Jack Herman says he’s not surprised by Statistics Canada’s recent finding that queers are two to four times more likely than heterosexuals to be victims of violent crime. He is, however, surprised that the government agency studied the question at all.
“It’s an interesting report simply because it comes from StatsCan,” he says, “I didn’t think we were ever going to be counted for anything.”
Douglas Janoff, author of Pink Blood: Homophobic Violence in Canada, agrees. “For years and years, I really felt like I was battling uphill,” he says. “StatsCan couldn’t provide me with any research whatsoever.”
The Feb 28 report, based on surveys conducted in 2004, marks the first time Statistics Canada has ever asked respondents to identify their sexual orientation in the General Social Survey on victimization. Of the almost 24,000 people surveyed, 1.5 percent identified themselves as gay, lesbian, or bisexual.
Herman, who co-founded West Enders Against Violence Everywhere after Aaron Webster was beaten to death in 2001, says the report’s conclusion is no shock. It basically says, “Hey guess what: we get beat up more than the average person,” he points out.
Herman would like the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) and other policing bodies across the country to respond to the new statistics with improved diversity training and an increased presence in queer communities.
Police officers in Vancouver currently undergo a four-day course entitled Serving Our Diverse and Changing Communities that diversity liaison John deHaas calls “pretty generic.”
DeHaas thinks increasing police presence may not be the answer. “We’ve got to pick the best solution,” he says, “something that works. Whatever we do, we do it together.”
According to Statistics Canada’s findings, gay and lesbian respondents are significantly less satisfied with police work than their heterosexual counterparts. Fewer than half the queers surveyed believe their local police are doing a good job of treating people fairly and supplying information on reducing crime.
DeHaas points out that because of “significant differences in policing attitudes and culture across the country” the study may not reflect the Vancouver experience.
“I’d like to know exactly where we are,” he says of the VPD’s relationship with the queer community. The VPD is currently working on a project in coordination with The Centre to assess the trust level between queers and the police.
“I always believe in collaboration,” states DeHaas. “Everyone is entitled to safety and security and to be respected — not tolerated, but respected. The police and the various communities need to rally around that common belief.”
Herman expects the relationship between queer communities and police may improve as more queers report crimes and occasionally see their attackers brought to justice within the court system.
“The more that queer victims of crime are coming forward and getting involved [with] police and seeing not enough — but some — trials where they’re being brought to justice, [the more it encourages] queer victims to involve the judicial system with the crime,” he suggests.
Janoff feels that the responsibility for reducing violence ultimately rests on the shoulders of queer activists. “It’s not enough to just say ‘the police should do more.’ Let’s look at what is the community doing vis-à-vis the police.”
He points to the Ottawa queer community’s response to the 1989 murder of Alain Brousseau as an example of successful activism: “Rather than waiting for the police to do [something],” he says, “the community organized a meeting and said, “this is what we demand.”
He thinks Vancouver’s community can learn from Ottawa’s example by creating a structure organized around specific goals, such as the detailed documentation of bashings, and liaising closely with the police to prevent future crime.
“It’s one thing to go into a march after someone has been killed and be all angry and shout slogans,” he says, “but where the work really begins is on those committees.
“We may have equality on paper,” he adds, “but we still have a long way to go in terms of translating that into safety in the everyday lives of the LGBT community.”
Dr Brian O’Neill, a member of UBC’s faculty of Social Work, considers the findings a reminder to queer people not to become complacent about their safety, in spite of social changes like the recognition of same-sex marriage.
“Take these stats seriously,” he urges, pointing to the recent allegedly hate-motivated murder of gay 15-year-old Lawrence King in Oxnard, California. “There are things happening every day.”
Extreme violence is only part of the picture, O’Neill cautions. “When you’re talking about violence at the more explicit end, that’s really just the tip of the iceberg. Oppression, intimidation and less obvious forms of violence are occurring all the time, all over the place in ways that silence us.”
Janoff hopes Statistics Canada’s findings will be used to secure funding for programs to educate the public about homophobic violence and to assist victims of violent crime.
Herman feels the “queer community is much braver these days than it used to be.” In his experience, younger queers in particular are more likely to report hate-motivated crimes: “[They] get damn angry at violence towards them, and are far more willing to challenge [it]”.
While the Statistics Canada study did not include responses from people under 18, the McCreary Centre Society reported last year that queer youth are more likely to report being victims of violence than their heterosexual classmates.
The Statistics Canada study also found that at least 15 percent of gays, lesbians and bisexuals surveyed reported being victims of spousal abuse, compared to only seven percent of heterosexuals.
Herman questions the discrepancy. “I think that spousal abuse is a big taboo subject and it is definitely an underreported crime,” he says, suggesting that queer people may simply be more willing to acknowledge their victimization at the hand of a spouse than the straight population at large.