This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

Menu
May-June 2018

“Each death is a preventable tragedy”

Transgender women have long been subjected to violence in major cities. In Toronto, the reality is no different—and police have done little to stop it. These are their stories

Alex Verman

I: Cassandra Do

Screen Shot 2018-06-14 at 10.25.00 AMOn August 25, 2003, a transgender woman named Cassandra Do was found dead in her apartment on Gloucester Street in Toronto’s LGBTQ Village.

I don’t know much about Cassandra aside from some essential facts: She was 32, she did sex work, she was once in nursing school, she was Vietnamese. In one of the first Toronto Star articles about her death, her friends mentioned she had a “penchant for French antique furniture.” But her story remained untold.

Forensic evidence from the scene of Cassandra’s apartment suggested her murderer was someone who had committed a sexual assault back in 1997, targeting another Southeast Asian sex worker. The 1997 victim survived the attack and was able to provide the police with a detailed description of the perpetrator as a large cisgender man in his late 30s or early 40s. But from then to 2003, Toronto police did not make the public aware of it until he struck again.

As a trans woman of colour as well as a sex worker, Cassandra was at high risk of experiencing everyday violence, discrimination, and mistreatment by the police. In fact, for many sex workers and for trans people of colour, some form of police harassment is a regular occurrence. While national statistics on transgender people are hard to come by, provincial and local research illustrates what most of us already know: A 2010 survey of trans people in Ontario by Trans Pulse (a project collecting data on access to health care in the trans community) found that roughly a third of trans people who have been incarcerated reported transphobic harassment from the police; the same study notes roughly a quarter of racialized trans people and a third of Indigenous trans and Two-Spirit people reported harassment from the police due to racism.

Yasmeen Persad—an educator, facilitator, and community worker who provides training for racialized LGBTQ people and HIV-positive LGBTQ women in Toronto—encounters this regularly with those in the trans community. “When it comes to law enforcement, there are a lot of challenges,” Persad says. “Because of their identities, of who they are, by default it sets them up for more police scrutiny. Many [people I work with] are newcomers, immigrants, sex workers, living precariously, in the shelter system, under-housed—these people who are often on the fringe of everyday day-to-day survival have real challenges with the police.”

When they are targets of violence, both sex workers and trans women are often dismissed as victims of their of circumstances. Not having a fixed address, being potentially exposed to drugs, and subverting assigned expectations of gender and sexuality contribute to a public perception of carelessness and deviance that tells people and institutions how much they have to care about those they see as putting themselves at risk.

Talking about the lives of trans women is frequently a conversation about risk, and the kinds of risks that cisgender communities and institutions take for granted. Stories about Cassandra’s murder in the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail focused on the details of her transition, her sex work, and her past in nursing school. According to the site Accozzaglia, a transgender history project run by long-time trans community members in Toronto, the message was clear: “Journalists fabricated a narrative on morality which could try to rationalize how Ms. Do probably brought this death on herself, because she was a woman of colour, trans, and had earned her living from sex work—throwing away a more ‘acceptable’ nursing career.”

The way that the police and the press treated Cassandra’s case was typical of their treatment of trans women at the time. That same year, a trans woman of colour named Shelby Tracy Tom was murdered in Vancouver by a man named Jatin Patel. Reports at the time referred to Shelby only as “an Asian transsexual prostitute.” Police took several days to inform other community members of what happened to Shelby, prompting harsh criticism from other sex workers who felt that withholding information unduly put them at risk.

We still don’t know the identity of the man who killed Cassandra. In February 2016, the police unveiled their new cold-case site, which aimed to publicize information about unsolved cases to engage the public in looking for new information. The next day, the police posted a two-minute video to YouTube describing her case, taking care to disclose the status of her medical transition. Interest in Cassandra’s case briefly renewed, 13 years after she was murdered by a man who had a history of violence against sex-working women of Asian descent. But it soon fizzled out. There was nothing new to be learned.

II: Deanna Wilkinson

Screen Shot 2018-06-14 at 10.25.10 AMYasmeen Persad’s office at The 519, a queer community centre located in the heart of Toronto’s Village, the area surrounding Church and Wellesley streets. There, she leads the Trans-Identified People of Colour Project. “We work with a lot of trans women who in the summertime might be hanging out in the park because they might be accessing the shelter system, and during certain times of the day the shelter might be closed,” she tells me. “Police see them as troublemakers, like they just shouldn’t be there.”

The Church and Wellesley neighbourhood has seen some significant changes over the last few decades, particularly with how the area is policed. According to Patience Newbury, a scholar of transgender issues related to public space well-versed in the history of the Village, the 1990s saw numerous incidents of assault and vandalism where police would avoid getting involved, or admonish those living there who stood up for themselves. But around the mid- to late ’90s, things shifted. Cisgender people, mostly gay men, began to buy up storefronts and needed to work with police. They wanted cleaner sidewalks, less noise and sleaze, and fewer homeless people, so as to maintain the value of their properties.

