The rape scene that anchors the 2009 British film Shank unleashes its barely muted homoeroticized violence for a discomfiting three minutes.
Rage, pent-up arousal, betrayal, confusion and love all surface and intermingle on Jonno’s face as he thrusts wildly into his gangland buddy Cal until he bleeds.
The scene lays bare some of the psychology behind homophobia and its violent end run, gaybashing.
“When it came to that rape, I had to take Tom [Jonno] off set and have a very long chat with him about what he was about to do and why he was about to do it — and what was supposed to be going through his mind,” Shank co-writer Christian Martin says.
“He felt he had to be loud and shouting and he had to be saying everything very quickly and very violently. I said, ‘No. The subtlety of the situation is in the fact that when you turn around and you say, “Look what you’ve made me do,” you do it almost as a whisper into his ear, because you love this guy but you can’t express yourself in the way that he’s been able to outside the gang. [Cal’s] happy with his sexuality and he’s found love; you can’t find that because you are tied up in this world of bravado.’”
Shank’s thesis has some traction with one of the many well-worn theories that attempt to explain why people, particularly young people, gaybash: the hormone-charged, precarious masculinity of adolescent development that sometimes clashes with repressed same-sex desire and leads to lashing out, to preempt being revealed as anything less than straight.
In short: they bash because they’re aroused. They bash because they’re afraid they might be gay themselves.
“I think there is something incredibly sexual in that moment of violence,” Martin says. “It’s an arousal, they’re turned on, the adrenaline is going and they switch, and it can become sexual.
“I think that’s what happens, and we wanted to get across some of that frisson, to deliberately appall people. We’ve had people walk out of the film, which is an emotional response I’m quite happy to witness.”
Of course arousal (and the violent fear it engenders) only partially explains why some people gaybash, Martin notes.
Encouraged and emboldened by anti-gay messages that flow from the Vatican, campaign trails and other supposedly legitimate sources, gaybashers “lash out against something that’s different from them, that they don’t perceive to be part of the majority,” Martin says.
For some 20 years, Canadian criminologist Doug Janoff has sifted through the whys of gaybashing, coming up with several other reasons apart from the schools of hormone-charged masculinity and suppressed sexuality.
He points to the political, Nazi skinhead theory of white power, in which homosexuality is an abomination that needs to be eliminated; the rightwing, religious person who has somehow been raised to nurture this hatred; and the pathological, in which a man who was sexually abused by another man as a child or teen fixates on that and seeks out a gay male victim as a way of working out that unresolved trauma — a theory that does have credence in some prescribed circumstances, Janoff says.
“Many of these could be overlapping,” he adds. “It could be a young man mixed up about his sexuality and is abused as a child who lashes out, or it could be a religious person who has some other motivation.”
Then there’s the question of cultural communities, Janoff says.
“Are there people who come from certain communities where [anti-homophobia] messages are somehow not allowed to get through, where those messages are going through some sort of filter?” he asks.
When BC Crown counsel asked Janoff to provide expert opinion in the Michael Kandola case, he says he was struck by the similarities between the Edge Café case 16 years ago and Kandola’s 2008 attack on Jordan Smith, both involving groups of Indo-Canadian men.
“The question I ask is, Why is this still happening?” Janoff says. “Why has there been no progress in that regard, and why have those difficult questions not been asked in those communities?
“Or have they been asked and have fallen on deaf ears?” he continues. “Whose role is it to ask those questions and are there voices that are trying to be heard, that are being suppressed?”
“I think where we may be going wrong is we may be passing our baggage on to our generations born and raised here,” says Vancouver South MP and former BC premier Ujjal Dosanjh. “I think that’s who you are now seeing on the streets in Vancouver.”
“We as the adults, the first-generation adults who came here, have not addressed it, have not made our children aware to the extent that we should be making them aware,” Dosanjh says. “And I think you may be seeing the result of that if there is a disproportionate number of Indos reflected in the attackers.”
According to Xtra’s records, relative to their own 26 percent of Metro Vancouver’s population, Indo-Canadians are disproportionately represented among convicted gaybashers, accounting for more than a third, though Caucasians are responsible for the majority of convicted gaybashings in BC since 1994.
While a disproportionate number of reported gaybashings in the Lower Mainland are attributed to Indo-Canadians, lawyer El-Farouk Khaki notes that most people drop the cultural explanations for gaybashing when the attackers are white.
Khaki also notes that discussions of any kind of sexuality — let alone homosexuality or alternative sexuality — are virtually non-existent in many traditional communities, not just brown ones.
There is a fear of having debate and dialogue about sexuality, agrees Dosanjh.
Dosanjh says he’s raised issues about discrimination against gays and lesbians in community meetings only to be approached privately afterwards and asked why he brought it up.
“Like the view in the rightwing Christian community, [the feeling is] if you talk about it somehow you give that orientation to kids, then they become gay and lesbians,” he says.
“That misunderstanding exists throughout the country, not just limited to one community,” Dosanjh points out.
Dosanjh, who was brought up in India, says the tenets of village life still hold for many in Greater Vancouver’s Indo community.
“This thing about ‘What would people say?’ still carries a lot of weight and produces the stigma, or the appearance of stigma, in your own mind,” he says.
“I think the younger people here can live a lot more anonymously than they could in the village. But still, because the community functions as if it was still living in the village — where people have very close relationships and people know what’s going on in each others’ lives, or at least want to know what’s going on in each others’ lives — that makes it more difficult.”
Sher Vancouver’s Alex Sangha recalls the experience of a young girl who was out to her mother but not to her extended family, who saw her in Pride parade photos.
“All of her extended family members were calling her parents, and her mother shut the phone off. It was really hard on the family,” Sangha says.
“There’s a lot of factors that people have to take into consideration when they make such a bold statement by going in the Pride parade or coming out of the closet or going against family values,” he adds.
For Shank’s Martin, people’s willingness to violently act out their hatred, ignorance or even arousal comes back to the messages we’re receiving from “our perceived leaders,” whether they’re at a local or global level.
“If you condone the behaviour of a bully, then it stands to reason that those who are less fortunate than the majority are going to believe that they legitimately have the right to be bullies themselves,” Martin believes.
“I also think that people that are very well-educated and have a decent sense of right and wrong are also influenced by these things,” he adds, “because they see, in terms of their own faith and their own beliefs, a legitimacy in what’s being said.
“Until such time as we turn around and say, ‘I’m sorry, you can’t be racist and you can’t be homophobic and you can’t be saying these things, they are going to continue to say it.”