Monday, Nov 12
After 48 hours of public outrage in the twittersphere, the vice-president of membership of the Robert Lee YMCA on Burrard Street posted “an important message to our community” on the YMCA’s website late Friday, Nov 9.
An incident occurred between two of our members at the Robert Lee YMCA this week in which one member made homophobic and threatening remarks to the other member.
A formal criminal complaint has been made to the Vancouver Police Department. The membership of the individual in question has been suspended.
The YMCA takes this incident very seriously. We are working with other community partners, including our local MLA’s office and QMUNITY, to be a part of the solution to address discrimination and homophobia.
The Y acknowledges that the initial way in which we handled this situation has caused anger, frustration and hurt for those involved and members of our community. We are sorry and wish we did better.
The Y works hard everyday to be a safe place for all. While this incident is regrettable, we value the diversity of our community and believe that by working together, we can build a stronger, more inclusive society.
Vice President Membership
YMCA of Greater Vancouver
Friday, Nov 9
Several gay men are threatening to cancel their YMCA memberships over management’s handling of a member who allegedly threatened a gay man twice.
“I want to go to the gym and feel safe,” says Aaron Poirier, who suspended his membership after being threatened.
Poirier tells Xtra he was getting dressed at the Robert Lee YMCA in downtown Vancouver on Nov 3 when a man began leaving his things all over the area.
Poirier asked the man if that was necessary.
“He said, ‘You better watch out or I’m going to crack you. You listen, you fag, I’ll crack you,'” Poirier, 36, alleges.
Poirier says he got a manager, who confronted the man.
“He denied it,” Poirier says, adding that the manager took a statement from him and that the man continued to act aggressively as he was leaving.
The following day, Poirier returned with his partner, Olivier Ferlatte, 32. They went to the far end of the change room. The man was there again and began shouting, Poirier says.
“Hey, you going to call the big boss?” Poirier alleges the man said.
When Poirier asked the man what he said, he repeated it, Poirier alleges. At that point, a YMCA staff member came in to defuse the situation.
It didn’t work. Poirier says the threats escalated.
“He doesn’t know what he’s got coming,” Poirier alleges the man said. “He doesn’t know what he’s getting into.”
Poirier says he again met with a manager. “I said he threatened me twice. Once, he very explicitly said he was going to punch me.”
Ferlatte tweeted about the incident a few days later.
“My boyfriend was called a fag. Threaten twice by the same guy in the change room. Y management will do nothing,” the gay men’s health advocate tweeted on Nov 7.
“The YMCA refuses to revoke his membership despite threats being done on two different days, in front of staff. Be safe!” Ferlatte tweeted.
YMCA of Greater Vancouver spokesperson Kelly Walker says staff met with both men after “an argument occurred” on the Nov 3 weekend.
She confirms that “a derogatory term was used.”
“The Y met with both men and communicated that aggression and discrimination was unacceptable,” Walker says.
She calls the incident “regrettable and unacceptable” but says it is “an opportunity to teach the individual in question about appropriate behaviour and acceptance of all people regardless of their sexual orientation.”
“The member in question apologized to the Y and assured us this would not happen again,” Walker says. “There is now a letter in this member’s file. This member has been notified if there is another incident like this again, their membership will be suspended.”
She acknowledges that Robert Lee YMCA (located just blocks from the gay village) has a significant number of gay members and says the YMCA values diversity.
“We take matters like this very seriously,” she says.
Poirier isn’t so sure. He says the YMCA does not appear to have any policy on dealing with threats or violence.
Poirier is director of human resources for Hostelling International in Vancouver. He’s shocked the YMCA doesn’t have written policies on such issues. And he’s expressed his concerns to the local YMCA vice-president, he says.
He believes that if the incident were racially motivated, the YMCA response would be different.
“It’s just shocking,” he says. “Would they be talking about a second chance?”
Ferlatte agrees. He has suspended his membership and urges others to do the same until the YMCA addresses safety issues for gay members.
Paul Nixey says he’s been a member of the YMCA since 2005 and is “extremely concerned” about how the situation was reportedly handled.
“Most gay men understand that homophobia is still a major issue in Vancouver, but the true test of an organization is how they respond when incidents like this are brought to their attention,” Nixey says. “Based on what I’ve heard, the YMCA has failed this test miserably.”
Nixey says the YMCA’s initial response on Twitter amounted to “We understand your frustration” followed by “We want Y experiences to be positive for everyone.”
“These answers are not good enough when dealing with threats of homophobic violence,” Nixey says, questioning why the police were not immediately called.
Poirier says he has since called the police.
“The YMCA should own up to its mistake in handling this, apologize immediately and expel the member who threatened violence,” Nixey says. “‘We had a word with him’ won’t cut it.”
He says characterizing threats as an argument makes him wonder if the YMCA is connected to the community.
“Diversity is more than just a catch phrase printed on some poster,” Nixey says. “If they have a zero tolerance policy for threatening language and homophobia, why are they tolerating this homophobic bullying? Am I considering working out elsewhere? Of course. Should gay YMCA members demand better from our gym? Absolutely.”