The Gossip Mill: 25 Years after the Village Mall Affair

One of the most fascinating things about the Village Mall affair is its longevity. Nearly a quarter century after the investigation into cruising at the shopping mall, people are still gossiping about what happened. Some people will recall the story of the Habs jersey. The rumour at the time was that men who were looking for sex at the Village would wear Montréal Canadiens jerseys in order to identify one another. This only makes sense if one forgets that the Habs won the NHL playoffs in 1993 the last time a Canadian team got the Stanley Cup. It is safe to assume that many men were wearing those hockey jerseys in the winter and spring of that year, not just ones cruising for sex.

Recent discussions over Pride, police, and public apologies have raised concerns over the way LGBTQ histories come to be celebrated and the challenges that arise when we try to lay blame for past events. In the case of the Village Mall affair, it is important to distinguish between the various components that comprised the scandal: the investigation, the court cases, the media coverage of events, and the participation of citizens in producing what social scientists call a moral panic. This refers to the exaggeration of a threat to morality which works to produce public anxiety. Media commonly play a central role in generating such feelings of outrage and disgust, often pairing them with a demand for punishment. As has been pointed out, the call for an investigation of washrooms at the Village originated from a legitimate concern that minors were being solicited for sex. What the investigation revealed, however, was something altogether different.

To understand histories of sex and sexuality we need to take stock of various kinds of discrimination and the overcoming of barriers—but that is not enough. We also need to look at aspects of consensual sex that don’t always make for polite dinner conversation. To ignore such sexual activities or to treat them as dangerous a priori, simply because they rub against our sense of respectability, is a dehumanizing move. In the case of the Village Mall affair, it would seem that men who were charged with indecency were denied compassion and respect by journalists who collectively participated in public shaming. An understanding of how we are involved in managing boundaries between public and private would help us to deal with transgressions of such boundaries in less reactionary ways.

The investigation

In the spring of 1993 the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary laid a series of charges of indecency that followed from a police investigation of cruising at the Village Shopping Centre in St. John’s. News reports and court records described the investigation as a response to a number of complaints that men were having sex in the washroom. The Evening Telegram reported on the 21st of May that the issue was framed as one of child protection and rumours circulated that children had been offered money in exchange for “homosexual favors.” Clarification of the aims and details of the investigation quickly followed, emphasizing that the police had uncovered an adult male sex-ring, but that it included no children and that no one was being paid for sex.

The initial focus of the public’s attention was on what men were doing in the washrooms: having sex. The Evening Telegram described the activities and concerns as such:

“In stating the facts to the court, [Tom] Eagan [Crown prosecutor] said the defendants were party to activities going on between adult men including mutual masturbation, fellatio, and masturbating while peering into cubicles at other men. The offences occurred at various times during the day and evening, with some of the men charged remaining in the washrooms for hours at a time. Eagan said on a number of occasions, members of the general public entered the washroom and were forced to leave because of the activity. Judge William Baker expressed concern that young people going into the washroom chanced stumbling in on two men masturbating each other.”

Court records outline the development of the investigation in greater detail. Based on court testimony from police officials who headed the investigation, on the 8th of February, 1993, a meeting was held amongst RNC to discuss allegations that young males were being offered money for sex in the area of the Village Mall. The manager of the Village Mall was aware of the allegation and agreed to cooperate with the investigation. Police considered options for installing cameras, consulting with police in London, Ontario, where similar sting operations had been carried out using viewing platforms. In order to build a platform of this sort at the Village Mall police would need to take over part of a store. This option and the idea of having an undercover officer were dismissed because of the potential to raise suspicions amongst workers in the mall who were themselves suspected of cruising the washrooms for sex.

On the 21st of February, a video surveillance camera was installed in the men’s washroom on the second floor of the mall and recording began the next day. The camera was positioned behind a wall in an adjacent electrical room where one had a clear view of one of the two sinks in the washroom, the area around the sink, and the hand dryer. The camera angle allowed one to see people walking into the washroom through the door which opened onto the hallway. A month later the investigation team met to review and discuss their recordings. They decided to install another camera that would provide a different angle of the washroom. Both cameras remained in the room until the 13th of April at which point the criminal division commanders and the head of the investigation decided to attempt to lay charges as a result of the incidents.

