RACHAEL BREAUER — The Peak (Simon Fraser University)
BURNABY (CUP) — Over drinks last week, a friend was shocked to hear that I’d experienced homophobia in Vancouver and was even more shocked to hear that it wasn’t an isolated incident. I don’t know whether to chalk this up to well-meaning NIMBYism (Not In My Backyard) or the fact that I have some pretty sweet straight friends. Either way, I’m here to be the kill-joy and inform you that yes, homophobia does still exist — even in fair Vancouver.
You’ve no doubt heard about the kids in Sullivan, Indiana trying to have a “traditional” prom. Yes, I know, this isn’t about Vancouver, but hold on. I’ll get there.
This one kills me. If you live in a town that’s so backwoods that it feels the need to have a no-gays-allowed dance, then just have your regular prom. I’m sure the number of intolerant assholes in attendance will be sufficient to keep the gays at home.
There’s a reason Valentine’s Day queer prom nights like the “People’s Prom” are so popular in Vancouver: a lot of LGBT teens didn’t feel comfortable going to their proms. Now as adults, they revel in the opportunity to dress up as they would have liked, get bad pictures taken in front of a Hawaiian sunset backdrop and drink legally spiked punch.
This story has died down a bit and some students have defended their high school, saying that the group organizing this is a fringe group of fundamentalists. They have continued to affirm how accepting their school is, even as a neighbouring school’s special-ed teacher, Diana Medley, has publicly stated that she doesn’t think gay people have a purpose in life, compared being gay to being disabled and then said that LGBT kids attending prom is “offensive.”
Dave Springer, the no-gays-at-prom group’s school’s principal said “a girl could go [to their prom] with another girl if they didn’t have a date or that was their choice.” The rhetoric here of “choice” and Springer’s initial hope that this hypothetical girl is just a sad loser that would rather go with a girlfriend than a real live choice-making queer negates his attempt at acceptance.
I know for these small town kids that’s about as good as they can realistically hope for but, for the love of rainbows, they deserve better and shouldn’t have to settle for disdainful tolerance from their mentors.
Across the globe next year, Sochi, Russia, will be hosting a cast of queer athletes for the 2014 Olympics. Despite my general feelings surrounding the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, I will admit the Pride House they had for queer athletes was a definite high note, showcasing the need for acceptance and normalizing acceptance in sports.
Presumably, though, we won’t be seeing any of those at Sochi. A handful of regions in Russia, including St. Petersburg, recently passed legislation that made LGBT “propaganda” aimed towards minors illegal.
This ambiguous legislation means that anything that equates being gay with being normal is illegal and assures that even in areas where having sex with someone of the same sex is legal, Russian youth will know that being LGBT is icky despite being legally protected. Maybe the kids from Sullivan should have a destination prom in Russia (though everyone knows that Communists are worse than gays!)
In an issue that hits closer to home, The Owl, the University of Regina’s pub, came under fire last fall when a trivia host saw fit to use homophobic slurs. A student wrote an op-ed piece in the student newspaper, The Carillon, and then the student received backlash for saying that the host’s use of the word “faggot” made him feel isolated and afraid.
It’s hard to imagine this happening at any school’s pub. I haven’t spent a ton of time at such venues by any means, and while I’ve definitely heard choruses of “Ugh, gaaaaaaaayyyyyyy!” coming from individual tables, I still can’t imagine language like that getting used by an event host. But maybe that’s my own willful NIMBYism acting up.
Vancouver hardly has a clean rap sheet when it comes to hate crimes. In 2009, Shawn Woodward left Ritchie Dowrey permanently brain damaged because he hit on Woodward — while at a gay bar.
“He deserved it. The faggot touched me,” Woodward said after sucker-punching Dowrey in the back of the head on his way out of The Fountainhead. Woodward was convicted of a hate crime, but after serving a year-and-a-half is now out on day-parole and living in a North Vancouver halfway house.
In 2008, Michael Kandola broke Jordan Smith’s jaw in three places after he hurled homophobic slurs and punches at his face. Smith was walking down Davie Street, holding another man’s hand, prompting the attack.
“Why are you faggots holding hands?” Kandola rhetorically asked while the attack was underway.
Kandola’s 2010 trial was a landmark case for the LGBT community. It is one of the first times an attack was deemed a hate crime in a court of law, despite the Vancouver Police Department treating numerous previous attacks as hate crimes.
I remember feeling a hollow victory when I read the news. Yes, we’d gotten the hate crime designation which established a legal precedent, but how excited can you be over a gay bashing?
The statistics on sexual-orientation based hate crimes are pretty dismal in Vancouver. They topped the charts in 2010, accounting for 26 per cent of the sexual orientation-motivated hate crimes committed. The VPD has stated that these hate crimes have been on the decline since 2010, with 2012 being an all-time low, but some question the reliability of statistics. The Transit Police Force, for example, had no reported gay bashings on file as of September 2012, despite there having been attacks reported to news sources.
Hesitation to label something homophobic or hateful seems to be gaining popularity. It took a Twitter outrage last year for Aaron Poirier to be taken seriously when he was harassed for being a “fag” by another YMCA patron in the lockerroom. Despite the fact that the man threatened to punch Poirier and then harassed Poirier and his partner on a second occasion, the YMCA was happy to allow the harasser to maintain his membership based on a second-chance protocol.
