LGBTQI2A+ STUDENTS ON THE HATE THEY FACE ON CAMPUS, WHETHER IN THE CLASSROOM OR IN THE CITY. WORDS BY JACK WISE
The Eye has chosen to use the acronym LGBTQI2A+ to describe the community. Acronyms used by Toronto police in their job titles and reports have been used to specify their mandate.
CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses homophobia, transphobia and violence directed at members of the Ryerson LGBTQI2A+ community.
I was leaving my favourite falafel restaurant off Yonge Street on a cold night this past March when a woman began yelling homophobic slurs at me. As I walked home alone, passersby glancing at me, she continued screaming for what felt like an eternity. She described gay people as “antagonizing” and condescending while expressing deep discontent with queer visibility and acceptance.
I felt my body constrict and I quickened my pace to get to a location where I felt safe. I didn’t say anything in response to the woman. I immediately thought about how to get out of the situation.
I wasn’t surprised that this happened though, as I’ve had these kinds of slurs directed at me before. The many hate crimes I faced before and after coming out while growing up in California—some of a more violent nature—came flooding back into my mind. Despite the initial shock, it feels oddly normal to hear them.
Safely off the street inside the Podium building, I felt numb. I weighed the decision to report what happened to Ryerson campus security. Ultimately, I didn’t think any closure would come of it. But out of courage and frustration, I waited an hour until I reported the incident. When I reported, it was the first time I spoke to security or police without judgment. But as a white gay man, I realized I got lucky.
Since October 2018 there have been nine reported hate crimes at Ryerson, seven of which took place directly on campus, according to statistics provided by Ryerson Community Safety and Security. This doesn’t account for unreported crimes.
According to a 2014 Department of Justice report from the Government of Canada, hate crimes often go unreported due to fear of the individual being further victimized, whether the individual feels the incident is severe enough to warrant reporting as well as potential embarrassment amongst other factors. This is especially true for queer people of colour and non-binary people.
There are a variety of experiences that Ryerson students who identify as part of the LGBTQI2A+ community face every day. To be surrounded by queerphobic slurs enables a dangerous environment for LGBTQI2A+ people as it normalizes the usage of words that carry the weight of historic oppression. It embeds the idea that queer individuals aren’t accepted and continues a cycle of queer, transgender and gender-nonconforming people not being accepted in society. If such hate crimes continue to occur without accountability or on-campus resources for queer students, it essentially creates another threat to our lives, on top of what we already face on a daily basis.
LGBTQI2A+ people have historically dealt with violence and not being listened to by authoritative figures like the Toronto Police Service. In 1981, Toronto police carried out violent raids against gay bathhouses and arrested nearly 300 people, most of them being gay men. A formal apology from police has never been issued, 38 years since the raids took place.
For years, people in Toronto’s LGBTQI2A+ community raised concerns about a serial killer, following multiple disappearances of gay men in Toronto’s Gay Village, located around Church and Wellesley streets. It took police years to investigate their claims. In February 2019, Bruce McArthur pleaded guilty to eight counts of first-degree murder for the deaths of eight men, most of whom had ties to Toronto’s Gay Village, the CBC reports. Ontario Superior Court Justice John McMahon told the court that McArthur’s crimes “distilled fear and distrust” in Toronto’s LGBTQI2A+ communities.
“I felt my body constrict and I quickened my pace to get to a location where I felt safe”
At Ryerson, the university has applied for some security officers to have special constable status with the Toronto Police Service. Special constables would be able to respond to some issues security guards can’t respond to now, including emergency calls on campus such as reports of vandalism, assaults and robberies, according to a post on Ryerson’s website. In the post, the university acknowledges that students’ lived experiences may inform how they feel about the presence of security on campus. They add that students expect security personnel on campus to “have strong training in unconscious bias, anti-racism and diversity, equity and inclusion.”
The potential presence of police on campus is one of many concerns for LGBTQI2A+ students at Ryerson.
A lex Abadi* recalls when a friend told her about a transphobic slur they heard during a group assignment they were working on. She was shocked but not surprised that the remarks were met with laughter from classmates. No one interrupted or explained the harmful weight that the words carried.
