In 1982, Joseph Roy Gillis was attacked as he walked down Yonge Street in Toronto, because he’s gay.
“The person just sort of out of nowhere came up and hit me and knocked me into the street. Into Yonge Street, into traffic, so it could have been a much worse outcome,” he said. The assailant did manage to break his nose though, even though he fought back.
Gillis reported the crime to the police, but nothing came of it. “I was basically told that it was sort of a random event and they had no way of finding the person and there was little prospect — it was a stranger assault thing on the street.”
After the assault, he was nervous when out in public. “I remember one time, just soon after that, getting off the subway and the subway sort of jerked and someone fell toward me and I basically jumped and the guy said, ‘What’s the matter with you?’”
Assaults and hate crimes against gay people didn’t just happen 30 years ago either. In 2014, police reported 155 hate crimes motivated by the victim’s sexual orientation — that’s roughly one every 2.4 days.
And in the wake of the deadly mass shooting at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando Sunday morning, several Canadian gay activists are speaking out about assaults on members of their community.
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“Even today in 2016, we talk about the incredible gains that we’ve made in Canada. Myself, I still wouldn’t feel comfortable walking down main streets in Edmonton holding my partner’s hand,” said Kris Wells, an assistant professor and faculty director of the Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services at the University of Alberta.
“In the research I’ve done, almost every homosexual or transgender person has been called names, has been verbally harassed and assaulted,” said Gillis, an associate professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto.
“I’ve had things thrown at me from cars: bottles, eggs, rotten fruit. I’ve been threatened with violence. I’ve had property destroyed. I’ve had harassment from neighbours. I’ve had harassment in university residences. It goes on.”
Only a fraction of hate crimes are reported, he said. Some people are afraid that their concerns will be dismissed, or that it will be too hard to convince police or others that it was motivated by hatred. And there are other issues.
“You go to the police and report a crime, and first off you have to out yourself. And if it’s a small area and you’re not publicly out yet: why were you in that club, why were you in that area? What did the person say to you? It becomes obvious what your sexual orientation is or what they believed it to be. A lot of people aren’t prepared for that.”
According to a recent report by Statistics Canada, hate crimes motivated by hatred of a sexual orientation are far more likely than other hate crimes to be violent. Roughly two-thirds of these crimes are violent in nature, mostly assaults.
It’s because LGBTQ people are dehumanized by some in our society, thinks Wells.
“These individuals are not seen as persons but as objects to be destroyed.”
Barbara Perry, a professor of social science and humanities at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, notes that most hate crimes are committed by men. “So it really is about establishing one’s identity, especially masculine identity. Homosexuality of course is the greatest threat to masculinity. It’s not a surprise then that it would be met with the greatest level of viciousness with regard to violence.”
The words and actions of political and religious leaders can have a big effect on how safe LGBTQ people feel in Canadian society, said Wells.
Altogether, it sends a message: “It’s ok to discriminate. It’s ok to attack these people because they’re not the same as you. And it breeds these kinds of conditions that lead to these extreme acts of hate and terrorism that we’ve seen manifest in Orlando.”
Some victims react with fear or by changing their behaviour, like where they go and who they hang out with, said Perry — an effect that can ripple through a community. But sometimes, people get angry and become activists.
“In reaction to these sorts of horrific events there is often that silver lining that is greater community awareness and cohesion,” she said. “I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it happen. I’ve seen it build the community and create a safer space.”
Reducing violence against LGBTQ people requires holding leaders and others accountable for their words and actions, said Wells.
Gillis said that if people have positive encounters with LGBTQ people in a neutral environment, like a workplace, that can contribute to more positive attitudes towards those individuals. Introducing the idea of different kinds of families and sexual orientations in school curricula can also help, he said.
“Difference can be threatening to people, particularly when it challenges deeply-held religious beliefs and social norms.”
But being more visible presents its own danger, said Wells.
“The reality is as a queer person in this country, the more visible you are, the more likely you are to be victimized.”
That’s why LGBTQ people need allies, he said. “Ultimately it’s for us to decide what kind of community that we want to create and that we want to live in. It should no longer have to be just on the backs of LGBTQ people to advocate for their own liberation. We’ve got the most to risk.”
After all, it wasn’t so long ago that being homosexual was illegal in Canada. “I was born in 1971 in Canada and I consider myself the first generation of gay man born free in this country, because I didn’t grow up being a criminal, being afraid that the police were going to come to my door and arrest me for no other reason than who I was and who I loved.”