The courts

The men were charged under Section 173(1)(a) of the Criminal Code of Canada, which pertains to disorderly conduct:

173.  (1) Everyone who wilfully does an indecent act
(a) in a public place in the presence of one or more persons

Initially 10 men were charged in early May, but dozens more saw their names appear in The Evening Telegram and on the evening news in the weeks that followed. By mid-May, newspapers and television reports were saying that there were 60 men caught on tape, but that little more than half could be identified and would face charges. In nearly all cases, the laying of charges and subsequent convictions were reported in The Evening Telegram. Amongst those charged was one of the RNC’s own officers who quickly resigned his post and left the force. Other men saw their employment terminated, while their family members took leave from positions to avoid humiliation and to deal with the emotional and practical effects of the scandal. Such impacts were ultimately more severe than the fines imposed by the courts which ranged from $300 to $1,500.

(Police testified in court that a total of 36 men were charged, but only 34 men were named in news media and, to the best of my knowledge, the identities of the other two men were never revealed. The number of convictions indicated above is based on the assumption that in one case where the outcome was not reported by media and no retrievable court records remain the trial judge entered a conviction.)

Two of the men appealed their convictions and had their cases heard at the provincial Court of Appeal. Court records show that in the first case, the man entered the washroom and engaged in what appeared to be sex with another man in a toilet cubicle with the door left open, but the camera angle did not provide a clear view. The appeals judge ruled that neither the video camera nor the involvement of someone participating in sex satisfied the requirement in 173(1)(a) that the act be done in the presence of others. As such, the man was acquitted.

The second appeal used the successful acquittal in the first appeal as precedent. The judge found that the sex act committed by the defendant was indeed a wilful indecent act and would be considered so in the opinion of what he called “the majority of residences of this country”. Furthermore, he ruled that the act could be viewed by others and thus constituted an indecent act in public. A discharge was denied and a conviction was entered.

The gossip mill

When the story broke, the names, ages, and home addresses of the men were published in The Evening Telegram, some making the front page. What fed the fire of public interest, it seems, was the disclosure of personal information about the accused and the fear and/or excitement that others might be named. When court appearances occurred or were postponed, the information was reprinted. A focus on the details of the sex was sustained throughout news coverage, but The Evening Telegram indulged in this to a lesser extent than the CBC. Television news coverage mirrored print reporting, but showed more images of the mall, washrooms, the courts, and identifying information. The CBC aired a story on the first round of court appearances on the 14th of May with footage of the sole accused who appeared in court, rather than have a lawyer go in his place, trying to shield his face from cameras as he left the courtroom.

Police who oversaw the investigation soon found themselves in the difficult position of having to respond to town gossip. Deputy Chief Len Power and other officials were quick to quash rumours of further charges and of the protection of elites from accusations. In a report from the 18th of May, Robert Shannahan, RNC public information officer at the time, told The Evening Telegram:

“As you can appreciate, the investigation is so sensitive that it even makes it difficult to deal with it in news releases, but I can say unequivocally that rumors of politicians, judges, lawyers and more police officers are completely unfounded . . . Some people even associated recent motor vehicle accidents as having some kind of connection with the Village Mall investigation and this is totally unfounded.”

The motor vehicle accident noted was a death where a man rumoured to be connected to the scandal committed suicide by driving his truck off a cliff. It is not out of the question that there could have been suicides in connection with the Village Mall scandal, but I have yet to find any evidence to corroborate that claim. As can be imagined, obituaries are of little help in finding out about suicides.

Responses from concerned citizens were generally more nuanced than those of reporters and made some attempts to humanize the accused, along with their friends and families. A graduate student in English literature at Memorial University chastized the paper for exploiting the issue to attract readers. In a letter published in The Evening Telegram on the 2nd of June, she wrote:

“The Telegram plummeted to tabloid marketing tactics. Some perspective should have been maintained on the nature of the act, for what happened at the Village Mall happened between consenting adults . . . In a small and conservative town such as this, the consequences of making the names public are devastating . . . Because of the delicious eroticism of this event, public interest is aroused, and publications such as this one thrive on feeding such irrelevant trash to voyeuristic masses.”

The Evening Telegram received a wealth of criticism for its seemingly careless handling of issues of privacy, but they came up short of offering anything like an apology. In a piece from the 25th of June, columnist Ted Warren defended the paper’s decision to publish the names and addresses, writing that he received calls and letters from readers who urged him not to, requesting that only the names be printed. He recalled how one caller pleaded with him:

“‘That’s a hell of way to sell a few extra papers!’ and she broke down in tears on the phone. ‘It’s just not fair,’ she sobbed, fighting to regain her composure. ‘He’s the guilty one. We didn’t do anything about it but now the whole family is being punished. Why do we have to suffer too?'” 

