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My recent article at Pretty Queer focuses on leadership, politics and support for trans women within the trans community:
I want to preface the comments I’m about to make by acknowledging that our trans community (communitIES is really what I should say) is reeling from some events over the last couple of months. I think many of us are heartbroken, as we should be, over a series of murders of young trans women of color across the U.S. in the last month followed by the recent development that CeCe McDonald had few better legal options than to plead to 2nd degree manslaughter with a recommended 41-month sentence.
To make matters worse, the aftermath of the murders mentioned above recall the usual patterns of police dismissal and blatant disrespect from the media for the victims of racism and trans-misogyny. It is in this context that I think a lot of us feel, in addition to grief and frustration, plenty of doubt and uncertainty about where to head next. The solutions are not always clear, and I think we must avoid the trap of looking for easy answers.
In the aftermath of CeCe’s plea bargain, PrettyQueer’s Tom Léger conducted an interview with Dean Spade, a well-known trans activist and Assistant Professor of Law at a Seattle law school. I’ll note from the outset that criticisms of Dean have been surfacing in recent years; the criticisms primarily focus on his relationship (both professionally speaking and as an activist) with trans women.
For the rest, check out the full article at Pretty Queer here.
The last couple of months have been really busy so I’ve fallen behind on blogging, but I wanted to quickly revisit a story from March that I have been meaning to comment on for a while.Back in mid-March, stories began to appear in the Orange County local press about Perla Serrano, a 51-year old trans woman who allegedly committed identity theft over a thirteen year period against another Southern California woman.
These stories linked above contain many of the sadly not-unexpected flaws of mainstream media coverage of trans issues and identities– especially common in local news sources– specifically, they misgender Perla throughout, never even acknowledging the fact that she clearly identifies as a woman and lives her life accordingly. However, unlike some particularly awful local news outlets, they at least avoid the route of intentionally sensationalizing the story or playing it off for cheap laughs.
Unfortunately, another outlet was even less responsible, and several larger media outlets picked up on the story over the next few days and chose the path of blatant ridicule.
The Los Angeles local KTLA 5 broadcast (which was apparently rebroadcasted outside the Southern California area) opens with the sensationalizing line,
If Perla Serrano did indeed commit identity theft, then obviously that is a serious crime. That having been said, do you know what’s actually bizarre about this? The accusation that Serrano would transition to living as a woman purely for the purposes of obtaining free healthcare. That is completely bizarre. And utterly stupid considering the obvious fact that if she had no interest in living as a woman in the first place, she could have simply chosen some man’s identity to steal. Why would anyone, no matter how desperate, go through the trouble of transitioning their body merely to obtain healthcare by posing within the binary gender role with which they do not genuinely identify?
If you think identity theft is a drag, hear this: a bizarre case of stolen identity. A man is arrested after masquerading as his female victim for thirteen years in an elaborate plot to steal her identity and drain her bank account.
Then of course there is the childish reference to `drag’ in the opening sentence. The story continues with reporter `on the beat’ Chip Yost who continues the masquerade by showing pictures of Perla while repeatedly referring to her as a `man.’ The story ends with Yost’s snarky account of Perla’s arrest:
The deputy confronted Serrano, saying he knew Serrano was a man, but Serrano… denied it, insisting she was a woman. That issue was finally settled during the booking process… [after which] Serrano was ultimately placed– in the men’s prison. [emphasis added]
Well of course she denied that she was a man, since she is a woman. Further, the fact is that trans women arrested in the U.S. are usually unjustly placed in the men’s prison so that really doesn’t prove much of anything.
The transphobic news charade continued from this point with Latino Fox News who opened their story with the idiotic line, “Identity theft can be a real drag,” and even the Huffington Post got in on the fun with it’s own report filed under “Weird News.”
Of course, there’s nothing especially `weird’ about a woman posing as another woman to obtain healthcare. It’s wrong of course, but it’s not weird (and I do want to make clear that the victim of Perla’s alleged identity theft deserves full financial and legal restitution for any damages that might have been incurred).
However, stepping beyond the analysis of the transphobic media coverage itself, I think this issue raises another question about why this type of derision would be directed against a most likely impoverished trans woman of color in the first place. Of course, it’s nothing unusual for local media outlets across the United States to belittle trans women by referring to them with slurs and transmisogynistic language– even when reporting that they have been murdered. This isn’t even the worst case. But there’s something particularly ridiculous in the attempt to deny that Perla Serrano even genuinely identifies as a woman in the first place.
