4 min

Why do they bash?

Machismo, repressed sexuality, religious fanaticism suspected

With the only person charged in the death of Aaron Webster having pleaded guilty, the queer community is waiting for his lawyer’s promised explanation of what happened that fateful night in Stanley Park.

Webster was beaten to death Nov 17, 2001 at the entrance to the park’s gay cruising trails. A small, painted memorial marks the spot.

The case raises questions about the motivation for gaybashings. Many theories exist which try to explain what pushes someone to kill queers: closeted self-loathers; the assertion of adolescent masculinity and woman-hating; and moral righteousness brought about through misguided, yet dogmatic, religious indoctrination.

Lawyer David Baker says his client’s role in Webster’s death will be explained at the Oct 28 sentencing hearing.

It remains to be seen whether or not Baker will explain the queer or sexually ambiguous content on the youth’s website profile.

The site lists the youth’s nickname as that of a male hustler from a decades-old Hollywood blockbuster. That character is convinced he’s the salvation of many love-starved urban women. The film has many queer connotations and bashings are part of its images.

The web page, since taken down, is part of a larger site apparently dedicated to teens from around the world interested primarily in heavy metal music from groups such as Megadeth, Ozzy Osbourne, Korn, Cacophony and others.

A number of the suburban youth’s favourite bands are listed. One of is fronted by an out queer leatherman. The listing of a musician accused of making homophobic slurs was removed recently.

When asked about the nickname outside court after his Jul 30 guilty plea, the youth had no comment.

Could this be a person questioning his sexuality and resorting to violence against an out gay man due to self-loathing? Could it extend to the others reportedly involved? We don’t know-yet.

Xtra West cannot give explicit details of the website as it could put the newspaper in violation of the Young Offenders Act (YOA) which prohibits publication of information which would identify or tend to identify the accused. Although the youth is now 19, he was 17 at the time of the killing and is covered by the YOA.

Laurentian University sociologist Gary Kinsman suggests that while the notion of repressed sexuality can be used as a partial explanation for violence against queers, it is suspect as an overall explanation.

“People are trying to deny this in themselves and then they go after more visibly gay men to try and deal with the repression they face,” says Kinsman. “It’s based on certain types of notions of sexual repression that I think can be suspect.”

Kinsman floats a second theory: the way in which adolescent masculinity is constructed. Kinsman says youths may be sexually interested in women but also put women down. Part of that misogyny is being “intensely hostile to homosexuality in gay men,” Kinsman says. And that partially fits the character development of the movie persona from whom the youth takes his nickname.

Simon Fraser University criminologist Doug (Victor) Janoff, is completing a book on Canadian gaybashings which details 100 murders. He says many gay men seize on the theory of closeted gaybashers. Janoff says it’s part of the suspicion gay men have, after being forced to be secretive and cryptic as a matter of survival, that any man could be homosexual.

“It’s a very over-simplistic approach to think that a lot of these gaybashers are secretly gay,” Janoff says.

Still, Janoff’s first example in his book is of a closeted gaybasher.

“They lash out because of frustration and self-loathing,” he says. But, he says, the theory has not been scientifically proven.

“It’s certainly not the rule,” he says.

However, a 1997 US study found that a large proportion of gaybashers were self-hating homosexuals. And they have the support of no less than TV psychologist Dr Joyce Brothers.

“Usually, extreme homophobia is an indication of a deep fear of one’s own homosexual feelings,” Brothers said recently. “In any case, Americans tend to be much more threatened by the presence of gays than do people in other industrialized nations.”

Janoff finds more support for Kinsman’s second theory: woman-hating turned against gay men. He questions how a 19-year-old would know of a film more than 30 years old. He wonders if the use of the nickname is purely coincidental.

Janoff says it is the pressure many adolescents face to assert their masculinity that can lead to bashings.

“Some of them are going through adolescent development issues,” Janoff says. “Others may have problems because they were sexually abused by men when they were children and they’ve somehow conflated notions of homosexuality with notions of paedophilia and child abuse and they are lashing back.

“There are lots of other possible reasons out there.”

University of Windsor graduate student Ken Dowler has seized on a few of them: repulsion, fear and discomfort, religion and moral righteousness and the idea that homosexuality is unnatural.

The bulk of those issues stem from religious or moral upbringing. Dowler attributes the violence to three causes: a group mentality (their friends would support them); definition of the situation (the police wouldn’t do anything); and definition of the victim.

“They think gays have all the rights and advantages,” Dowler says. “They claim they are victimized by seeing gay couples holding hands on the street, so they have to yell out from cars. They felt they were the victims and they were standing up for what is right in society.”

And, with many on the religious right holding the Old Testament’s Leviticus 20:13 as the moral law (“If a man also lieth with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death”), some killers feel justified in their actions.

In his US documentary Licenced to Kill, director Arthur Dong found some killers of gay men did it just to protest the victim’s perceived morals, in many cases knowing the courts would not punish them.

Another killer in the film notes he was raised in a profoundly conservative Christian family and went to Bible college. His case brings together dogmatic morality and self-loathing. Deeply conflicted about his frequent late-night visits to cruising parks, infected with HIV and finding he was not attracting the kind of man he wanted, the man decided a series of killings was just what was needed to force authorities to clear gays out of the very parks he cruised.

Closer to home, police believe four or more people were involved in Webster’s fatal beating. Not all were youths at the time, police maintain. Homicide Det Rob Faoro says there could be more charges laid in September.