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Over the past couple of days, we have seen a bit of an internet temper tantrum coming primarily from some in Britain, centering on some voices in the British commentariat, who are very upset about the fact that trans activists and allies have critiqued an unfortunate line in an article and rather blatantly transphobic comments on twitter by journalist Suzanne Moore (see for example my own previous comment about the issue here). Moore initially made an awkward, de-gendering reference to “Brazilian transsexuals” in her NewStatesman piece, followed by a blatantly transphobic tirade on twitter when gently approached about that odd line in the original article.
Let’s say something off the bat to put all of this in some context. The news media (as well as most every other media, in fact) has a long history of writing about trans people, and trans women in particular, in ways that are extremely sensationalistic, exploitative and ultimately damaging to our lives and livelihoods. These types of media tropes about trans women, habitually dehumanizing and de-gendering us through words, serve to stigmatize our bodies and our lives and therefore promote the discrimination, marginalization and violence that the vast majority of us have experienced quite commonly. I myself have experienced some measure of all of these, however trans women living at the intersections of racial oppression, poverty, and others tend to experience these even more dramatically than someone like myself with white privilege.
For examples of this type of media reporting in the U.S., consider a local TV report covering the murder of Coko Williams in a Detroit neighborhood back in April 2012. Coko had her throat slashed and was shot, yet the news story said little about the loss of human life, instead airing grievances of a neighborhood man who complained of street crime and finding trash on his lawn. When the loss of human life was alluded to towards the end of the interview, Coko’s name was never used and she was inappropriately referred to with male pronouns; further, another resident basically said she had the murder coming because she was trans. Finally, even when a queer website covered the murder, the picture included with the story featured a picture of trash from the first interviewee’s lawn rather than a picture of the woman who had been murdered.
Then there was the New York Times coverage of the passing of Lorena Escalera who died in a fire last May. The NYT story focused on details of her sex life and reported what amounted to rumors about surgery a neighbor believed she might have had. Of course, the NYT (or any reputable news source) would never report such sensationalized details after the passing of a cis woman (or probably anyone else, for that matter).
Meanwhile, as detailed by Trans Media Watch in its submission to the Leveson inquiry, elements of the British Press have shaped exploitative and damaging reporting about trans people almost to a twisted art form; this includes outing trans people regardless of any dangers they might face and publishing exploitative pieces about a trans child whose life and images were put on display in a sensationalized manner that invited public ridicule and abuse.
Then of course there are the endless array of plot lines of movies and shows such as CSI in which trans people, and trans women in particular, are presented as freaks or psychotic individuals, not to mention the sitcoms on which trans women are commonly presented as nothing more than a joke.
It is of course within this wider context of sensationalistic media coverage that most any comments about trans people in the press will be received. Therefore it is in this context that such comments must be viewed, including the line from Suzanne Moore’s original article:
“We are angry with ourselves for not being happier, not being loved properly and not having the ideal body shape – that of a Brazilian transsexual.”
As myself and many of my fellow trans activists have pointed out over the last few days, this final phrase is odd and alienating. As I pointed out earlier, it represents body-policing, and it’s anti-feminist. Although she has objected strenuously to this characterization of her words, the comments that Moore made on twitter when approached about the issue clearly revealed a much deeper prejudice about trans women and trans women’s bodies.
Update April 7: I didn’t get a chance to add this until now, but a couple of days ago I was glad to see that Laverne Cox wrote a piece on Huffington Post that included a call-out on the disrespectful reporting on Coko William’s death by Detroit’s local Fox News.
Update April 4, 4:00 AM: I propose we start a twitter campaign criticizing the Fox affiliate station for putting together this disrespectful and transphobic report on Coko’s murder.
Please be polite but firm in your critique. One suggested tweet:
Your report on trans woman Coko William’s murder was transphobic and extremely offensive. @FOX2News apologize now! #RespectCoko
(Pointer: with kind of campaign, it’s better to use the ‘manual’ RT (copy and paste someone’s tweet into your own) rather than the ‘automatic’ RT. The first will show up in the twitter feed of Fox news while the second won’t necessarily.)
Update April 4, 3:30 AM: The trans woman who was murdered yesterday in East Detroit was Coko Williams. A friend described her thusly:
“She was really a sweet, quiet girl,” said Dada, who had known Williams for the past 15 years and told BTL that she sometimes worked as a hair stylist. “She was never shady or nasty. She wasn’t that type of girl at all. She was always respectful of herself and to other people. It’s sad for her to go out the way she did.”
Her death has also been reported on tumblr.
Last night a trans woman,
likely possibly a sex worker [let me emphasize whether she was engaged in sex work or not is not clear], was murdered in a Detroit east side neighborhood. However, instead of presenting her death as a loss, local Detroit’s Fox affiliate news station chose the path of blatant disrespect and transmisogyny.
The report begins with a comment from the studio, “one person is dead after a shooting on Detroit’s East side.” They then turn to Al Allen reporting from the neighborhood where the murder took place. Strangely though, we don’t hear anything further about the murder until the last minute of the report. Instead, Allen reports,
Here along Woodward Avenue on Parkhurst … neighbors are telling Fox News crime is killing their neighborhood. They say they’ve asked for help from the city and the police countless times, but they say no one will listen.
That’s right: in a report about a human being who has recently died, the Fox local station appropriately begins the story by expressing empathy with the setting in which the person’s body was discovered.
They proceed by interviewing an anonymous 25-year neighborhood resident who holds up a picture of some garbage he once found on the ground as evidence that, as Allen says, “the neighborhood is choking on prostitution, drugs and violent crime.” The picture displayed features some “liquor, condoms, drugs and spent bullet casings.”
They proceed to interview a couple more residents who say similar things, then, applying the delicate human touch, Allen comments that at night the neighborhood, “transforms to a haven for prostitution like bees around honey.”
At about the 1:30 mark of a 2:30 minute report, they find a moment to comment on the woman who has just died, of course, misgendering her for good measure:
Neighbors say a male prostitute, killed over night, throat slashed, then shot to death. The second homicide in less than six months.
Then they drop the bombshell, interviewing neighborhood resident Durrail Sanders, who comments,
They’re dealing with another guy and the guy just happens to figure out that’s a man, and, you know, of course, something’s gonna happen.
Wow. So trans women sex workers get shot, cause that’s just what happens to trans women sex workers, huh?
By including this sensationalistic, extremely transmisogynistic comment in their report, Fox is promoting the idea that the woman was killed in response to the revelation of her trans status. However, considering that the woman was shot with a gun (by someone who bothers to carry around a gun in the first place) kind of suggests otherwise. That’s not exactly a conclusion that requires heavy sleuthing.
Then, perhaps attempting to display some last minute shed of integrity, Al Allen makes a final comment suggesting that it might have been robbery after all.
It’s really unfortunate that so many news outlets across the United States still don’t take the half-hour’s worth of work that is required to figure out how to report on trans people in a responsible manner. The Associated Press has adopted clear guidelines for dealing with these issues, which are presented on GLAAD’s website.
I would encourage people to contact the Detroit Fox affiliate and politely but firmly describe why this media report is so offensive, and encourage them to adopt the standards set out by the Associated Press. Alternately, Facebook users may leave comments directly on the story itself.
Finally, at the very end, Fox bothers to mention the one clue they have regarding the identity of the murderer: witnesses say the suspect escaped in a gold-colored car.