Love in the Time of Queer Death
As death hangs over Toronto’s Queer Village, a brown queer girl is reminded of the risk that love and connection always pose
Content Note: Discussion of murder, Bruce McArthur, abandonment
Author’s Note: For at least a decade and if not more, there has been a serial killer in Toronto, preying upon South Asian and Middle Eastern men associated with the queer village. The tragedy has shaken community members to the core. We remember the risk of isolation. We remember the value of family. We remember the fragility of our tender bodies. We remember justice is elusive. And that love is even more so.
Skandaraj Navaratnam, Sept 10 2010
Abdulbasir Faizi, Dec 29 2010
Majeed Kayhan, Oct 14 2012
Soroush Mahmudi, August 15, 2015
Dean Lisowick, May 2016-July 2017
Selim Esen, April 14 2017
Andrew Kinsman, June 26 2017
Part 1: Mother
You don’t love me, I think.
Months later, we all find out Bruce McArthur has been charged with five counts of first degree murder and no bodies. Between the first and second drafts of this article, the number climbed to seven bodies and six charges. One man remains unidentified. Abdulbasir remains missing.
“We can’t say gay,” I say, pained to a friend. “Won’t it out them? Were they even fully out?”
A fourth brown man who frequented the queer village, the first to go missing between 2010–2012, was shown to be McArthur’s facebook friend. Eventually, he was identified as another official victim. Four out of the seven victims are brown, though not necessarily queer.
Seven so far. “We do believe there are more and I have no idea how many more there are going to be”, said the lead investigator, Sgt. Hank Idsinga, in a press conference.
All men. No women. It is rare to feel even relatively protected as a queer brown girl. I feel instantly ashamed and guilty and terrified at my brief twinge of relief. These men died awful deaths. The smallness of my own solidarity in those moments terrifies me. But it passes. Human feelings have human capacity (the littleness of it). The searing disjointed moments where you think, Thank God it wasn’t me or someone I knew. I swallow hard. Deep down I know the truth: Thank God it wasn’t me or someone I knew — this time.
“Did you hear about the serial killer?” I ask my mom.
“Yeah, it’s sad” she says distractedly.
You don’t love me, I think — instantly and sharply. I work near the village. I am queer and brown. Mom knows this. I waited through a month of media news on the killings before asking her: Did you hear about the serial killer?
She answered yes, but clearly it was of relatively little concern. Why bother checking in with your only queer offspring to see how they are doing?
Part 2: New Girl
I met a girl I think I like. She is tall and slender and has a mouth I like. The shape of it. And her tender eyes. I can’t write how we met because she might read this and go “Oh shit, that’s me.”
The thought makes me smile.
“She looks just like the other one,” my Somali roommate says. She leans against our kitchen counter and holds my phone in her hand and peers into the screen.
I laugh. “Yeah, I think I have a type.”
“A type for guys and a type for girls,” she laughs, shaking her head. “You’re hilarious.”
Part 3: Friend
“So, I saw this video,” I tell my friend. He is brown too. “In the video, a gay guy comes out to his parents. He tells them he’s being seeing his partner for 3 years, and he invites his parents to his wedding taking place in a month.” My voice shakes as I speak. I take a sip of steeped orange pekoe tea.
I try to keep a coherent timeline of events in the video. “Anyway, they say no in this fucked up ‘polite’ way. Like… like it’s a ‘boundary invasion’ that he’s enforcing. Like ‘this goes against our beliefs, but we still love you’. Or ‘you know we can’t do that.’ At the end, the mom asks for a hug. He refuses. The comments on the video are…just… you know, people saying they can disagree with a lifestyle and that doesn’t reduce love. Or they can choose not to support queer people but still love them. And… how. Just — how can we ever — “ my voice breaks. My thoughts break. “How can they tell us the way we love is less than their love, and in the same breath tell us they love us.”
My friend smiles and chuckles wryly. “Yeah. It’s homophobic. Obviously it’s homophobic and obviously people are going to say this shit to justify their homophobia — like not going to your gay kid’s wedding is ‘just a choice’ that’s similar to ‘being gay is a choice’ and obviously it’s bullshit.” He hesitates before continuing. “But you know… this sounds kind of strange…but it’s what I say to myself. Like, this is where my dad and I are at. We never talk about it. We never talk about my partner — he’s maybe said his name twice? In the entire time we’ve been dating and married? But this way I get to… have a relationship with my dad and my husband. I guess I rationalize it like that.”
I nod. Because I get it. Because I do it too.
I do exactly the same thing. The video made me freeze because I saw my mother in it. Word for word, my mother has said with that same look in her eyes, the same bullshit to me about how she doesn’t really accept me but still loves me. And every time I thought, “Ok, this isn’t as bad as violence aimed at queer people. This isn’t as bad as outright rejection of queer people. This isn’t as bad as getting kicked out of my house as some parents kick their kids out of their house for being gay. My mother still loves me.”
I watch the video again. I feel rage bubble up. I think about how my baseline for love from my mother is not organized around explicit and whole acceptance of who I am: a queer girl, and is instead organized around feeling grateful that she has not treated me as unkindly as the world in general treats queer people.
