Remembering our Toronto Trans family as Trans Awareness Week comes to a hopeful end

Content Warning: The following article contains mentions of Transphobia, racism, violence including murder and sexual/physical abuse.

November is a time of Memoriam: the 11th marks Remembrance Day in Canada and Veteran’s Day in the United States, a simultaneous holiday where we mutually honour and salute the memory of our nation’s military veterans. War heroes who fought and/or died for the very freedoms and liberties we have today.

However, these same freedoms and liberties in which the majority of the white cis population enjoy in North America have not been allotted to the minorities of society, leaving the most vulnerable of our already marginalized communities to continue advocating for the very rights that our celebrated war heroes fought for us to have.

The Trans community, specifically Black, Brown and Indigenous Trans women, are the one’s who have led the fight for LGBTQ+ human rights, like celebrated activists Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera during the 1969 Stone Wall Riots in New York City (the birthplace of “Pride” as we know it), but it’s this very community that’s also being pushed to the brinks, often subjected to unimaginable abuse (ie: racism, sexism and sexual/physical violence including murder). Not to mention the countless Trans women who’ve disappeared without a trace…

When International Trans Day of Remembrance first started in 1999 in response to the brutal killing of Rita Hester, a Black Trans woman who was murdered in her Boston apartment, the goal was to advocate against such violence against the community. All these years later, Transphobia is finally being called out for what it is, an epidemic, and by high-profile politicians (like Ontario NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and both the U.S. Vice President and President-elects Kamala Harris and Joe Biden), no less. All of whom posted statements honouring the Trans community and denouncing the seemingly neverending violence they face.

Progress is happening, but there’s still so much more work to be done.

Right here in Toronto, Ontario, the LGBTQ+ community went through an unbelievably tough time from 2010-2017 with the realization of a serial killer in the Church & Wellesley Village. Targeting mostly Brown and homeless gay men, it was a horrific ordeal that not only scarred the effervescence of our community’s rainbow but further tarnished a barely-there relationship with Toronto Police Services (TPS).

TPS very obviously mishandled this entire case; firstly by dismissing multiple missing person reports and later by going as far as blaming the community for “failing to help the investigation” once Bruce McArthur, the now-convicted serial murderer, was arrested. But it was actually thanks to public outcries from the community that TPS started to take the situation more seriously in the first place, and as painful as it is to rehash, the fumbling of this case directly reflects how TPS treats our community overall. When it comes to the most vulnerable among us, like the Trans, Non-Binary, Black, Brown, Indigenous and/or Sex Working communities, their cases are handled even more poorly.

Take for instance the most recent deaths of four Trans women (that we know of) in Toronto – Sumaya Damar, Alloura Wells, Julie Berman and Coco Richie. All four cases are extremely sensitive and three of the four have zero answers or leads despite all of them suggesting or proving foul play.

Sumaya Dalmar

In February of 2015, 26-year-old Sumaya Dalmar (aka Sumaya YSL) – with whom I had the pleasure of being acquainted – was found unresponsive in a home in Danforth Village. A year and a half later, in the summer of 2016, Black Lives Matter Toronto led the Pride Toronto Parade and staged a sit-in at the intersection of Yonge & Carlton. The group honoured Queer persons of colour and demanded change for the injustices they have and continue to face, including Sumaya, whose loved ones expressed TPS wasn’t investigating her death as closely or as respectfully as they’re mandated to. One witness even said they saw a man chasing a woman who resembled Sumaya down the street near the area where she died. Now almost six years later, any details of her untimely death remain a complete mystery, leaving our community (and most importantly Sumaya’s friends and family) without answers.

