Cases of Missing Trans People are Rarely Solved. A Married Pair of Forensic Genealogists is Hoping to Change That

By Erica Lentl

Xtra

They found Markham Doe among the evergreens on the east side of 11th Concession, in Markham, Ontario, on July 16, 1980. It was a humid, rainy summer day. Doe had been there for a year, or two, or three, investigators presumed. Here, on this stretch of rural road northeast of Toronto, thousands of cars zoomed past; no one had found them. Not until a motorist took a pit stop that wet, July day and came across their skeletal remains

Investigators with Ontario’s York Regional Police Service found that Doe’s remains bore few clues to their identity. While it’s likely they were a trans woman, cold case files continue to gender them male due to biological skeletal markers. (I’ve opted for they/them pronouns to respect their unknown gender identity.) Markam Doe wore a red blouse, white frilled socks, Brittania-brand jeans and a pair of red, possibly pink, high heels with bows on top. Their hair ran down to the back of their neck, chestnut brown and moppish. Stains on their teeth suggested they may have been a smoker. In an artist’s rendering based on forensic evidence, Doe sits, legs crossed; in another, they stand, hand in pocket. They would have been roughly 5 feet, 6 inches; they were young when they died, just 20 or so. As far as police records show, no one came forward to report them missing, or to claim them after their remains were found.

It was a time when rights and visibility for LGBTQ2S+ people were especially precarious. It was a little more than decade since Compton’s Cafeteria Riots in San Francisco and the Stonewall Uprising in New York, and a year before the mass demonstrations following police raids on Toronto bathhouses. Trans people had few official protections or support services. Susan Gapka, a Toronto trans activist who came out about a decade after Markham Doe’s death, recalls that the threat of violence against the community was so severe it persuaded her to stay in the closet. Many trans women turned to sex work to survive, but were frequently criminalized, harassed by police and subject to violence; community members only had one another to lean on. Of the 1980s and ’90s, Gapka remembers hardship: “Trans people were often left behind,” she says. 

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Picture: AlphaZeta, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

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