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.
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.
Dawkins smiles wide, her glossy lips shimmering as she describes the joy in her mom’s voice when she earned her GED, a high school equivalency, in prison. She swings her long, dark hair across one shoulder as she proudly talks about studying psychology. She says she wouldn’t be dreaming about a future as a social worker if it wasn’t for the support she received during the darkest days of her life.
They remained supportive of her as the details of a rainy night in April 2015 began to emerge in court.
Dawkins, who was 25 at the time, had been a sex worker for more than a decade. She was new to Toronto, living in a women’s shelter and struggling to find work. Experts say that is a common reason trans women turn to the industry.
That night, Dawkins’ plan was to pick up weed from Foster, but once she was there, they began to fool around. When she was ready to meet her friends at a nightclub, he became aggressive and tried to block her from leaving, she testified in court.
“I was trying to reassure him that I’d come back after the club,” she told Global News, but he grew increasingly frustrated. Still, she says: “I didn’t feel like he was going to harm me.”
Dawkins walked to the front door to put on her shoes. Hunched over her purse, fixing her wig, she remembers Foster telling her she “wasn’t going anywhere.”
“That’s when he took the knife and stabbed me in the face,” she says.
Dawkins fought back and ultimately killed Foster. During her trial, the court heard Foster bled to death from multiple stab wounds to his arm, groin and thigh.
The Toronto police release about Dawkins’ arrest used her dead name — a term the trans community uses to refer to the birth name or given name a person no longer uses — and identified her as a man.
In response to questions about misgendering her, a spokesperson told Global News that investigators “were aware” Dawkins was a trans woman but were “not in control of statements and descriptions given by witnesses.” They added that “investigators would not have corrected the pronouns when entering witness accounts into reports, referencing, testifying, or even interviewing the suspect directly.”
Because of that news release, media outlets (Global News included) misgendered Dawkins, using her dead name. One outlet painted the night as merely a deadly lovers’ quarrel. While coverage like this is predictable, the Human Rights Campaign Foundation says it’s also problematic, as it can “inflame prejudice, discrimination and violence.”
Canadian data is hard to come by, but Dawkins is not the only trans woman to experience violence.
Statistics Canada’s hate crime report does not track offences specifically against trans or non-binary people, nor does the agency plan to change that in 2020, a spokesperson said. Incidents reported as transgender or agender are filed under “other sex.” Between 2017 and 2018, the number of hate crimes in this category nearly doubled, from 15 to 28.
Those numbers are just “the tip of the iceberg,” says Elizabeth Saewyc, a University of British Columbia professor who heads the Canadian Trans Youth Health Survey.
In 2019, 28 per cent of trans and non-binary youth in Canada reported being sexually assaulted and 33 per cent reported sexual harassment, according to Saewyc’s data.
“The vast majority of violence people experience doesn’t get reported, no matter the type of violence.”
Half of transgender people say they feel uncomfortable seeking help from police, a U.S. report found. Twenty-two per cent say they’ve experienced harassment when interacting with law enforcement, a number that rises to 38 per cent for black trans people like Dawkins.
The prevalence of trans women dying in Canada is not well documented, but there are several cases that highlight cracks in a country hailed for its work on Bill C-16, which enshrined the rights of transgender people by adding “gender identity” and “gender expression” to human rights and hate crime laws.
Sisi Thibert, whose social media is peppered with videos of the striking blonde dancing, was killed in Montreal in 2017. She was stabbed repeatedly in the lobby of her own apartment by a man who was recently convicted in relation to her killing.
All but Berman were involved in the sex industry at some point in their lives, according to local media reports. Of the more than 3,000 trans people killed globally in the last 11 years, 61 per cent were sex workers, according to data from the Trans Respect Versus Transphobia project.
In spring 2015, Dawkins went to her friend Sumaya Dalmar’s funeral. Dalmar, a respected trans activist, was found dead in Toronto that year.
Months later, as Dawkins wrestled the knife away from Foster, she thought of that vigil. She remembered what it was like to say goodbye to someone she saw as a sister, someone so young.
“Those were the kinds of things running through my mind,” she says.
Dawkins remembers the feeling of terror but still struggles to explain what happened.
“My body did what my body did,” she says. “It just went into self-defence mode.”
She remembers a knife and stabbing Foster. She remembers blood blurring her vision as she scrambled to the bathroom. She remembers a pool of blood creeping from under the door and her own voice calling out: “Jay? Jay? Jay?”
She used a shower curtain rod to get into Foster’s bedroom and call 911.
She says that’s when Foster “jumped up,” so she grabbed a collectible sword off his wall and flung it at him before making her escape.
“I’m not a murderer,” she says, her eyes widening.
While the attack was provoked, a judge later ruled Dawkins’ actions went beyond self-defence. He also found she took too long to call 911.
When police arrived, Dawkins was in the parking lot outside the building, sword in one hand, knives in the other, court documents show. She says she was hysterical.
