Predation and the culture of institutionalization: impacts of perception and placement

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

Part 3 of 5 in
Hostile Homewood.

Third in a five-part unpublished series from 2008, posted June 13th through 17th.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

If anything instructive may emerge from a critical analysis of Palma’s killing spree, it was this: each victim he targeted articulated their dialect of gender contrary to either expectations of their morphological sex at birth (i.e., the shape of their external genitals) or their neurological, subconscious sex[16] (i.e., the immutable consciousness of being female, male, or otherwise, irrespective of how others designated one’s morphological sex at birth). For the victims Palma murdered, he revealed three discretely positional, perceptual, and legal circumstances each faced in life. For at least one (and possibly two) of the victims, these circumstances were shaped by a Toronto-based institution which regulated a social leverage over how people with transsexual bodies were sanctioned to exist in public and private capacities. By producing a false economy of scarcity, the institution, the only of its kind in Ontario (and the only sanctioned to authorize Medicare/OHIP access for trans health), confined access to a handpicked minority of trans people. It relegated all but those it selected to the social margins, but it also effected an optics of institutionalization over every trans person living in the province.

Brenda Ludgate was executed first. Palma targeted Ludgate, his one cisgender victim with a cissexual body, because he placed her as deviating from being cisgender (or having a cissexual body). Brenda’s life experiences as a cisgender woman were not particularly investigated by the media, even as Palma himself believed she may have been trans (DiManno 1996b, A7).

Shawn Keegan, known affectionately as Junior by friends and colleagues, was a transgender teen, not cisgender[17]. Junior came out to their parents just before being shot twice by Palma (Boyle 1996, A6). Reporters labelled Junior as a cisgender “man” with a cissexual body, de-legitimizing the way they articulated themselves as a girl not only on the night they were shot down, but also for their other job at Bar 501, a drag bar on Church Street (DiManno 1996a, A7). Reporters who labelled Junior as a “man” also erased why Palma targeted Junior.

Deanna Wilkinson, whom Palma murdered last, was a transgender woman with a transsexual body. She had been transitioned for years. Reporters and columnists labelled Deanna “a transsexual” (linguistically problematic in that a description of her body was used to transform her into an object). They held Deanna to a cissexist irreconcilability that she could be nothing other than a “man” with a cissexual body. This literary dissonance produced a contradiction to guide readers to invalidate Deanna’s lived experiences as a transgender woman or having a transsexual body. Cissexism dictates the terms of a disputed transsexuality — disputable solely because Deanna had yet to afford the means to modify her body surgically or “prove” an indeterminately cissexist requirement that she was “legitimately” transgender (and had a transsexual body). Cisgender reporters published contradictions which not only invalidated her lived experiences and barriers as a woman, but also placed an inordinate emphasis on the name assigned to her at birth over her actual, de facto name[18] (Serano 2007, 12).

Deanna was ensnared institutionally by a punitive scenario confronting many young trans women and men in Toronto and throughout Ontario. Her only viable source of income beyond limited welfare assistance (covering limited monthly expenses) was sex work (MacDonald 1996, E5). Her situation was indicative of amassing no previous work experiences upon which she could rely to find over-the-table wage work while her legal paperwork was inconsistent and in flux, limiting her vocational options to informal, under-the-table labour — not unlike an undocumented worker:

Sex workers are denied basic civil rights. They are forced underground for fear of losing custody of children, housing or second job, being deported… and denied the right to a family life other people take for granted because anyone who associates with a prostitute can be accused of being a prostitute herself” (English Collective of Prostitutes 1997, 86).

In 2008, one may obtain an administrative change of legal name in Ontario. Relative to other provinces (like Québec, where état civil, or civil status, regulates name registries), this may be a relatively straightforward procedure (Namaste 2005, 116–7). It may amend federal, provincial, and even financial documents. It, however, may not alter a legal sex marker. For a trans woman or trans man searching for work, this interval of inconsistent documentation renders them vulnerable to discriminatory, exclusionary, and punitive treatment in workplaces, health care facilities, schools, and whenever a transaction necessitates proof of legal identification. It may deprive them from everyday instances of participation ascribed to experiencing the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.