For one thing, I think most of us can look at Perla’s image and tell she wasn’t “acting as a woman to get healthcare.” Even someone who is fairly ignorant of trans issues should be able to recognize that she isn’t simply putting on a costume to bilk some healthcare out of the system.
In fact, I don’t think it is Perla who is putting on a costume in this instance; rather it is the privatized U.S. healthcare system that is doing so. The fact that the healthcare system in the United States is gradually spinning out of control has become widely recognized in the past decade or so by many Americans outside the throes of rightwing or libertarian ideologies– both of which are rather up-front about the fact that they have little interest in dealing with real world social problems anyways.
The problems with the system are varied and complex, but the primary issues come down to the fact that privatized healthcare apparently does nothing to reduce costs and that having multiple parties to finance care results in a bloated bureaucracy and massive inefficiencies. Further the fact that doctors in the U.S. are generally paid on a fee structure rather than a salary presents a rather obvious incentive for doctors to order unnecessary tests and lab work, resulting in significant waste and abuse (and American doctors, particularly specialists, who are overpaid in comparison to their European counterparts).
Indeed, studies have shown that the ballooning cost of healthcare will exceed the U.S. budget itself within only a couple of decades.
Given this reality, the powerful lobby groups and insurance industry executives who profit the most from the current situation are presented with a conundrum: how to prop up a system that not only consistently wreaks havoc in the lives of ordinary Americans while propping up profits for a handful of elites, but is actually destined to break the back of the American economy itself?
The answer is of course that at least a significant portion of the population must be duped into actually believing that the system is fair. And that’s where a story like Perla Serrano’s comes to clash with the picture that elites who profit from the system desire to paint. The fact is that in Canada or Japan or elsewhere in the industrialized world Perla would not have needed to commit fraud just to get basic healthcare (which is apparently what she obtained). And that is the real story in this news piece, not her trans status.
In other words, Perla’s arrest and the fact that she felt she had little choice but to commit fraud in order to obtain healthcare makes the system look bad. Fortunately for the corrupt healthcare system and its supporters, the fact that Perla is a trans woman gives them an opportunity to flip the script: instead of presenting a story in which Perla’s situation makes the healthcare system look like a clown, they rely on transphobia and transmisogyny in a disgusting attempt to paint Perla as a clown.
In fact, when we really think about the situation, the fraud allegedly committed by Perla simply mirrors the fraud of a doctor who orders a lab test for you when they know damn well that you don’t need that test. Of course the fees that the doctor would be fraudulently obtaining are spread out among a larger group of people; however, apart from that I don’t see much of a difference. Perla simply took on a corrupt behavior in order make her way in an deeply corrupted system.
And further, and this would be my main point, I think the belief that a health care system that primarily works for those who can afford to buy into it is moral or just almost requires this kind of dehumanization of the poor and others who are left behind in order to provide some semblance of psychological justification to the wealthy and to society as a whole.
So in the end, Perla Serrano’s case is just one more indication that the U.S. healthcare system is in desperate need of a major overhaul. Sadly, President Obama entered the White House with a decisive mandate to reform the system, however, assuming his health care plan even survives a late June decision from a right-leaning Supreme Court, it may well be that he blew the opportunity by relying on reforms that are simply inadequate to deal with the underlying problems.
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.
Note from Savannah (leftytgirl): the following is Lexi Tronic’s heartfelt response to the recent debate around Xtra! editor Danny Glenwright’s cissexist decision to post her (pre-transition) birth name on his facebook profile, the subsequent decision by several trans activists to boycott Xtra!, and Glenwright’s statements on the situation. I have personally provided (minimal) editing of the statement for grammar, and clarity on a few points.
Note that we have described this action on Glenwright’s part as transphobic in the past, but we should more precisely describe this as an example of cissexism (i.e. an act of a cis person to invalidate or belittle a trans person’s identity).
Even if in previous articles I have consented to having my birth name printed (which I have not explicitly done), I still have a right to request that it not be done in 2011. In 2009 I was interviewed for an article with Xtra when they published my birth name. While I did not have a major problem with that 2009 article, I did feel uncomfortable with my birth name being used. But I was promoting a new film project and the writer was a friend of a friend and I didn’t want to be contentious. The issue is not that people know my birth name; they can find this by looking at my past film work that features my old name. But I don’t want to be referred to by my old name at all nor do I want to encourage it. Especially among people I grew up with who may still not understand my transition.
I’ve had many incidents in which I’ve gone to a public place in Winnipeg and someone has addressed me by my birthname. It gives me a sinking feeling. For that reason, I found Danny using my name for “awareness” to “alert” old schoolmates problematic and upsetting. But I wasn’t outraged, I allow room for error, so I personally messaged him privately through facebook and asked him kindly to remove my former name from his site and included a link to an article that I like for these purposes, “How to Respect a Trans Person”.
