Sensationalizing disempowerment: kick ’em when because they’re down

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

Part 2 of 5 in
Hostile Homewood.
Figure 4. Toronto Star, page A7, Monday, 27 May 1996.

Figure 4. Toronto Star, page A7, Monday, 27 May 1996.


Second in a five-part unpublished series from 2008, posted June 13th through 17th.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


Stirred by Palma’s sheer body count, Toronto news media covered his killing spree extensively — the Toronto Star notably so[5]. The coverage was exceptional in that missing or murdered sex workers often go underreported or even ignored. Reporters and columnists on this spree, however, were preoccupied less by Palma’s violence against women and femininity than they were by his three victims — all whose structural barriers and life experiences were filleted crudely and unrepentantly for public discussion. With nearly no one to advocate on behalf of the victims (not entirely surprising, given the historic marginalization of sex work as a vocation), journalists referred to each in condemnatory terms. As their files painted each victim as immoral, exotic, and pathetic for the way they earned a living, journalists reserved their tabloid prose for Palma’s last two victims. Acknowledging each victim with a baseline of respect or dignity was not an ethical consideration from those in the journalism profession, nor was their reporting a passive reflection.

Palma’s first victim was a 25-year-old cisgender woman (with a cissexual body)[6]. She struggled with an opiate addiction. Palma’s second victim, a 19-year-old transgender teen (with a cissexual body), articulated themselves[7] with a feminine dialect of gender. They worked double-duty as a sex worker and drag performer to earn enough for a new place to live only days after the city’s mass-eviction of squatting youth from 88 Carlton Street, a vacant apartment building, forced the teen into homelessness (DeMara and Welsh 1996, A6; Saunders 1996, A1). Palma’s third victim, a 31-year-old transgender woman (with a transsexual body), struggled tenaciously to survive with income from sex work even as she coped with her own opiate addiction: “Hooking was not something she wanted to do, but chose to do in order to survive,” explained social worker Sandi MacDonald. “She needed to get high so she could hook and she needed to hook in order to get high. It was a vicious circle” (MacDonald 1996, E5). MacDonald’s observation revealed how for Palma’s third victim, “survival sex” was less an elective decision than it was a remedial measure to stave off dopesickness (DeMatteo, et al. 1999, 365).

Rosie DiManno, a Toronto Star columnist, had her own lay view of what happened. At first, she wrote reductively of Palma’s victims: “A homely hooker with a chronic substance abuse problem, a teenage boy who liked to dress up as a woman because he [sic] could make more money that way turning tricks, and a beautiful ‘pre-operative’ transsexual who was one of the most established queens[8] [sic] on the street” (DiManno 1996a, A7). In another column three days later, DiManno’s impenitent contempt began to surface: “They are twittery and exotic creatures… sashaying down the street, too narrow hips rolling in gross imitation of a sexy siren’s wiggle. Long coltish legs. Spiky slingbacks click-clicking,” adding that Homewood was “a transvestite/transsexual fleshpot” (DiManno 1996b, A7). In less than two columns, the tabloid-calibre columnist accomplished the demonization, objectification, and de-humanization of not only Palma’s victims on Homewood, but also ungendered[9] the colleagues who survived them. DiManno’s career notoriety as an organ of moralism for the Greater Toronto Area’s (GTA) principal daily newspaper[10], and her leverage to shape the public dialogue on Palma’s victims, sensationalized what she believed the dead victims signified for Toronto. DiManno’s columns were simultaneously deceptive and denigratory as they related to Palma’s murder victims. As a columnist, she could write on the murders without exercising the professionalism of journalistic integrity or an investigative thoroughness with what little reporting she actually conducted. Free from these constraints, she could all but insinuate that the victims were at fault for bringing this violence onto themselves[11]. Her subsequent columns, meanwhile, strove to position Palma’s middle-class, Italian-Canadian upbringing as a normative contrast against her demoralizing, criminalizing exaggerations for Palma’s victims[12] (DiManno 1996c, A7). Whatever her muse, DiManno conveyed a tacit sympathy for Palma’s motive of selection and predation for his victims.

In January 2008, I reached out to DiManno, to inquire whether she might be willing to share new hindsight on either the murders or on the conditions facing Toronto’s sex workers. An invitation to reflect on what she wrote might have yielded the evolution of wisdom during the dozen years since. DiManno replied: “I see no reason to share my thoughts on sex trade workers, all of which have already been stated in print”[13]. The rest of her reply was combative and less charitable.

