2 December 2013
“Good morning Chuck! Hi Goldie!” I bent down and she licked my nose. “How was your weekend?”
“In some ways it was okay, but in another way it was the shits. It’s something I can’t talk about.”
“That’s okay, Chuck. I don’t want to pry into your personal affairs.”
“No, I mean I can’t tell anybody, not for the next five months, anyway.”
“After five months, will things be better?”
“I don’t know. All I know is that sometimes I’d rather not be alive.”
“I’ve felt that way, Chuck. I’ve even attempted suicide.”
“I have to get my money problems in order. Then I can look after other things.”
“Do you have any plans for Christmas?”
“I don’t know. I suppose something will come up.
“I haven’t seen that crazy lady around. You know, the one who is always picking up trash. She hasn’t been around for a couple of months now. She’s so skinny anything could have happened. I used to watch her. People would give her food. She didn’t trust any of it. One time a woman gave her a sandwich. She broke it into pieces and fed it to the pigeons. Another time someone gave her a meal in a box. She threw that in the trash. Occasionally, she’d ask me for a dollar or two to make a phone call. I don’t know what it costs to use a pay phone these days. Anyway, this happened a couple of times. The last time I gave her some money she bent down and kissed me. She said she wanted to marry me. Imagine that!” Chuck laughed. “I was quite flattered, actually.” It was good to see the change in his mood.
“Have you seen Joy, or heard about whether Big Frank is out of prison?”
“I only saw her the once, last week. I’m not sure I know this Frank — you say he’s in a wheelchair.”
“He wasn’t in a wheelchair before. He’s the one who beat Joy and has served three years in prison. He’s a big guy, about six feet four, probably about three hundred pounds. They used to call him Mountain. Since he’s been in prison, he’s developed arthritis and has to have his hip replaced.”
“I guess I was thinking about another guy. It was when I was with my wife and three kids. We heard an awful racket coming from the apartment next door. This big guy was kicking the shit out of his wife and eleven year old daughter. Can you imagine a grown man putting the boots to an eleven year old girl? It’s disgusting. He went to prison. The guys in there didn’t take kindly to someone beating a girl. They broke his legs. He hasn’t walked since. Serves him right.
“Did you hear about the guy who cut his dog’s ears off, so it would look more vicious. He served six months. When he was inside, a bunch of guys held him down and bit his ear off.
“I had a friend who worked for the prison system. One of the questions they asked him during his interview was, ‘If you saw two inmates making out, what would you do?’ My friend said, ‘Well, I’d wait for them to finish, then I’d ask to take my turn.’ He was just kidding. They knew that.”
I said, “I knew a person who worked in the prison system. They asked her opinion on capital punishment. She said, ‘I’m in favor, as long as it’s not too severe.’ They thought that was funny.”
“As far as capital punishment is concerned, I’m all in favor.”
I said, “As long as they convict the right person. There are a lot of people who’ve served time in prison, then are found to be innocent.”
Chuck said, “All this talk about DNA. It’s accurate, as long as it’s fresh, but after fifteen years it can’t be relied on. I remember in the park, a few years back, a guy was attacked, and murdered, just because they thought he was homosexual. Those guys that attacked him should have had a rope put around their necks and hanged until dead.
1989: The murder police couldn’t ignore
Jeffrey Lalonde, one of the four young men convicted of Brosseau’s murder, admitted during his trial in 1990 that he and his friends had gone out that night “to roll a queer.” In court, the teens said that they saw Brosseau walking alone; that they saw he was small and well-dressed. In other words, they’d seen enough. As Brosseau crossed the Alexandria Bridge, heading towards his home in Quebec, Lalonde and his friends attacked. They beat him, stole $80 and pried a ring off his finger. Then seizing the man’s legs, they hoisted him up and over to dangle off the edge of the bridge.According to testimony at trial, Brosseau “freaked out” while his attackers laughed.”I like your shoes,” said Lalonde, holding Brosseau by the ankles.Then he let go, and Alain fell, face-first, to the rocks below.Although Brosseau wasn’t gay, he was perceived so by his killers. At the time, violent hate crimes against gays were as common as they were underreported.Earlier that month, the Ottawa Citizen ran an article explaining that there would be no inquest into the number of men who had “fallen off cliffs” that summer, all near Major’s Hill Park. The headline of the article emphatically quoted the chief regional coroner, declaring that an “inquiry won’t solve cliff deaths.”
Neither the police nor the press publicized the sexual orientation of these “fallen” men.
Tom Barnes is the oldest active member of Pink Triangle Services (PTS.) He’s the chief librarian at the Kelly McGinnis Library.
“The mainstream attitude was that we got what we deserved,” says Barnes.
Barnes knew men who “fell” near Major’s Hill Park and lived.
“We weren’t falling from cliffs, and they knew it — we were hurled over. If you were lucky, you grabbed onto something and broke your fall.”