Police told Dawkins to drop the weapons, but she didn’t. She approached them and was yelling, but it was unintelligible to the officers.
“I was telling them, ‘I’m the one that called you guys,’” she said.
Officers maced her. She was shaking and screaming in pain, she says, and her wig came off.
“The next thing I remember was their laughter.”
A spokesperson for Toronto police did not respond to a request for comment about specific allegations, except to say that no official complaint was lodged against the force.
Dawkins was described as acting “wildly” by one of the officers in the court documents. Covered in blood, paramedics wanted to assess her, but she was resistant — struggling, kicking and screaming.
When police told her Foster had died, she didn’t believe it.
“I thought they were trying to mess with my head,” she said. “I didn’t believe it until the preliminary hearing.”
Dawkins insisted she acted in self-defence from the moment she was handcuffed by police. Foster was going to kill her, she later told the jury, so she had to stab him.
Dawkins was tried as a man under her dead name. The courts — and judge — later corrected this.
On Oct. 17, 2018, after already having served three years in prison, the jury found Dawkins not guilty of second-degree murder but guilty of manslaughter.
In the courtroom, Dawkins apologized to Foster’s family.
“I’m so sorry,” she told his parents, who had spoken about the pain of losing their son in victim impact statements, according to a Toronto Star report.
“I hope you find it in your heart to forgive me.”
Dawkins was initially sent to a provincial men’s prison in Toronto.
Because she was considered a biological man by the justice system, she would have been forced into segregation in a women’s facility, according to an affidavit filed by Dawkins’ lawyer in court. The blatant misgendering and transphobic aggressions from both guards and inmates at Toronto South Detention Centre, as laid out in the affidavit, were “a lot to go through,” Dawkins says.
She was denied her wig when she first arrived, the affidavit says. When she wrapped a shirt around her head to mimic hair, she was put in segregation. Years passed before she was allowed to have it back.
The federal prison system overhauled policies around transgender inmates when Bill C-16 was ushered in. The move was widely celebrated, but others were cautious, saying the changes only go “halfway” to keeping trans prisoners safe. Ontario touts its current policies surrounding transgender inmates as among the “most progressive in North America.” They now include an inmate’s right to be housed by preference or self-identified gender.
Dawkins says the discrimination continued as her case worked its way through the courts. She felt her experiences as a black, trans sex worker were ignored or overlooked. Dawkins’ lawyers asked to bring in an expert to help the jury understand the prevalence of violence against trans people, especially those who engage in sex work, but the application was denied.
Justice Robert Clark acknowledged that the report was “important from a sociological standpoint” but ruled it “irrelevant” to the jury, who were tasked with deciding who initiated the violence and whether Dawkins’ reaction was proportionate.
The judge acknowledged that Foster sought out Dawkins because she was transgender and conflict only arose when she wouldn’t have sex with him.
Monica Forrester with Maggie’s, the Toronto-based sex workers’ rights organization, says that’s dismissive of trans realities.
“Trans people are a sexualized community. A lot of trans people are targeted because they’re sexualized. Some people seek out trans people out of desire, but some of them know they can do things to trans women and get away with it,” she said.
“Because he sought her out and it was sexual, that doesn’t mean they’re not violent.”
Watching Dawkins deal with the justice system — courts and prison — and public scrutiny as a trans woman was new for lawyer Jennifer Penman. She believes trans people who find themselves in trouble with the law likely deny their identities out of fear.
“They’re afraid of violence — emotional, verbal, physical abuse — while in custody. And then how they’re potentially going to be treated in court, whether they’re going to get a fair trial, whether there’s going to be prejudice against them through the system, through the jury.”
Dawkins was granted credit to her sentence for her experience as a woman in a men’s prison.
She is currently facing charges pertaining to sexual assault and uttering threats relating to two prison incidents in 2019, to which she intends to plead not guilty.
She says she can’t talk about the allegations, although she has filed a human rights complaint against the Ontario Ministry of the Solicitor General. A spokesperson for the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario confirmed Dawkins is the complainant and said the case has yet to be heard.
If Dawkins is certain about anything these days, it’s that education is key to preventing other people from having to go through what she did — the violence and blatant dismissal of her identity and work.
The public, the police, the courts and the correctional system are behind the times, she says, and these systems need to adapt, understand and learn how to interact with trans and non-binary folks as well as sex workers. It’s why she was so excited to get a job helping people just like her.
Dawkins is hopeful for her future.
Whatever comes next, she’s determined to move on from the pain of the last four years.
“It doesn’t matter how you identify. If you’re biologically born or spiritually born a woman, you’re a woman at the end of the day. You know yourself,” she says.
“Change is going to come. It is going to come.”
To read the full Broken series, go here.
For a list of resources if you need help, go here.
Our reporting doesn’t end here. Do you have a story of violence against women, trans or non-binary persons — sexual harassment, emotional, physical or sexual abuse or murder — that you want us to look at?