On the 3rd of July The Evening Telegram published another letter from a reader who echoed previous readers’ disgust with the paper’s actions, this time a man from Lewisporte. He wrote that the paper’s handling of the Village Mall scandal was as harmful as the orphanage affair, that, while journalists have the freedom to report what they like, “they should also exercise responsibility to limit the damage of their actions.”

Coverage of the affair on television and in print rode a similar wave of sensationalism and contradiction as journalists questioned the ethics of revealing personal information for those charged whilst repeatedly airing their names and addresses. On the 19th of May the CBC did a series of street interviews with people across the province. Out of 18 short interviews shown, 10 interviewees had no problem with naming names, captured best in one man’s comment: “If there’s proof showing that there are people that are involved with it, sure, release the names so long as there’s no young offenders or anything. But, like, don’t want another Mount Cashel incident going on.”

Another eight people interviewed felt that it had been a mistake to release biographical information about those charged and expressed a concern for treating people as innocent until proven guilty. They also noted that the premature release of names hurt ‘innocent victims’ such as wives, children, and family and could affect men’s employment even if they were found to be not guilty. Yet another man shook his head, citing what he saw as a breach of trust with police: “I think it’s fine for the media to release the names. I think it’s outrageous for the cops to put hidden cameras in washrooms!”

On the 18th of May the CBC broadcast an interview between Debbie Cooper and Dr. Hannah of the Department of Psychology at Memorial University of Newfoundland, who was invited to discuss the scandal as part of a segment on Here and Now. In their conversation, Cooper uttered the words ‘tearoom trade’–probably for the first time on the news in Newfoundland–and Hannah articulated what might be by now a recognisable narrative of gay self-acceptance, tolerance, and respectability. He explained that such encounters are consensual, signalled by cues amongst men, and asked:

“Who are the victims here? These men, as I said, are consensual adults behaving in mutually agreeable behaviour. And now we’ve [charged] them and created victims out of their spouses, their families, their children, their parents. We really have to ask ourselves: What have we done?”

Meet me at the fountain

As soon as the scandal broke, the Village Mall closed the washroom and renovations began. In a CBC News segment from the 17th of May, cameras showed footage of the mall and ongoing renovations in the washrooms. A construction worker hammering away at tiles remarked to a reporter, “Quite the story to tell, right. What are they gonna tear this place down now? Since they tore down the orphanage?” The man’s comment did not simply connect the two affairs, but pointed to the public’s desire to purge such events from public memory.  The conflation of tragedies in such remarks works to obscure the pervasive and routinized erasure of queer public space. The destruction, renovation, and intensified regulation of spaces where men cruise for sex is as much a part of history as the existence of the spaces themselves, and Project Marie in Toronto should be a clear reminder that police continue to be invested in the surveillance of hook-up locations and in the apprehension of men engaged in consensual sex. And sadly, it makes one wonder how many more serial killers or missing persons police could track down if they weren’t preoccupied with pretending to cruise and making movies about rough trade.

In a recent editorial written in response to my letter to the editor, The Telegram noted that times have indeed changed since 1993 and that the reporting of charges related to sex would be handled differently by media now. Short of an apology, the piece points in the right direction, raising questions about the manner in which charges were laid and the unscrupulous release of defendants’ identities and media responsibility. Though the impetus for the Village Mall investigation arose from a legitimate concern that minors were being propositioned for sex, the months-long investigation found no evidence that any of the men caught on camera or any of the 34 men charged were soliciting minors. Men were charged with having consensual sex in what most judges later deemed to be public space. News media then played a central role in spinning a salacious and perverse story which was eaten up by readers and viewers. The Evening Telegram, the CBC, and other news sources had a field day with the Village Mall affair. The argument from certain journalists was that the public had a right to know the names of the accused, as was the case with those charged in connection with Mount Cashel. Hindsight reveals the absurdity and injury of any comparison of the two affairs.

Police investigations of public sex are not new, nor are they unique to Newfoundland. What made the Village Mall affair so damaging was not merely the selective enforcement of law, but the way charges were reported and spun into a dirty scandal. News outlets scored ratings and sold papers by outing the accused–many of whom were straight-identified and had wives and children. I don’t expect anything resembling justice from the police, who are beholden to whatever laws prevail at a particular historical moment, but I expect journalists to hold themselves to a higher standard and to consider how ethical concerns over privacy go beyond simple distinctions between what is legal and what is not.

Michael Connors Jackman is a writer and anthropologist whose research deals with media, gender/sexuality, race, and memory. He completed a PhD in social anthropology at York University and from 2014 to 2016 was a postdoctoral fellow with the Institute of Social and Economic Research at Memorial University of Newfoundland. He currently lives in Austria where he is pursuing further studies in literature and culture at the University of Vienna.

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