Mhelody Polano Bruno was just twenty-five years old when she was killed by former Royal Australian Air Force corporal Rian Ross Toyer. She was a call centre worker from the Philippines who’d been holidaying in Australia and was due to return home a week after her encounter with Toyer. The two had met on Grindr. Toyer claimed that he accidentally choked her to death during a consensual rough sex act.
The case was heard by Judge Gordon Lerve of the Wagga Wagga District Court, an Air Commodore in Royal Australian Air Force Special Reserves. After describing the incident as being ‘on the lower end of the scale of seriousness’ for manslaughter, he initially sentenced Mr Toyer to an intensive correction order involving 500 hours community service. This sentence was subsequently upgraded to a 22-month jail term after Judge Lerve conceded that he’d erred by handing out a community-based order, which was is not available sentencing option for crime of manslaughter in NSW. Toyer was given a 12-month minimum non-parole period and will be eligible for parole in March 2022.
Upon handing down the amended sentence, Judge Lerve remarked that it was ‘a matter of considerable regret’ that he had to impose a custodial sentence.
The tragic, untimely death of Mhelody Bruno touched the hearts of many in Australia’s Filipino, Asian and trans and gender-diverse communities, of which she was a part. On 29 March 2021, several groups – including Filipino youth organisation Anakbayan Sydney and Migrante Australia – gathered at Sydney Town Hall to honour Ms Bruno’s life and to express outrage about the way the justice system had handled her case.
Speakers from Anakbayan Sydney condemned the decision of Judge Lerve to uncritically accept Toyer’s testimony that the choking was consensual, despite Mr Toyer admitting that Ms Bruno had never verbally consented to being choked.
They also expressed anger that the NSW Police had named the investigation ‘Strike Force Lamson’ , a derogatory colloquial reference to anal sex. For many of the vigil’s attendees, Ms Bruno’s death and the subsequent machinations of the Australian justice system showed little respect for trans and Filipino women, and a lack of understanding of the increased risks of sexual and domestic violence that they experience in this country.
‘As a Filipino transwoman of colour’ Anakbayan Sydney organisers wrote in a press release announcing the rally,
Mhelody’s vulnerability … was compounded by the risk of often-fatal violence that disproportionately affects transwomen of colour around the world. They are vulnerable not because of who they are, but because of those who harm them – and those who uphold the unjust system that protects them. Particularly in this moment of reckoning with the normalised culture of violence and sexual abuse against women that saturates everything from Parliament to our personal lives, it is appalling that the state is protecting this man.
For Bhenji Ra, a Sydney artist and trans woman of Filipino descent, the death of Mhelody Bruno and the court’s acceptance of Mr Toyer’s evidence regarding the manner of her death are further evidence of the racism and transphobia at the heart of Australia’s justice system. As she told Paul Gregoire in an article for Sydney Criminal Lawyers,
The rough sex defence is so dangerous. It’s dangerous to blur these lines of consent and communication … I read about a case involving the rough sex defence in New Zealand. And the investigators said that in order to actually kill someone while choking them you have to apply force for four to five minutes. That is such a long time to be choking somebody. How is that considered kink? That is not kink. It is straight up physical violence. There hasn’t been enough nuance around how people are communicating consent here. Just to put it down to rough sex is a slap in the face. The fact that she was a Filipino trans woman from overseas has been weaponised against her so it can be palmed off to kink. They’re conflating being trans and kink together. It’s disgusting and it’s deeply transphobic.
A joint statement from several trans and gender-diverse organisations including The Gender Centre, ACON, Trans Pride Australia, Sistergirls & Brotherboys Australia as well as individual signatories (I was among them), calls on the Director of Public Prosecutions to appeal the process and sentence in Ms Bruno’s case. In doing so, they cite a failure to properly consider the heightened vulnerability of trans women of colour to violence, and concerns around Judge Lerve’s acceptance of her ‘implied consent’. They express concerns about various aspects of the sentence, including an inadequate recognition of the six victim impact statements supplied to the court by Ms Bruno’s family, a lack of transparency and public accountability during the court proceedings, and the ‘dangerous precedent set by the sentencing remarks and decision, which treats violence against transgender women with impunity and further entrenches discriminatory attitudes towards transgender women.’
For Tashynga, one of the speakers at the Mhelody Bruno Vigil at Sydney Town Hall, simply providing a longer custodial sentence for Mr Toyer is not the answer:
In the sentencing judgment … Rian Toyer was given nearly two pages explaining his extenuating circumstances. We hear a glowing account of him since birth. How well behaved he was as a child. How well he did at school. The difficulties he faced. The people that love him and vouch for him. His psychologist noting the extreme impact the death of Mhelody has had on him. Yet we were given nothing about Mhelody. Merely the implication that she consented to her death, an implication that is peppered throughout the judgment. We want more justice for Mhelody Bruno than the system can ever give to her.
Bhenji Ra provided invaluable coverage of Ms Bruno’s case via social media and stayed in touch with her family in the Philippines during the trial. She believes that this case sends a message that Filipino trans bodies ‘don’t have value and are disposable, and that our bodies aren’t deserving of a full investigation. That are bodies are not, as Mariame Kaba talks about, the bodies of the perfect victim.’ She sums up what this tragic death reveals for trans people of colour in Australia:
This is why we don’t run to the system. The legal system has never been there to protect us. The State is not for us. It’s because it’s been imagined for us by white folk … by white, male patriarchy, and that in it, there’s a ladder, and that someone like Mhelody Bruno who is trans and who is a woman of Filipino descent who was a migrant, she is at the bottom of that ladder … She’s deserving of more protection and I think that’s where we step in as community, and we hold ourselves accountable to her. We have to be accountable to her family, we have to take responsibility for her death, because we can’t rely on the justice system to do that right now. We can ask for it, we can demand it, but at the end of the day, we have to be the ones who step in and create that protection and that safety net for trans folks because it’s not happening in this legal system.
It’s vital that we heed the words of the Filipino, trans and Asian voices at the heart of this tragedy.
A Melbourne Vigil and Rally for Justice for Mhelody Bruno will be held today at 6pm at the State Library of Victoria.