No journalist or columnist covering Palma’s murders was known to be transgender (or had a transsexual body). This informs not only the qualitative reporting approach of a criminological event impacting trans people, but it also establishes a baseline on the way bias shapes the accounting of a heterogeneous narrative. Because every reporter and columnist was cisgender (and/or had a cissexual body), they were disposed to deliver an interpretation of Palma’s violence which was, relatively speaking, more sympathetic to the accused cisgender person (or even the one verified cisgender victim). A reporter from a community saddled by a history of negative bias or typecasting from a majority population may be better prepared to dispel deep-seated preconceptions against that community. For instance, a reporter from an Italian-language newspaper with a clustered local readership may investigate claims of discrimination against an Italian-Canadian worker in Etobicoke more thoroughly and sympathetically than a reporter writing for a major Anglo-Canadian newspaper. In fact, elements of this bias were evident when DiManno, who has Italian ancestry, perpetuated the normative myth of hard-working Italian-Canadians when accounting for Palma’s narrative (DiManno 1996c, A7; DiManno 1999, A1). Nevertheless, mass influence by the major paper will shape the narrative for general audiences. For Palma’s murder victims on Homewood, no reporter filed a story which was not shaped by their bias against the existence of transgender people (either with or without transsexual bodies). Further, there was no counterbalancing publication written by and for transgender people (or for sex workers). Consequently, any baseline of advocacy for marginalized populations or professional impartiality from news media becomes scarce historically when trans people are the subject.

In practice, a cisgender interviewer may, if the subject is alive, press for a compulsory autobiography-on-demand from a trans person before any actual interview begins. The reporter may interrogate a trans person with characteristically intrusive questions about their body’s morphological history — questions completely inappropriate to ask a cisgender person (Namaste 2005, 2; 46–9). This methodology dispenses with the halting of a deficient, bleak impression of trans people by divorcing them from being acknowledged as subjects even as it confines them as objects of sensationalism. This method of dehumanization mirrors the means of dehumanization Palma employed to rationalize selecting his victims (whom he called “scum”). This deprives a greater awareness of the systemic, substantive barriers arresting trans people’s lives and livelihoods. This missed opportunity for journalism to elevate the social conscience gets compromised further by a misogyny of objectification (imposed by the interviewer) which a trans subject had no hand in creating or perpetuating[14]. The few — or one — trans people DiManno actually interviewed for her columns were subjected to this method of disingenuous interrogation: the ostensibly cisgender reader, presented with a heavy distillation of DiManno’s personal bias as a cisgender person, could finish her columns with no improved comprehension or elevation of compassion for the systemic barriers those trans subjects faced[15] (DiManno 1996b, A7).

Perhaps as distressing was how Palma’s victims were subjected to journalistic speculation reserved ordinarily for sex offenders, scandal-ridden officials and, ironically, murder suspects, while writing on Palma’s behaviour as a serial murderer (and an immediate public danger) would be delayed until his trial. Palma chose his victims based on his misogynistic perception of how each articulated their dialect of gender (namely, as dialects of femininity were concerned). As early as 1991, Palma’s psychiatrist from The Clarke observed how Palma was derisive toward trans people, even though he wilfully sought services from sex workers with these life experiences (Mascoll 1999a, A1).


Part three examines the institutional obstructions which proscribed two of Palma’s victims from experiencing the rights and responsibilities of an everyday citizenship.


References

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

Footnotes

[5] Toronto Star outpaced The Globe and Mail nearly 2-to-1 on files covering Palma’s murders between May 1996 and his conviction in April 2001: roughly 43 to 23, respectively. Coverage by other print media was more limited (e.g., Canadian Press newswires). Archives from radio and television sources were unavailable.

[6] Serano, Julia. 2007. Serano describes cissexual for “people who are not transsexual and who have only ever experienced their subconscious and physical sexes as being aligned.” This paradigmatic, cissexual-transsexual relationship is discrete from the heterosexual-homosexual paradigm of sexual orientation.

