Like many others who live in Halifax and across Canada, I was shocked, horrified and filled with sorrow after hearing of the violent death of Raymond Taavel—a prominent and respected activist for LGBT rights, long-time editor of Wayves magazine, and organizer for Fair Vote Nova Scotia, to name just some of his most celebrated work.
Taavel was killed outside of Menz & Mollyz Bar at 3am on Tuesday, April 17th after attempting to break up a fight between a friend and what turned out to be his assailant. Hundreds of people gathered on Gottingen St. on Tuesday evening to share their memories of Taavel’s life and to mourn his tragic passing.
Like many other Haligonians, I didn’t know Taavel personally. In a recent article from the Halifax Media Co-op, Moira Joan Peters shares her bewilderment over how best to respond to the death of someone who was not an intimate acquaintance: “I don't know what his voice sounded like, I don't know what he liked to have for breakfast, and I don't feel the acute grief that those who know him and love him are feeling now, just a day after his death in Halifax's North End.”
Nevertheless, Peters acknowledges that “Raymond was a part of my life” on a shared cityscape. In particular, “He was a part of the life of this media organization. Not quite three years ago, he pledged solidarity with an idea that people should have the space to tell their stories.” Because, like me, Peters was not closely involved with Taavel, she notes honestly that the heartbreak and grief she feels in the wake of his passing “will heal quickly.”
And yet, by listening carefully to those who knew him on a more personal level, she hopes that, “the ripples of Raymond's life will expand, and join with many others in a movement toward peace and justice.” Daniel MacKay, a publisher at Wayves magazine, offers his own memories of Taavel, setting forth the ripples of his life as follows: “Seven days a week, 24 hours a day, Raymond helped other people. I'm going to miss him driving me to do better things in our community, which he did on a regular basis.”
Making space for the telling of stories. Extending a helping hand on a daily basis. Driving others to do better. Standing up for the rights and well-being of other Haligonians. Even for those who did not know Taavel personally, the ripples of his life are beginning to roll in. Shock and horror interlaced with grief and inklings of hope—hope that Tuesday’s terrible events will provide occasion for pause, conversation, reminiscence and reflection. Moreover, as Jane Caulfield points out,
"…sorrow, confusion and anger are all present. And despite the fact that police have not charged this as a hate crime, many people are reacting as if it were.
Which begs the question: What can a community do with the emotional response—is it enough to just get mad?
According to Randall Perry, editor of Wayves Magazine and close friend of Taavel’s, getting mad is a start. But what you do with that anger is what matters. “I don't know if we should be rioting in the streets but I don't think that staying calm and carrying on is the better way to go,” Perry says. “Somewhere in between, we need to remind the world that all is not saccharine sweet for LGBTs at home or abroad"."
Indeed, as Taavel wrote in an article for Wayves back in May 2010, “It’s tempting in this day and age of legislated liberties to think that a personal or collective vigilance is no longer required. It’s easy to lull ourselves into complacency, thinking there’s nothing more left to fight for, or nothing more to achieve. Fighting back comes in many forms: reaching out, building bridges, educating and, if need be, defending ourselves from physical harm.”
A number of people have struggled to find appropriate ways to express sorrow, if not also anger, and to sort out how best to fight back in a spirit of love, without meeting violence with more of the same. Many have bemoaned ignorance and hatred while calling indignantly for justice. Some point a finger squarely at Andre Noel Denny, the man who is reported to have killed Taavel.
According to the CBC, Denny was overheard shouting homophobic remarks during the attack and was arrested in a nearby alley shortly thereafter. It has since been confirmed that Denny is a psychiatric patient who failed to return to the East Coast Forensic Hospital in Dartmouth after a one-hour leave. He has been described as suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, and was first sent to the ECFH after having been found not criminally responsible on an assault charge in Sydney.
Denny’s described illness has raised a number of questions about whether the killing of Taavel, a self-identifying member of the LGBT community, should be categorized as a hate crime, which complicates calls for justice in this case.
As someone who is not a part of the LGBT community, but who, like many others, hopes to find a way to channel their shock, horror, grief, anger, sorrow and confusion into a kind of movement that resonates with the expanding ripples of Taavel’s life, I think it is tremendously important to engage carefully with the news surrounding this case. We need to keep in mind—or perhaps just begin to come to terms with—the complex histories of mistreatment of those who have been categorized and institutionalized as mentally ill, as well as First Nations peoples and the working classes, while also resisting the temptation to focus exclusively on the legal question of whether the killing of Taavel was or was not a hate crime.
Of course these are significant issues that need to be cautiously sorted through in recognition of the complex identities of both the assailant and the deceased. Nevertheless, it will also be important to shift attention away from the overt act of violence that took place outside of Menz & Mollyz Bar on Tuesday morning, to make visible more subtle and intimate forms of violence that can be confronted more directly, and perhaps even remedied, from where we respectively stand.
It is crucial to create open hearts and ears for people who did know Taavel, as well as those who continue to identify as members of the LGBT community. We might also catch ourselves in the act of pointing a furious finger at Denny, or anyone else for that matter, when our energies could be better spent learning about Taavel’s life, and about less visible marginalized lives and passings—and through such learning, re-remembering how it is that we have all contributed to building a city within which, as Perry reminds us, “all is not saccharine sweet for LGBTs.”
