3 min

In harm’s way

Heroes of the Year jumped in to stop a gaybashing

COMMUNITY HEROES OF THE YEAR AWARD. Lesbians Lori Neuen and Patty Hails (right) took responsibility last June when they saw an intoxicated man being gaybashed. Credit: Wendy D

Jumping into the fray when someone’s getting beaten up requires a three-faceted act of faith: faith in yourself, faith that you will prevail and faith that, eventually, the justice system will deal with the offenders.

Last summer, lesbians Patty Hails and Lori Neuen defended a man they recognized as a gay brother. Their faith paid off-almost. Their faith in themselves gave them courage to stand up to two bashers much bigger than themselves and the intoxicated gay man. Their faith in prevailing bore fruit as they stopped the attack before the gay man was too badly hurt. But their faith in the justice system-well, the two women feel the investigating police officers let them down.

It was about 2 am on Jun 29 last year when Hails and Neuen saw two big men attack another man. The intended victim was out in the intersection of Davie and Hornby streets. The two men yelled “fucking faggot” as they ran at him, throwing punches with full force, Hails recalls.

“I couldn’t not do anything,” Hails continues. “If I’d walked away I wouldn’t have been able to look at myself in a mirror the next day.

“I didn’t want another death due to homophobia.”

For her part, Neuen remembers her reaction was automatic. “I wasn’t even thinking. It was simple basic humanity. It was instinct. It came from a sense of compassion.”

Neuen says she feels honoured to win the Community Hero of the Year Award. “I did what I did because there was no other choice,” she says. “We’re all socially accountable.”

Accepting the award at the Apr 18 Heroes ceremony, Hails told the crowd she felt honoured that the community remembers what happened so long after the incident. The whole thing has been “a surreal experience,” she added.

The intervention itself was a brutal experience.

One man punched Hails in the head but she doesn’t remember it happening, just that her head hurt afterwards. “When he spit at me it was like slow motion,” she remembers. Grabbing at the jewellery around his neck, they were face to face for an instant. Hails says she looked into the eyes of pure rage. “I saw such hatred in his eyes,” she recalls. It still gives her the creeps.

Neuen’s hand was slashed open-by a ring, she thinks-from blocking one man’s punches.

But the bashing and the hatred were only round one that night. The police response made the whole experience worse, not better.

The officers who arrived at the scene didn’t call in the vehicle’s license number even though he gave it to them right away, recalls Hails. And police refused to take the lesbians’ statements that night and seemed reluctant to see the incident as a gaybashing, despite their evidence to the contrary, she adds.

“I have extreme disappointment in the way the police handled it that night,” Neuen agrees. “I think the police reacted with fear. They were fearful of hearing that truth. It tainted their ability to do the job.”

She’s extra frustrated because she talked to a police officer recently “and they seem to have dropped [the case] because of insufficient evidence.”

Hails wishes she could do more but “I don’t know what else I can do.” She’s followed up with the police on numerous occasions, spoken to the victim, offered to press charges and looked through police photo line-ups.

Hails went for therapy after the confrontation. Neuen’s therapy was a week on Hornby Island and doing a lot of writing about the incident in her journal. Then she took five weeks vacation and camped across Canada.

Perhaps their upbringings have something to do with why the two women were so quick to jump to the aid of a brother in distress.

Neuen grew up in small-town northwestern Ontario on Georgian Bay. “My dad was a compassionate guy and my grandfather was a minister.”

She has a religious background. “I got a lot from it and I’m thankful for the structure. It gave me the spiritual sense of who I need to be and what I need to do. I do believe we all have a choice and a path,” Neuen says. “We all need to be responsible.”

Hails grew up a “hard-core” Catholic in Saskatoon. She taught Sunday school, sang in the choir and was an altar server. She doesn’t think religion had anything to do with her response that night. But she’s the youngest of seven children and would often intervene in squabbles among siblings.

“I guess I was the peacemaker.”

Her parents were teachers and Hails looks forward to a career in education as well. She sees herself as an activist, often attending anti-war rallies and marches.

Nobody expects to be put into the scenario they faced that night, Neuen points out, “but when it happens you’re faced with choices.” It happens quickly. “You don’t evaluate the risk.”

Hails says she’d intervene again “in a heartbeat.” Not that she wants to encourage anyone to jump into a violent situation and get hurt, “but if we all stand up we can make a difference.”