities’ demands for something better from police will also be quietly wrapped up, and then set aside. Expect business as usual when it comes to any conversations about policing and queer safety. Keeping up appearances always wins, and the police will now be able to argue that their job is done. It is not. Not by half.
Bruce McArthur has pleaded guilty, but justice has not yet been served.