As my own way of remembering the life of a man who I’ve come to know only through media reports and the memories of others, in a small way I want to honour his commitment to clearing spaces for sharing stories, with an interest in thinking about what is involved in developing, as he put it, “personal or collective vigilance.”
In what follows I will share a personal story with the hope of promoting vigilance among Haligonians who may not immediately recognize their daily affairs as having on impact on those who identify as members of the LGBT community. Perhaps by engaging with and viscerally reliving such stories we might come to recognize some simple ways to become more vigilant participants in city life.
My story takes place at a party I attended a couple of months ago in Halifax’s North End. The hosts lived in a house located just north of Young St. and the Hydrostone district, where Gottingen St., the home of Menz & Mollyz Bar, abruptly transforms into Novalea Dr.
The street is significant. As Veronica Simmons recalls, “In the late 1970’s the contrast between life north and south of Young Street on Gottingen was stark and the Hydrostonites were not feeling comfortable. They didn’t like that their street name and “their” street name was the same.”
By “they,” Simmons is referring to people of colour who live in the Uniacke Square area, just south of the Hydrostone, some of whom are former residents of Africville. Uncomfortable with the racialized poverty not a stone’s throw from their own backyards, Simmons reminds us that Hydrostonites “wanted to dissociate themselves from the need that lived down the street, so they changed their street. The residents of the Hydrostone area petitioned the city and won a new name, Novalea; A pretty, fresh sort of name bringing to mind a new meadow drenched in morning dew, free from the history of relocation ripening across the intersection.”
The economic rationale for the change in names seemed to resonate with another guest at the party I was attending. I met her early in the night. A young lawyer who was just getting her bearings at a new firm, Lisa (as I’ll call her) mentioned that she and her boyfriend had recently purchased a condo down the street, on what is still called Gottingen today, close to the Paragon Theatre. The Paragon was struggling financially at the time. Apparently the owners of Reflections, an LGBT-friendly nightclub downtown on Sackville St., were considering relocating to the site where the Paragon had been on Gottingen.
Lisa spoke openly about how the board at her new condo building was issuing a complaint to city officials in an effort to prevent Reflections from relocating to her neighbourhood. Apparently there were worries that the property value of the condos would take a hit if the move were to take place. Lisa didn’t explain why she thought the value of her property was at risk. Presumably she expected that we—mostly young, white, apparently hetero, budding professionals and academics—would draw a connection between the influx of partying LGBTs in particular, and the potential resale value of her new place, seeing as how the Paragon had already been hosting a late-night crowd for some time. Lisa’s tone conveyed an air of scandal.
Not wanting to start an argument, I presented a calm demeanor and listened while Lisa told her story, trying to push her to explain why she so readily endorsed the condo board’s petition to the city. “Well, obviously I don’t want my condo to lose value,” she replied, not budging any further by way of clarification. She took her own economic concerns for granted, expecting everyone in earshot to concur without hesitation. I allowed the topic to slide out of focus as the night wore on, fully cognizant of the fact that through the petitions of relatively wealthy and influential young professionals such as Lisa (not entirely dissimilar to the petitions of those living in the Hydrostone area in the 1970s), significant changes continue to happen in the city of Halifax.
Now, I was definitely paying attention to what Lisa was saying and what her words implied, not only about who she was talking about (without her feeling the need to identify anyone), but also about how she anticipated her audience’s response.
I noticed that she was endorsing a policy that was clearly inhospitable to the LGBT community and the “drug/clubbing” culture that she took to be synonymous with “queer,” and that she was doing so out of a problematically entitled attitude. It was as if the property she owned gave her a right to set the terms and standards for the whole neighbourhood.
I noticed that she expected that I, and everyone else listening to her, would agree with that policy, perhaps even vicariously sharing her sense of entitlement.
And yet, despite my attentiveness to her story, I failed to be vigilant; and in that respect, I ended up reinforcing what might have been challenged. I could have communicated my concerns without being overly confrontational, or else politely remaining silent—dichotomous options that I had set for myself, perhaps to preclude taking responsibility for speaking up at all. Through my silence, I confirmed for her what she was expecting all along: that the kind of people who attend parties like that one generally don’t feel comfortable living anywhere near openly lesbian, gay, bi, trans and queer folks, and sympathize with each other for feeling similarly—even if, as so often happens, all of this is left unsaid by the guests; and even if, when more overt acts of violence take place on Gottingen, those guests get really mad at all of the ignorant, hateful people who still seem to exist “out there in Halifax”—somewhere else, but definitely not here, at parties like this one in this neighbourhood.
As is further reinforced by the mainstream media coverage in Halifax, a number of different economic, social and political factors play a role in shaping how tragic harms are attended to and punished.
How, then, can we Haligonians become more “vigilant,” when it is so “easy,” as Taavel put it, “to lull ourselves into complacency”?
What other modes of “fighting back,” out of care and concern for our neighbours, did Taavel leave unarticulated?
How can such loving resistance be taken up, not just when tragedy strikes, but in way that is woven into the fabric of daily living?
I take these questions seriously as a gesture of remembrance for someone I didn’t know personally.