Synthia legally changed her name at age 19. As an adult she calculated that she had spent only six years of her life not in some kind of institution.
In 1985, she was working as a prostitute when she murdered a fellow transsexual, her roommate Lisa Black, with a hammer and a knife.
The judge suggested 'simple humanity' requires that Synthia serve her sentence in a woman's prison, however the correctional services rejected this and put her in Millhaven Penitentiary, the maximum-security prison for men in Bath, Ontario. The correctional services would not put her in a women's prison because she still had male genitals, and substantially reduced her dosage of estrogens despite the fact that she has been taking them for many years.
The Clarke Institute of Psychiatry, Ontario's Gender Identity Clinic, refused to approve her for a sex-change because she was unable to complete a two-year Real-Life Test. She filed a human rights complaint and the Human Rights Tribunal agreed that the policy of Corrections Canada placing trans women among the male population was discriminatory and that the absolute ban on sex changes was unwarranted. This decision was upheld in Federal Court.
Kavanagh had the operation in 2000, and in 2001 was transferred to Joliette, a medium-security women’s prison north of Montréal.
In 2005 she trashed a room at Edmonton’s women’s prison and fought off guards. She was then transferred to the maximum-security Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ontario.
- Bruce DeMara. “Serving a life term in two prisons”. The Toronto Star. 4 March 1990.
- “Synthia Kavanagh Human Rights Case”. The Transgender Inmate Experience. Oct 4, 2008. transgenderinmate.blogspot.com/2008/10/blog-post.html.
- Transgender Prisoners in Canada. http://www.vcn.bc.ca/august10/downloads/trans_prisoners_july2007.pdf
The 2005 trashing incident provoked some ‘she is still a man’ newspaper articles.
Synthia Kavanagh was not the first Canadian inmate to have gender surgery, although she is the best known. She was preceded by Shelley Ball in 1980.