More than 2,000 gay men, lesbians and their allies took back the West End Apr 5, shutting down Davie St and marching to demand an end to gaybashings and the violence that continues to target our community.
Their message was simple: Enough is enough.
The march comes just weeks after Vancouver’s latest high profile gaybashing left 62-year-old Ritchie Dowrey in hospital with severe brain damage after a sucker punch knocked him to the ground where he hit his head.
Shawn Woodward, 35, is facing one count of aggravated assault in connection with the incident. He is currently out on bail and will return to court Apr 15.
Woodward allegedly told witnesses who followed him out of the Fountainhead Pub Mar 13 that “He’s a faggot. He deserved it. I’m not a fag. The faggot touched me. He deserved it.”
Dowrey is “still lying voiceless and non-responsive” in Vancouver General Hospital, his friend Lindsay Wincherauk told the rally. “Our dear friend will never be the same again.
“If this crime is not punished accordingly, we all lose something,” Wincherauk continued to loud applause.
“We must be the voice because at this time Ritchie cannot speak for himself. So each one of us must ensure that his voice never goes silent,” Wincherauk said.
“Having rallies like this tells people our community is no longer going to suffer in silence,” added Denise Norman, whose cousin Aaron Webster was brutally gaybashed and left to die in Stanley Park in 2001.
Three people were eventually convicted of manslaughter in Webster’s case. Crown counsel did not seek a hate crime designation for any of them.
“Have you had enough? Are we going to send a message that the violence must end?” Vancouver-Burrard’s gay MLA, Spencer Herbert, asked the crowd assembled at Davie and Denman Sts.
Vancouver has seen five gaybashing trials in the last eight years. Only once has the Crown sought a hate crime designation, Herbert pointed out, asking the crowd to send a message that gaybashings must be treated as hate crimes and stiffer sentences sought.
“Have you had enough?” Herbert repeated to a full-throated “yeah” from the crowd.
An hour earlier, as the crowd marched down Davie and crossed Jervis St, Chad Walters reached out his hand to his boyfriend. Together, they stepped from the sidewalk and into the march.
Walters’ boyfriend is Michael Croteau. Croteau and his ex were assaulted in a Kamloops bar two years ago.
The man convicted in their case was fined $500 last month, but the judge said there was insufficient evidence to apply a hate crime designation.
Croteau weeps as the crowd moves towards Denman St.
“I’ve just been through all this shit, and it feels great to see people out doing something,” he says.
Croteau and Walters fall into step behind the rainbow banners, behind the Vancouver Men’s Chorus singing, “We’re going to keep on walking forward, never looking back.”
Several rows over, Pearce Visser carries a sign featuring a clenched fist raised against a rainbow backdrop that simply says, “Enough.”
Visser says the gaybashing problem seems to be growing. And he’s angry.
“It’s fucking ridiculous that in 2009, in our own community, in our own bars, we’re getting attacked,” he says.
“I just wanted to stand up and make a statement.”
Visser would like to see BC’s Crown counsel “step it up” at sentencing.
“I’ve had enough,” he says. “I’ll fight back every chance I get. I’m not going to turtle up and turn cheek.”
The Fountainhead bashing is “an encroachment in our territory %mdash; an enclave where you’re supposed to be yourself and enjoy people in your community,” says Justin Smith, holding a sign sporting a clenched fist holding a flower.
“It just hit so close to home,” he says.
He’s here today to “take back Davie St. To reclaim.”
His friend Trent Larson designed the fist/flower sign. He says violence is never the answer.
“Fighting back without being violent %mdash; but still standing up for yourself,” he says when asked what the image is meant to convey.
Larson credits Dowrey’s friends who were at the Fountainhead Pub the night of the assault for seeking justice without engaging in violence themselves.
Peter Porteous has been watching hockey with Dowrey at the Fountainhead for 12 years. He’s feeling “pretty melancholy” as he joins the march.
“I think he would be quite humbled by this and a little taken aback by the attention,” says Porteous. “My thoughts are with him today.
“And with future victims, because we know there will be future victims,” Porteous adds. “As long as hate is still coming from pulpits and political forums, it will be out there.”
Bert Holden also knows Dowrey from The Fountainhead Pub. He did not see the assault but attended the rally.
“I’m here to support my good buddy. It could easily have been me,” he says.
“If they don’t designate this as a hate crime, [then the section] shouldn’t be on the books,” he adds. “It’s impossible not to see this as a hate crime.”
Garth McLean also knows Dowrey. He echoes Holden.
