6 min

Spilling our blood

Groundbreaking book explores many forms of anti-gay violence

Credit: (Shawn Scallen)

Douglas Victor Janoff has spent the best part of the past decade studying homophobic violence in Canada.

And in his upcoming book, Pink Blood: Homophobic Violence in Canada, Janoff offers no whitewash as he pushes the reader straight into the horror the queer community continues to deal with.

“The most violent death in my data set was the frenzied killing of David Curnick,” Janoff writes at the start of the detail-rich text.

The 54-year-old Vancouver teacher was found dead in his apartment in 1994. He had been stabbed 146 times. With his own kitchen knife.

David Young soon pleaded guilty to second-degree murder.

The defence claimed Curnick had sexually abused Young. The Crown did not challenge the claims, further fuelling anger from Curnick’s friends who alleged Young had already demonstrated a level of homophobic violence in two incidents where a transsexual woman was stabbed.

The horrific tale is foremost in the groundbreaking new study in which Janoff examines the roots of homophobic violence in Canada, the devastation of its breadth and the lacklustre response to it by the justice system.

At the core of Janoff’s research is a simple question: Why does gaybashing occur?

It’s to keep queers in their place, he answers.

Stark words indeed at a time when queer rights have moved so far forward and so quickly.

Janoff examines more than 100 queer homicides in Canada. Through that lens, he documents the responses of government, the police and the court system.

But he doesn’t stop there. He also turns the spotlight onto the queer community itself, documenting the general apathy that exists outside a handful of dedicated activists.

Janoff draws his material from media databases, academic research and from hundreds of interviews with queer-bashing victims, family and friends of homicide victims, activists, criminal justice workers, academics, journalists and others.

The book is an academic one, following faithfully from its genesis in Janoff’s criminology master’s thesis at Simon Fraser University.

Accordingly, it opens with his methodology, his research as he sets the stage for examining the horrors that have been inflicted on queers in Canada.

Murder is never pretty and Janoff makes no attempt to whitewash the brutality. The book’s dedication is to the victims, their names listed at the front of the book. A typical reader may know one or two, perhaps more, of the 121 people listed. The sheer volume of the list makes a powerful impact all its own.

The work, says Janoff, has been a labour of love. He began covering homophobic violence as a freelance journalist. He found the level of research wanting.

“There was really nothing that had been done in this area before,” he says.

Laurentian University’s Gary Kinsman agrees.

“There’s been a fair amount of research in the States, but very little in Canada,” says one of the country’s foremost researchers on queer issues. “This book will be the first book-length treatment of this topic in the Canadian context. It’s a widespread, pervasive social problem and has been for some time so it’s about time that someone actually investigated it.”

The book can help put the issues into the public realm so society can begin to grapple with the roots of violence toward lesbians and gay men, Kinsman says.

The most frustrating part of his work, writes Janoff, was dealing with police departments. While some were accommodating, in many cases, he says, “The ‘simple’ question’ turned into a big deal: You would think I had been asking them to provide me with state secrets.”

The RCMP comes in for criticism at local and national levels.

Janoff says the national police force’s system for tracking hate crimes is “rudimentary” compared to other Canadian police forces. Further, he says, the RCMP has resisted broader definitions of hate crimes adopted by other police.

And, he adds, the force has no dialogue with the queer community.

“A national gay and lesbian organization like Egale should initiate a dialogue with the RCMP and demand it take queer-bashing more seriously,” he writes.

As Janoff notes, the force had once refused queer officers, calling them security threats. And he says, the force also tracked people due to their sexual orientation.

While that appears to have ended, the force still remains far from the vanguard in dealing equitably with queer Canadians.

Janoff cites the case of a Vancouver RCMP officer who was recently refused permission to march in the city’s Pride Parade. While Janoff does not mention it, the officer was the first to come out of the closet at the RCMP training depot in Regina.

Janoff praises the Calgary Police Service for its addition of an investigator trained in hate crime investigation, an officer who interacted with the queer community.