Newbury says among the biggest losers in this new closer relationship between cis gay people and police were the trans women who lived and worked in the area. Property ownership in the Village that was accessible to cisgender people was completely out of reach for trans people, especially women, who are relegated to informal and unprotected work. For trans sex workers, the Village was, and remains, one of the key spots to conduct street-based work. The main stretch of road where many trans women make their livelihood is just east of Church and Wellesley, on a street called Homewood Avenue.

Business has taken a hit, largely due to changes in who formally occupies the space. And in the absence of good-faith regulation and worker protections, many sex workers are unduly put at risk as a result of law enforcement.

Since 2014, some laws around sex work have changed in letter, though not entirely in spirit. Sex workers no longer face the direct threat of imprisonment as a consequence of their work. But the risk hasn’t disappeared: It’s still illegal to purchase the services of a sex worker, and to “communicate” for the purposes of doing so, which forces many people into underground and unsafe positions. Police also respond to neighbourhood complaints by stopping and questioning sex workers, a form of casual harassment. Most studies on the legal status of sex work have found that enforcement creates greater risk of harm for sex workers than otherwise, by forcing workers into worse-lit, less accessible, and more isolated locations to avoid police.

Trust in the police is understandably low among sex workers. There’s a long history of exploitation and sexual violence at the hands of law enforcement, especially against women of colour. Just last winter, a member of the Vancouver Police Department was exposed for allegedly exploiting vulnerable sex workers that they had been charged to protect.

“I think any sex worker is threatened by police,” says Monica Forrester, a program coordinator at Maggie’s, a safe community space and resource centre for sex workers in Toronto. She’s been involved in activism on behalf of sex workers and the transgender women for years. “The police will harass the girls mostly when there’s complaints. The girls work in an area where I would say more gay men live, and there has been some friction with the gay men in the area where they work. Police will respond to any sort of call—like that’s there too much noise, you know what I mean? And they’ll push women off of their corners, or tell them to go somewhere else—which can be dangerous considering that they’re trans.”

***

The Church and Wellesley neighbourhood has been in the news lately because police believe the area was the hunting ground of alleged serial killer Bruce McArthur, who, at the time of this writing, has been charged with six counts of first-degree murder. But McArthur is not the first serial killer to make a name for himself in the Village. That title belongs to a man named Marcello Palma, whose victims were three sex workers: Deanna Wilkinson, Shawn “Junior” Keegan, and Brenda Ludgate.

Palma murdered Ludgate, Keegan, and Wilkinson on the night of May 20, 1996. Of the three, only Brenda Ludgate was cisgender; Palma murdered her in the city’s downtown west end. Junior Keegan was only 19 years old when they were murdered by Palma, and while most reporters called them a “transvestite,” it is probably more accurate to describe them as genderqueer.

Deanna Wilkinson was a 31-year-old transgender woman. In the excited reporting days after her body was found, she was referred to only by her former name. Both Keegan and Wilkinson were shot to death on Homewood Avenue, where they worked.

I’ve been thinking about the Homewood murders for several months after learning of them through transgender and sex work activist Morgan M. Page’s history podcast, One From the Vaults. As she tells it, in the wake of the murders, trans women came together to develop a range of community programs designed to help sex workers go about their work with less danger—meal transports, meetings, safe sex supplies.

This was front of mind when I spoke to Persad, who told me about the programming currently underway at The 519. She’s doing good work, but it’s not without its challenges—particularly from police, who often mistreat the trans people of colour in her program. “There’s constant harassment,” she says. “Police see them often like targets, or disposable people who shouldn’t be there, who shouldn’t be around.”

Hours later, I couldn’t stop thinking about those words—targets, disposable. Palma was known to be violent with his wife, and admitted to his psychiatrist that he fantasized about killing street people and sex workers. Despite this, no one tried to intervene in the months leading up to the night Deanna was killed. In fact, Palma was able to freely amass a veritable arsenal of handguns, including the one he used to murder three sex workers.

III: Grayce Baxter

Screen Shot 2018-06-14 at 10.25.19 AM“Transgenderse are also ignored by the police,” writes Viviane Namaste in the 1995 edition of Gendertrash From Hell, a radical transgender zine made in Toronto. Edited by Mirha-Soleil Ross and Xanthra Phillippa, Gendertrash published a total of four issues in the early 1990s—an indie, alternative means of reaching community. In her piece, Namaste mentions three women to illustrate her point: Marsha P. Johnson, whom the New York police called a victim of suicide despite witnesses stating she had been targeted for violence; Tammy Ross, whose sudden death the Montreal police chalked up to suicide; and Grayce Baxter, who disappeared in Toronto in the early ’90s.

