An act of not-so-safe streets: regulating femininity away from public space

Hostile Homewood: on Toronto’s Victoria Day ’96 murder spree and articulating erasure

Part 4 of 5 in
Hostile Homewood.

Fourth in a five-part unpublished series from 2008, posted June 13th through 17th. Catch up with the previous instalment.

As Brenda Ludgate, Junior Keegan, and Deanna Wilkinson laboured on Victoria Day, each was shot in or next to public spaces. “Outdoor” sex work gets confined typically to spaces and districts where lower social monitoring exists (e.g., after business hours at industrial zones, institutional areas, and transitional neighbourhoods). This is a function of limited proprietor surveillance. In these areas, “spatial legibility” between public and private spaces becomes ambiguous because few proprietors are present to distinguish these boundaries after dark (Blomley 2004, 621).

This ushers Jane Jacobs’s thesis on connections between the perceived safety of public space and how people are actually engaging with that space. Jacobs explains: “It does not take many incidents of violence on a city street, or in a city district, to make people fear the streets… and as they fear them, they use them less, which makes the streets still more unsafe” (Jacobs 1961, 100). To counter this, Jacobs argues, “there must be eyes upon the street,” particularly those individuals who are “natural proprietors” (like residents on porches, shop owners, and restaurants) (ibid.).

Figure 6. Wolseley Street, dusk, four blocks north of where Palma shot Brenda, is representative of the area’s historical built form. Defensible spacing (the threshold between public and private space) is clear, but the street, with no sitting activity or pedestrians, has low proprietor surveillance. [Idlewild, 12 July 2008]

Figure 6. Wolseley Street, dusk, four blocks north of where Palma shot Brenda, is representative of the area’s historical built form. Defensible spacing (the threshold between public and private space) is clear, but the street, with no sitting activity or pedestrians, has low proprietor surveillance. [Idlewild, 12 July 2008]

The places Palma hunted for women were known colloquially as sites for soliciting sex workers. This was partly a function of limited surveillance and proprietor activity. Brenda was killed in the post-industrial Niagara warehouse district nearby King Street West. While this area today enjoys rapid revitalization and gentrification due partly to a municipal secondary plan proposed in 1996 for the nearby King-Spadina region, the Niagara district was a neglected area peppered with abandoned warehouses (Dill and Bedford 2002). Thus, community surveillance around where Brenda died was low relative to this area in 2008 — nothing like what one could expect from areas with regular proprietor surveillance. Junior and Deanna, meanwhile, were murdered on Homewood Avenue, a residential side street out of view from the nearby Carlton, Wellesley, or Jarvis arterials. Deanna was shot in a laneway across the street from an empty schoolyard, while Junior was shot outside a 1960s-era, high-rise apartment tower whose tenants all lived above street level (Vincent 1996, A6).

While Palma hunted for victims whom he placed as either transgender (or having transsexual bodies), all three of his victims were vulnerable because they were placed as feminine in temporal, or time-contingent spaces where an articulated femininity was not accepted as a “natural” companion. Ardener explains, “It is often the presence of men that defines a space as ‘public’, and out of bounds for women” (Ardener 1993, 18). In this context, neither Brenda, Junior, nor Deanna were engaging these public spaces as men. This does not imply that Palma placed all three as women with cissexual bodies. It does, however, allude to how their articulations of femininity on that night were placed as a challenge to a masculinization of public space which Palma exploited — implying that their being targeted within these temporal spaces was a by-product of deviance and somehow their fault (Valentine 2001, 174–5). This implication of social deviance gets exacerbated further when articulations of femininity within poorly-surveilled public spaces coincide with the vocation of sex work.

Given this, risk factors precipitating violence in poorly surveilled public spaces may rise as a product of one’s articulation of femininity within that particular space and time. If so, then being placed by others as both feminine and having a transsexual body (whether or not this is true) would compound this risk, as both, coupled with the vocation of sex work, present a challenge to the masculinization of public space after dark. Valentine adds the layer of sexual orientation to this dimension: “a fear of queer bashing deters many lesbians and gay men from articulating their sexuality in everyday public space and so contributes to producing the street as a heterosexual space” (2001, 177). While news media reported that Palma’s victims marketed to clients by articulating their sexuality, this only holds insomuch as their articulation of femininity was a factor, which was discrete from their sexuality. That is: Palma’s history suggests he ignored the articulation of a subject’s sexuality if he placed them as masculine, but paid especial notice if he placed them as feminine. As with public spacing generally, these were spaces which accommodate people with cissexual bodies — coupled with the additional (and sexist) expectation that any women within these masculinized spaces, if they expected to stay “safe”, would need to articulate their femininity conditionally (e.g., dressing to stay unnoticed, moving with purpose instead of strolling or casually observing, and so on). In Palma’s crosshairs, an additional stipulation for her safety surfaced: she would be overlooked so long as she was not placed as transgender (or having a transsexual body). While Brenda was cisgender (and her body was cissexual), even DiManno admits she may have articulated herself in a manner which Palma placed as transgender (or as someone with a transsexual body) (DiManno 1996b, A7).

