Written Tuesday, April 17 in situ
(CN: murder, police)
I decided, on a whim, to come and write at Glad Day Bookshop. It’s smoky in here, like they burned a grilled cheese sandwich or something moments before I arrived. The gaymers are here, as usual for a Tuesday evening. The whole back section is full, with knots of enthusiastic men gathered around each tabletop game. They span a range of races, ages, body shapes. The mid-level hum of their voices is punctuated by occasional peals of laughter and shouts of victory.
As I walked here from Wellesley subway station, I couldn’t help but notice the shabbiness of the area. The Ho’s Team barbershop windows are papered over, lending an urgency to the bright mural on the building next to it, a jumble of gay slogans and symbols. Above the Pizza Pizza on the corner, a Pride flag and a Bear flag are tacked to a stretch of latticed wood. Both are so tattered and washed out that the colours aren’t even distinguishable anymore, all the stripes bleeding together into variations of muddy brown. The flags flutter feebly when the traffic light changes.
The winter is dragging out its stay, so the whole city seems tired out and grim, especially since this weekend’s surprise ice storm. But I can’t help but wonder whether the chipping and fading of this particular neighbourhood might have something to do with the deepening knowledge that it served for years, possibly decades, as the hunting grounds of a serial killer. A jovial-looking white man who targeted closeted brown guys, homeless and sex-working and drug-addicted guys, and occasionally—coincidence, misstep, risky thrill—someone who might be missed by well-connected white people.
I used to live up by Dufferin and St. Clair, and in 2010 or so I saw a homemade missing person poster on a concrete lamppost along the streetcar line. I recall thinking, when I saw the picture from a few feet away, what a beautiful brown-skinned gay man that is. Such a perfectly groomed goatee. When I got closer and read the poster, it said his family was looking for him. How awful, I thought. And then, I wonder why it’s so clear to me that he’s gay. The poster doesn’t say so. Gaydar is so mysterious. A year or two later, I saw a similar poster in a different part of town and had the same series of thoughts. Then I recalled the first one, and realized they were different men. And, with a chill, I thought, Wait, that’s strange.
The last time I was at Glad Day, the glass door bore a faded missing persons poster about Andrew Kinsman: white, well-muscled, bespectacled, a nicely shaped beard shot with grey, smiling eyes. That poster is gone now because his remains were found, buried in a planter on a suburban property where his killer did landscaping. The killer is accused, at this time, of eight murders: Selim Esen, Majeed Kayhan, Soroush Mahmudi, Dean Lisowick, Skandaraj “Skanda” Navaratnam, Abdulbasir Faizi, and most recently, Kirushna Kumar Kanagaratnam, a refugee from Sri Lanka whose family thought he had stopped calling years ago because he was in hiding from the Canadian government after his application was rejected.
The details are gruesome, the investigation unprecedented in size and scope. The public, in Toronto and beyond, reads the news stories in fascination, in horror, sometimes in heartbreak—and I include myself in all three, though I did not know any of his victims directly. Before his Facebook profile was disabled, I discovered I had several friends in common with the alleged murderer. A few weeks later, a local leatherman gave a wrenching interview about his own near death at the killer’s hands. He and I have never met, but we, too, have a number of mutual friends. I am not personally grieving anyone, so I won’t claim to be directly affected. But this all feels very close, and I’ve got feelings for which I don’t have words.
A friend comes in from the cold, bundled in sweaters. She looks around at the full tables, and I wave her over to the empty seat at mine. We get to chatting as I savour a potato-leek soup and she sips a mug of herbal tea. She lives in the area, she says, and it’s been strange. Her place is right near where Tess Richey’s body was found. Not by the police. By Richey’s mother, after the cops had given up. Her body was in a stairwell steps from where she had last been seen, so they must have done a pretty cursory search. As I walked here, I passed under the same security camera that captured Richey in the hours before her death. A couple months ago, I read that they arrested a guy; they’ve just upgraded the charge to first-degree murder. At first, some people thought it must be the same person who had killed all the men. It didn’t fit, so I was not surprised to learn it was someone else. But I can see why people wondered. Too many deaths, too close.
