As a kid growing up in Pakistan, Farhad* says he was unabashedly flamboyant.
The 29-year-old programmer, who now lives in Vancouver, loved playing with barbies. One of his four sisters was in a dance troupe and one day she caught Farhad dancing to the song she was meant to perform to. She scolded him.
“She said ‘don’t ever do that in front of mom and dad, they would be really mad at you,’” Farhad told VICE.
Farhad (not his real name) is gay, but he realized early on that he would have to keep that a secret. He says both of his parents are conservative Muslims, and likely wouldn’t have even understood what he meant if he came out to them.
Being gay is still illegal in Pakistan, and is technically punishable by the death penalty, though that punishment is not applied in practice; Farhad said public vigilantes are the greater concern. So he decided to “butch up.” Terrified of being outed and bullied, or even disowned by extended family, his strategy was to become really quiet and present himself in as masculine a light as possible.
“I would try to keep my mouth shut,” he said. “I was afraid to do or say anything that would be perceived as gay.”
Farhad said moving to Canada in 2009, “was like winning the lottery in terms of the people you can have sex with.” At first, because he lived with his sister who didn’t know he was gay, he would meet men for hookups at their houses.
When he started reading about the case of alleged Toronto serial killer Bruce McArthur, who has been charged with killing eight men, many who went missing from the city’s Gay Village, he said aspects of the horrific story struck a chord with him.
“At 20 years old when I moved out here I found it easiest to sleep with older white men because of a weird sense of security, and also no one knew I was doing it,” he said. “If it was in Toronto and not in Vancouver, and I ended up talking to this monster, I don't know what might have happened.”
McArthur has been charged with eight counts of first-degree murder and so far police have discovered seven sets of human remains they believe belong to his victims. McArthur’s alleged victims are: Andrew Kinsman, 49, Selim Esen, 44, Majeed Kayhan, 59, Soroush Mahmudi, 50, Dean Lisowick, 47, Skandaraj Navaratnam, 40, Abdulbasir Faizi, 42, and Kirushna Kumar Kanagaratnam, 37. The remains that have been identified belong to Kinsman, Mahmoudi, Navaratnam, and Kanagaratnam.
It’s not yet clear what McArthur’s relationship was with each of the men. Police or friends have said he had sexual relationships with Kinsman, Navaratnam, and Kayhan. Navaratnam, Faizi, and Kayhan’s disappearances from the Gay Village were investigated in 2012 as part of Toronto police’s Project Houston.
While it certainly appears that McArthur allegedly targeted South Asian and Middle Eastern men, the case raises questions about the unique challenges of being “out” to your family when you’re brown. As previously mentioned, it's illegal to be gay in Pakistan, as well as India, Iran, and Afghanistan to name a few, and social taboos can be even more pervasive than the laws.
"Homophobia is of course alive and well in our communities. And the impact of this is huge," Toronto social worker Rahim Thawer, who is gay and Muslim, told VICE. "There are implications for self loathing, self concept, shame, access to support networks and adequate sexual health services"
Kayhan, Faizi, and Mahmudi were married with families. Esen had moved to Canada three years ago from Turkey, while Kanagaratnam was a Sri Lankan refugee whose family thought he’d gone silent because he was in hiding for fear of being deported. Media outlets have repeatedly referred to some of the victims as having led “double lives” but Farhad said that term sensationalizes the lives of the missing men.
“There is also obviously a difference in leading a ‘double life’ and being closeted and the former pathologizes men’s, especially brown men’s, needs to explore their sexuality without repercussions from familial ties, dishonour, etc.,” he said.
“Some of them were probably just brown dudes figuring out their sexuality, letting their guard down just a tad to dabble, and then ending up dead because they thought they were safer here than where they came from.”
The McArthur story has also sparked a backlash towards police, with many LGBT advocates wondering if the disappearances were ignored for so long because the victims were men of colour, or had come to Canada from abroad.
Haran Vijayanathan, executive director of Toronto’s Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention, told VICE he was “angry” when McArthur was first arrested, because it appeared the investigation intensified only when Kinsmen went missing last summer.
“Why did a white man have to go missing for anything to happen with the other men?” he said. “We suspect homophobia and racism to have played a role in the investigation.”
Police have launched an internal review into how the McArthur case was investigated, though Vijayanathan and others, including Mayor John Tory, are calling for an independent investigation as well.
Vijayanathan said there are any number of reasons why a person may not feel safe coming out, and that having that knowledge could put an attacker in a greater position of power.
“People who are preying on these individuals know that there’s a secret there,” he said. Infamous killers such as Robert Pickton, who murdered sex workers, many of them Indigenous, in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, have also targeted marginalized people.
In light of the McArthur investigation, the South Asian AIDS Prevention recently launched the SAFE program, through which people who have no one else to tell can email the organization and give their phone number, and describe where they’re going (e.g. a date or hookup) and who they’re meeting. If the organization doesn’t hear back from the person, they will follow up to make sure the person is safe.
“If after three or four times we can’t get a hold of you, within a day we’ll go to police.”
Thawer told VICE there’s an element of victim blaming in describing McArthur’s alleged victims as having led double lives.
“Saying someone has a double life is to say that as a result no one can… find out information about them if they go missing or are in harm’s way.”
Farhad noted that being "out" means different things to different people.
He's has told two of his seven siblings that he’s gay, including his brother who is also gay. But he said he’s unlikely to ever tell his parents.
“The concept of coming out in Canada is… you come out to everyone and come out to society and you project who you are into the world wherever you go. That’s not a concept that a lot of South Asians or people in Pakistan will ever benefit from.”
Nonetheless, he considers himself out. He has a group of gay friends, and a boyfriend, and said his life is fulfilling.
“It’s what works for me. It’s what keeps me safe.”
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