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5 min

Cultures of Homophobia

Why did Jordan Smith's gaybashing spark a backlash against South Asians?

I breathe a sigh of relief each time I get to the gay ghetto, whether I’m on foot, in a car or riding a bus.

Davie St feels like even more of a safe, queer haven when I come home from particularly rough straight territory.

Wed Oct 1 was like that. Leaving Granville cinemas that night, I’d run the gauntlet of the 20-somethings in their uniforms of compulsory heterosexuality who swarm the straight bars and clubs on Granville. So I felt particularly relieved as I rounded the corner of Burrard and stepped onto Davie that night.

Feet away from Fountainhead Pub, I heard a woman say her goodbyes to gay men exiting the pub. She yelled a final, “Be safe, boys! You know what happened to Jordan,” just before I got there.

They must have spotted me the same time I saw them. As I walked past, two of the men came up alongside me. Keeping up with my quick pace, they edged very close to me on either side.

Suddenly, I felt afraid.

They sandwiched me, then railroaded me off the sidewalk onto the road. They didn’t say a word. Neither did I.

Their mission presumably accomplished, they broke stride, crossed the road and went into Numbers.

Incidentally, Oct 1 was seven days after Jordan Smith was gaybashed. He had had his jaw broken in three places by an alleged homophobe just off Davie St. The man now charged with aggravated assault in that case, Michael Kandola, happens to be South Asian.

I wasn’t assaulted that night outside the Fountainhead. I was simply railroaded off the sidewalk. But it was terrifying and I still have nightmares about how it could have been worse had there been fewer people around.

Flashback to day five after Jordan Smith was assaulted. I flip my phone open after leaving a VIFF film that afternoon, and am shocked to find a slew of missed calls and messages from members of the media.

“I’m calling about the assault on Jordan Smith,” the first reporter I call back says. “We’ve heard from gay men in the community that South Asians have a ‘culture of homophobia.’ Do you think South Asians have a culture of homophobia?”

“Of course,” I say, leaving out the ‘what the fuck kind of question is that?’ thought I’m having. I add, “I don’t know any group of people, community or even country in the world that does not have a ‘culture of homophobia.'”

I note that Stephen Harper and his fundamentalist Conservatives spawn a culture of homophobia whenever they speak about same-sex marriage or anything to do with queers. We just don’t call it that.

Then it occurs to me, do people think white people are immune to a culture of homophobia? But how can they? It’s not like white people don’t commit acts of homophobic violence in our community.

Yet when Aaron Webster was killed by a group of mostly white men no one asked about white people’s ‘culture of homophobia.’

I dismiss this reasoning as ridiculous almost as soon as I think it. But the question remains. What does the vicious assault on Jordan Smith have to do with the South Asian community?

The reporter explains. “Jordan Smith got beaten up by a 20-year-old South Asian man from Vancouver,” she alleges.

She adds, sounding curiously apologetic, “We got a media release from members of the LGBT community telling us that South Asians commit most of these attacks. It’s them who are calling it “a culture of homophobia.”

I suddenly realize what’s going on. I’ve been through this before. My phone rang off the hook with calls from the media just 10 months ago, after The Vancouver Sun chose to run with homophobic remarks by Sikh gurdwara (temple) leader Balwant Singh Gill in an article stereotyping immigrant value systems.

Then, the LGBT community had forced a retraction and apology from Gill. In the process, there was a racist backlash.

Ultimately, the Sun’s efforts to use one man’s words against the whole South Asian community backfired. Some LGBT community leaders had refused to bite the racist bullet and it had been a watershed victory, we had thought then. Trikone Vancouver even scooped an Xtra West Community Achievement award for our leadership role in that battle.

I’m crushed that, once again, we’re facing the same battle.

I’m not left to ponder this alone for too long because I run into Little Sister’s Janine Fuller that night. We share Scotch and our concerns about what the backlash against South Asians could bring.

The next day brings a call from Jim Deva. He’s concerned about the hateful atmosphere and says it’s time to re-focus on our right to hold hands, especially on Davie St.

I learn he’s spoken with The Centre’s Jennifer Breakspear and the ball’s rolling on a Holding Hands for Justice event for Oct 12. But, he says, “We need you on board.”

My sadness over the gaybashing has turned into anger at the racism. Still, I say yes because it is an opportunity for those of us in the LGBT community who want all of us to be safe on Davie St to turn things around.

When I share the news with the 145 members of Trikone Vancouver on our listserv, I find not everyone has the luxury of sharing my optimism.

Some tell me they won’t be there, not because they don’t support the event, but because they’re afraid to come downtown.

One writes, “Because of the actions of that immature violent idiot, all of us must suffer,” adding that while racist comments on Davie St aren’t unusual, he expects it’ll be worse now.

“What if they think I’m straight?” he asks. “What do you think will happen after the march? Where can I go where I will not be looked at as ‘the problem?'”

By the time Sunday dawns however, more and more Trikoners are excited and committed to attending the march.

The march up Davie St is invigorating! The sense of community, infectious.

Friends hug, strangers make eye contact and hold hands. Speakers at the rally are applauded four or five times per sentence. It’s powerful!

It almost takes back the damage done by the racist backlash which has made it so much harder for South Asians to come out, to be part of the community.

Moved by the spirit of the crowd, moved by Jordan Smith’s written message that day, moved by the love, the compassion, respect and solidarity we shared in that thousand-strong taking back of Davie St, most of the speakers talk with optimism and hope about how we can win the battle against hate if we only come together.

I feel that also, on that sunny Sunday, it is not just the crowd and the energy that drives us to such hopefulness, but that we are on the verge of political change.

But as I write, it is the Conservatives who in fact have been swept back in, albeit in another minority government. It is, however, a de facto majority, because who in their right minds would force another election upon what we have since learned is not a very informed Canadian populace?

Now more than ever it is imperative that we come together across stereotypes, across hatreds, in a celebration of our differences and resistance to the violence committed against us because of who we are. Because ultimately we’re in this together.