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A Question of Hate - Victoria's Queer-Friendly Climate Takes A Beating

Police claim ’no just cause’ to link assault to victim’s sexual orientation
Brandon Bourne (right) and his partner, Elliott, are still traumatized after Bourne was assaulted outside a gay nightclub on Jan. 22

When Brandon Bourne woke up in the hospital, the last thing he remembered was being called a fag and getting punched in the face only hours earlier.

Bourne, 27, was suffering from a grade-three concussion, sprained neck and partial amnesia. He had been drinking that night, but Bourne, a Navy officer stationed in Victoria, could pull together a few facts.

His friends had left Paparazzi Nightclub — a popular Victoria gay bar — in the early hours of Jan. 22, and Bourne went to hail a taxi alone. It was then, he says, he heard a stranger call him a fag; he turned, was punched in the head and fell to the cement.

Moments later, as told in the police report, two officers on bicycles rode up to the scene where they found Bourne unconscious on the ground with two men standing over him. The two men co-operated with police, but stated that Bourne had come up to one of them, asked why he’d been called a fag, and threw the first punch. The only witness, a friend of Bourne’s assaulter, corroborated the story that the other man only punched back in self-defence.

Police called an ambulance for Bourne, who was slipping in and out of consciousness at the scene, and listed the incident as an assault, with the subtext of bar fight. And perhaps the case could be closed as simple as that, if it weren’t for the fact that Bourne is gay. Add to that this is the second attack in six months that has occurred outside the same gay bar, and it begins to paint a different story about Victoria’s queer-friendly climate.

“The police seem to have just swept this under the rug and written this off as a bar fight,” Bourne says. “They’re saying I threw the first punch, but I’ve never thrown a punch in my life. It’s so completely out of character, and the fact that they aren’t even addressing this as a hate crime … is completely absurd to me.”

Sgt. Grant Hamilton, media spokesperson for the Victoria Police Department, says the case is not being considered a hate crime because police have “no just cause” to view it as such.

“If clearly the assault, or clearly that crime was linked to the person’s sexual orientation or race or colour, then we would look at classifying that as possibly a hate crime … but we have no reason to suspect it is,” he says.

When is hate not hate?

Hamilton adds Bourne’s sexual orientation was not discussed when officers were collecting evidence at the scene, and that police would consider reopening the file if new information came forward. Bourne has since submitted a written statement of the events, stating, “I was violently assaulted by a man in company with a friend after being called a ‘fucking fag’ by the assaulter.” Bourne wrote, “I do identify as gay and feel that I was targeted because of my sexual orientation.”

However, Hamilton says police still have no reason to view this as a hate crime based on the compliancy of the witnesses and the account that Bourne threw the first punch. Neither Bourne nor the other men have any records with the police.

“If we thought someone was being targeted specifically for their sexual orientation, for sure we take that very seriously,” says Hamilton. “But in this case, it’s outside a nightclub, two people have been drinking, there’s conflicting stories, it’s a he-said-she-said.”

Hamilton adds that Vic PD has been contacted by the military police and Egale Canada, a national Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) human rights organization. “People call each other things all the time and that doesn’t make it a hate crime ... We can’t investigate every bar fight just because someone is called a fag.”

Helen Kennedy, executive director of Egale, spoke with Vic PD after Bourne sought her advice. While she acknowledges the stories are different on both sides — at this point “it’s their word against Brandon’s,” — she advised Bourne to consider a lawyer. Egale officials are also discussing a trip to Victoria, in part because of this case.

“Any kind of expression of violence — and that includes language — where somebody winds up in a hospital, is abhorrent,” Kennedy says. “People often think, ‘Oh, this is just a small thing, it’s not worth reporting,’ but all these small things add up ... It’s never excusable. We don’t throw the ‘n-word’ around anymore. If you’re called an ‘f-word’ that has to be investigated as a hate crime.”

Statistics Canada reports that 16 per cent of all hate crimes in Canada are based on sexual orientation. In 2008, the number of reported gay bashings doubled from 2007, a trend some say points to greater willingness of victims to report hate crimes to the police. Yet Kennedy says there is still a large resistance to do so, due to concerns some people have of not being out in the community, having to relive the trauma, or having to experience “second victimization” — where police won’t take a case seriously.

