Deidre Olsen: “The Bruce McArthur Case Isn’t True Crime—It’s Queer Death”

It’s wrong to treat these killings like a true crime story, instead of an ongoing case that has deeply affected Toronto’s queer community

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At Toronto Pride 2018, Omer Emsen held a photo of his brother, Selim, who is allegedly one of Bruce McArthur's victims

A more sensitive way of portraying Bruce McArthur’s alleged victims: Omer Emsen holds a photo of his brother, Selim, during this year’s Pride Parade in Toronto (Photograph: Getty )

Last week, while scrolling through my Twitter feed, I came across a colourful illustration of a glove- and goggle-clad woman bent over a sink, sawing open a flower-filled planter. It looked like she was in an autopsy room, with a huge surgical light descending from the ceiling, while x-rays of a skull, torso and hand hung nearby.

I instantly felt a mixture of shock and nausea. Before I even read the headline, I knew the image depicted a forensic scene from the Bruce McArthur murder investigation—I’ve followed the story closely since news of the 66-year-old’s arrest broke in January. I moved to Toronto two-and-a-half years ago and began frequenting the Church and Wellesley neighbourhood last autumn, so disappearances in the area unnerved me.

But reading the accompanying story—a Vanity Fair article by Canadian journalist Zander Sherman about McArthur’s alleged crimes and the ensuing police investigation—was even worse, because it framed a series of killings that tore my community apart as true crime entertainment.

Are we gawking at these killings, or grieving for the victims?

In what is clearly the inspiration for the illustration, Sherman’s story opens with an anecdote about forensic anthropologist Kathy Gruspier X-raying large planters. (In January 2018, the remains of seven men were recovered from planters at a midtown Toronto home; this is how McArthur, a landscaper, allegedly disposed of some of his victims.) In the first paragraph, Sherman describes the “foul smell” that emanated from the planters after they’d had a chance to defrost, and how Gruspier eventually sawed the planters in half, “peel[ing] away the sides to reveal a human head, torsos, and limbs.”

Is there a more salacious way to start a story about a series of killings that is still haunting Toronto’s queer community? I don’t think so.

Contrast this with Anthony Oliveira’s tragic and beautiful Hazlitt piece, “Death in the Village.” His lede, which is actually set in the Church and Wellesley neighbourhood, humanizes the grief of families searching for their missing and murdered loved ones and clearly articulates the impact of these disappearances on the LGBTQ+ community as a whole.

In these stories, we find two distinct narratives, one that grieves and one that gawks. Oliveira’s piece treats McArthur’s eight known victims, and the wider queer community, with sensitivity. Sherman’s article—and, to be honest, much of the wider news coverage—treats this case like entertainment. It’s clear that Vanity Fair thinks the killings have all the hallmarks of a good true crime story, but positioning it as true crime is exactly the problem.

As a genre, true crime loves the sordid details, so it’s no surprise that Sherman’s introduction serves up all sorts of specifics. But by presenting these details as if they’re salacious, the story plays into an existing problem with the way heterosexual society perceives queer sexuality—as particularly sordid, or at least not “normal.” Or, put another way, we conflate queerness with kink. That’s why so many outlets were intrigued by McArthur’s interest in rough sex, which he advertised openly on the dating websites where he met some of his victims. It played into an already problematic perception. But taking this approach dehumanizes the eight men McArthur allegedly killed. We’re treating their deaths as plot devices instead of tragic murders.

Focusing on salacious details doesn’t push the conversation forward

In fact, this titillation over queerness and kink sometimes erases his victims entirely.

Take Global News’ interview with Sean Cribbin, a white gay man who revealed he had a near-fatal encounter with McArthur in the summer of 2017. Cribbin agree to meet McArthur for casual, consensual rough sex. However, that consent was broken when Cribbin passed out; he later woke up to McArthur sexually assaulting him and was only able to escape because McArthur’s roommate came home unexpectedly.

The interview is almost entirely focused on the assault—it barely touches on the reason McArthur felt empowered to hurt Cribbin or why Cribbin didn’t feel like he could go to the police right away. So, what does it really add to the conversation around these crimes? It seems to me that people are more ready to fetishize and devour the details of queer or kinky sex than they are prepared to having open discussions on how to make the world a safer place for gay men. Because the issue here isn’t that both parties were queer, that their encounter was casual or that it involved rough sex. What matters when discussing these tragic events is the fact that McArthur preyed on gay men in vulnerable positions, broke consent and raped, murdered and mutilated them. We need to talk about that.

And there’s another problem with the way news outlets have framed the case. Articles and broadcasts either explicitly emphasize how heinous McArthur’s alleged crimes are or they imply it subtly, but the prevailing perception is that this kind of thing just doesn’t happen here. That’s certainly Sherman’s approach. In the Vanity Fair article, he writes, “It is hard to overstate how shocking the discovery and its coverage in the press have been in a country where homicide is infrequent and serial killers are almost unheard of.” But this is blatantly untrue. Skandaraj Navaratnam, Majeed Kayhan, Abdulbasir Faizi, Soroush Mahmudi, Selim Esen, Kirushna Kumar Kanagaratnam, Dean Lisowick and Andrew Kinsman are merely some of the latest tragedies in a Canadian history filled with murder, genocide and, yes, serial killers; Robert PicktonPaul BernardoMarcello Palma and Clifford Olson all targeted vulnerable groups, like sex workers, young, Indigenous or trans women, the homeless or children.

“Queer people are used to society treating our sex as perverse, our hook-ups as unsafe and our murders as predictable”

Painting a sterile portrait of Canada positions Bruce McArthur’s murders as a stain on our country’s sanctity, like red blood on white snow. This is an effective image for a true crime narrative, but not for meaningful reporting about queer death. Sherman’s piece feeds into broader mainstream coverage that uses queer identity and sex as props in an unusual story.

As queer people, we are used to society treating our sex as perverse, our hook-ups as unsafe and our murders as predictable. However, queerness is not a delectable garnish on a murder mystery. It is an identity that has been historically persecuted. When society and the police fail to protect us, the LGBTQ+ community bands together to search for our missing. Erasing this human toll in favour of providing salacious details for the titillation of straight audiences only compounds our grief and stigmatizes us further.

That’s why seeing the tragedy that is the Bruce McArthur murder investigation summed up in the image of an excavated flower pot affected me so strongly. These men were human beings. Reducing them to the tragic outcome of their lives erases their living memory and the long, tragic search for their whereabouts by friends, family and the LGBTQ+ community.

Related:

My Nerdy Hobby Helps Track Down Serial Killers
Anne T. Donahue on How to be a Responsible True Crime Obsessive
Dan Levy: “It’s Important to Tell Queer Stories”

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