As president of PTS in the late 1980s, Judy Girard had been fighting the passivity of the Ottawa police for years before Brosseau was murdered, trying desperately to have gay-bashings taken seriously.
“At the time, the police were certainly no different than anybody else,” says Girard. “As Canadians, gays and lesbians had achieved their rights on paper, but we still had to warn kids saying, ‘You’re going to get your ass kicked one way or another, so be careful.'”
Barnes remembers calling on the owners of downtown bars for help as bashings took place outside. They told him it wasn’t their problem, he says.
Reluctance to claim responsibility became a common theme in the wake of Brosseau’s death. It was, from an early stage, tied up in jurisdictional red tape.
One roadblock was police reluctance to claim jurisdiction. Although the murder itself took place in Ottawa, because Brosseau’s body was discovered along the riverbank in Quebec, the Ottawa police felt that the case should be handled by the Quebec police and vice versa.
The police also dragged their feet in acknowledging that anti-gay sentiment fuelled Brosseau’s murder, even though it was clear that Lalonde and his friends were targeting queers.
Only hours after throwing Brosseau over the Alexandria Bridge, Lalonde and the other young men hopped a cab and followed a gay couple back to their home in Orleans. There, the teens forced their way into the couple’s home and stabbed the two men with screwdrivers and knives.
In 2008, Lalonde’s name resurfaced in the press. He died in prison in Quebec May 26, marking the end of a sad story arc. Suicide was reported as the likely cause of death.
Barry Deeprose has worked with both Gayline and PTS over the years. In 1989, he saw how Brosseau’s murder acted as the catalyst for the gay community to confront the Ottawa police, fighting for the protection that was their right.
“People were hesitant to report crimes for fear they would be victimized a second time,” writes Deeprose in an email. “Gays of Ottawa took up the cause, which lead to a demand for greater sensitivity and awareness on the part of the Ottawa police.”
Rallying around Brosseau’s murder, activists organized a “Blow the Whistle” campaign, and taking to the streets of Ottawa, distributed safety pamphlets and raised awareness about the lack of services available to the gay and lesbian community.
Gays of Ottawa, along with other organizations, created a Task Force on Violence to bring the concerns of gays and lesbians to the new chief of police, Thomas Flanagan, who at the time had only recently been sworn in.
Girard recalls going as a member of the Task Force to meet with Chief Flanagan for the first time.
“The moment that I arrived to talk with the chief, I noticed we were wearing the same shirt,” says Girard, laughing. “I knew we’d get along. It’s the little things that were so strategic in building community in a bigger sense.”
The matching shirts seemed to work. Chief Flanagan was quick follow up on suggestions given by the Task Force, including, among other things, mandatory diversity training for all the officers in the Ottawa Police Service — a first for Canada.
“The pilot sessions were difficult,” says Girard, who helped run training sessions for more than 600 officers on the force at the time. “One of the first things an officer said to me was, ‘No man’s penis belongs in another man’s rectum.'”
In order to overcome the mistrust inherent in the relationship between the police and the gay community, Girard had both the officers and the training facilitators air their own dirty laundry lists of prejudices.
“In the end, we determined we were a lot more like each other than not,” says Girard. “We each have our own cultures, we each have our own language — and nobody wants either of us at parties. I gained such an appreciation for each of those officers and the job they do.”
Outside of the training, Girard saw changes in the way gays and lesbians were treated by police.
“When there were meetings between our communities, there was more respect. Same goes for when officers were working with domestic disputes between same-sex partners,” she says. “The discrimination had come out of fear and not knowing who we were, how to handle us, or what we might do.”
By the time Brosseau’s killers were making their testimonies in court, the work of the Task Force had gained significant momentum. In 1991, gays and police officers sat down for the first time under the banner of the Ottawa Police Service Liaison Committee for the GLBT Communities — another first for Canada.
Douglas Janoff wrote about the relationship between police and gay communities across the country in his book, Pink Blood: Homophobic Violence in Canada. In an interview, he reflects on some of the positive changes that came out of the Liaison Committee.
“There’s something about the consistency of the dialogue in Ottawa which I think is very admirable,” said Janoff. “You can always complain that the dialogue isn’t good enough or representative enough of the gay community, but at least it’s something and a lot of communities have zero communication.”
Janoff was recently in Paris, France, on a book tour for Pink Blood, where he met with “40 angry queer activists” and was amazed at how seldom gay issues are discussed with other police forces around the world.
“They have absolutely no committees to deal with the police, yet their problems are much bigger because Paris is a much bigger city,” he says. “When I was telling them about Ottawa and the fact that a group has been meeting for the past 20 years, they were really impressed. It made me realize that we’re further along than we sometimes give ourselves credit.”
The liaison committee has made a point of documenting hate crimes reported by both police and community members, even when no police report was filed.