I think about how absurd these same rationalizations sound if I tried to say it about being straight.
Sometimes, when I eat shiitake mushrooms too fast, I feel a sick feeling stick in the back of my throat. That is what I feel when I think about how paper-thin my rationalizations are. This is what I really taste like.
It is stunning to me that I accept my mother’s explanation of her love because, for a queer brown girl, not experiencing physical violence, not getting kicked out, and not getting explicitly rejected apparently constitute love.
Like the mushrooms, the feeling passes when I swallow.
Part 4: Omelas
“I think I’ve done everything I wanted to do in my life. I’m… not sure what’s next,” she says.
“Keep doing this,” I say, slight alarm bells in my mind. Is she thinking of suicide? “Or”, I say, “You could always do something new.” We are sitting at the McDonalds. Everyone is pointedly ignoring a Black man who is homeless and yelling about conspiracy theories.
“Yeah,” he screams. “Yeah, don’t look at me. None of you want to look at me. Y’all scared of what you’ll see if you look at me.”
Anytime I hear homeless people scream like this, I think about another piece I’ve read. “Build the shittiest thing possible,” it starts. “Build it out of trash, because all I have is trash. Trash materials, trash bodies, trash brain syndrome.” Featured on The New Inquiry, it is a piece called “Hot Allostatic Load” by Porpentine, and it’s been making the rounds through the queer tumblrverse for a few years. The piece is about the rejection of people in society who need help, who are imperfect like everyone is imperfect, but more vulnerable than the people they are around. The piece is also about the fear of becoming the people who are cast out. The piece is about being cast out, and what to do next.
I came across the article because someone had sent it to me a few years ago. “You’re casting me out,” was, I think what they wanted me to acknowledge. “You’re excommunicating me from everyone that loves me,” was, I think, their truth. “By not speaking to me anymore, by not wanting to be around me, you are abusing me” they said.
We were going to co-author a zine at some point on abandonment as abuse. But we never got around to it. And Porpentine wrote “Hot Allostatic Load” eventually so I guess the work was done.
The thing is, I still believe people always get to leave and no one can force me to stay in a relationship I don’t want to be in. If the choice is: “Stay, because if you leave you’re abusive”, I’ll take my chances on the road.
The language of abuse and its internal circulation within queer communities has been one of the most difficult things to name. We are afraid of boundaries in queer communities. We are afraid because so many of us have been rejected from families in little ways and large ways. We are afraid that any boundary is a rejection and not an opportunity for growth of friendship.
And we are convinced rejection is abuse, but it’s not. Rejection is a boundary. It is a necessary corollary to accepting anyone and anything in our lives. Our “yes” has no meaning if we cannot say “no” freely.
I think to this day they believe that by rejecting their presence in my life, I abused them. For me, it was the first time I realised my love for people is not eternal, is not unconditional, and has boundaries. I realized, in my interactions with this person that as they had become unrecognizable in action, cruelty, and externalizing the pain they felt, that my love also had faded. It was also the first time I realized I had to believe in people’s growth. My friend was my friend in an instant in time. Maybe they’d be different in a few years.
“I know you’re in pain,” I had told them, seeing them spiral into deeper and deeper waves of anxiety and frustration and depression. “But I cannot support the actions you are taking in response to that pain. You can vent to me, talk to me, but you can’t harm other people. If you ask me to support this, I cannot. I can’t say yes to everything you’re asking me.”
Many people left my ex-friend out of self-preservation. Many of them were left by others too. And people are allowed to leave toxic situations, toxic friendships and enmeshment. But the reality of queer communities is that when people leave, and when people are abandoned, people die. My ex-friend was right in a way: I did leave her. But I had to leave her for my own mental health. How do we stay there for each other risking the pain of a friendship ending while still remaining honest and authentic? Family needs to be made of stronger fabric in queer communities because we have already seen in our blood families, the frayed material of relationships. We insist it’s stronger. We insist bonds are unshakeable not recognizing that we are weaving skins together, becoming boundaryless, incapable of saying yes or no clearly to the ones around us.
“It’s called ‘distressed’,” another friend had said the week before, pointing proudly to her jeans. It looks like little mice have ripped apart certain seams, left gaping holes at the knees and patchy areas.
My lips twitch. “I think I’m distressed looking at it.”
At the McDonald’s, the homeless man also has frayed clothes. What is fashionable on some of us is tatters, rags, and unacceptable attire on others.
In Hot Allostatic Load, Porpentine states, “This is in defense of the hyper-marginalized among the marginalized, the Omelas kids, the marked for death, those who came looking for safety and found something worse than anything they’d experienced before.” This is in reference to “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”, a short story written by Ursula K Le Guin in 1973. The story begins with a detailed description of a beautiful, seemingly-Utopian, fairy-tale city — a city where everyone is happy; there are parades and festivals and children playing in the streets.
