When Douglas Victor Janoff was working on his forthcoming book, Pink Blood: Homophobic Violence in Canada, he found himself talking to a BC RCMP hate crimes officer about the 2001 beating death of Aaron Webster in Stanley Park.
Janoff recounts that the officer “made the staggering observation that ‘if Webster was murdered because of his sexual orientation, it would be the first hate-motivated murder of a gay man in BC history.”
This was, of course, prior to youth court Judge Valmond Romilly adding a hate crime designation to the manslaughter conviction of the first youth to plead guilty in Webster’s killing, and prior to Supreme Court Justice Mary Humphries saying there was no evidence before her to justify adding just such a designation to Ryan Cran’s case when she later sentenced him on the same charge.
Webster, however, was by no means the first gay man likely targeted and killed for his sexuality in BC history.
Janoff, a British Columbian transplanted to Ottawa, has spent the past decade studying homophobic violence in Canada.
And, while the tragic Webster case appears throughout the book, it is another BC queer killing that marks Janoff’s introduction to the homophobic violence that queers face.
“The most violent death in my data set was the frenzied killing of David Curnick,” he states at the start of the detail-heavy 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 defense claimed Curnick had sexually abused Young. The Crown did not challenge the claims, further fueling 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.
At the core of Janoff’s research is a simple question: Why does gaybashing occur?
It’s to keep queers in their place, he says.
Stark words indeed at a time when queer rights have moved so far forward, despite efforts in some areas such as marriage where conservative groups try to restrict equal rights.
In Pink Blood, Janoff examines more than 100 queer homicides in Canada and 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, challenging the general apathy which he says exists in Canada’s queer communities outside of a handful of dedicated activists.
The book is an academic one, the genesis of it being Janoff’s criminology Master’s thesis from Simon Fraser University. Accordingly, it opens with his methodology, as he sets the stage for the horrors that have been inflicted on queers in Canada.
Murder is never pretty and Janoff makes no attempt to whitewash the horror.
The dedication is to the victims, their names listed at the front of the book.
The work, Janoff tells Xtra West, 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, one of Canada’s foremost researchers on queer issues, agrees.
While a lot of research has been done in this field in the United States, Kinsman says very little has been done in Canada.
“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.”
Kinsman says Janoff’s work will allow the issues to be put into the public realm so society can begin to deal with the roots of violence toward queers.
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, this is the force that once refused queer officers, calling them security threats.
This is also the force which tracked people due to their sexual orientation, he adds.
While that appears to have ended, the RCMP still remains far from the vanguard of dealing equitably with queer Canadians.
Janoff cites the case of a Vancouver officer who was refused permission to march in the city’s Pride Parade. While Janoff does not mention it, the officer was the first to publicly 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 liaised with the queer community.
This was working until the December 2002 raid on Goliath’s bathhouse in which 19 people were charged with various offences. The liaison officer was left out of the loop and the position criticized 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.
Once police hand their cases over to the Crown, Janoff says, the queer community faces more hurdles.
BC comes in for praise as being the first Canadian jurisdiction to adopt a province-wide definition of hate crime in 1996.
By 1999, Janoff says, at least 1,200 police officers out of 7,000 in BC had been trained to investigate hate crimes.
As was observed in the Webster case, the primary focus of a prosecution is to secure a conviction.
But Vancouver’s queer community was aghast when judges presiding over two of the three convicted killers in that case failed to designate it a hate crime. The community demanded an inquiry into the prosecution, partly to know why the hate crime aspect was neither pursued nor presented to the judges in court.
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 Crown here comes not from Janoff but from a member of BC’s own hate crimes unit.
“We find we’re having to motivate the Crown to implement the new policies,” the officer says.
Robinson echoed the officer in January, calling for greater education of prosecutors on hate crime violence.
Adds Janoff: “The real horror lies in the legal practices that tend to downplay or excuse this violence.”
Federal hate crime legislation doesn’t address root causes of homophobic violence, Janoff says, quoting the work of Rachel Giese.
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 writes, is silent on gay and lesbian existences.
“This silencing normalizes heterosexuality and discourages queers from expecting recognition and support,” he quotes researcher Bruce Ryder from the Queen’s Law Journal.
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 notes.
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, he says.
Further, he says, police and prosecutors who gather and present evidence of hate crimes against other minorities but not queers should be pursued under Charter challenges.
Janoff pauses to point out, however, that many queers are under the mistaken impression that there is a specific statute in the Criminal Code that prohibits hate-motivated violence.
It’s not the case-as was seen in the Romilly decision.
Section 718.2 gives judges the option of making a penalty for a convicted offence, such as manslaughter or assault, harsher at the time of sentencing-if hate motivation can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. But there is no separate charge for committing a “hate crime.” It’s just a designation, applied or not, at the sentencing stage.
So what steps can the queer community take to help re-shape this picture?
Janoff suggests a national queer watchdog organization to monitor homophobic violence, publicize police incompetence and offer legal, financial and emotional support for victims battling not just queer bashers but 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.”
He suggests Egale could assume the task.
But, Janoff notes, the community remains divided-both in practice and in law-by its own internal split of those seeking assimilation and those seeking to explore the edges of queer culture.
He notes Kinsman’s point which illustrates how mainstream officialdom differentiates between “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 says.
Falling into the latter category, he explains, 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 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.