Sunday, 1 June 2014

A Safe Place (Part One)

I was eighteen years old as the winter of 1989 began. A high school senior, looking ahead to a university career studying English Literature and Creative Writing. I had a part-time job at the mall selling stationery that kept me in gas money and the occasional night out at the movies (which were still pretty cheap on Tuesday night). I was single and nerdy, and like most teenagers I spent a good chunk of my time depressed about one or the other of those things. Still, my life was pretty good. I wrote my stories, got okay grades, had friends, a job, had worked my way up to the good parts in Drama Club, and there was still time to play long sessions of AD&D or Villains & Vigilantes on weekends. My life was stable.

That changed on December 6.

As stories of the massacre at Montreal's Ecole Polytechnique began to reach me, like everyone else, I was horrified and angry at the awful violence. How could this happen? This was the sort of thing that happened other places, not mild-mannered Canada.

I also had an eerie feeling that, somehow, this was connected to me personally. I was hoping to be accepted into a university in Montreal myself -- not Ecole Polytechnique, but Montreal -- and the violence I was seeing everywhere on the news seemed like an awful sign of what was waiting for me in the outside world. I remember my mother saying something like, "What kind of awful place allows things like this to happen?"

I'm not sure whether this was aimed at me, something my mom said to maybe make me change my mind about where to go for my university career, or just an idle remark by someone else overwhelmed by barbarity. As the days went by, and the world tried to grapple with what had happened at Ecole Polytechnique, I fought to justify that choice in my own mind. I was headed for one of the best Creative Writing programs in Canada, after all, in one of the most culturally rich cities in North America. Montreal was the place to be. And after all, it couldn't happen again, right?

But it did.

It did happen again, only two and a half years later, and this time it happened at my own school: Concordia University in Montreal. This time it was an attack perpetrated by a member of the Engineering faculty against his colleagues and employees of the department. I had often used the computer lab in the Engineering department where the tragedy unfolded, and again I felt the eerie sense of awful horror touching my life... closer, this time.

For my roommate, it was much closer. He was studying Engineering, and some of the victims were familiar faces to him.

And now, it's happened again. In California this time, the tragedy perpetrated by another deranged young man furious at women for denying him sexually. Anyone who's been paying attention knows this is not the only act of mass murder perpetrated in the twenty-two years since the Concordia tragedy, it is one of many. Numb, we stagger from one atrocity to the next, turning them into statistics, political debates without resolution, place names now spoken in whispers: Virginia Tech. Columbine. Sandy Hook.

Ecole Polytechnique.

That name has become synonymous with tragedy in my mind, like many people of my generation who went to school in Montreal, and it holds a special weight for nearly every woman I know. Many communities in Canada have a small memorial to the women who died in the December 6, 1989 massacre. We have one here in London, which seems very distant from Montreal to me, in a quiet corner of Victoria Park. Occasionally I will pass it, in the midst of one of the raucous summer festivals that bring the park to life in July, and my thoughts will for a few moments drift from summer days and loud music to a cold winter night in 1989.

For the women I know, December 6th is a day that has become filled with dread. It is a day not only about remembering the lives of young women brutally ended too soon, at that Montreal school, it is a day they remember acts of violence that have been perpetrated against women since that day. Always, there have been more women murdered for no crime except their gender, raped, brutalized, kidnapped. The statistics are painfully clear and chilling.

My wife posts a simple memorial every December 6th on her LiveJournal: the names of the women killed at Ecole Polytechnique. Many Canadian women do this. And there is always some young(?) sociopath willing, on that most awful of days, to respond to even the most innocuous of memorials with a litany of hate against women. So it is for women all over the internet, when they remember December 6th, or speak out in anger over the California massacre, or in fact voice their opinion about just about anything under the sun. There's always a guy there to shout them down, scream NOT ALL MEN, and then in the same breath unleash more threats of violence and rape for any woman so uppity as to exist.

Even though the killer himself posted videos full of misogyny, the denials were quick in coming. This wasn't about women, some dudes were quick to tell us, it was about someone with mental health problems yadda yadda yadda. This couldn't possibly be something that has implications for us, the dudes said. We're nice guys, see. Nice guys don't do things like that, and here's a list of the things we'll do to you women if you say we do.

Yeah. Men were saying that back in the early 90s in Montreal too.

A number of women have chosen to speak out this time, under the Twitter hashtag #YesAllWomen. I encourage you to read their stories. Listening to women's experiences of casual misogyny and violence in their lives is sobering for anyone who thought incidents like this were isolated or unconnected, and not part of a larger pattern of behaviour that touches all women. As a man, no one has ever shouted sexual things at me on the street. But that's happened to my wife. No one has ever posted a response to one of my blog posts or Tweets with a rape threat. But that happens every day to countless women on the Internet.

And here's the thing, guys, women are asking us to step up this time. Step up and listen to their stories, without feeling the need to get our two cents in. Step up and let other men know that the kind of casual misogyny that poisons our society and breeds tragedies like the one in California (or Ecole Polytechnique) are not acceptable. Women are people, and they need to be treated that way. Always. Doing any less than that makes you an accomplice.

Let me leave you with this thought:

I told you about my own small connection to two horrifying acts of violence in Montreal, and the feelings of dread that it inspired.

Women carry this fear with them all the time.

Every day.

Think about that.

I'll be using this space over the next few days to talk about ways that the gaming hobby can be made more inclusive, a safe place for women and something we can all be proud to be a part of.

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