I was never aware of my racial otherness until I came out of the closet.
That may seem like an odd thing to say. But growing up brown in the wilds of former Toronto-mayor Rob Ford's Etobicoke, I was rarely made to feel different because of the colour of my skin. There would be the odd look when my parents were out in public together, or the snickers from children when I'd bring an ethnic lunch to school, but we were mostly treated like everyone else. I accepted my hometown as a multicultural one.
This changed when I took my first tentative steps into Toronto's gay community.
The coming out process is understood in its broadest terms as a narrative of acceptance. After years of isolation from the dominant society, a queer person can finally feel part of a community and be free from discrimination. We are no longer at risk. We have finally found our tribe.
Of course, the reality is different, especially for visible minorities. For as much as the queer community is a diaspora of individuals brought together by differences from a monolithic straight culture, each individual has an unique relationship to that culture. They carry with them the traces of their formative environments: small towns or big cities, near or far away; assumptions about race and gender; political affiliations; privilege.
These differences create fissures within the queer community. They create fear where others see safety. They also create a hierarchy of sexual value that can have a devastating impact on one's self-esteem. It's a system that elevates white men while isolating men of colour, desensitizing them to forms of abuse, and leaving them vulnerable to attack.
If the charges laid against 66-year-old landscaper and alleged serial killer Bruce McArthur are correct, he may haveunderstood this reality. In fact, this information could have been as much of a tool in his arsenal as any weapon used to inflict violence on his supposed victims. It is knowledge that racialized men are so used to rejection that they would likely be disarmed at the prospect of a white suitor, even a potentially dangerous one. It is the understanding that these men could disappear, and that the police, media, members of the community and their own families would do little about it. And it is the belief that the value assigned to these men is normal.
I came to understand my ethnic body as a form of gay cultural currency. Instead of being embraced for my similarities, I was often categorized by my differences. "Indian? Pakistani? Turkish? Sri Lankan? What are you?" I was forced to define and redefine my racial identity in order to gain access to any sexual intimacy. Every man was a border crossing, and I had to present the necessary papers. Some men wanted to interrogate me, give me the pat down and send me on my way. Others were comfortable with assumptions.
I would be complimented on my 'exotic' features, or told that those same features didn't stack up to the beauty of my white peers.
Life as a person of colour is traversing endless borders, whether physical or psychological.
"Sorry, Mohammed, you're not my type." Block, delete.
"Is it true that brown guys are bottoms?" Block, delete.
"Where are you really from?" Block, delete.
Not from Etobicoke, and never Toronto, but rather somewhere only white men have the power to define. And that space would determine the nature of even my more successful sexual experiences. It also refined my understanding of racism — not as insults hurled in the street, but as dehumanizing words whispered in desire over apps, in darkened bars and in bedrooms.
I would be complimented on my "exotic" features, or told that those same features didn't stack up to the beauty of my white peers. These men would encourage me to assume cultural identities that were often as foreign to me as they were to them. I would be criticized for rejecting the sexual advances of white men, or told to stick to "my own kind." I would participate in sexual role-play that would invariably position me as the submissive party, bound or debased, restrained and struck.
The words and actions would be cruel, but were framed in desire and objectification. I was to accept this violence inflicted upon me and my body because I had consented to intimacy.
This is a white hand on a brown neck. This is a sneer in place of a smile. This is the natural order of things.
A queer person of colour is used to being dehumanized. We are used to having our bodies fetishized, beaten and dismantled. We are used to being put on display for the benefit of white eyes. A killer merely took these cultural realities and rendered them in literal grisly detail. He tore bodies apart and put them into pots on wealthy lawns.
Sex and violence. So much media attention on the case has focused on the strange dance between eroticism and brutality. McArthur's use of dating sites to allegedly contact victims. The violent assault of a male sex worker in 2001. A van, allegedly containing DNA evidence of crimes, that was a space for rough sexual encounters. Reports of a man found restrained on his bed at the time of his arrest. Each detail more lurid than the last, and each one suggesting a pattern of behaviour that was unique and a possible precursor to homicide.
And yet, despite this media narrative, the killer's many victims likely did not enter into sexual encounters that were odd, but ones that were shockingly normal. These men probably expected sexual violence. They may have expected dehumanization. They did not expect to die.
In the aftermath of McArthur's arrest, the desire is to shift focus away from race and double down on a narrative of police neglect, weaving these murders into a larger tapestry of the historical injustices that have plagued the LGBTQ community. This is not without value, but has the negative impact of minimizing racial difference and creating equivalencies where there are none.
Systemic biases in law enforcement put racialized members of the LGBTQ community in harm's way.
As with the Pulse shooting in Orlando, brown bodies ignored in life now have a certain symbolic value in death. Their sacrifice is co-opted for political aims, and their otherness is erased in the interest of highlighting other systemic problems. "This is a queer issue. This is a mass shooting issue. This is a terrorism issue."
But race is the main story. Any criticism of the police treatment of the LGBTQ community is incomplete without acknowledging how the double marginalized status of these men made them both the targets of a killer and lower priorities in the eyes of the law. The handling of their disappearances emphasizes a key point made by Black Lives Matter Toronto during their 2016 protest: systemic biases in law enforcement put racialized members of the LGBTQ community in harm's way.
It's hard not to look at that warning — then an inconvenience on a summer's day — as dark prophecy.
The disappearance of Andrew Kinsman, McArthur's alleged final victim and a white man, mobilized law enforcement and the media. His face ended up in newspapers and on television. He was presented as a local — an upstanding citizen, a pet lover, a man with a sense of humour. He was a part of the community. And within months of his disappearance, McArthur was taken into custody and charged.
But many of the other men McArthur is charged with killing — Selim Esen, Majeed Kayhan and Soroush Marmudi — were considered outsiders from other places. Those still missing, like Skandaraj Navaratnam and Abdulbasir Faizi, were described using similar terminology. Transient, ethnic, othered. The police were quick to attribute these disappearances to "double lives," "unhelpful families" or "political ties to home countries."
"[We] have not returned any evidence as to their whereabouts or even a path of where they may have headed," was the official statement by investigators from Project Houston, a task force assembled in 2012 to search for three men missing from the Gay Village.
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Where were these men headed? What borders were they traversing?
Their cases went cold, and police were adamant that the village did not have a serial killer.
And during that time, more brown men — ignored in the eyes of the law and isolated within their own adopted LGBTQ communities — may have accepted a date from a man who seemed no different from any of the rest.
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