Figure 5. Location of The Clarke Institute of Psychiatry’s Gender Identity Clinic, later the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) Gender Identity Clinic, on College Street at Huron. [©© Mateen Mahboubi]

Figure 5. Location of The Clarke Institute of Psychiatry’s Gender Identity Clinic, later the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) Gender Identity Clinic, on College Street at Huron. [©© Mateen Mahboubi]

In 1996, the principal institution in Toronto (and Ontario) dispensing health care services for trans people was the Clarke Institute of Psychiatry’s Gender Identity Clinic (or GIC)[19] (Namaste 2000). The Clarke, affiliated with the University of Toronto, has since 1998 been known as the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) (Beal 2003, 118). CAMH, as with The Clarke, charged itself with a mandate to “assess” trans people under the regulatory aegis of a prescribed standards of care (recognized generally, but not exclusively by practitioners) (Meyer, Bockting, et al. 2001).

From these standards, The Clarke GIC’s practitioners narrowed these criteria further to generate its own research. As a research institution, it was less invested in a mandate to deliver turnkey health care for trans people than it was to use trans people for conducting its own clinical studies. This detachment between informed client care and progressing its own institutional objectives set a stage for selective, if delayed care for those The Clarke GIC did admit, while eliminating a principal path for health care for any candidate who “failed” to satisfy its own subjective, mercurial criteria (Hollobon 1978, P1; Namaste 2000, 204). Even within the constraint of these obstacles, a socio-economic schism between trans people The Clarke GIC accepted and trans people it rejected found its way into daily life. One of its guidelines defined morally what it considered to be “legitimate” work activity while a patient was “cross-living” [sic]: while full-time wage or volunteer work was acceptable, income from sex work was not — even though the international standards of care to which The Clarke abided took no position on the matter (Namaste 2000, 206–9).

Assuming that a trans person turned to The Clarke GIC for health care (as some in Ontario have done), they would have to first present evidence of their “legitimate” employment for at least one year (and sometimes two) before it would begin to prescribe routine maintenance medication (i.e., sex hormones) and, separately, certify that the individual was a “suitable” trans person for genital surgery (which could only proceed after two years of a “real-life test” [sic][20]) (ibid., 209). By “legitimate”, a trans person could document this with a paper trail of paycheque stubs in one’s updated legal name or in a letter from either a work supervisor or volunteer co-ordinator. Sex work, whose transactions may not be recorded, was excluded on the basis that it was a morally illegitimate way to earn a living. It meant that trans people in sex work were admonished by The Clarke GIC from obtaining health services necessary to empower them with an agency (i.e., control) over their own bodies while disempowering them from resources which could at least reduce some commissions of ostracism precipitated by superficial appearances. By contrast, for a trans person to arrive from an established, over-the-table career profession (with even modest financial means), satisfying The Clarke GIC’s requirements was far less onerous. As Namaste concluded from her qualitative research conducted in 1995, “discriminatory attitudes toward prostitutes, as well as an implicit valorization of ‘professional’ transsexuals, contribute to the institutional marginalization of transsexual prostitutes” at The Clarke GIC (Namaste 2005, 49–51). The premium The Clarke GIC placed on professional experiences also agitated the marginalization of trans people too young for over-the-table careers; this marginalization was greater for those also estranged by family.

The Clarke GIC’s institutional neglect toward at-risk, working class, and low-income trans women was not exclusive to Toronto: accommodating unambiguously to “professional” trans people to the exclusion of vulnerable, marginalized trans populations was comparable to criteria advanced by other North American “gender identity clinics” still active during the 1990s[21]. This standard of practice perpetuated the illusory myth that the presence of a gender identity clinic facility within a city-region was beneficial for all trans people living within it. In practice, while few ad hoc alternatives for basic healthcare access were possible for non-“professional” trans people, The Clarke GIC made it prohibitive for a trans person it excluded to secure trans-related health care in Toronto.

