Violence is Still a Threat for Transgender Women in Toronto
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Violence is Still a Threat for Transgender Women in Toronto

As Toronto celebrates Pride Month, we can't forget the discrimination trans women fight every day.

Women in Toronto explores the issues that women in the city face.

Susan Gapka. Photo courtesy of Pride Toronto.

Susan Gapka. Photo courtesy of Pride Toronto.

Susan Gapka answers my call on speakerphone, slightly out of breath. The Toronto trans rights activist just returned home from a jog and needs to grab something from the kitchen before sitting down to chat. Banana in hand, Gapka calls herself an amateur runner. She’s been training for a 10-kilometre race this weekend. “If I get bullied,” she says, “I can always run away.”

It’s a joke, but a joke that hits close to home—not just for Gapka, a self-described “survivor,” but for all trans women in Toronto.

Somehow, amid Pride Month celebrations, Torontonians have forgotten how much further the city needs to evolve when it comes to trans rights. Sure, there are successes: this month, for the first time ever, an openly transgender woman threw the first pitch at a Blue Jays game, and Toronto City Hall hoisted up a trans flag to mark the start of Pride Month. But throwing a ball to a cheering crowd or erecting a flag means little if trans women like Gapka are still facing innumerable challenges.

After the recent shooting of more than one 100 people at a gay nightclub in Florida (resulting in 49 deaths), it’s undeniable that there exists targeted violence against the LGBTQ community. That’s true even in Toronto, a city that prides itself on its Pride. The threat doesn’t often come from lone gunmen pledging their allegiance to radical groups, but instead from systemic violence, neglect, and discrimination.

A 2015 study [PDF] reported that trans Ontarians had “nearly universally reported” experiences of transphobia, and 67 per cent “feared they would die young.”

That reality is especially harsh for trans women. They are targeted not just because they are transgender, but also because they are women. That means they are “particularly vulnerable,” as the Ontario Women’s Justice Network puts it, to transphobic violence, sexual violence, and transphobic sexual violence. (In 2014, 55 per cent of all victims of hate homicide in the U.S. were transgender women, almost all women of colour.) It’s the perfect example of intersectionality—different layers of identity that co-exist and in this case impede. Gapka calls it “additional hardship.”

That susceptibility is undeniable in Toronto, where, historically, trans women have died violent deaths. In 2003, Cassandra Do was found strangled in her bathtub; her death is still unsolved. Seven years earlier, a Toronto man was charged with the murder of both trans woman Deanna Wilkinson and genderqueer person Shawn “Junior” Keegan. And most recently, in 2015, Sumaya Dalmar, a trans woman of colour, passed away. Toronto police ruled that her death was not homicide. A story for Vice following Dalmar’s death read: “It’s not just that we ask trans women of colour to live impossible lives—it’s that we ask them to do that while watching themselves die over and over again.”

But it’s not just physical violence that affects trans women. Societal discrimination and misunderstanding prevent trans women from moving past that abuse. One in five trans Ontarians have avoided the emergency room “specifically due to being trans.” One in four reported police harassment. “In the justice system, corrections system, policing system, healthcare system…there’s a chance you’ll be treated badly instead of well,” Gapka says.

The trans community is not immune to its own power dynamics: prospects are bleaker for trans women than they are for other members of the same group. Gapka calls it an extension of the “gender gap”: the same patriarchy that suppresses women in society also suppresses trans women within the trans community. Suicide rates are already extremely high for trans people (35 per cent have seriously considered taking their own lives), but they’re highest for Black trans women.

Evidence implies that trans women are victims from all sides—within their own communities and outside of them. But it would be patronizing to write a column about the challenges trans women face without acknowledging the power they have reclaimed. They may be victims of intersectional discrimination, but few take it lying down. Most progress has come from local initiatives within the trans community, with women like Gapka leading the way.

And Toronto has come a long way: conditions have been getting substantially better for trans people in the city—which means, by definition, better for trans women. Gapka is part of that change. Her lobbying has led to a bill currently in the House of Commons, which will add “gender identity” and “gender expression” into the Canadian Human Rights Act as prohibited rounds for discrimination. Locally, Gapka helped work toward the first LGBTQ youth shelters in Toronto. Now, she hopes to include the trans community as a category in Toronto’s poverty reduction strategy.

Change will come much quicker and easier once we all acknowledge and combat their abuse. Until then, there’s the resilience of women like Gapka, who has faced decades of hardship and yet still finds a way to work toward improvement—and fit in a few jogs between it all.