VIEWPOINT: Ottawa’s LGBTQ communities cannot be complacent about safety

By Isaac Würmann

Like queer people across the country, I have been closely following the investigations into the deaths and disappearances of people in Toronto’s gay village.

I have felt sorrow for the lives lost, grief for their families, and anger at the Toronto Police Service’s failure to address concerns from the city’s LGBTQ communities about a serial killer in their midst.

What I have not felt is the “shock” described by the media — neither at the mounting reports of murders in Toronto’s gay village, nor at the news that police completely bungled the investigation.

I live just a couple of blocks from the heart of Ottawa’s gay village, and each day I am reminded of the tragedy and loss that marks this community’s history.

Under rainbow flags that adorn the lampposts of Somerset Street, I walk past old gay bars that have been turned into trendy brewpubs and, thanks to the important work by the Village Legacy Project, reminders of the lives Centretown has lost to homophobic hate crimes and public neglect.

One of the most astute and moving tributes that I’ve read to the missing and murdered in the Church-Wellesley Village was written by Anthony Oliveira last month for Hazlitt.

 In his essay, the Toronto writer maps a history of loss in his city’s queer communities, sharing with readers what he describes as his “diary of death.”

“In the heart of the village,” he writes, “you will find a bank of roses, and among them on plates a list of names. These are Toronto’s dead, lost to AIDS, when no one in power cared to act, when the old boys’ network raided the bathhouses and the parks and the bars.”

We could map a similar history in Ottawa, which would include efforts to root out queer people working for the government in the 1960s, our own bathhouse raids in the 1970s, and a hate crime spree in 1989 that led to two people being killed after they were thrown off the cliffs at Major’s Hill Park.

It wasn’t until the death of Alain Brosseau that same year that the public began paying attention to the grievances of Ottawa’s LGBTQ citizens. The young man was dragged onto the Alexandra Bridge one evening in August 1989, then thrown to his death in the Ottawa River.

Queer activists in the city criticized Ottawa police for failing to investigate Brosseau’s death as a hate crime, and two years later the force created its LGBTQ liaison committee in an effort to improve relations between queer communities and police officers.

The decades since then have shown us that protecting queer people requires more than just forming a committee.

In 2002, Christopher Raynsford was killed in his Lisgar Street apartment by a man he’d met at Centretown Pub.

In 2011, Jamie Hubley killed himself after he was constantly bullied throughout elementary and high school.

In 2016, a group of men proudly expressed their homophobia at Saunders Farm with shirts that read: “If you are gay, don’t approach me, I’ll kill you.”

The Toronto Police Service has a similar LGBTQ liaison committee, but that didn’t stop them from failing community members when they were warned repeatedly about a killer in the gay village.

In the March 15 issue of this newspaper, patrons of T’s Pub — one of the last remaining gay bars in Centretown — described how a distrust of police persists in Ottawa’s queer communities.

“I feel really part of the community, but at the same time I have to watch my back all the time,” said Julian Wilson, a gay First Nations man who said a negative interaction with Ottawa police years ago led him to be cynical about the service’s commitment to protecting queer people.

Moreover, racialized members of LGBTQ communities continue to express their concern with police in queer spaces, and trans people continue to remind us that they cannot rely on police to protect them from the disproportionate levels of violence they face.

We cannot be lulled into a false sense of security by the fact that our leaders now march in our Pride parades or that our police forces promise to protect us.

Instead, the Church-Wellesley Village murders should be a reminder to queer people across the country, including here in Centretown, that the past is not the past, and that we cannot be complacent about violence and loss in our communities.

“In the summer we hold a vigil, and by candlelight we recite their names, and we recite the names of those killed at the Pulse massacre, and we recite the names of anyone else who was loved and lost. This year we will recite new names,” Oliveira eulogizes in Hazlitt.

“And we will forget some. And we will not know how many died in silence and in secret and alone. No one will tell those stories. No one will know how.”