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12 min

The murder that changed us

Aaron Webster, 10 years later

Aaron Webster (left) with his cousin Denise Norman. Credit: Courtesy of Denise Norman

It’s been 10 years since Tim Chisholm stumbled across his best friend dying in Stanley Park.

Ten years since he frantically tried to administer CPR to Aaron Webster’s brutally beaten body as it convulsed in his arms, neck thickly swollen, lips flecked with blood.

Ten years since Webster died of injuries deliberately inflicted by a group of young men who set out on Nov 17, 2001, armed with baseball bats and pool cues to hunt “peeping toms” near the entrance to Stanley Park’s gay cruising trails.

“I remember it all,” Chisholm says.

“I was looking for a meteor shower after the bar closed. I remember I heard this laughter from the other end of the parking lot and some thuds.”

Chisholm could not have known that his friend was being chased by a pack of armed young men who cornered him near his car, beat him until he fell to the ground, then beat him some more.

He thought it was just some kids getting drunk and hitting cars, so he stayed where he was to wait them out. When he finally pulled out of his parking spot about 10 minutes later, his headlights picked out a naked man lying on the road ahead. Chisholm jumped out of his van, approached the man and called 911.

“I didn’t realize it was him until I lifted his arm,” he says. “Oh God. I just freaked. That was unimaginable. Hard to put into words.”

He pauses, remembering his friend. “He was a fun-loving guy. Very talented, very personable. Liked to have a good time but also very empathetic towards people.

“It’s hard to believe it’s been 10 years.”

***

News spread quickly of a gay man’s murder in Stanley Park.

Murray Bilida was at Melriches Coffeehouse when he heard. “It was first thing Saturday morning and I was there having my breakfast sandwich, and I opened the paper and there was the story,” he recalls.

He couldn’t believe this could still happen in 2001 in a city that was supposed to be safe for gay people. He knew instantly that it was a gaybashing.

Gay men have been cruising on those trails for 100 years, he says. If a violent attack occurred in that space, it was likely deliberately perpetrated.

The brutality and the senselessness of the attack against one of his own pushed Bilida into action. “I picked up my newspaper and walked out the back door and into Little Sister’s.” There he found the bookstore’s co-owner and veteran community activist, Jim Deva.

“‘Can you fucking believe this?’” he asked Deva. “‘Somebody needs to do something about this.’ And Jim, in his wise and succinct way, said, ‘Well then you better get busy, mister.’

“And that was it. I went home and I got to work,” says Bilida, who organized the following day’s historic march down Davie St in less than five hours.

When Bilida returned to the Little Sister’s back parking lot at 1pm on Sunday, Nov 18 he was dismayed to find only about 100 people milling about. Then he saw the crowd gathered on Davie St.

“Davie St was closed, essentially, there were so many people in the street,” he says.

For a notoriously apathetic community, the turnout was record-breaking.

“It was affirming that we are a community,” Bilida says. “That I’m not alone in my outrage. This is in fact shared grief — and shared resolve.”

“I think it’s fair to say that every gay man in Vancouver, the thought went through their mind: this could have been me,” says filmmaker Aerlyn Weissman, who documented the demonstration. “It just hit people in the gut.”

“It was really shocking,” she says. “I remember thinking we were beyond the reach of this kind of violence. And then thinking, well, maybe we’re not.”

“I just happened to be right at the front” of the march, says Jonathan Byers. “I remember getting to the bottom of the hill and wondering how many of us there were. And I turned around and all of Davie St was a mass of people marching. And still people coming over the hill. I was just amazed. I ended up crying the rest of the way. It was very, very moving.”

What stands out for Weissman was the silence. “There were several thousand people walking down Davie St — and it was silent,” she says. “That silence was incredibly powerful.”

***

It was readily apparent that Webster’s murder “was going to be huge in our community,” Deva says.

“Partly it was the time: we were all feeling under attack” just two months after planes flew into New York’s twin towers on Sept 11, he says.