Slyly, Le Guin writes midway through the tale: “Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No? Then let me describe one more thing.” What follows is a horrific description of a young child who is kept as a prisoner without attention, care, or any emotional support of any kind in the basement of a public building. Worse, it’s implied that everyone in the city who is happy is aware of this fact, and that the general reluctance to let this child enter mainstream society is because doing so would ruin the general happy structure and flow that the city has. This is the strange contract of this city.
But the truly horrifying moment is, that for any discerning reader, every moment of happiness in the story until that point seems…false. And after that point, it somehow makes sense. It is as though we have been conditioned in our world to expect a cost to happiness, a point of extreme suffering somewhere to equal the extreme joy somewhere else — even if it is a cost we do not personally experience.
My friend in the McDonald’s pauses thoughtfully. The homeless man has wandered out into the street. I swallow hard thinking about how no one helps, because they don’t know where to begin. Or they don’t care. Or to think too hard about them reduces the joy in our own lives.
I think about how people have boundaries and fear. I think about how people left my ex-friend. I think about how people have left me. I think about how I have learned not to take rejection personally, by learning to always choose myself. And I think about how some people never learned to choose themselves, or never had the resources to help them choose themselves, or never had systemic supports that assisted their choices in prioritizing themselves.
The only unconditional love we can hope to have is the kind we offer ourselves. But we can only find that ability to love ourselves in a community of people. What happens when you have no community? What happens when you are a basement child of Omelas?
“The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” ends with a cryptic message: some people in the city simply leave the place. There is no indication of where they go or what they do, but in my mind, one thing is clear: The ones who walk away from Omelas neither confront the spectre of suffering, nor do they challenge their fellow citizens. Are they cowards? Or do they just feel helpless, feeling that they can make no appreciable change within the walls of the city? Or do they want to live with their guilt, away from the place that made them guilty, and work towards change elsewhere?
I have always identified with the ones who walk away, but here I am, ignoring the homeless man, sitting in a McDonald’s, drinking a hot chocolate. Maybe I’m just a citizen of Omelas. Maybe we all are.
“It’s just –I didn’t think I’d live this long,” my friend says. Her eyes glitter, but not with tears. “I’m already over the average age trans women die, so.” She is a diamond of a woman. Her cheeks are sharp like a knife point. Her hairstyle is positively aristocratic.
A long time ago, when I saw people who everyone had abandoned, I asked this friend: “What do they need? Just — what institutional support…what… do they need?”
A counselor in the city and queer famous to boot, she took a minute to answer. And then she said: “Family. They need family.”
There is a balance, I decide. It’s just not one that relies on extreme pain as the counterpoint to extreme joy.
“You’re here, and you’re alive,” I say. Repeating what she said to me before, I tell her: “You’re family.”
We have to build our families. We get to choose our families. Without malice or zealotry, we get to choose who belongs in the tapestry of our lives and who does not — in fact, we must make these choices in conscious ways because these are the choices that define how we envision love, community, and support.
Everyone does what they can with what they have — always imperfectly. It’s in those moments we encounter inside ourselves — those “Omelas moments” — that we must interrogate and reflect on.
What do we ignore in the choices we make of who belongs in our lives? What is the practical limit of our kindness? Who runs up against the boundaries we have? What do we let in? What do we keep out? Who do we leave out of the equations of our lives every day? Of course, no one can be responsible for everyone. But who are we responsible for outside the confines of our own bodies and the parameters of our lives?
The snow falls outside, silently. My cats sit near the window, looking outside. They look at each other, and then back out again. We used to be out there, they seem to say. Now we’re safe and warm, and we belong here.
But everyone should belong somewhere safe.
It’s people, I realize, tears blurring my eyes. People are protection, are weapons, are community, are bridges, are walls, are rising tides, are fire, are cruelty, are kindness, are rejection, are acceptance — and everyone is all these things at some point in their lives to someone.
A friend of mine calls it the pace of plants. She believes change is happening at a slow, slow pace. When I tell her my thoughts, she says: “ But that’s all we can do: increase people’s capacity to be able to love themselves, choose themselves , and have that mean something materially. And people’s capacity is increasing — to love, to know unconditional love to themselves, prioritize themselves, and get help for themselves. People are working to create spaces where that kind of learning of self can happen and be accessible and have resources to even the most marginalized — I mean, you’re doing that! It’s just happening at the pace of plants.”
I smile softly, sadly. The pace of plants.
Many things live, grow, and die at the pace of plants.
I have to believe at any rate that love in the time of queer death has always sustained queer lives. Even at the pace of plants.
SAFE — A new service from ASAAP. You can email SAFE when you are going to meet someone (on a date or otherwise) but don’t want to or can’t let someone else know where you are going. They will look out for you and make sure that you arrived home safely.
ASAAP — The Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention is a community organization dedicated to providing services and supports for South Asian and Middle Eastern people with marginalised sexual orientations, and those who are at risk of HIV.
ACAS QAY — The Queer Asian Youth Program provides youth-led social spaces, capacity development, and peer support for LGBTQ, questioning, curious and undecided East & Southeast Asian youth in Toronto.