Danny responded back to me that it was his personal facebook page and he was using my name to “spark dialogue” and thus he was not going to remove it. I shared with him that I found my former first name being printed on his page to be hurtful, and I pleaded with him to remove my name. After that second message Danny blocked me from contacting him on facebook. I even tried to call him at Xtra but he would not take my calls. I was quite distressed about my former first name (FFN) appearing on his FB page, and baffled by his lack of understanding about why I didn’t want my FFN up there, even after I sent him the link for “How to Respect A Transperson.“ I was even more distressed when I started getting facebook messages from former Winnipeg acquaintances saying “Hey (FFN), I read your article, are you coming home for Xmas?”
At that point I forwarded the facebook message exchange between Danny and I to some people on my facebook whom I thought might have some perspective on how to deal with the situation. I had no idea what to do myself since I already asked him, and then pleaded with him politely to remove my FFN and he refused and then he even blocked me on Facebook.
The people to whom I went for guidance were outraged and together they decided to boycott Xtra [meaning they would no longer comment for Xtra stories --Savannah]. They felt that it was an abuse of power on behalf of the editor and disrespectful to me.
So after the story spread like wildfire, and many people came out on media to support me, Danny decided that he would now talk to me. He phoned me and I shared with him the problems I have with him using my name; I did not want people to see it anywhere, especially former school mates in Winnipeg, who have previously called me by my former name. It has been a real problem for me and I find it very hurtful.
He apologized for it and said that that was not his intention, rather that he was using my birth name to alert old friends to my “success” story and to bring awareness of my former self. He apologized and assured me he would not continue publicizing my FFN.
To elaborate, after Danny called me and apologized, which I open-heartedly and gratefully accepted, he shared that he remembered me as a very negative person in his life. We were in the same elementary school together. He stated that I bullied him and caused him great distress at this time. I listened to what he had to say, I didn’t defend myself and never denied that I had called him hames, though I don’t remember actually doing so. But I did not deny it because I did not want to invalidate his disclosure.
I was also bullied in school and I was a very fucked up kid. I was 8 years old. I grew up being sexually abused, I lived in group homes, If I did bully anyone in grade four, I would not be surprised given my circumstances. So I apologized to Danny and said that I was sorry if he felt that I had bullied him and that it was completely wrong of me and acknowledged that it must have been very hurtful. I explained to him that I was not the same person that I was 24 years ago, that I lead my life as a person out there trying to make a difference and help people. He shared his own hopes and goals around Xtra and trans people, and I hung up feeling really good and really positive. I let my friends know that he whole-heartedly apologized and that we had worked it out and there was no further need to boycott Xtra.
So I was quite shocked when I woke up to find out that a friend had sent me a screen shot of Danny’s FB page from that afternoon and he had not yet removed the post containing my FFN. I promptly called him and I again pleaded with him to take my name down. He said that he was very busy but he would do it. And then later on that afternoon Danny’s “Response to a strange boycott” was released.
I was pretty mortified by Danny’s response. I really thought we had worked it out. I am not trying to get into a pissing contest with Danny about who is the bigger victim in this situation, himself for being bullied in grade 4 by me, and/or 24 years later being accused of transphobia [cissexism, to be more precise --Savannah] by well-networked and vocal supporters of myself on facebook. But I do feel that as a trans woman and a sex worker with a grade 9 education there is a bit of a power imbalance between myself and an editor of the largest gay publication in Canada.
I will also point out that Danny is a cisgender white male who appears able-bodied. I understand by the tone of his response (he opens with the line: “when I heard the name…a lump formed in my throat”) that he feels defensive and wronged and presumably victimized by me, but I don’t really have the institutional power to oppress Danny. I don’t have the power of the law, the school system, the police; I am marginalized, despite having powerful and vocal allies.
Further, I feel that Danny reacted so strongly because I tried to stand up for myself, and people have supported me, and I feel I have been subject to oppression a second time by Xtra with Danny’s response to the boycott supported by myself, my friends and allies.
That is a lot of background. I have been asked from Xtra for a response and it has taken me a few days because I don’t want to just be reactive.
To say that I have no right to protest someone’s use of my FFN on their personal facebook page because Xtra published it two years ago, when it causes me distress and furthermore has been documented that it causes many trans people distress, is somewhat akin to saying that a rape victim is not a victim of rape because she consented to sex two years ago. Do you know what I mean, jelly bean?