How not to report on a transgender victim

Cemia Acoff identified as a woman in life and should have been in death, too

Sometime between the end of March and the end of April, an Ohio transgender woman was brutally murdered—she was stabbed repeatedly and then tied to a concrete block and cast into a pond. She was left with no clothes below the waist, perhaps to shame her.

This crime is heartbreaking and vicious. You would think it could not get worse. But it did, because of insensitive stories by the local press that erased her transgender identity. She was written about as if she were a bizarre spectacle, not a victimized human being.

Cemia Acoff, known to her friends as Ce Ce, deserved better. The transgender community deserved better. And the public deserved better.

There were two offending stories in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Both used a mugshot of Acoff instead of the other readily available photos used by gay and transgender blogs. It’s standard to use a mugshot if a person is guilty of something, but not if they’re a murder victim, which is the case here. They made her look like a criminal.

The first story, called “Oddly dressed body found in Olmsted Township identified,” originally said “oddly dressed man,” (you can see it in the url; it was changed after readers and activists protested) though the story reports she was a transgender woman. What is odd is not that a transgender woman was dressed in a feminine way, but that the story chose to focus on that detail instead of the savage way she was murdered. There is no report, for instance, of whether the police called for witnesses to come forward—and if they didn’t, why (it’s fairly standard; see this story from earlier in April). They don’t mention if police suspect the murder was a hate crime. It’s equally offensive that the story refers to her as Carl Acoff (her birth name) and uses a male pronoun: “Acoff had identified himself as a woman to RTA officials,” the story says.

The second story, “Brutal slaying marks the end of Clevelander’s fight for acceptance,” at first seems like it might be better. Except that story, too, starts by identifying her as Carl, which means her fight is far from over. This is ironic, because at the end of the story an italicized note says, “This story has been edited since originally posted to bring it within the style recommended by the Associated Press involving transgender people.” I don’t know what the original said, but I do know what the AP Stylebook says, which is this:

Transgender: Use the pronoun preferred by the individuals who have acquired the physical characteristics of the opposite sex or present themselves in a way that does not correspond with their sex at birth. If that preference is not expressed, use the pronoun consistent with the way the individuals live publicly.
Instead, the story drops all pronouns and refers to Cemia as Carl, which seems like a half-hearted effort to be consistent with the AP’s recommendations.

Additionally, the story, which in the headline seems like it might address the transgender fight for civil rights, does no such thing. It could have talked about how transgender people, especially African American transgender people, are regular targets of violence. It could have said that they are harassed and discriminated against everywhere, from hospitals to police stations, to restaurants. (Read the National Center for Transgender Equality’s report for the depressing statistics) It could have said that people can be fired for being transgender in 34 states, or that transgender women have have been arrested for carrying condoms because the police figure, hey, if they’re transgender women, they’re probably prostitutes. It could say that transgender people, like Acoff, whose IDs don’t match their visible gender identity, often get assaulted—but that changing their IDs is expensive, requiring a legal name change and a signature from a doctor, which means many people can’t afford it. In any case, Ohio is one of three states prohibiting the changing of a birth certificate, even post-surgery and post-legal name change, according to Mara Keisling, the executive director of NCTE. This makes getting a driver’s license or a passport that reflects visible identity much more difficult.

The story could have written about all or any of this. Instead, it details what she was wearing and lists old petty “crimes” (she squirted Mace at a man on a bus, she was charged with carrying hormones—which the story terms “dangerous drugs” instead of explaining that hormones are how transgender people align their physical selves with their inborn gender identities). Including her thin criminal record is inappropriate and offensive. As GLAAD’s Aaron McQuade said in a statement, “Acoff’s criminal record is almost certainly irrelevant to the story, especially when provided without any context concerning the trans community and law enforcement.”

The Plain Dealer was not the only outlet that erred in its coverage of Acoff’s death. Fox8 covered the story similarly, identifying her as a man, describing what she was wearing and using a mugshot. The CBS affiliate 19 Action News reported that the transgender community gathered to address the murder—and then referred to Cemia as Carl and called her part of the “transgender/transvestite community.” No. Cemia Acoff identified as a woman, so she was a transgender woman. Calling her a transvestite—an outdated term for a cross-dresser, which a transgender woman is not—is offensive.

These stories show a disheartening lack of understanding of the struggles of the transgender community. It is up to reporters covering a murder of a transgender person to educate themselves, at the minimum by reading GLAAD’s media reference guide, the NLGJA Stylebook, or by putting in a quick call to the National Center for Transgender Equality.

Transgender people are victimized enough without the press piling on. The Cleveland Plain Dealer owes the transgender community an apology. But more than that, it owes the public a series that explores the ferocious struggles transgender people face every day just to be treated like human beings.

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Jennifer Vanasco is a is a news editor at WNYC and the former editor in chief of MTV Network's LGBT news site She writes about social minorities, national politics, and culture. Her award-winning newspaper column on gay and women's issues ran for 15 years. Tags: