South Asian LGBTQ group starts safe date program after Village murders

“Right now what we’re hearing is that [people] can’t rely on the police any more, especially those in marginalized communities," says Haran Vijayanathan of the Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention

Marginalized segments of the Church-Wellesley community – trans people, sex workers, racialized people and those who may be street-involved – are used to taking steps to protect themselves when police won’t. 

But a new sense of urgency has emerged in the aftermath of Toronto police’s mishandling of the investigation into six murders allegedly committed by serial killer Bruce McArthur – four of those involving racialized men. 

“Right now what we’re hearing is that [people] can’t rely on the police any more, especially those in marginalized communities, and that’s an unfortunate place to be,” says Haran Vijayanathan, executive director of the Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention (ASAAP). 

The group was the first to call for an external review of the police’s investigation into the disappearances of Skanda Navaratnam, Abdulbasir Faizi, Majeed Kayhan and Selim Esen. 

“The community feels like we have to take care of ourselves because if we don’t, no one else will, including the police,” says Vijayanathan.

ASAAP, an LGBTQ organization serving the city’s South Asian and Middle Eastern communities, has created SAFE, a check-in program that gives people a secure platform to share personal information before they meet up with a stranger. It’s the second community-driven safety effort since police announced a probe into the mishandling of missing persons reports in the village. In December, the Church Wellesley Neighbourhood Association announced plans for a safe-walk program to escort home anyone who feels unsafe.

“We recognize that not everyone has a friend to tell where they’re going or what they’re doing. We become a neutral space where there’s no judgment,” says Vijayanathan. The program is useful for people who are not out to their friends and family or prefer to keep their personal lives private. 

The check-in service is open to anyone going on a date with someone for the first time or going alone to a social space such as a club or bathhouse. It’s also open to anyone who may experience an unsafe encounter or fears harassment or violence from a partner or client.

Before going out, users can email ASAAP with their contact information, where they’re going and a brief description of the person they’re meeting. Once safely back home, they complete the check-in by emailing ASAAP again. If ASAAP does not hear from the person after 48 hours, the minimum amount of time before you can report a missing person, the organization will reach out to police. 

Last month, Vijayanathan met with Toronto Police Service (TPS) LGBTQ Liaison Officer Danielle Bottineau to ensure the police would take seriously any missing persons reports that come through the program. 

“I need to be confident that if I show up at the police station, they’re not going to brush it off as another transient population problem or use race and homophobia to dismiss it,” says Vijayanathan. 

Last month in an interview with the Globe and Mail, Chief Mark Saunders said the TPS might have identified Bruce McArthur earlier if the community had been more forthcoming with investigators, a comment that further strained relations between police and the LGBTQ community. Saunders has since backtracked, saying his comments were not meant to be victim-blaming. 

While acknowledging that there are “systemic problems” within the TPS, Bottineau says the force is currently in the early stages of implementing a new outreach strategy to better connect with the LGBTQ community.

“As an out gay officer, I’ve had some very challenging conversations with a lot of my colleagues,” says Bottineau. “As an institution, we’ve been trained a certain way, but the reality is that as everything else in society changes, we as a service need to start changing, too.” | @SamEdwardsTO


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