“For the police to say there’s no discrimination here, but we’re not really going to investigate the issue or actually follow up, I just don’t understand,” Bourne says. “I’m really lucky I’m in a job that supports me and has absolutely no issues with the fact that I’m gay ... I missed a week of sailing, it affected my job, I’m still in physiotherapy, but I’m in a position where all those things don’t come at a cost. What about other people?”

Kennedy believes the police should be as proactive as they can about dealing with perceived hate crimes, and creating an environment that shows a zero-tolerance level.

“Obviously, Brandon feels he has been a victim of a hate crime here. Why not investigate?” she says. “Hate crimes aren’t just against the individuals — they affect everyone in the community, and make us all feel unsafe.”

A history of violence

Last fall, Josh Brighton — another gay man who had moved to Victoria to serve in the Navy — left Paparazzi around 1:45 a.m. on Sept. 2. He was a block away at the corner of Douglas and Johnson, attempting to hail a cab alone, when he heard two men call him “faggot.”

As reported in gay culture magazine Xtra, Brighton told the men that yes, he was gay, and asked if they had a problem with it. Two men then allegedly started hitting him. Brighton attempted to run back to the nightclub for safety, but was chased by the men, who knocked him down, hit him repeatedly on the head and shouted slurs. Brighton made it back to the club and survived the incident, but suffered moderate injuries.

Sgt. Jamie McRae of Vic PD told Xtra the incident was being investigated as a hate crime, and said, “We usually want to get video first. When we have something like this, when it’s reported after the fact, the first thing we do is to find video from the nearby businesses. Unfortunately, [Paparazzi’s] video surveillance stream does not record outside the club.”

Hamilton says, six months later, police were never able to make contact with Brighton and dropped the case. Police did not request video evidence for Bourne’s case, though Bourne went around privately to nearby businesses after the incident only to find tapes were unavailable, or had been recorded over.

Terry Bex, one of the owners of Paparazzi, says that he was not informed of the recent incident. While most downtown clubs do have outside video surveillance for security reasons, Bex says the club is not currently considering installing external surveillance.

“We run a very safe club, and the police do their rounds around this club most Friday and Saturday evenings, so I don’t even know what happened,” he says.

City of support

Terry Wilson, a detective constable with the B.C. Hate Crime Team investigators unit, says hate crimes are defined by what circumstances lead up to an incident, and only differ from regular proven charges in that the punishment can be more extreme.

Wilson says the unit, which works with police forces throughout the province, seriously reviews all reports of perceived hate crimes. At press time, three weeks after the incident, Wilson had not heard of Bourne’s case and could not comment on the situation directly.

“Just because a derogatory term is used does not mean an incident can be considered a hate crime. But if a person is targeted, say for example they’re walking out of a known gay establishment, called a derogatory term based on sexual identification and are then assaulted, we have much more reason to suspect the situation,” Wilson says. “Even if it’s not a criminal action, all incidents should be reported, as they could breach some other provincial or federal code.”

Wilson acknowledges that many hate crimes do go unreported. However, he says hate is in the public eye more now, and believes this is due to a more educated society.

“Once we can recognize something as a hate crime, we have a better ability to offer services and see the effect an incident has on the victim and the community,” he says.

Bourne, a Victoria native who was previously stationed in Vancouver, says the incident has rocked his sense of security in his home community — a community he sees lacking in LGBT resources and advocacy.

“I really feel like Victoria is a city where everyone says they’re gay friendly, but they aren’t very gay friendly in practice,” Bourne says. “You put so much trust in law enforcement, and you think it’s their job to at least make you feel they’re doing their job, to show you a little compassion … but [this incident] doesn’t make me want to participate in the gay scene in Victoria in general, because I feel like it’s a targeted group.”

Still, Bourne says while he’s also experiencing a sense of shame — something Kennedy says is common for survivors of assaults — his own personal support network has been essential in recovering from the incident.

“My family and friends have been so supportive,” he says. “If it wasn’t for work, and the people who have been there for me, I don’t think I would have been able to get through this the same way. I just want to stop this from happening to someone else, someone who might not have that same brace.” M