“If [prosecutors] don’t recognize it as a hate crime, then they need to re-educate themselves in the law and go back to law school,” he says.
The crowd hits the bottom of the hill and pools into the patch of green at Davie and Denman.
The gay community is fighting battles it shouldn’t need to still be waging, Velvet Steele of West Enders Against Violence Everywhere (WEAVE) tells the crowd.
“Fuck! I’m mad,” she says. “I’m pissed off. We need to get together and form a game plan so this can stop.”
“Enough is enough,” she says, urging people to attend WEAVE’s community forum on violence May 2 at Pulse nightclub on Davie St.
Vancouver Police Department (VPD) Insp John de Haas promises the crowd that the VPD “will continue to aggressively investigate all instances of hate-motivated violence.”
And if investigators find evidence of hate motivation, they will ask the Crown to seek a hate crime designation, deHaas says.
“Gaybashings must stop. The underlying homophobia must be eradicated. It is a cancer,” deHaas tells the crowd to much applause.
The Crown needs to do more to denounce homophobic violence, Herbert reiterates.
There is “too little action, too little responsibility from our province,” he says. “This is shameful.”
Burnaby-Douglas MP Bill Siksay says adding gays to the list of people protected by the Criminal Code’s section on hate-motivated crimes was a significant victory.
But “we’ve seen a number of occasions where the prosecutors and judges didn’t take legislation we have into consideration,” Siksay notes.
“Those laws are just words on paper if the prosecutors aren’t going to use them,” BC Federation of Labour spokesperson Tim Armstrong tells the crowd.
He called on people to come out to their co-workers, families and friends.
“We all have to stand together,” Armstrong says. “No one deserves to be attacked in the streets and nobody has a right to do that.”
Several speakers called for greater education on gay issues in schools.
The gay community is still fighting a war on two fronts, Joan-E tells the crowd. “The first is AIDS and the second is homophobia. It’s the second one with which we deal today.”
The best way to get change and end the violence, Joan-E says, “is to infiltrate from within and by that I mean winning over the minds of the children of British Columbia.”
These kids are still hearing hate, she says, be it from parents, preachers or politicians.
The community must go into the schools, she urges. Out in Schools is already doing it, hosting movies and anti-homophobia workshops for youth. “We should fund those programs.”
We need to “foster a relationship” with the children of British Columbia, she repeats. “That’s where we can start to effect change.”
“But today,” she says, “it’s all about Ritchie. He got attacked in his home” at the Fountainhead Pub.
“Let’s please, please pray that we don’t ever have to do another one of these [rallies] ever again,” Joan-E says.
The attack on Dowrey is only the latest in a string of gaybashings reported since last fall.
Jordan Smith was attacked last September as he and another man walked hand in hand down Davie St.
Smith’s jaw was broken in the attack and had to be wired shut for a month and a half to heal. His attackers allegedly called him a “fucking faggot” and swarmed him.
Michael Kandola is facing one count of aggravated assault in connection with that incident. A preliminary inquiry into his case is scheduled to begin Jun 10 in provincial court on Main St.
Less than 24 hours after Smith was attacked, police publicly called the incident a hate crime.
Police are also still investigating Chad Wilkinson’s gaybashing last November but have yet to lay any charges (see Briefs page 7).
Wilkinson says a group of young men called him a faggot, then punched and kicked him repeatedly in the head at the corner of Davie and Richards Sts in the early morning hours of Nov 8.
A few weeks later, Chris Hiller says he was attacked near Davie and Burrard.
Hiller says before he hit the ground, all he heard was a male voice allegedly saying, “You fag, I’m going to beat the shit out of you, I don’t like you, stay away from me. Don’t even come near me, you fag.”
Hiller says he remembers being hit twice, once on the jaw, which knocked him to the ground where he hit his head, and a second blow that caught him in the teeth.
And a 43-year-old man has been charged with assault causing bodily harm in connection with an alleged gaybashing on Mar 14.
VPD Const Jana McGuinness says two men were standing at the corner of Bute and Robson Sts waiting for the light to change when Kevin Lee Mercredi allegedly punched one of them in the head and neck from behind. McGuinness says the man fell to ground, cutting his forehead open on the sidewalk.
McGuinness says she can’t reveal what statements were made prior to the alleged punch but says “derogatory language” was used.
The VPD’s hate crime unit has reviewed the file and believes the offence was “motivated by hate, bias, or prejudice,” McGuiness says. “They’re requesting upon conviction that Crown make an application for sentencing considerations relating to that.”