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Tim Keating with his partner - who didn't want to be identified. Mr. Keating, asked about hate crimes said: "People do it because they think they can get away with it. I want them to do it in front of me sometime, then they will see real hate."JOHN LEHMANN

Jordan Smith had never held hands with a man in public before. But late one September night in 2008, the 27-year-old airline pilot impulsively intertwined fingers with his boyfriend, as they walked home through the city's well-known gay neighbourhood.

Their affection lasted all of five minutes. A group of young men accosted the couple with a series of gay slurs. One of them then struck Mr. Smith from behind, sending him unconscious to the sidewalk, a hard tumble that broke his jaw.

"That night, we just threw caution to the winds," Mr. Smith recalled this week. "You see what happened."

His assailant, Michael Kandola, was eventually sentenced to 17 months in prison, after a B.C. Supreme Court judge ruled the attack a hate crime.

The incident was far from isolated that year. Over all in 2008, Metro Vancouver police forces reported 34 hate-crime cases motivated by sexual orientation, the highest per-capita frequency of such attacks in the country.

They contributed to a disturbing trend across Canada that saw hate crimes against gays and lesbians more than double, from 71 in 2007 to 159 a year later. The numbers, reported last month by Statistics Canada, have prompted some to label Vancouver "the gay-bashing capital of Canada."

While figures may reflect more reporting of anti-gay crimes than an actual new wave of assaults, Vancouver Councillor Tim Stevenson, a United Church minister who has been "out" for 30 years, doesn't shy from the tag.

"Unfortunately, we are the gay-bashing capital," Mr. Stevenson said. "While I don't think there's been a huge spike, it's on the increase. Gay-bashing is not going down, that's for sure. The question is: 'Why not?' "

On the eve of the city's enormously popular pride parade, an annual event that attracts more than half a million spectators, with politicians, police and community leaders marching together among raucous, celebratory gays, lesbians and transgendered, the troubling persistence of gay-bashing continues to cast a pall over the party.

"There's still a lot of societal liberation that needs to take place," said Vancouver Pride Society president Ken Coolen, attesting to ongoing instances of hate crimes and well-publicized gay-bashings.

Just this month, four men were arrested in connection with two separate attacks on Vancouver gay men. Both incidents are being investigated as possible hate crimes.

And on Aug. 10, a verdict is expected in a high-profile assault at the Fountainhead Pub that left Ritch Dowrey with permanent brain damage. The incident brought more than a thousand community members into the streets, demanding an end to anti-gay violence.

"In spite of all the advances that have been made, people are still coming down to our 'hood, screaming and yelling and calling us names and occasionally bashing," said Ron Stipp of West Enders Against Violence Everywhere. "That has to stop."

Yet, for all that, reasons for the Statscan findings are not clear-cut.

There is consensus among activists, police and statisticians alike that the rise in reported hate-crime cases is as much due to a new comfort level between gays and police than to any new wave of gay-bashing.

"The more trust there is, the more likely victims are to come forward and report what happened to them," said Warren Silver of the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, which compiles the data for Statscan.

Vancouver Police Department Inspector Mario Giardini is more blunt. "In the immortal words of Scotty Bowman, statistics are for losers," said Insp. Giardini, head of the VPD's Diversity and Aboriginal Policing section.

He pointed out that 2008 was the same year police held a series of forums in the gay community, urging victims to report crimes to police, assuring them all would be "as fully investigated as possible."

But Doug Janoff, author of a book on homophobic violence in Canada, speculated that the higher prevalence of reported attacks in Vancouver is not merely because more gays are coming forward.

In contrast to Toronto and Montreal, which have compact, well-defined gay areas, Vancouver's gay neighbourhood is centred in the more porous West End, close to huge events that attract rowdy partiers, said Mr. Janoff. "That mix is a recipe for disaster."

Indeed, Mr. Stipp said there is always a jump in anti-gay incidents during the city's mammoth summer fireworks extravaganza on English Bay in the heart of the West End.

At the same time, however, Vancouver police have been as good as their word, Mr. Stipp affirmed. "There's been a sea change in attitude. The era when we didn't trust police or consider them our friends is gone."

When a man started yelling and advancing towards him and his partner recently, Mr. Stipp quickly dialled 911. The guy took off, but police arrived almost immediately and nabbed him two blocks away.

That's quite a change from 14 years ago, when then Vancouver Park Board commissioner Duncan Wilson was savagely beaten with a pipe while out walking with his gay partner. Police didn't show up to take his statement until the next morning. Their report described the brutal assault as a "traffic altercation."

"The world is a different place now, with a police force that actively recruits gays and lesbians, and whose chief marches in the pride parade," Mr. Wilson said.

Yet the hate goes on. Why it does is a complicated matter that stretches beyond the gay-basher stereotype of yahoo young guys fuelled by beer and testosterone, although that certainly plays a role.

"For whatever reason, it's become a sport for some young people, after they've had a few drinks," Mr. Stevenson said. "Once the bars close, gay men get worried that these people are going to be out there, prowling."

Mr. Stipp points to elements of the faith community that regularly lash out against homosexuality. "A lot of churches still preach hatred. What they need to do is say from the pulpit that gay taunting and homophobia is not on."

Culture may be a factor, as well. A rough survey by the gay magazine Xtra! claimed that South Asian men have faced or are facing gay-bashing charges in numbers disproportionate to their population.

While South Asian gays and lesbians dispute the finding and deny their community is more homophobic than any other, they acknowledge its inherent conservatism.

"There is definitely less sensitivity to that issue," said Fatima Jaffer of the South Asian lesbian support group, Trikone Vancouver. "Family and marriage are very important. Sometimes it takes a while for a community to adapt to new ways of thinking."

Regardless of motivation, the rising numbers of reported hate crimes are distressing to Mayor Gregor Robertson. "They contradict what we may feel is a safe and livable city in comparison to others," the mayor confessed. "They demonstrate that we have a lot more work to do."

Mr. Stipp of West Enders Against Violence Everywhere says he hopes the celebrations of Sunday's big pride parade will not eclipse the ongoing need for gays to be on their guard.

"We have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go," he said. "What we want is to be able to go outside without always having to look over our shoulders. That day may be coming, but it's not here yet."

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