A StatsCan report released last February on hate crimes in Canada showed the fruit of that communication: Ottawa was ranked as one of the top three cities in Canada for the most comprehensive police reporting on hate crimes.
The mandate of the Committee to make visible and validate the diversity within Ottawa’s queer community, as well as that of holding the city’s police accountable, has led to the increased visibility of queer realities in police procedures and training, as well as increased police involvement in queer community events like Ottawa Pride. And even if inertia has hampered in recent years, these early victories put Ottawa ahead of the rest of the country by the mid-’90s.
The work of the Liaison Committee also resulted in the creation of a Hate Crimes Section in 1993 and a Partner Assault Support Team in 1997 — also unique developments to their times.
This progress wouldn’t have been possible, particularly with the atmosphere of hatred towards gays in the late 1980s, if Brosseau’s story hadn’t sparked the compassion and support of the Ottawa community at large.
Dr Dawn Moore, the managing editor of the Canadian Journal of Law and Society, published the 2006 article “Hated Identities: Queers and Canadian Anti-Hate Legislation,” and she believes that Brosseau’s murder was the perfect storm for political, social and legislative change in Canada.
“The murder happened quite literally in the shadow of parliament, so it was very difficult politically to ignore,” says Moore. “Also, it happened at a time when the Ottawa community was already trying to galvanize around gaybashings, so the issue wasn’t coming from left field, but from within.”
Moore also pointed out the importance that Brosseau was only perceived to be gay, versus actually being gay.
“Going back through the parliamentary debates after the murder, the vast majority of MPs were able to stomach new hate crime legislation because the justification wasn’t that it was wrong to beat up a gay person,” Moore explains. “Alain’s murder was just as much a case for the need to protect straight people from the hate-on for queers proliferating at the time, as it was to protect the queers themselves.”
For this reason, Brosseau’s story spoke to even the most conservative critics of anti-gay hate crime legislation, and according to Moore, brought them onside with more liberal MPs to extend 1966’s hate crimes law — a sentencing provision that allowed judges to increase the penalty for crimes motivated by hate — to include gays and lesbians.
Janoff agrees with Moore that the fluidity of Brosseau’s own identity in the eyes of the public helped to serve as a wake up call for straight people by confronting them with the danger of making assumptions about identity and sexual orientation.
“It was shocking for the heterosexual community to suddenly be forced to come to terms with violence that the gay community knows too well,” he said. “It’s not just straight people looking out for straight people — it’s more complex than that — because he represented both communities, anyone could see themselves in his shoes.”
While the changes that Brosseau’s murder set in motion have tangibly made a positive impact on policing and handling of anti-gay discrimination in Ottawa, the problem of violent hate crime against queers is not one that will disappear any time soon.
The same StatsCan report that showed Ottawa Police Service’s initiative in acknowledging hate crimes found that over half of all hate crimes involving sexual orientation were violent, with one in 10 resulting in serious bodily harm.
According to Janoff, despite the improvement in how the Ottawa police are reporting hate crimes, the more violent of these crimes usually go unreported, or if they are reported, are not acknowledged as hate motivated.
“There’s still a two-tier system in the hate crime categorization in police departments. If it’s a minor assault or vandalism, the police will categorize it as hate motivated, but when it comes to murder, it’s the killer’s word against the victim’s family,” he explains.
Of the total hate crimes reported by police across Canada in 2006, only one was a homicide, whereas 129 incidents of minor assault were reported that did not involve a weapon or bodily harm.
Moore believes this disconnect is not as much a problem with police services as it’s a problem with the justice system at large, with part of it being the difficulty in proving an assault was a hate crime.
“If somebody goes and sprays swastikas on the tombstones in a Jewish cemetery, there’s a clear message. With personal assault, the law has always danced around allowing people to be violent towards gays,” Moore says.
She points to the “gay panic” defense. The term refers to the habit of gay-bashers to claim unwanted sexual advances provoked the beatings. As late as 2006, defense lawyers were still using a thinly-veiled version of this argument before juries — although with mixed results.
“I think it’s naïve to assume that a system that acted for years as incredibly repressive and violent towards queers could easily shift to protect a community it used to brutalize,” says Moore. “The onus for change doesn’t rest with the law, because the law doesn’t change people — people are changed by other people.”
In 1992, a survey of gay youth conducted by PTS found that more than a third of the respondents, most of whom were university students, said that they always or often limited their activities out of fear for their personal safety.
But things have changed since then.
The StatsCan report on victimization released last February showed that although members of the queer community are still more likely to be victims of violent assault than straight people, they now feel equally as safe.
“I’ve interviewed people all across Canada — police officers, prosecutors, victims and activists — and many of them point to that case as the turning point,” says Janoff. “They may not know his name, but they know his story, and that shook us out of our complacency.”
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