Another case from 1978 reveals how feminine articulation in masculinized public spacing after dark is vulnerable to misogynist (and cissexist) incursions of dominance over femininity in that space. Richard Andes murdered a 20-year-old woman named Shirley Hauser, whom he stabbed seventeen times on the campus of Western Tech High School in Toronto’s west end. Shirley, who had been on a date with Andes, bled to death. Shirley had a transsexual body. This detail was emphasized by Andes’s defence as justification for attacking and then brutalizing her body. He was found guilty. At his conviction, Andes’s mother burst out: “Don’t punish him for the homosexual [sic]. Oh please, [Andes] is the victim” (Canadian Press 1979, P3). The court found Shirley “was preparing for a sex change operation and looked very much like [sic] a woman” (ibid.). Andes’s eight-year sentence was cut to six by the Ontario Court of Appeal after it accepted a so-called “homosexual panic” as justification for stabbing her beyond a certainty of death (Canadian Press 1980, P4). Shirley was not a sex worker[23].

This continuing production of women “not belonging outside after dark on their own”, yet finding scant refuge within private dwellings, also informs the way two other Toronto women in sex work (incidentally, both with transsexual bodies) were murdered. Grayce Baxter, age 27, was strangled on December 8th, 1992 (DeMara and Darroch 1994, A8). Although she was on duty, her situation varied from trans people who worked on Homewood: she specialized as a high-end escort, and her clients placed her as having a cissexual body, not a transsexual one. One of her clients, who phoned for call-in service after midnight, had her drive to his residence. When she readied to leave after his paid time expired without reaching climax, he assaulted and then strangled her (ibid.). He was unaware Grayce was trans until local media reported it. He cut her body into pieces and disposed of them in his apartment tower’s dumpster. Although Grayce’s remains were never recovered, he was still convicted (ibid.).

Unfortunately, as was done to Deanna, the same ungendering and de-legitimizing of Grayce’s experiences as an adult woman (a complete history of her adulthood and, in fact, part of her childhood) was pursued actively by Toronto Star reporters, going so far as to insert the disused name assigned to her at birth. This was especially insidious, since her parents, with whom she remained close, supported her at every turn after she began transition as a teen. When they contacted media while Grayce’s whereabouts were unknown, they reported her as their daughter, full-stop[24] (Toronto Star 1992, A7).

More recently in August 2003, another woman, a 32-year-old former nurse earning a living in sex work, was strangled to death inside her Gloucester Street apartment where she hosted her clients. It was known that a client of Cassandra Do, who was Vietmanese-Canadian, was the killer and that his DNA was found on another Vietnamese-Canadian sex worker who survived a 1997 strangling. While the woman killed in 1997 had a cissexual body, Cassandra’s body was transsexual. As of 2008, her murderer is still at large (Leeder 2003, B3; Valpy 2003, A9). The cissexist manner by which reporters for the Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail wrote about Cassandra’s murder was consistent with Grayce’s, Deanna’s, and Junior’s murders even as they labelled Cassandra’s anonymously-interviewed friend as a “she-male” (Leeder 2003, B3). The Globe and Mail reporter Jordan Heath-Rawlings exercised limited restraint: “Ms. Do was a male-to-female transsexual [sic], meaning she lived her life and answered identification questions as a woman while she awaited therapy to complete the sex change” (2003, A15).

Namaste illustrates how it is not instructive to ascribe public spaces to trans sex workers based on sexual orientation: “Since gender and sexuality are not the same, it is not surprising that most cities have separate geographic areas known for transgendered people” (2000, 147). This is manifest by who the principal proprietors are within a gay or lesbian neighbourhood: homosexual cisgender people with cissexual bodies. People with transsexual bodies, meanwhile, are not generally clustered to fixed geographical areas as residents or proprietors. This is partly a product of proportionately lower incomes overall and partly because some trans people become transparent when once they get placed as a cisgender person with a cissexual body, they “assimilate” with cis people; those who are opaque, or readily placed as having a transsexual body (particularly someone struggling with poverty and/or placed as a visible minority), meanwhile, may get flung to the social margins of highly ephemeral spaces (Homewood is by no means a fixed transactional locus) or times (e.g., nocturnal hours). Homewood’s informal economy exists at the periphery of Church-Wellesley, Toronto’s enclave for cisgender gay men and lesbian women.