Because Deanna Wilkinson could not “prove” her day-to-day existence of womanhood under The Clarke GIC’s criteria (i.e., showing pay stubs or obtaining a signed letter from a supervisor), she was unable to access The Clarke GIC for the health care and support she needed to move forward with her life. Had she lived beyond Victoria Day and retired from sex work immediately, it remains difficult to visualize how she could be hired into what The Clarke GIC classified as “legitimate” employment, because her legal paperwork made it all but impossible to acquire. Deanna’s body was found with identification showing the name assigned to her at birth, and it was this name which all news media used primarily when referring to her — confining her name, Deanna, to scare quotes or contained within parentheses (when her name was referred to at all)[22]. This reporting produced a falsity around her name, thereby producing a falsity around not only her womanhood but also around her everyday lived experiences as a woman who was trans. If this barrier befell Deanna, then the inertial forces against Junior (had they lived and affirmed that their life experiences were not only transgender, but also acknowledged having a transsexual body) would have been equally daunting — if not more so for the added barrier of testing seropositive for HIV just eight months earlier (Welsh and Brazao 1996, A4).

Had The Clarke GIC permitted under-the-table income from informal economies like sex work, then Deanna might have moved forward with her life many years sooner as it provided her with safer, more stable options to earn income (and practical means for obtaining access to addiction recovery services). Alternately, had there been another health resource available (or had other community health resources in the cisgender lesbian, gay, and bisexual community (LGB) been at her disposal to assist with legal documentation, health needs, social welfare, and even addiction recovery), then Deanna may not have needed remedial sex work for as long as she had. Survival work often serves as a last resort, not as an elective vocation. For many trans women, sex work may be the only vocation possible for survival.

Part four explores the intersection between femininity, prescriptive impositions of gendering over public spacing, and the temporality of those spaces.


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


[16] Serano, 2007. Serano distinguishes subconscious sex from physical sex as an “intrinsic self-understanding that all people experience regarding their own sex embodiment. Cissexuals tend not to notice or appreciate their own subconscious sex because it is concordant with their physical sex… trans people tend to be excruciatingly aware of their subconscious sex (as it is at odds with their physical sex).”

[17] Serano, 2007. This paradigmatic relationship of cisgender-transgender echoes Serano’s cissexual-transsexual paradigm referred to periodically in her text. A problematic with making an analogy is the linguistic desire to conflate the two as selfsame: a transsexual body reflects mutabilities wrought by an additional puberty and/or surgical intervention; one’s articulated dialect of gender — how one communicates the language of gender — may change over time, but their subconscious sex may not. These paradigms are not interchangeable.

[18] Serano, 2007, 12, for more on cissexism. This power relationship is predicated on a notion that cissexuality is culturally normative, thus rendering its counterpart — transsexuality — not as a variation, but as inferior.

[19] Namaste delivers an exhaustive overview for guidelines which The Clarke’s GIC applied during the late 1990s for evaluating patients. Knowledge on this topic is aggregated predominantly from this peer-reviewed source; it is further corroborated by at least a dozen anecdotes shared with the author from peers with first-hand institutional experience. In 2008, the CAMH GIC continues this regulatory institutionalization over trans people’s health care access.

[20] A fundamental problematic of the institutional phrase “real-life test” intimates that being trans is in some way vocational, akin to labour and, consequently, an activity which one is able to “quit” — not unlike a wage job.

[21] The author is informed by ongoing feedback from peers in localities who have had direct experiences with facilities which neither promote nor offer sliding-scale, affordable, or free clinical access for low-income and/or homeless populations of trans people.

[22] The name designated to Deanna at birth was a matter of public record and is published in nearly every news article reporting her murder. A trans person’s name designated at birth is never germane when interacting with or referring to that person.

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.

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