The second-year engineering student often hears queerphobic slurs herself, being used by peers in her program.
Abadi, who identifies as a lesbian, says people in her program tend to make inappropriate jokes that they don’t realize are harmful to people around them. “The issue with these situations is that usually when we do speak up, people are like, ‘Oh, stop being so serious,’” Abadi says.
She hasn’t reported such instances to anyone on campus in order to avoid creating issues within her program. Abadi says if someone who said the slurs got in trouble, she thinks they’ll have a great number of people on their side. She thinks this could lead to victim blaming. “It’s going to make me look like the bad person,” Abadi says.
Although the slurs make her upset, Abadi says she is less comfortable in an environment where they are so commonly and insensitively used. She feels disappointed hearing them in such a progressive environment like Ryerson and, at large, Canada. “You kind of lose hope with the world,” she says.
But hearing the slurs doesn’t bother her as much as it has in the past. They don’t come as a surprise to Abadi anymore, since she often heard them used in a joking manner during her childhood.
Abadi says she still finds it irritating to the point where she finds she’s distancing herself from her peers over the repeated usage of queerphobic slurs. If the issue is left unaddressed by her faculty or the university, she feels it would create a more divided community beyond the cliquey environment that already exists in her program.
While she herself doesn’t feel safe calling it out, she also notices nobody else does, including those who have the privilege of safety to do so. “I feel a lot of people tend to ignore [hate],” Abadi says. “They do criticize it, but that’s about it. They don’t go out of their way and call them out on it on the spot.”
April Engelberg, a securities lawyer and social justice advocate who ran for Toronto city council in 2018, says that despite being in a city that champions diversity and embraces the LGBTQI2A+ community, hate crimes still happen. “It would be ignorant to say there are no incidents happening. We obviously know that there is still hate in the city,” she says.
Engelberg thinks a crucial step in combatting hate crimes is by getting incidents reported, whether they’re violent or involve hearing slurs, through a reporting system to spread awareness that incidents like this are in fact happening.
“The issue with these situations is that usually when we do speak up, people are like, ‘Oh, stop being so serious’”
A reporting system does exist at Ryerson whenever a hate crime or any incident on campus occurs, according to the university’s website. Students report incidents at their own discretion. Security officers at Ryerson are trained to deal with hate crimes and work with external sources such as human rights services and the Toronto Police Service, according to a statement by Ryerson’s public affairs office, provided to The Eye.
In 2009, Christopher Skinner, a Ryerson grad, was attacked and killed at Victoria and Adelaide streets. The Eyeopener previously reported that it was believed that Skinner, who was openly gay, was the victim of a hate crime. In 2015, Augustin Alexander Caruso pled guilty to manslaughter. There is a plaque dedicated to Skinner’s memory in the Student Campus Centre.
In 2011, a Ryerson student was charged with committing a hate crime after they allegedly hurled homophobic slurs at a Ryerson alumni at a restaurant on Church Street. Toronto police told The Eye at the time that the incident was classified as a hate crime.
Jaymie Sampa, the anti-violence initiatives spokesperson at the 519, a community centre in Toronto’s Gay Village, says that hate crimes targeted against LGBTQI2A+ individuals greatly affect their mental health and well-being on top of the daily experiences of systemic oppression across different identities.
Sampa said via email that the aftermath of queerphobic hate crimes can trigger internalized queerphobia, resulting in shame and low self-esteem. It can also bring about a sense of lack of belonging, which she mentions can appear as isolation and self-harm—both unhealthy coping strategies.
She says it is not uncommon for people to face mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, among others after facing violence and or exclusion on the basis of their identity.
She notes that across the variety of LGBTQI2A+ communities, there is a common understanding of the violence queer and trans individuals and communities face. Sampa said that knowing about such incidents contribute to the collective memory and traumas that “we move with as a community who have known centuries of oppression that we must walk with everyday.”
Statistics Canada reported the Uniform Crime Reporting Survey found 9.6 per cent of hate crimes across Canada in 2018 were on the basis of sexual orientation. The Toronto Police Service’s 2018 Annual Hate Crime Statistical Report stated 11 per cent of hate crimes in the city were directed toward LGBTQ+ individuals. In Toronto, 15 per cent of hate crimes were motivated by bias against multiple identifying factors, the report found.