Alloura Wells

In August of 2017, an unidentified body was discovered by a jogger near a Rosedale ravine. The coroner determined the death happened sometime that July, but the body in question was not identified as 27-year-old Alloura Wells until four months later, in November of 2017, and it remains unclear as to why TPS took so long to make the connection between the recovered body and Alloura’s missing person’s profile. The details surrounding Alloura’s death remain a complete mystery so the community (as well as Alloura’s friends, family and advocates) are all once again left without any answers. It’s worth noting that when Alloura’s father, known simply as Mike, went to 51 Division to report his daughter’s disappearance, TPS told him that “because of her inherent history, she wasn’t a high priority” and he was given a non-emergency line to contact instead. Mike told the Globe & Mail that Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders apologized to him “left, right, and center” and he replied to Saunders by saying “You need to embrace this community, it is full of love. Too much has gone down and not enough is being done.”

Julie Berman

In December of 2019, 50-year-old Trans activist Julie Berman was identified by TPS as the city’s 72nd homicide of the year. Her attacker, 29-year-old Colin Harnack of Toronto, was arrested on-scene after violently ending Julie’s life in a downtown residence with what police described as a”blunt impact trauma to the head.” In a phone interview with CBC News, Berman’s friend, Davina Hader, said “She [Julie] was vocal about Transphobia and was always working on education so that there would be better acceptance of the LGBT community.” Susan Gapka, another one of Julie Berman’s friends and fellow Trans activist, said she got to know Julie through community events such as the Trans Day of Remembrance, which “celebrates and honours the lives of trans-identified people who have passed away due to  transphobia, hate crimes, illness, substance use, suicide, or murder.” Gapka also spoke with CBC following Julie’s murder, saying “We’ve been on the same platform speaking out against the violence, which in turn became her last struggling moments. When it’s someone you know as a community member, someone who is as cheerful and lovely as Julie, it really strikes hard on the heart.” Fortunately, Julie’s assailant was charged with second-degree murder.

Coco Richie

As recently as October 26, 2020, 30-year-old Coco Richie – with whom I also had the pleasure of being acquainted – was taken to hospital after TPS officers responded to a 6:56 a.m. call stating someone was trying to break into an apartment on Eglinton Avenue East. When police arrived, they discovered that a break-in did not occur but claimed Coco was “in crisis” and therefore the officers determined she was in need of immediate medical attention. An official news release issued by the TPS says “The person was transported to hospital by police. The person went into distress at the hospital. Life-saving measures were taken and, at 10:15 a.m., the person was pronounced deceased.” Later that day, Special Victim’s Unit (SIU) published a release repeatedly misgendering Coco as a “30-year-old man” – stating they were investigating the circumstances surrounding the death but have yet to correct themselves. TPS has since remained silent about the case despite our community’s efforts in demanding to know what happened to Coco while she was in police custody that morning. The 519 Community Center is one of the only outlets to release a public statement asking TPS for answers using the hashtag #TPSWhatHappened.

These four women, like so many murdered and missing Trans women before them, were and still are loved by so many. They had so much life ahead of them and the brutal truth is that these cases cover only a small fraction of countless hate crimes against Trans, Two-Spirit and Non-Binary people in North America and around the world.

So, as Trans Day of Remembrance and Trans Awareness Week 2020 comes to an end, remember that this is still only the beginning. Never forget that harmful narratives about Trans people – like the ones coming from the Trump administration or disgraced author J.K. Rowling – are direct attacks on the community, and they further perpetuate an already overwhelming amount of discrimination and violence. This is an ongoing epidemic and we need to put a stop to it.

I leave you with a quote by a dear Trans friend and Drag performer, Alexandher Brandy, who was recently featured in our #MOJOZINE and is currently raising money to move forward with his gender-affirming surgery this December! We at MoJo Toronto are so very happy for Alex! If you’re able, please donate to his fundraiser as any amount will help!

Alexandher Brandy

“The reality is, Trans people continue to be victims of violence, often. Trans people of colour are more likely to be victims of violence than Trans white people. Keep fighting. Keep fighting for your siblings, alive and passed. It will get better, but only if we fight now. To every Trans person who is scared to come out, to every Trans person who has faced violence for existing, to every Trans person who has struggled with the way society treats you – you are seen, you are valid, and you are so worthy.”