R.M. Vaughan is a Canadian writer and video artist based in Montreal
The reaction in the LGBTQ community to the sentence handed down to serial killer Bruce McArthur – life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years for the murder of eight men – was immediate, full of outrage and, yes, predictable.
Which is one reason it hurts so much more. We could have predicted that he would get the least, and maybe we should have braced ourselves. The case was proof that again, nobody listened to us – this time in court, and before that on the streets when the community told the police that a serial killer was out there in the first place.
One of the many outraged social-media posts quoted the judge’s summary, as reported in this newspaper: “But sentencing Mr. McArthur until 116 years of age would be symbolic, Justice John McMahon told the court.” The poster replied: "YES, SYMBOLISM WOULD ACTUALLY COUNT HERE.”
And therein lies the source of our rage: Symbols and signs count. We know 25 years in prison is nobody’s idea of a good time, and we recognize Mr. McArthur, 67, is as unlikely to be paroled at 91 as he is to live to that age. And many of us in the LGBTQ community already have such low-to-zero expectations of the justice system that perhaps we ought not to be surprised he didn’t get consecutive life sentences, or at least a dangerous offender designation.
Queer people know not to trust the system, as do Canadian women, Indigenous people and people of colour. But sometimes we get our hopes up. Sometimes we think that crimes as monstrous as Mr. McArthur’s will override the prejudices that course through the system. We feel stung – cheated – because we were upset enough by the murders to let our guard down and trust our supposed protectors.
Sure, the courts and cops bluster this and holler that about justice for minorities. But after the posturing, when it comes down to the nitty-gritty stuff – all that serious, old boys club lawyer stuff only experts understand, the stuff so very far above our silly queeny heads – the status quo always reasserts itself. And the status quo being maintained here is obvious: Killing queer men is just not that much of a crime in Canada.
Symbolism would actually count here.
Honoré de Balzac wrote that “Laws are spider webs through which the big flies pass and the little ones get caught.” In this case, Mr. McArthur is the little fly; anti-gay prejudice is the big fly. Mr. McArthur represents, to horrific extremes, homo-hating at its worst.
But Judge McMahon’s sentence fails to take into account the simple truth that Mr. McArthur’s crimes are an attack on an entire community: that he acted like a guerrilla soldier hovering around the margins of the Gay Village and picking off the most vulnerable. For years, and apparently with impunity, Mr. McArthur reminded us with each missing man he added to his list that there are no real “safe spaces” for queer men and that our advances in polite society are no protection against violent hatred.
For creating that level of insecurity and fear, for making an entire subculture wonder if – despite all the positive and inclusive messaging coming from enterprises that want our money and votes – we truly are equal and heard, Mr. McArthur’s sentence needed to carry a deeper resonance. The sentence needed to show the larger population that queer men are not fair game any more.
Instead, the sentence appears to be little more than a shrugging acknowledgment that killing people is bad. An utter failure to recognize that the precariousness of queer life, shaped as it is by ever-present homophobia, has been further destabilized by Mr. McArthur’s violence – and now, perversely, by his seemingly forgiving sentence.
Personally, I feel out of place demanding tougher sentences and harsher legal actions. The adage about leftists just being conservatives who haven’t been to court yet would apply here. I hate that the outcome of these terrible crimes has made me advocate for a more vigorous application of a system I deeply distrust and know to be flawed.
But that’s how it works when you’re a minority, when you try to figure out how to get the best out of the large and well-established processes that surround you, but nevertheless have no real place for you and never did. You feel abandoned, but you still reach out to the abandoners to fix the problem, because they are all you have.
So what if nice people don’t call us faggots any more? When you hurt one of us, or kill one of us or even kill eight of us, the odds are on your side.