A glaring observation is that the Uniform Crime Reporting Survey does not specifically outline the oppression trans people face or any sort of gender-based violence.
Robert Molloy, a coordinator at RU Trans Collective, one of seven equity service centres part of the Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU), isn’t surprised that trans people aren’t included in the statistic. “The statistics don’t say anything because there’s no space for us,” he says. “If your gender options are male or female, trans folks are not in your stats.”
“That’s even scarier to know we don’t know anything about trans folks, about youth trans folks, what’s happening,” he says. “We only find out when they’re dead.”
Molloy says he believes the relationship between queer student groups on campus and the police is neither good nor bad, but it can still get better, and he isn’t sure if it’ll improve anytime soon. The RU Trans Collective offered to do Trans 101 with campus security in April, he says, but they didn’t respond to the offer.
Danielle Bottineau, LGBTQ2S Liaison Officer at the Toronto Police Service, says police are actively trying to improve their relationship with the queer community in Toronto. She stresses the importance of maintaining consistent conversation between the LGBTQ2S+ community and the police in order to address current and historically rooted issues.
Molloy says he feels the first steps the university should take in becoming truly inclusive of the LGBTQI2A+ community is through education. He points out the university could speak with student groups such as the RU Trans Collective and RyePRIDE, another one of the RSU’s equity service centres, to get a sense of what queer students face on campus.
Ryerson president Mohamed Lachemi says while he’s not aware of specific requests for meetings, he and other members of the university administration are always open to dialogue. “We are here to support our community and any member of the community that is in need of discussion with the university,” he says, adding that he thinks Ryerson is an inclusive community.
In high school, Matthew Conroy felt so unsafe using a washroom assigned to binary genders that he felt he couldn’t use the washroom at school at all.
At Ryerson, there are all-gender washrooms in several buildings including the Sheldon and Tracy Levy Student Learning Centre and the George Vari Engineering and Computing Centre. However, Conroy notes that in some buildings like Kerr Hall, there aren’t any.
Despite the third-year social work student saying it might be tiring to bring up the issue, he emphasized the critical need for more all-gender washrooms on campus as it’s still a fundamental issue in regards to safety for queer students.
The Toronto District School Board’s guidelines for trans and non-binary students and staff says it ensures the right for students to use the washroom that best correlates to one’s gender identity or, where possible, schools will provide a single-stall all-gender washroom for students who would like more privacy.
There are more than 50 all-gender washrooms in Toronto public schools, according to a 2016 CTV News Toronto report. However, a 2011 national climate survey on queerphobia in Canadian schools from Egale Canada Human Rights Trust says 43 per cent of LGBTQI2A+ students feel unsafe in their school washrooms.
A 2012 Egale Canada Human Rights Trust report sponsored by Ryerson says that over half of transgender students feel unsafe in washrooms segregated by binary genders. They report that a lack of all-gender washrooms and the continuance of sex-segregated washrooms can foster aggression against transgender and non-binary individuals. Access to all-gender washrooms is crucial to ensure LGBTQI2A+ students feel safe while building a welcoming environment.
Conroy says he feels there is more work to be done institutionally by the university to ensure safety for queer and trans students.
As a queer student, he attributes a lack of general knowledge and discussion of hate crimes against LGBTQI2A+ students on campus to what he sees as the issue potentially being ignored.
After reporting the March incident when I was leaving the restaurant, it felt like a weight lifted off my shoulders. I thought to myself, at least authorities know this happened near campus and that I spoke up for myself—for my community. But it didn’t erase the fact that it happened, or the mental and emotional aftermath that I would have to face.
Mentally compiling all the incidents I’ve had to deal with, plus the sensitive trial regarding the Church-Wellesley murders that took place a month prior to my incident, I felt tense walking around downtown. I still have that tense feeling in the back of my mind while walking around the city, on the subway or around campus on Gould Street.
I know for my fellow members of the LGBTQI2A+ community this is a shared feeling. But so is the resilience we hold in continually living as our true selves in a world that has sought and still seeks to oppress our pride.
With files from the News team
*Name has been changed