Then there was the sense of cumulative attack on the gay community. “Most gay people have been bashed in one way or another. So it became very personal, very quickly.”

He, too, remembers a “horrible sinking feeling” when he first heard the news of Webster’s death. “Followed by a feeling of total guilt.”

Two months earlier he had been doing inventory at the bookstore when a reporter dropped by to interview him for a story on gaybashing. “I clearly recall blowing him off,” Deva says.

“It’s an old story,” he told the reporter. “Why are you working on it?”

“As soon as I heard about the murder, that came back to haunt me,” he says. “I’d taken it all very nonchalantly. [It] was a false sense of safety, which was shattered.”

“I think as a city we lost our innocence,” he says. “Vancouver had always been a safe place for gay and lesbian people. It was a mecca during the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. It was the place to come. We were refugees from the rest of Canada that found a safe place to live our lives openly and honestly. Aaron Webster’s murder destroyed that innocence forever.

“Which is probably a healthy thing,” he adds, “because the world isn’t an innocent place. I think the way to remain safe is to remain strong.”

Webster’s murder, and the gay community’s powerful response to it, marked a “pivotal moment” in the previously quiet community’s history, Byers believes.

Though the city had always seen some high-profile activists such as Deva resisting censorship and pushing for change, most community members were not so publicly vocal, Byers says. Webster’s death changed that.

It galvanized average gay people and showed them that they, too, can be “a part of change and that they already are a part of something — they’re part of a community,” Byers says.

“It was heartbreaking that it had to be because of an event like that, but I felt such overwhelming pride at being part of a community that day,” he says.

The gay community as a whole began to find its voice as a result of that march, he continues.

“I think the city of Vancouver started to pay more attention to us as a community.”

***
 

Certainly the Vancouver Police Department [VPD] began to pay more attention, says Deva.

Inspector Dave Jones, then in charge of policing in the West End, made an unprecedented statement at the Nov 18 rally following the march: “This is a hate crime, pure and simple,” he told the crowd.

“I said that knowing full well that at the back end of the investigation” the officers would never say that before examining all the potential motives for the crime, Jones says now.

“But for me, not being in charge of the investigation but being in charge of the community’s sense of whether the police department cared or not — it was important to call it what it seemed and not equivocate.”

To call it anything but a gaybashing “would have created such a distrust in the police. It wouldn’t have mattered what we did after that,” he says.

Deva agrees and has high praise for Jones, who is now retired from the force. “I think we had the right inspector at the right time,” he says.

In the immediate aftermath of the murder, Deva and other community leaders formed a committee to identify the community’s needs and attempt to meet them. Out of that came more gay representation on various West End associations, such as the then-Davie Business Improvement Association and the street’s community policing office. “That we’d been isolated for too long was readily apparent,” Deva says.

The committee also began meeting with the police to push for arrests and sensitize the force “because it was readily apparent that they needed us and we needed them,” Deva says. It was the first time the gay community had really interacted with the VPD, he notes.

Initially, “the police department had a hard time wrapping their heads around the fact that cruising had taken place in the park for 100 years,” Deva remembers. The officers tried to understand why the committee would defend rather than shun the stroll.

Decades of community distrust for a force that, like many others in North America, routinely harassed gay people, would not evaporate overnight, but the officers who attended those meetings grew a lot in the post-Webster process, Deva says, noting that many of them are now highly ranked officers dispersed throughout the VPD.

Now-Chief Jim Chu attended several of those meetings, Deva points out. (“He was very quiet in the back. Very polite, very quiet, very attentive.”)

As a result of the meetings and the dialogue they fostered, the upper echelons of the VPD now understand our community better than before, Deva believes. “And I think they really do want to be better police officers for our community. But for that to translate down to the other police officers is asking almost too much.”

Jones agrees that the Webster murder and subsequent interaction with the gay community led to a cultural shift in the VPD.

“If Aaron died so that people could feel more comfortable being who they are, and police could be trusted to support the community — then that’s a legacy,” he says.