In February 2008, I spent time after dark assessing the streetscape of Homewood Avenue. I observed (as pedestrian and bicyclist) how the street is illuminated inconsistently, reflecting a casual (not causal) association between perceived safety and poorly illuminated streets[25]. Pedestrians on Homewood during wintertime were few (a few sex workers nearby Homewood and Maitland, close to where Palma murdered Deanna and Junior, excepted). Homewood’s residential housing is split between century-old, semi-detached brownstones with narrow porch clearances and a postwar high-rise apartment tower. Several brownstones feature bay-and-gable windows facing the street. Curiously, several homes appeared to concentrate evening activity (e.g., watching TV or desk work) to other areas of the house — such as a side room with windows obscured by curtains, or in areas toward the dwelling’s rear, as oberved from laneways. It was not possible to determine whether Homewood in 2008 compares with Homewood in 1996, but allowing that most of its structures are several decades old, it is a conservative guess that the streetscape probably looks much as it did twelve years ago.

What is borne out by published interviews — and corroborated by trans sex workers from other North American cities — is that sex workers are afforded little protection from harassment or violence in public space. Police, for example, have a long history of intimidating, defiling, and threatening sex workers, particularly those who are in some way trans. Monique, a Washington, D.C., sex worker who is black and transgender, summarized a routine night of sex work:

“So my typical days is running from the cops, trying not to get locked up. Running from corner to corner so this cops say, ‘Get off this corner.’ You go from this corner and go to that corner… That is a regular course of a night. Running from a cop, jumping in and out of dates’ cars, running from cops… I try to find out if he’s a cop by saying, ‘Hi, baby what are you doing.’ You’re not allowed to touch a cop, especially an undercover cop” (Pettiway 1996, 250–2).

During my assessments of Homewood Avenue, I listened to how fear of the Toronto Police Service is on the minds of sex workers labouring along Homewood. Not only must she straddle legal boundaries left to interpretation by varying officers, but she also must defend herself should she be placed into immediate danger. In Canada, prostitution is not illegal, but soliciting is; in Ontario, there is another layer in the Safe Streets Act, enacted in 1999, as a legal vehicle to criminalize informal economic activities in public spaces — squeegeeing, panhandling, etc. — raising questions on the extent of citizenship rights within public spaces (Collins and Blomley 2003). I collected a sense that Toronto police may be less than accommodating to trans people generally, even during emergencies. This was a topic ripe for qualitative investigation, and its findings would have further mapped first-person accounts of survival along Homewood from the voices of women who work there[26].

Part five, a comparative look at the barriers facing trans people in 2008 versus the night of the murders, concludes the “Hostile Homewood” series.


A complete index of references for the “Hostile Homewood” series is included with part five.


[23] Shirley’s articulation of femininity, as a woman with a transsexual body, occurred in a public space which was not, during the temporality of night, sanctioned by masculine agents as a “public” space (i.e., the temporal space was considered inaccessible for everyone, but accessible for those articulating a dialect of masculinity within that space — such as cisgender men with cissexual bodies). In this context, the presence of masculinity within a masculinized space instructs whether that space is sanctioned for public use by all parties. See Valentine, 2001, 66–69.

[24] Toronto Star, 1992 (December 22nd). This article, and a more in-depth piece filed the next day by reporter Lisa Wright, made no mention of Grayce’s life experience as a woman with a transsexual body. Grayce’s last known whereabouts, the address of her residence, and her livelihood did not to distinguish her from any other woman who had a cissexual body, underscoring the normative privilege of being placed as a cisgender person with a cissexual body: her womanhood was not subject to interrogation by cisgender people.

[25] See generally Valentine, 1989.

[26] The ethics review clearance required to conduct official interviews, although pursued early, was forestalled beyond my control.

This unpublished manuscript was drafted 19 March 2008 for David Lewis Stein’s INI308H1S: The City of Toronto lecture series at the University of Toronto’s Innis College, then revised and submitted 30 April 2008 for peer review to the UofT’s Undergraduate Journal for Sexual Diversity Studies (whose editorial board disbanded, dissolving the publication in June 2008). It was revised a second time in January 2012, then serialized for the web in 2016.

Series Navigation<< Predation and the culture of institutionalization: impacts of perception and placementSame as it ever was? A dozen years for reflection and conclusion >>

Get every new post on this blog delivered to your Inbox.

Join other followers: