How Trans Woman Mhelody Bruno Was Failed By Australia’s Justice System

The 25-year-old was killed by former corporal Rian Ross Toyer. He will serve less than two years for her death.

mhelody bruno justice 2021

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In September 2019, Mhelody Polan Bruno was killed while visiting Australia. Her death is a damning reminder of continued violence against trans women of colour. She was 25 years old.

Content Warning: This article contains discussion of sexual violence.

Mhelody was from Surigao del Sur in the Philippines and had only been here for two months. She was choked to death by 33 year old Rian Ross Toyer in his Wagga Wagga home just a week before her flight back. 

The former airforce corporal admitted erotic asphyxiation led to her death. Judge Gordon Lerve described the case as being “on the lower end of the scale of seriousness” for manslaughter. 

Toyer was given 500 hours of community service as part of a corrective order and upon being charged, was released on bail. A sentencing error identified this week means Toyer will now serve at least 12 months in prison.

But the trans and Filipino communities believe this isn’t enough. 

A joint statement calling the Director of Public Prosecutions to appeal Mhelody’s case was released this week by key bodies like the Gender Centre, ACON, Trans Pride Australia, Sistergirls & Brotherboys Australia as well as individual signatories. 

“We want to be clear that we are not advocating for any particular sentence in this case,” they wrote. 

“We advocate against 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.”

From her life being taken too soon, to sentencing errors, her family not being able to listen to the live outcome and being misgendered in court — Mhelody Bruno has been failed time and time again. 

A 2020 study found that trans women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds were twice as likely to experience sexual assault on 10 or more occasions, in comparison to other groups. 

“Mhelody’s case makes me and so many other young trans women feel as though we have a ticking time bomb on our heads and that we are living on borrowed time,” Rey Valmores-Salinas from Tacloban City in the Philippines, told Junkee.

Toyer’s resentencing comes at a time where the world is grappling with sexual assault as well as violence against the Asian community.

“The coverage we’ve been seeing on this is really scant but also seems to be salacious,” says Patricia Arcilla, talking to Junkee.

“It’s pretty clear that [her death] is the result of transphobic violence and the way that women like Mhelody are viewed as hypersexual objects,” the activist from the Sydney branch of youth diaspora group, Anakbayan, said. 

NSW police were criticised for naming the investigation into Mhelody’s death ‘Strike Force Lamson’ — slang for a form of anal play.  

While reports zeroed in on the sexual act from which she passed, the focus should have instead been on the murky read of consent in Mhelody’s case.

According to court records from the initial sentencing, Toyer “conceded to the police that the deceased had never requested to be choked however was never asked to cease the practice”. 

One of the rationale in the community joint statement expressed concern that Mhelody had ‘implied’ but not explicitly given verbal consent. 

The pair had allegedly previously engaged in breath play over the three weeks they knew each other, with Toyer saying Mhelody instigated its first use.

Judge Verne ruled that because Mhelody had consented in the past, “although there was no discussion as to the boundaries there was an understanding that the deceased would tap the offender’s arm if she was distressed or wanted him to stop the choking.”

The joint statement reads her case had been framed as “rough sex gone wrong” and does not reflect the full extent of the crime, nor does it acknowledge the nuances and vulnerability that come from Mhelody being a trans woman of colour. 

For Australian-Filipino’s, Toyer’s defence force background adds complexity to the pain of Mhelody’s story.

“The idea that military men were able to act with impunity for their relations with local women” is tied to Western military presence in the Philippines, Arcilla believes. “The fact that they’ve subsequently been protected is historically tied to military occupation.”

Valmores-Salinas says that there has been silence from President Duterte’s government this week. It’s believed Mhelody’s family has reached out to them for help however “it has now fallen onto the LGBTQIA+ community to make noise and raise Mhelody’s plight” in their home country.

“Both the Australian [judiciary] and Philippine government are culpable for the continued distortion and denial of justice, dignity, and humanity for trans people,” Valmores-Salinas said. 

For International Trans Day Of Visibility, the Filipino queer community released an open letter to the Australian Embassy in the Philippines to condemn Judge Lerve’s “absurd” re-sentence of Toyer. 

“Apparently, if an Australian soldier kills a trans woman Filipina, he can walk away scot-free after less than 2 years of jail time,” it read. 

A rally demanding justice for Mhelody was held in Sydney on Monday to challenge Judge Lerve’s decision. Melbourne will host a vigil and rally outside the State Library on Tuesday, April 6.

“In this current moment of reckoning, it’s really important we ensure we recognise that trans women of colour’s experiences are not just an asterisk — they’re actually something that we need to contend with, listen to, and not just dismiss,” Arcilla says.