This was working until the December, 2002 raid on Goliath’s bathhouse in which 15 people were charged with various offences. The liaison officer was left out of the loop and the position criticized by local gay activists as being window dressing. The officer was left frustrated and the trust built with the community smashed.

Conversely, Ottawa receives praise as having the country’s longest-running police-community liaison committee. But, he notes, cracks are appearing as complacency sets in.

But the difficulties don’t end with policing. Once police hand cases over to the Crown, Janoff says, the queer community faces yet more hurdles.

As was observed in the case of Aaron Webster, brutally beaten to death by a gang in Vancouver’s Stanley Park in 2001, the primary focus of a prosecution is to secure a conviction.

In the Webster trial, two youths pleaded guilty, an adult was convicted and a second acquitted. A hate crime designation was added to the sentence of only one of them.

Vancouver’s queer community was aghast. The community demanded an inquiry into the prosecution, partly to know why the hate crime aspect was not pursued.

Former MP Svend Robinson emerged from seclusion and joined the call. He charged prosecutors were not fully conversant in the hate crime legislation.

It’s an issue Janoff addresses.

There are guidelines for prosecutors, he says. But the criticism of the Crown here comes not from Janoff but from a member of BC’s hate crimes unit – which Janoff praises.

“We find we’re having to motivate the Crown to implement the new policies,” the officer said. Robinson echoed that criticism, calling for greater education of prosecutors on hate crime violence.

And, adds Janoff, “The real horror lies in the legal practices that tend to downplay or excuse this violence.”

Moreover, Janoff says, quoting the work of Rachel Giese, federal hate crime legislation doesn’t address root causes of homophobic violence.

Succinctly put, Giese says, “Joining the hate crimes bandwagon has allowed the government to pretend that it’s doing a lot more for minority rights than it actually is.”

The law, Janoff concludes, is silent on gay and lesbian existences.

That silence has a consequence, he writes. He quotes researcher Bruce Ryder from the Queen’s Law Journal: “This silencing normalizes heterosexuality and discourages queers from expecting recognition and support.”

Adds Janoff: “Hate crime legislation needs to be revised and acted upon.”

But if the courts won’t address queer violence issues, queers are not powerless, Janoff insists.

He suggests private prosecutions or seeking punitive damages against perpetrators. Police and prosecutors should be pursued in class action suits for refusing to gather and present hate crime evidence. Further, he suggests, police and prosecutors who gather and present evidence of hate crimes against other minorities but not queers should be pursued under Charter challenges.

Canada’s mainstream media, too, come under Janoff’s scrutiny.

He says the media play “a generally uncritical role” and can, in fact, contribute to the spread of homophobia.

Further, he quotes a letter from an activist: “The (mainstream) media most often projected the assumption that the homosexual in any story involving violence had provoked the assault.”

And where do gay organizations fit into this tragic picture?

Janoff suggests a national queer watchdog organization “that would monitor homophobic violence, publicize cases of police incompetence and offer legal, financial and emotional support for victims battling not just bashers but also an indifferent criminal justice system.

“An activist-oriented ‘safety net’ is needed to monitor cases when the justice system fails to protect queer-bashing victims.”

Egale is ideally situated to assume that task, writes Janoff.

But, Janoff notes, the community remains divided by the law and by its own internal split between those seeking assimilation and those seeking to explore the edges of queer culture.

He notes Kinsman’s research documenting how mainstream officialdom works at “responsibilizing” queers involved in family relations work such as marriage and adoption, and “irresponsiblizing” those who are not.

“For queers who do not fit into ‘familial’ or ‘spousal’ categories, there is continued policing and oppressive regulation in areas regarding sexuality and social life outside familial contexts,” Janoff explains.

Falling into the latter category, he says, are queers who engage in public and promiscuous sex or who fail to conform to mainstream community norms in public settings.

Poignantly, Janoff closes with a case of two New York gay men who were bashed by 15 thugs just metres from the door of Toronto’s Royal York Hotel.

When told of the bashing, the director of New York City’s Anti-Violence Project asked: “If we can’t go to Canada and feel safe, where can we go?”

“Where indeed?” asks Janoff.