I never saw a poster for Alloura Wells, a young trans woman whose body was found in a ravine in a different area of town. I heard about her death through sex workers and trans women on Twitter. The police didn’t consider her death important because she was homeless. The person who found her body last summer, impatient with police inaction, contacted the queer community centre up the street from here to see if they could help figure out who she was. But the staff dropped the ball, and the police didn’t care, so months went by before anyone figured out who she was.
It’s tempting to write about rage, because I definitely feel it. Rage, in particular, at the police, who are terribly keen to march in Pride but can’t be bothered to attend to queer and trans deaths. Who offer hollow apologies for men’s bathhouse raids in the distant past, but conduct the same kinds of raids today, arresting harmless men at their night-time cruising grounds. Who, in the 1950s and ’60s, took dykes and sex workers to Cherry Beach to beat and rape them; were still known to do so with queer women and men in the 1990s; were doing the same with homeless and First Nations people as recently as 2006; have killed, abused and over-policed countless members of Toronto’s Black community; and don’t seem to have grasped that decades of such abuses might affect their relationship with Toronto’s marginalized communities. Who shrug their shoulders when dozens of us go missing, deny that there’s anything really wrong, and then blame the community for failing to help when it turns out something is very wrong indeed.
The warp and weft of persecution and neglect have woven together into countless burial shrouds.
But today I’m also feeling something quieter and more complicated than rage, something that’s easier to capture by describing a place than by trying to find words for the specific strains of emotion.
Amid all this death, this neighbourhood sits in the same place as always, buildings aging, road wearing under traffic, lights flicking on and off as the days brighten and dim. And I wonder if it’s dying, too, declining over those same decades as people feel a creeping sense of unease here.
Many of the small gay businesses have shuttered and been replaced by mainstream chains. The rainbow-striped bank on the corner will give a cute gay couple a mortgage while cutting a trans woman off from her bank account because her voice didn’t, to their ears, match her name. The knowledge that your people are prey, that the police are not here to help, that the shops taking your money are now the branches of faceless corporations… somehow, it must add up.
But the gaybourhood is not dead yet. This queer bookstore, a rarity so astonishing as to be miraculous, is flourishing in its new expanded space—full of ragtag queers every day and night. The shelves boast a slightly reduced selection, as compared to the store’s former piled-high shelves in their cramped Yonge Street location. But colourful covers nonetheless abound. A thick, bright book about Toronto’s queer history features prominently. There’s a burgeoning shelf of memoirs; another with YA fiction and lesbian mysteries. My favourite is the queer theory section, where I can almost always find something new (or pleasingly old). There’s a second-hand bargain shelf, too.
As a matter of personal policy, I never come in here without buying a book, or food, or donating a book or two that I’ve finished and decided not to keep. Their rent is high here. (Make a guess and double it.) My meagre support won’t be what keeps it afloat, but if lots of us try, maybe it will keep on surviving. It feels like there’s a metaphor in this.
There’s a bustling bar staffed mostly by young queers of colour who remember the regulars’ names. The sandwiches are tasty (try the club). The hot pink grouting on the tile wall behind the bar proclaims a sort of DIY fabulousness. It’s not sleek here. The floor is uneven, the walls smudged, the décor a bit patchy. The cinnamon shaker on the counter sports a slightly gummy rainbow sticker. But we are here. The gaymers, the writers, the readers, the beer sippers and grad students and retirees and blue-haired sissies with cable-knit sweaters. The people who dropped in on a whim, because they wanted coffee or to escape the chill for a moment. We’re not sleek either, not most of us, but we keep showing up, and that counts.
In a sense, the persistence of this place mirrors a kind of queer resilience. It would be better if things were easier, warmer, if we were all wealthier or the rents magically got more reasonable, if we could trust the cops, or the government, or the banks, or our families, or strangers. Of course it would. But we’re here anyway. We’re queer anyway. We can be killed, but not killed off.