The day after Aaron Webster was killed in November 2001, about 2,000 gay men, lesbians and their allies marched down Davie St demanding an end to the violence.
A week later, about 200 people attended a community safety meeting to ask the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) what it would do to curb gaybashings.
After Jordon Smith was attacked Sep 27, more than 2,000 queers and their allies again marched through the gay village, this time holding hands to protest the violence.
But, when The Centre hosted its first Aaron Webster Community Forum Nov 17 on the seventh anniversary of Webster’s fatal gaybashing, less than three dozen people turned up.
And that has some people in the community concerned about how seriously queers are taking the issue.
Olivier Ferlatte was visibly frustrated by the low turnout.
“What is tonight going to do?” he asked. “We are not able to keep momentum.”
Ferlatte told the forum that he is angry and scared for his personal safety.
“I want something to happen,” he said.
This was a good opportunity to be heard, he continued. The police department is here, listening. But not even 30 people showed up. It’s disappointing, he said.
Representatives from the VPD’s Hate Crime Unit and Domestic Violence Unit attended, as did Staff Sgt Don Cayer who is now second in command in District One which includes the West End. And Chief Constable Jim Chu stayed the entire time and addressed the forum repeatedly.
“I’m looking forward to some good dialogue,” he said, adding that he was there to listen and to share information.
Both gaybashings and domestic violence in the gay community are still being underreported, Chu said, urging community members to tell him how to fix that.
Aaron Webster’s cousin Denise Norman also attended the forum. “Today is a hard day for our family,” she said.
“Five young men between the ages of 14 and 19 chose to drive down to Vancouver from Burnaby with pool cues, baseball bats and golf clubs. They saw [Webster] and, like prey to an animal, they came out and they chased him and beat him like an animal. One of them hit him across the head with a bat and severed his artery, killing him.”
They later bragged about it to their friends, she added.
“Let’s come forward, let’s complain, let’s get convictions,” Norman urged.
Incidents must be reported if anything is to be done about them, Chu agreed.
Sgt Mark Graf of the Hate Crimes Unit said he understands some people’s hesitancy to come forward. They’re afraid, he acknowledged.
But, says Graf, the police need partnerships with the community. “I know there’s been a history with the police and the queer community, but we’re changing that,” he said.
Added Cayer: “The more we can dialogue, the better we can get.”
Cayer readily admits that he knew little about the gay community prior to the Webster bashing in 2001. But his involvement in a VPD-community committee after that bashing taught him a lot, he says.
“The police want to be involved,” he told the forum. “I am begging you to get us involved.”
Cayer encouraged all community members to call the police if they get bashed, and to insist on an incident number whenever attending officers give them their cards.
“Every officer should be giving you one anyways,” he said. “If they don’t, call them on it.
“If you ever find you have been mishandled by an officer, I want to know about it,” he continued. “I guarantee you I’ll be looking into that.”
Chu echoed Cayer. “We need to hear about it as supervisors,” he said. “Ask for the boss.”
Little Sister’s co-owner Jim Deva worked with Cayer on the post-Webster committee. “He’s extremely sincere,” Deva said. “I think it’s a wonderful thing that he’s now second in command in District One on our community. He very much believes in what we’re doing.”
But, says Ferlatte, community members first need to be educated on what to do should they get bashed.
Ferlatte was bashed in Toronto but did not know where to turn. “I felt useless. I felt helpless. I felt angry,” he said.
“The root of the problem is there is still homophobia and heterosexism in our society,” Ferlatte said.
Some forum participants also asked police what they plan to do about Fred Phelps’ planned Nov 28 visit to Vancouver to protest a local production of The Laramie Project.
Phelps is the American anti-gay preacher behind the Westboro Baptist Church and the website www.godhatesfags.com.
Chu said police will have to wait and see what happens at the protest.
AARON WEBSTER COMMUNITY FORUMS.
Organized by The Centre, with the VPD.
East Van public forum.
Dec 2, 7-9:30 pm.
North Community Health Centre,
200-1651 Commercial Dr.
For information on the youth, trans and two-spirit/queers of colour forums call 604.684.5307 or email firstname.lastname@example.org