“There’s still, on occasion, miscarriages of justice,” Deva notes. “It’s a big force.”

In any group you’ll have some people who “are not with the program,” Jones agrees. “But I think if you have someone from the gay community who comes forward and says, ‘I’ve been mistreated,’ the department would take that seriously.”

“I think the best thing I did as a police officer, in almost 30 years of policing, was getting the trust of the gay community and getting the police department to be more open about its relationship with the gay community,” he adds.

There’s still work to be done and trust to be earned, Deva says. But “I think we have a unique relationship with the VPD that we would never have had without that tragedy.”

***

If the VPD grew as a result of the Webster murder, Crown prosecutors in BC were much slower to follow suit.

Their handling of the three Webster trials (see sidebar) left many in the community outraged, calling for inquiries that would never be held.

David Holtzman still can’t believe the Crown prosecuting the adults’ trial never even said the word gay.

“It still flummoxes me,” says Holtzman, whose own alleged gaybashers are scheduled for trial in March 2012. “This was an attack on gay.”

In the two weeks it took to present evidence at the adults’ trial, prosecutor Greg Weber never once told the court that Webster was gay, let alone that he was targeted as a gay man on a cruising trail.

Though Justice Mary Humphries eventually found Ryan Cran guilty of manslaughter and sentenced him to six years in prison, she did not label the killing a hate crime. She couldn’t, she said, because the Crown presented no evidence to substantiate the designation.

“I am aware that the death of Aaron Webster has had a significant effect on the gay community,” Humphries ruled, “however, there was no evidence before the court of Mr Webster’s sexual orientation.”

The way the Crown handled that case was “an affront to our community,” Weissman says.

This was not a random attack, she maintains. “You don’t go to Stanley Park with bats to play ball after midnight.”

If nothing else, Cran’s admission that they “lynched a guy” should have tipped off the Crown, Weissman points out.

“Lynching is about targeting people because of their identity,” she explains. “We’re all familiar with the term coming from the American South. There were a range of people who got lynched, mostly black people, but a few Jews — all collectively demonized.”

Cran “got it right. They did lynch somebody,” Weissman says. “That word, to me, said they knew exactly what they were doing.”

Judge Valmond Romilly, who presided over the first youth’s hearing, agreed. “I fail to see why this cannot be described as a gaybashing,” he ruled a year before Humphries, as he handed the youth the maximum sentence allowable — and a hate crime designation.

Despite the youth’s statement to police that he and his friends were targeting “peeping toms” and “fucking voyeurs” rather than gay men — and the Crown’s reluctance to challenge that assertion — Romilly said he found it hard to believe that Webster’s killers could be “so naive that they did not notice this area was frequented by gays.”

Besides, he ruled, targeting voyeurs is still targeting people on the basis of their sexuality — a sexuality “which some may describe as deviant.”

Romilly’s ruling stood as the exception not only among the Webster trials but among all gaybashing trials in BC. Nearly a decade after Aaron Webster was brutally beaten and left to die in Stanley Park, few Crown prosecutors and even fewer judges had the courage or the will to acknowledge and denounce violent homophobia in the courtroom.

Until 2010. In two cases heard just months apart, Dasein Nearing and Jacinta Lawton reset the bar for prosecuting gaybashings.

Michael Kandola’s repeated use of the term “fucking faggot” as he broke the jaw of a man holding hands with another man in the gay village proved that his actions were fuelled by homophobia, Nearing argued. BC Supreme Court Justice Joel Groves agreed and called it a hate crime.

Seven months later, Lawton not only sought a hate-crime designation in the Fountainhead gaybashing but soundly dismissed Shawn Woodward’s argument that Ritchie Dowrey had somehow provoked his attack with a sexual advance.

Judge Jocelyn Palmer agreed and ruled that the case fit the hate-crime criteria set out by Groves in the Kandola case.

In between the two cases, BC’s attorney general, Mike de Jong, quietly issued a memo on Oct 12, 2010, instructing the province’s Crown prosecutors to assertively seek a hate-crime designation in all cases potentially motivated by hatred and to present the substantiating evidence at trial.