“If this is the first time you’ve heard these names and these stories, think about that for a moment,” writes Namaste. “Transsexual sex trade workers are too far removed from the suburban middle class, too marginalized to warrant media coverage, activist demonstrations, or commemorative ceremonies.”

Grayce was 27 when she was murdered in December 1992 by a corrections officer named Patrick Daniel Johnson. She was a sex worker, and Johnson was her client. When newspapers began covering her disappearance, Grayce’s work was just about the only thing journalists could focus on. Described as a “high-priced call girl,” a “prostitute,” and a “transsexual,” reporters conjectured that she was involved with hard drugs, and disclosed both the status of her transition and her former name. She was painted as a caricature, and it was assumed that Grayce’s murder was connected to a sensationalized depiction of what was supposedly a risk-taking, drug-using, party-girl lifestyle. Accozzaglia writes: “Ms. Baxter was murdered by a member of law enforcement. His motive was not drug-related. It related to his own impotence: his purchased time with Ms. Baxter expired before he could climax. So he strangled her to death, cut her into pieces, and dumped the pieces down the apartment tower’s trash chute.”

Community memory runs deep. Grayce’s murder at the hands of law enforcement and her case’s treatment by the police department and media set the tone for what trans women, especially those in sex work, could expect from cisgender institutions and the criminal justice system.

In the ’90s, the stakes for trans women who encountered the police while working were horrifically high. A criminal record could often disqualify someone from participation in gender identity therapy (which includes qualifying for subsidized bottom surgery). There is still only one medical centre in Canada where trans women can get bottom surgery, and the procedure is often prohibitively expensive, even with subsidization. If an encounter with law enforcement went wrong and a trans woman ended up with a criminal record, it would effectively cut off access to further transition-related health care.

Though this is no longer the official policy, many women continue to face similar risks because access to transition-related care often depends on the training and biases of individual service providers and how they choose to interpret government regulation.

The fall 1993 issue of Gendertrash featured an interview with a trans woman and sex worker named Justine Piaget. She describes several instances of being attacked by clients, including once having to cut a man’s testicles “just about off” during a bad call in Montreal. The same issue also features a full-page warning about a dangerous man targeting trans sex workers in the Church and Wellesley area.

This was in 1993. But not much has improved. This February, Monica Forrester told me about her experience seeking police protection after a violent incident with an armed man. “When I was doing outreach, a few women were voicing a guy threatening them. Then he threatened me and he pulled a knife. I did a report, and then I hear, two months later, ‘Oh, well there’s nothing we can do,’” she says. “And they know where he lived, but they said they couldn’t get video surveillance—you know, just a bunch of crap to say, ‘We did what we can do,’ and that’s it.” She saw it as the bare minimum attention required to close the issue, but not to take an active interest in her safety as a trans woman and a sex worker.

Forrester believes that, if it ended up becoming more serious—if he had acted on his threat—we’d quickly see that police would get the necessary information to investigate him after the fact. “It just goes to show that with sex workers, their experiences are considered not as important as someone who might not be a sex worker or who might not be trans,” she says.

Police took two months to begin their investigation into Grayce’s murder back in ’92.

Her remains were never found.

IV: Alloura Wells

Screen Shot 2018-06-14 at 10.25.29 AMI tried three times to get in touch with the Toronto police for this story. When I finally got on the phone with Constable Danielle Bottineau, Toronto Police Service’s LGBTQ Liaison Officer, I was surprised by both her frankness and friendliness. Constable Bottineau had no illusions about the kind of history that Toronto police are grappling with in moving forward with the LGBTQ community. “Historically, as an institution, policing has never been good at being transparent and having those tough conversations,” she says. Because of this difficult history, combined with a failure by police to make known their processes and mandates, Bottineau worries there is a climate of misinformation in which people are quick to come to their own conclusions or fill in their own answers.

A lack of answers has been a recurring theme for the transgender community’s relationship with the Toronto police for three years now, starting with the death of Sumaya Dalmar in February 2015. Toronto police didn’t classify Sumaya’s death as a homicide and provided no further public updates. Many were unsure how to react.

The 26-year-old model was widely beloved both within and beyond her Somali community, and people were heartbroken over her loss. At that point in 2015, six trans women of colour had already been murdered in the United States, all under age 36—a rate of about one murder per week. Many felt afraid and vulnerable, unwilling to believe that Sumaya’s untimely death was not a homicide.

“I still don’t know what exactly happened with Sumaya,” says Abdi Osman, a Toronto visual artist. Osman knew Sumaya personally, and she was the subject of his 2012 documentary Labeeb, which explored gender and sexuality in the Somali community. According to Osman, many of her other friends are still in the dark. Because she had such an important place in her wider community, the silence that followed her death was hard to make sense of.

