She spent 4 years in a men’s prison — how Canada often ignores complexities in trans violence

Over four years, Moka Dawkins slowly learned how to stay safe as a transgender woman in a men’s prison. She wasn’t always successful.

There were threats and name-calling. She was always looking over her shoulder in the shower.

Now, in the handful of months since she’s been released, she fills her schedule with efforts to give back to the LGBTQ2 community that kept her going even when she wasn’t sure she could.

It’s a community that believed her when she insisted to police that she had acted in self-defence — even though a jury did not — after being found with a sword and knives, covered in blood. It’s a community that pressured police and the courts to use the right pronouns, even when the justice system insisted on misgendering Dawkins while she was most vulnerable — a community that is all too aware of the amount of violence, discrimination and prejudice Dawkins faces just being a woman on the streets of Toronto. 

“I’m out here because people took the time to hear my story,” she says. “There are people in the world who are just like me, but they can’t be themselves. When something happens to them, as something happened to me, I was able to turn to a community who supported me.”

Nov. 20, the Transgender Day of Remembrance, was particularly hard.

Dawkins woke before sunrise, her mind buzzing about the day ahead. She had to condense her life story into a speech for a crowd at York University and then get to Toronto City Hall in time to raise the blue, pink and white striped flag. First, she stopped by the police station where her wig and purse had been held since her arrest.

“There was blood in the purse, on the hair, everywhere,” she says.

It had been four years, but seeing her belongings took Dawkins straight back to the police sirens, the court hearings, the lockups — a time when Dawkins’ identity was constantly being challenged.

“I was misgendered all the time. They did it purposely. To them, it was all just a joke.” 

Violence against women is slowly being recognized as a national issue in Canada — on average, a woman is killed every other day. Once a week, a woman is murdered by her partner, and one in three women will experience some form of sexual violence over the course of their lives.

All too often, the conversations — and even the statistics — ignore people who are trans or non-binary, despite the fact they live with a heightened risk of violence. Trans women, specifically those of colour, can be attacked because of misogyny, sexism and transphobia but also racism. When they’re erased from these conversations, so, too, is the violence against them.    

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