Bashing the rainbow flag

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Queer bashing is on the rise in Toronto. Unfortunately, I've seen the evidence first hand.

This fall, the rainbow flags my partner and I display on our home and car were systematically torn down, ripped up or stolen. Initially, I felt irritated and annoyed, brushing off the incident as the likely handiwork of some queerphobic kids. After the second incident I began to feel watched and targeted. The message of queerphobia and hate was loud and clear.

After the third incident -- I'm angry.

I'm angry that queerphobia still rampages through Toronto. I'm angry that someone felt they had the right to target and vandalise the symbol of an identity. I'm angry that an implicit threat of violence has been issued, not just to us but to our neighbours and to the wider community, indicating that it's dangerous to be perceived as queer.

And I'm angry that queer-bashing hate crimes based on sexual orientation or perceived sexual orientation is still seen as "a gay issue."

My partner and I are allies of the queer community. We fly rainbow flags because we believe in social justice for everyone and we support the queer community in the struggle against queerphobia and transphobia. For us queer-bashing is not "a gay issue," it's a social issue and we're all involved.

Statistics Canada's 2008 report, Police-reported hate crime in Canada, surveys hate crime in major urban centres across the country. The report shows Toronto's hate crimes based on sexual orientation are escalating: queer-bashing numbers doubled from 2007-2008. In comparison, hate crimes based on race and ethnicity have declined.

When it comes to queer bashing violence is the norm. According to Statistics Canada's Hate Crime in Canada, 2006, queer targeted hate crime is more likely to be violent and cause physical injury than other forms of hate crime. A reported 56 per cent of queer bashing is violent in nature, while only 36 per cent involves property damage.

These reports provide a window into police-reported hate crimes. But according to Toronto Police Service's Report Homophobic Violence, Period campaign many incidents remain unreported "because many victims feel the incident did not get out of control, they won't be taken seriously, they are embarrassed, or live in fear of isolation and retaliation." Many also fear re-victimization by the police.

This trend in escalating hate crimes is also documented at the grassroots level. The Anti-Violence Program (AVP), a part of the 519 Church Street Community Centre, tracks hate crimes based on sexual orientation and perceived sexual orientation. Since 1990, the AVP has been documenting, recording and advocating for individuals who have experienced harassment and violence. The AVP's statistics show a steady rise in queer-bashing incidents from 2007 to 2009.

It seems bizarre that in a seemingly more tolerant society where the Pride parade draws a million people in Toronto and major civil rights victories like same-sex marriage have been achieved, that queer-bashing is escalating. Howard Shulman, AVP Coordinator, thinks there are a few potential reasons for the spike in numbers.

Shulman believes that increasing hate crimes "may have something to do with the recession. Historically, during times of economic trouble hate crimes rise. People are angry [...] and members of marginalized groups unfortunately become scape-goats."

He also cites those civil rights victories as a potential impetus. "[O]ften times perpetrators of anti-LGBTQ hate crimes [a.k.a. bashers] believe that the government [and] the courts have "gone too far" in providing equity rights [and] legislation for the LGBTQ communities." The result is vigilantism that tries "to scare individuals [and in turn the wider LGBTQ communities] back into the closet."

Despite the higher rates of violence experienced by queer individuals, Statistics Canada also reports that nine out of 10 Canadians of all sexual orientations feel personally safe from crime. Shulman sees this sense of personal safety as inspiring individuals to "move[ing] beyond the ‘gay village' in Toronto to other neighbourhoods." And after arriving in these new neighbourhoods "sometimes discovering that their new neighbours are, to say the least, not very neighbourly."

Those in the queer community cannot be expected to act alone in the face of queerphobia and transphobia. Straight allies must come forward and make it clear that in Toronto and across Canada hate and violence are not acceptable.

Shulman believes that "allies can play a vital role in ending hate crimes [and] discrimination against LGBTQ people." He suggests that "people to start with themselves.... Confronting your own prejudices and homophobia is an important first step."

Queerphobic comments and jokes, like "that's so gay," must also be confronted in our daily language. "Challenge it," says Shulman, "Tell the person that you find that comment offensive."

Finally, Shulman advocates for questioning the assumption that everyone is straight. "Someone you know could be looking for help coming out. By not assuming that everyone is heterosexual you can give that person the space they need to come out."

My partner and I refuse to be intimidated into silence. After the third incident we moved our flag to the second story and added one more just for good measure. In the face of escalating hate crimes, I want to see more rainbow flags flying from Toronto homes. Queer or straight, flying the rainbow flag is a symbol of support for queer identities and a condemnation of queerphobia.

Sarah Jean Harrison is a freelance writer, social justice activist, feminist, community artist and university instructor. She resides in one of the many Toronto homes that proudly fly a rainbow flag.

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