drag queen

Toronto’s gay village residents react to arrest of serial killer suspect

Police investigation now under the microscope in the disappearances, murders of local LGBTQ victims

One of Toronto’s best-known drag queens says Thursday’s arrest of a suspect in the murders of two gay Toronto men, with possibly other victims yet to be named,  would not have happened without the LGBTQ community’s persistent pressure on Toronto police to solve these cases. Matt Coccia, who performs as Katinka Kature, was reacting to the announcement of murder charges against Bruce McArthur, 66, a self employed landscaper.

“I think I just don’t trust the police,” Coccia said in a Facebook interview Friday.

Coccia criticized the police department for not valuing the assistance of his community towards finding the killer sooner.

“People again pointed the police in the right direction and they didn’t take any of their advice,” Coccia said, adding that the criminal charges won’t eliminate the unease that’s been gripping the residents of the Church-Wellesley neighbourhood for months. Coccia, himself, has had his own run ins with danger, although he was not injured.

drag queen
Matt Coccia, aka Katinka Kature, on Church Street walking to his show at popular gay bar Crews and Tangos, Oct. 19, 2017. (Sergio Arangio/Toronto Observer)

It happened on a chilly May night in the village, around a month prior to Toronto’s 2017 annual Pride festival. Residents, visitors, and tourists would later be filling its popular bars to enjoy the drag shows that are a staple of the neighbourhood.

Coccia was making his usual walk to work at Woody’s, a popular local gay bar. Wearing a dress underneath his winter coat, with full makeup and wig, Coccia  strolled with boyfriend Mark Hurley down Alexander Street, until the trip took a more serious turn as they noticed a group of men standing on the opposite sidewalk.

A man from the group catcalled and shouted hateful remarks including “You faggot!” The man’s friends tried to hold him back from causing more of a scene, but to no avail.

“You’re a man!” the harasser shouted.

“I know I’m a man, I’m a drag queen!” Coccia retorted, attempting to defuse the situation.

Suddenly, the man broke free from his group and lunged at Coccia. Coccia was ready to fight, so he threw his costume-filled suitcase at the attacker, and readied his kubaton, a steel self-defence weapon.

At 5’ 11” and over 100 kg, Coccia was an imposing figure, despite wearing a dress. The attacker would not have had an easy time messing with him. Fortunately, the man’s friends grabbed him, leaving Coccia free to get to his drag show.

A proud member of Toronto’s LGBTQ+ community, Coccia, 29, has been happy to call Church and Wellesley his home for ten years. Now, however, with more frequent reports of disappearances in the Village, Coccia and others say the atmosphere in the area has begun to have a darker tone, and was intensified after the discovery of Tess Richey’s body outside a construction site at Church and Dundonald Streets on Nov. 29.

“It’s crazy everywhere,” Coccia said, during an earlier interview at Woody’s Dec. 20. “That’s just kind of the world that we’re in right now, too. A lot of people have a lot of hate.”

Matt Coccia, aka Katinka Kature, accepting a tip from an audience member during his show at Woody’s on Church St, Oct. 18 2017. (Sergio Arangio/Toronto Observer)

Within the last nine months, at least 12 people have gone missing in and around the Church and Wellesley area, according to published reports.

Two of those people were found dead, including Richey, 22. The other was Alloura Wells, 27, whose body police found in a nearby ravine in August, nine months after being reported missing.

Toronto police confirmed Thursday that two others, Andrew Kinsman, 49, and Selim Esen, 42, are also dead. These disappearances have shaken the community within the LGBTQ-friendly district, and have people like Coccia feeling particularly endangered at night

“It’s sad because I remember a time when the Village was the safest place to be, but things are changing,” Coccia said, who works in a cosmetics store during the day.

Most nights, Coccia walks through the neighbourhood with company, be it a friend, fellow drag queen, or his boyfriend. Even so, harassers and catcallers are still on the prowl, and so Coccia is always prepared to “Pop ‘em in the face” with his keychain weapon as a last resort.

When performing as his alter ego, Coccia generally feels safe in his shows at gay bars, which always have security personnel on site.

He does experience rowdy crowds from time to time, which he says is partly due to the popularity of drag-queen-centric reality show “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” which is currently streaming on Netflix and has made waves in making drag more mainstream. The result of this notoriety is more people who feel like they can be more interactive during shows and jump on stage or touch the performers, Coccia explained. This is just a minor frustration at times, as Coccia said any unwanted attention from audience members is usually handled quickly by security.

Venues like Woody’s and Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, an LGBTQ+ positive space, will go the extra mile to make sure their performers are safe, either by walking them home or arranging a cab.

Coccia is also wary of the “sketchy” people that have had more of a presence in the Village lately. He partially blames the presence of nearby homeless shelters for the increased numbers of mentally unwell people and “street” people, which he says has contributed to the growing hostility in the area.

Some of them were customers of the now-closed Village Cannabis Dispensary on Church St., Coccia said. He remembers how customers there would often catcall and harass drag queens as they walked by.

According to CBC News, the dispensary closed down in April 2017 after its landlord refused to rent to the shop, following police raids and pressure from the city.

Lisa Gore Duplessis is a director at The 519, a city agency which offers programs and services to Toronto’s LGBTQ community. Duplessis said that she is indeed concerned about the violence in the gay village, but she does not feel unsafe or like she needs to “bolt the door ten times.”

“I have faith in the community, that the community looks out for each other,” said Duplessis in a recent interview before the arrests were made. She emigrated from Jamaica to Toronto eight years ago and has lived in the Village for five. “I have to have faith that the police will actually be honest with us if there is actually something to worry about.”

Duplessis and Coccia theorize that drug use in the city, including its opioid crisis, has led to an increase in petty crime and therefore more feelings of danger for more than just the LGBTQ+ community.

Statistics from the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction show that drug use in Toronto is especially prevalent among street-involved youth, with around 70 per cent using ecstasy, 60 per cent using cocaine, and nearly 40 per cent using methamphetamine.

Meanwhile, recent data from the Toronto Police Service shows that major crime (robberies, murders, etc.) in 2017 rose by five per cent from 2016. Hate crimes in the city rose by eight per cent in 2016 from 2015, according to a yearly report, with sexual orientation being the third most targeted group, behind religion and race.

A report from Statistics Canada found that hate crimes “motivated by hatred of sexual orientation were more likely to be violent than hate crimes targeting other groups.” The report said that 65 per cent of police-reported hate crimes committed between 2010 and 2015 that targeted sexual orientation involved violent offences, including assault.

Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders spoke to reporters at a news conference on Dec. 8, where he announced an investigation into the handling of missing person cases, including those in the Village. This came in response to public outcry over accusations of mishandling of the Richey and Wells cases. Saunders pledged to find out the details of how those investigations were conducted. He also responded to accusations that its more than 4,000 yearly missing persons cases are not taken seriously by the police, stating that “within the first year, 99 per cent of them are solved.”

Saunders’ move did not extinguish the fear felt by many visiting and living around Church and Wellesley Streets. Looming over the Village most, Duplessis said, are the number of people that have gone missing in that district alone. She takes it as a sign that everyone in the neighbourhood needs to band together to keep further tragedies from happening.

“This is a reminder of how we should be kind to each other, and how we should be focused on each other’s safety. That all of us as a community are responsible for each other.”

For his part, Matt Coccia continues to perform. Although he is confident enough to walk down the street on his own sometimes, Coccia will continue to walk to work with company, and he will not be parting with his trusty kubaton any time soon.