“That was the memo we needed 10 years ago,” Deva says.

***

If Crown prosecutors in BC are now beginning to seek justice in gaybashing cases, the underlying problem of hate-fuelled attacks persists.

Holtzman says the number of people who approached him with gaybashing stories of their own after he was attacked gave him pause.

Deva says he still hears from people on a weekly basis who have been bashed. “We didn’t solve the problem,” he says. “That would be naive.”

“There are still a lot of rednecks around, both in small towns and in the city,” Chisholm agrees. “When you’re down here in the West End, you’re gay. When you get out of the West End, you’re a fag.”

“People are scared of things they don’t understand,” he suggests. “I’d like to think it’s a minority, but whether it’s true, we don’t know.”

Bilida thinks attitudes have shifted in the last decade, partly as a result of the gay community finding its voice in Vancouver, standing up and clearly saying, “That’s enough.”

Younger members of the community are less hesitant to call the police if they’re bashed now, he believes, and a growing majority of society is happy to live their own lives and let us live ours. Those who would oppose gay rights are increasingly seen as regressive, he adds.

Things are evolving in North America, Jones agrees. Gays and lesbians are more visible and better represented on prime-time TV and in popular culture, he says, pointing to Ellen DeGeneres and Rosie O’Donnell. “It opens up those barriers.”

The problem is, says Deva, society still has “Crans being nurtured in our school system with very little being done about it. That’s the tragedy.”

The only way we’re going to unravel homophobia at its roots is to change the education system, Deva believes.

Of BC’s 60 school districts, only 15 have implemented comprehensive anti-homophobia programs teaching kids to embrace diversity while challenging homophobic harassment.

That’s not enough, Deva says. Pockets of change are not enough.

Weissman agrees. It’s important to keep pushing for change and to remain vigilant, she says, especially as the world slides deeper into recession and groups like the Tea Party gain popularity in the US.

People fear and scapegoat “the other” in tough times, she warns. “We’ve been seen as the other for far longer than we’ve been in the Charter.”

“It would be nice if it were a hopeful story — and it is, in parts,” Deva says. “But it would be really untrue to say that all the changes have happened. And it would put us at a place where we’d have a false sense of security. We still have more to learn from Aaron’s horrible death. We really do.”

***

‘‘Aaron Webster was an unwitting martyr,” Bilida believes.

“There are certain pivotal moments that galvanize a community’s resolve,” he says, comparing Webster’s murder to Matthew Shepard’s 1998 murder in Wyoming, and to Mohamed Bouazizi’s 2010 self-immolation that triggered the Tunisian revolution and the Arab Spring.

“I put Aaron in the same list of martyrs,” Bilida says. Webster didn’t set out to be a martyr, but his murder “ignited a community.”

“It was a horrible end, but I think by being in the wrong place at the wrong time, he accidentally contributed more to this community in Vancouver than almost anyone else,” Byers agrees.

“I’m sorry it had to be that way, but I really do think his death was the birth of a whole set of changes for many people. It shook up their complacency,” Byers says. Webster’s death and the community’s reaction showed not only the gay community, but the police and “a whole city that thousands of people could be galvanized into action.”

“We’re in a different era now,” Weissman agrees. Gaybashing is “on the table now. It’s public. It’s acknowledged as an issue in our city. There’s no way to hide the impact anymore. You can’t downplay it.”

Webster’s last words to his killers — “That’s enough, guys” — offered a fitting rallying cry for the community, Bilida says. “What an apt statement. I think we had had enough bullshit. That’s where we found our strength to stand up together and say, ‘Fuck this. We’re done.’”

Of course, Webster’s murder didn’t occur in a vacuum. Years of activism had laid a foundation to stand up and fight back, Bilida says. “There’s a long list of folks who made it happen before Aaron. It just hit a critical mass on Nov 17, 2001.

“His tragic death allowed a community to stand up and come into its own.”