I spoke to another friend of Sumaya’s, whom I’ll call Shamir (he requested his name be excluded for privacy purposes). Shamir says Sumaya was the first in their circle to come out publicly, and her pride and excitement was infectious. Shamir was very close to Sumaya, and he was with her family the night her body was found. According to him, Sumaya’s family had requested privacy for the course of the investigation, and because family meant a lot to Sumaya, Shamir thought it best to respect their wishes. That meant no police announcements, no public follow-up, no feeding the rumours. “As much as we wanted to put pressure on the police, we wanted to respect her family’s wishes,” says Shamir. He had to become comfortable with silence.

Though it upheld her family’s requests, the silence around Sumaya’s death contributed to the impression that many share of the police taking a hands-off approach to the deaths of marginalized trans people.

Shamir contrasted Sumaya’s case and the police’s cautious silence with the case of Alloura Wells. People who knew Alloura described her as quiet but well-liked. But she was without a fixed address for years, making her part of a population that is at greater risk of death or disappearance.

According to research collected by anti-homelessness information centre Homeless Hub, trans women are overrepresented in the shelter system, especially as youth. Yet, one in three trans youth in Toronto are rejected by homeless shelters due to transphobic discrimination. Research reveals that homeless trans women and women of colour, especially those of Indigenous descent, are frequent victims of discrimination and mistreatment through the shelter system, though issues with data collection make exact statistics hard to find.

Still, reports by Toronto-based researchers found that police harassment of homeless people has remained disproportionately high over the past two decades, ranging from abusive language to physical assaults. In 1992, one in 10 homeless people reported having been assaulted by police, and a 2009 survey of homeless people in Toronto found that over half of the respondents (58 percent) had been victims of violence at the hands of law enforcement.

Alloura went missing in Toronto in July 2017. Folks at Maggie’s organized a search for the 27-year-old, but found nothing. In November, several months after the body of a transgender woman was found in a midtown ravine in August 2017, Toronto police were able to identify the body as Alloura’s.

“I think the situation with Alloura was just total police negligence,” Shamir says. “The situation with Sumaya wasn’t comparable in that sense.” He stressed that in Alloura’s case, he felt the lack of consistent outreach with the trans community only served to break down whatever trust had been built between trans people and the Toronto police.

Maggie’s Monica Forrester sees Alloura’s case as a prime example of police indifference to marginalized trans women. “They didn’t reach out to the community to see how to identify this person, they didn’t do any public awareness around this trans body. It shows you that trans people are not looked at as important or worthy,” she says. “And that’s something that’s still very prevalent.”

Forrester was in contact with Alloura’s father, and encouraged her family to file a missing person report with the Toronto police. But when her family reported her disappearance to the police, they claimed that police officers blew them off, giving them a non-emergency number and refusing to begin the investigation themselves. Alloura’s father says he was told that she was not a “priority” because she was homeless. Forrester was disappointed, but unsurprised. “They knew that this was a trans body they found. Because she was homeless, they really didn’t care,” she says.

In the days following, Toronto police announced that they would begin a review into how they handle sensitive missing persons cases. Police spokesperson Mark Pugash told the Toronto Star that it was “not the proper response from any part of this organization,” and said police had attempted to apologize to the Wells family.

Toronto is an increasingly unaffordable city; it’s hard to survive without access to protected employment, stable housing, and friendly service providers—a situation rarely available to the overwhelming majority of trans women.

When someone is lost, it becomes easy for institutions like the police or the media to dismiss them. Osman called it “victim-blaming.”

***

Everyone I talked to for this story spoke to a sense of feeling worthless in the eyes of police. And as long as we remain locked into a system designed by and for cisgender people that treats transgender women as disposable, that feeling is not going away.

What struck me when researching this story was how close many of the women were to each other. There are women who have had to bury multiple colleagues. They took care to tell their friends that they loved them, because there was no guarantee they would see each other again. That care spilled over into searches, memorials, protests, and news stories, demanding that their sisters be remembered with love.

This city is not friendly to trans women, especially not to those who do sex work, who don’t have fixed addresses, who have been exposed to drugs or violence, who need help and protection. Their disappearances are not the inevitable result of the risks inherent to being transgender; whether by murder, drugs, disease, suicide, or poverty, every trans woman’s death is the product of multiple interlocking systems of exclusion and marginalization.

Each one of them is a preventable tragedy. Each one of them is a priority.

Alex Verman is a writer and political scientist living in Toronto on Occupied Treaty 13 territory. Alex writes about the politics of community, identity, and narrative for Mic, Teen Vogue, Canadaland, Torontoist, and others; you can follow Alex on Twitter: @misgenders.

Show Comments