[7] For this essay, it is instructive to respect a consistency for each victim’s gendered pronoun relative to the way they articulated their dialect of gender in life and how they were placed by Palma when he murdered them. Aside from instances where quotations are conveyed verbatim, every victim reference affirms either their subconscious sex (see Serano, 2007) or the way they articulated their dialect of gender. Palma showed no interest to hunt for sex workers who were men or articulated a masculine dialect of gender. This fact distinguishes Palma’s dehumanizing violence as an act of misogyny against women and femininity. Other serial killers like Robert Pickton and Gary Ridgway expressed similar mentalities and social detachments toward women and femininity. Given Palma’s fixation on women who were transgender (and/or had transsexual bodies), this variety of misogyny may be distinguished further by what Serano describes as a trans-misogyny.

[8] DiManno’s colourful prose extended to calling a trans woman a “queen”. Queen, when attempting to deprive a trans person of their authenticity, derives from the “drag queen” construct. See Namaste, 2000, 10–2. Drag performers are sanctioned typically to appear in one place: on a performance stage for entertainment (where they may lampoon the language of gender). Both cis and trans people may engage in the vocation of drag performance. Sex work, vocationally discrete from stage work, is confined generally away from performance spaces.

[9] Serano, 2007, 172. Ungendering is the act of “attempt[ing] to undo a trans person’s gender by privileging incongruities and discrepancies in their gendered appearance that would normally be overlooked or dismissed if they were presumed to be cissexual.” One synonym for ungendering is de-gendering. An example of this is when a trans person, acknowledged by peers as a cis person, either discloses being trans voluntarily or is forcibly disclosed (i.e., involuntarily outed) by another party: ungendering commences when the other party consciously “strips away” the trans person’s appearance and reappraises every aspect of their physical, or morphological, features. While Serano notes this can be done theoretically to any individual, she clarifies that the only function ungendering serves “is to privilege cissexual genders, while delegitimizing the genders of transsexuals.”

[10] This included global readers of the Toronto Star’s then-new Web site at http://www.t-o.com/

[11] This was manifest by several (and sloppy) factual errors throughout her May 27th column, like placing Homewood Avenue west of Church Street, when it is actually three city blocks east of Church; the labelling of Homewood Avenue as “Tranny Troll”, when it was known colloquially by one of two other names: “Tranny Stroll” and “Tranny Strip”. David Adkin’s 1993 documentary, Out: Stories of Lesbian & Gay Youth, largely excluded interviewing trans people, though interviewees did refer to Homewood as “Tranny Town”.

[12] In this May 31st instalment, DiManno constructed a myth of the hard-working, Italian-dominated neighbourhood where Palma and his family lived, to normalize and essentialize a construct of propriety of an (aspiring) citizenship: “It’s doubtful whether many of the residents in this cul-de-sac — most of them Italian, first and second generation — have even heard that such a place exists in the city, where men [sic] dressed like women sell sexual favors [sic] to other men, not dressed like women. Such a tawdry universe would be as foreign to them as the moon. But police say Marcello Palma knew about it.” She used this myth to contrast her moralistic condemnation of Palma’s last two victims and their effective containment to one public space where their vocation was permitted tacitly and begrudgingly even as their citizenship (which includes a responsibility of labour) was deprived entirely: “A world away from the sex and sleaze of the Tranny Stroll in downtown Toronto.” This time, DiManno managed to get the name of the location right.

[13] Personal correspondence between author and DiManno: DiManno’s 3 February 2008 response followed author’s interview request sent 21 January 2008 by e-mail.

[14] Serano, 2007, 185–6 and 187–8, for more on trans-objectification and effemimania.

[15] DiManno, 1996 (May 27th). DiManno declined to investigate why so many people who are transgender (and/or have transsexual bodies) end up depending on sex work for income. DiManno avoided pondering the institutionalized, class-based barriers behind why so few trans people can afford substantive health care and access to body modification (which could open labour opportunities otherwise denied). Instead, she spilt ink to caricature her interviewee, a trans woman, as an exotic, deviant abstraction: “Mother, a veteran transsexual… gestures toward her chest — almost flat, despite the deliberate postures she assumes of thrusting her ribs forward in imitation of breasts — and says: ‘I’m getting my top done.’ She is almost wistful as she talks about this, becoming the woman she believes [sic] she is. So many transsexuals, unlike transvestites, have similar dreams. Rare is the creature who has actually had the sex-change. It is almost like a mantra, the way some women dream of Mr. Right.”


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<< Introducing “Hostile Homewood”: truly dark and stormyPredation and the culture of institutionalization: impacts of perception and placement >>
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