“We view this as an opportunity to teach the individual in question about appropriate behaviour and acceptance of all people regardless of their sexual orientation,” a YMCA spokesperson said initially. After pressure from the community, however, the YMCA offered an official apology and will be undergoing queer competency training.
This is a sad example of one of the problems that I believe is reinforcing homophobia. There isn’t a lot of room for straight people to ask genuine questions to LGBT people about all things LGBT without being told they’re assholes simply for asking. I feel for you, straight people. I know you mean well when you’re asking those questionable questions; I can see you working up the nerve to ask them for weeks before you do, asking them in your head first in those awkward silences in our conversations.
In defence of those who refuse to answer your questions, the first time someone asked me, “how did you know?” the conversation devolved into, “so you’ve been with men? You’ve had sex with men? Oh, well, then you’re not really gay.”
When a former boss asked me, “how do your parents feel about this?” (for the record, they were more phased by me losing my keys one night than by my coming out), she concluded the conversation with, “well, if it was my child I’d have a big problem with it.” You can imagine the derisive look that accompanied that last bit. While you might not be a raging homophobe, we can’t always tell.
Many of us don’t want to answer your questions in case they’re a smokescreen for disapproval. But then again, how are you supposed to learn if you can’t ask questions? Qmunity — a centre in Vancouver providing resources, supports and programs to the queer community — offered their services in the YMCA case, but unfortunately there isn’t always someone willing to slog through how-to-not-be-a-homophobe 101 with the commoners.
I’ll throw you a freebie: stop saying “gay” or calling people any variation of “faggot.” I know many think of this as queers and libbers being overly politically correct. “I don’t mean ‘gay’ like ‘homo,’ I mean it like bad,” some defend.
Guess what idiots: that’s not how homophones work; it’s how homophobia works. “Gay” used colloquially stems directly from a conception of queerness as bad, other and generally unacceptable. You might support queer rights, but if you’re still dropping gay bombs, you’re creating a space where queers — like me — feel like they aren’t welcome. We can’t tell that you mean gay as in “bad” (again, that’s not a thing) and not gay as in “don’t-act-like-that-around-me-or-I’ll-break-your-jaw.”
All it indicates to us is that the space you’re occupying when you talk like that is somewhere we might get bashed for being ourselves. It’s The Fountainhead in 2009 or the YMCA last year. It’s somewhere I nurse my one standard drink all night long, sit stiffly and leave as early as I can, vaguely concerned someone might decide it’s a good night to rape me straight.
Fortunately I’ve never been physically harmed for being queer, which isn’t all that surprising. I don’t necessarily read as queer, so I’ve had it pretty easy. I have hair long enough to pull back in a ponytail, I prefer dresses as formal wear, and if I’m not feeling too lazy I’ll schlep on some make-up before I leave the house. Still, I’m unfortunately no stranger to getting harassed — usually as a result of the company I keep.
I don’t really like holding hands with my partners in public anymore. Nothing takes the joy out of being in love and holding hands on a crisp autumn day like being stuck walking downtown during crawling rush hour traffic and having an SUV full of men screaming “DYKES!” at you and your girlfriend.
You can’t physically remove yourself from the situation without running away while someone screams hateful epithets and onlookers gawk silently at you. Yeah you’ll want to scream back, but what do you even say? And if you do fight back, what next? I didn’t want to end up the lesbian Jordan Smith — a male Vancouver resident and victim of gay-bashing back in ’08 — so I did nothing. Thinking about this still makes me furious.
Transit at night is another fun one. It’s easy enough for straight-looking me to navigate, but I’ve received far too many text messages along the lines of “some guy on the bus is threatening to ‘kick my tranny faggot ass’ and it’s all I can do not to drag him off the bus and beat the hell out of him,” from my ex-girlfriend, who got referred to as “sir” more often than “miss” or “lady” in public.
I once encountered a drunk guy getting on the bus. The first thing he did was warn some other dude on the bus not to suck his dick. He continued on like this for a while, treading on the precipice of incoherence, making jokes about various riders being “butt-fucking fags” and asking who wanted to suck his dick until his trailing eyes locked on my visibly queer female companion who had responded, “Yeah, buddy, I’ll suck your dick for sure.”
“Look at this guy, what the fuck even are you — man no,” he gestured to someone we couldn’t see.“Look at this fag. No shit, you’ll suck my dick. Gross!” Around this point the bus driver told him to sit down and shut up and he more or less did before stumbling off a few blocks later.
While anti-climactic, I can’t forget this. I was sure this was the night I was either getting gay bashed while intervening or left screaming and helpless while my ex got her face beaten in. At the time I thought it would never end.
In reality this all played out in five minutes. It was early enough that some guy was with his eight-year-old son on the bus. There were only a handful of empty seats. No one said or did anything to this guy. We all just let it happen.
What is going through people’s heads when they scream homophobic slurs in public? I can’t say I’ve ever had a chat with someone who’s done this, so I don’t have an answer but only more questions. Do they hate queers? Do they think it’s a joke? I don’t know what motivates people to act or be homophobic and I don’t feel like we are any closer to figuring any of this out.
What is obvious is a disconnect between what’s legally and socially acceptable and how people view their words and actions within this paradigm of permissibility. While Vancouver is certainly leaps and bounds ahead of some places, it isn’t without fault. Just because you aren’t a bigot doesn’t mean they don’t exist in droves and a see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil approach is sadly missing its fourth tenet: do no evil.
I really hope we come up with more solutions soon, because I really miss holding hands.
Photo: Portable Graphics Network