30 years later, Montreal's gay community reflects on the murder of Joe Rose

In 1989, Montreal's gay community was enjoying new freedom, recalls gay activist Michael Hendricks: gay bars were operating with relative openness, and homophobia was on the wane. "Then Joe Rose got murdered. On a bus. In public."

Brutal killing shocked the city and stirred an activist movement

Joe Rose was beaten and stabbed to death on a city bus early on the morning of March 19, 1989. (CBC)

What gay activist Michael Hendricks remembers most about the murder of Joe Rose, 30 years ago today, was the horror he felt.

"We realized that it could happen to anybody," Hendricks said.

In 1989, Montreal's gay community was enjoying new freedom: gay bars were operating with relative openness, and homophobia in Montreal was less pronounced than in other cities, Hendricks recalls. 

"It seemed like we'd arrived," he said. "Then Joe Rose got murdered. On a bus. In public."

Early in the morning of March 19, 1989, 23-year-old Rose and a friend were taking a city bus to the east-end AIDS hospice where Rose lived.

Four teenagers beat Rose up, stabbing him to death. Rose's friend Sylvain Dutil escaped with minor injuries.

"Joe knew that the only way things were going to change was if people were open about who they were and what they were," said Matthew Hays, a journalist who knew Rose when they were both contributors to Concordia's student newspaper. (CBC)

Rose was openly gay — his pink hair a distinguishing feature.

Matthew Hays, a freelance journalist who knew Rose when they worked together at Concordia University's student newspaper, the Link, said he was struck by Rose's brazenness and bravery.

"Joe knew that the only way things were going to change was if people were open about who they were and what they were," Hays said. "So he did that.

"He was very proud and wanted to be identified as queer."

"That portrait of him with pink hair became an icon of him," Hendricks said. "We all know that he died for our sins."

Watch to learn more about the reaction to Rose's murder at the time.

A tragic event on a city bus 30 years ago spurred gay activism in Montreal. 1:09

"For those of us who remember the moment, it's still fresh," said Fo Niemi, the executive director of the Center for Research-Action on Race Relations (CRARR).

Niemi said the specifics of the murder were particularly brutal, but the crime echoed so many other examples of violence rooted in intolerance.

"It was a hate crime."

"It's important to remember that people were killed then, and that people can still be beaten up or even killed today because of who they are."

'Not a hateful bone in his body'

Rose's older brother, Geoffrey, remembers Joe as "a loving person" and occasional "pain in the ass" who often took him into his world in the gay village.

"He didn't really have a hateful bone in his body, never fought back," Geoffrey Rose said. "He was proud of who he was, and he wasn't ashamed of being gay or being different. He was just happy to be himself."

Hendricks can trace a straight line from Rose's murder through all the gains the queer community has made since. 

In the months after the killing, the U.S.-based AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) set up a Montreal chapter. The new chapter's first event of consequence was a commemoration of Rose on the first anniversary of his murder .

"Joe's murder made us all conscious of what we didn't do," said Hendricks. 

The killing made it clear that there was a "horrible backlash" against homosexuality as a consequence of the AIDS crisis, Hays said, and that the community was "not as safe as we thought we were."

Preventing violence became a key focus of activists, who called for public hearings into violence and discrimination against gays and lesbians. The provincial government resisted, but the Quebec Human Rights Commission finally did hold hearings in 1993.

The causes taken up by the gay community as it gained power were the causes Rose stood for, Hendricks said.

"It's a crime that Joe Rose missed all of that because that's what he wanted to do."

Today, Hendricks said, many of the objectives for which activists fought and that Rose cared most about — community agency in the fight against HIV and AIDS, an end to homophobic violence, and an organized, connected community — are closer to be being attained.

"The thing that Joe was interested in — legal and social equality — has been achieved," Hendricks said.

CRARR's Niemi is more circumspect. 

"We don't have full security and full freedom" for people in the queer community, he said. "In certain parts of town if you looked like Joe and walked hand in hand with a man, you could still be beaten up.

"The rise of the alt-right shows intolerance is still active. We still need to stand up against hate."

With files from Sudha Krishnan


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