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.

Screenshot from ABC 7 broadcast

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 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.

Screenshot from ABC 7 broadcast

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?

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.