A ‘disgusting slap in the face’: Reporters must stop misgendering trans murder victims

May 25, 2017
Image via Pixabay.

Chayvis “Chay” Reed is one of 10 transgender women killed so far this year. Reed, a 28-year-old living in Miami, was shot last month as she was crossing the street. Her assailant fled before police arrived. Her murder follows the brutal slayings of women like Alphonza Watson, 38; Jamie Lee Wounded Arrow, 28; Tiara Richmond, 24; and Jaquarrius Holland, 18. This year’s excruciatingly high death toll is on par with the historic 27 trans people killed in 2016—most of whom were transgender women of color.

After Reed was killed, a friend texted Dawn Ennis, associate editor for LGBTQ Nation: “Oh my god, it’s happened again.” Ennis says that her friend’s disappointment didn’t merely stem from another trans life ending in tragedy. It was that the media “got it wrong.”

Like many trans people whose lives are taken too soon, Reed’s gender was initially misidentified in local reports surrounding her death, which referred to the victim by the name on her birth certificate, not the one she used in daily life. The same thing happened to both Ciara McElveen, 25, and Chyna Gibson, 31, who were killed days apart in New Orleans in February. Unlike McElveen, Gibson was identified as a trans woman, but breaking reports of the homicide used her legal name.

Trans people are more likely than any other group in the US to be victims of a hate crime, according to a 2016 report from The New York Times. They are also disproportionately likely to be killed because of their identity. The Human Rights Campaign says that transgender women are four times more likely than non-trans women to be murdered.

How journalists report on violence against this population is critically important to the dignity of a vulnerable community. To misgender and incorrectly name trans murder victims can imply that the lives these women fought to live aren’t worthy of respect, even after they die. Many LGBTQ advocates claim that leaving out these basic facts about their identities is a form of erasure, one that only compounds the pain and trauma the trans community already feels when yet another woman becomes a headline. Misreporting the victim’s gender adds insult to grievous injury.

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The trouble with police reports

How do newsrooms determine the gender identity of trans murder victims? It’s a complicated process, but one that begins with police stations, says Mic’s Meredith Talusan.

“What happens is that the initial reports are taken from police and medical examiners’ reports,”  says Talusan, a trans woman who serves as an editor at large for the digital publication. “News outlets unthinkingly report the legal name and gender of a person who has died without actually asking questions about how the person lived their life. It’s only when the news report comes out and people close to the person see that they’ve been incorrectly identified that the misgendering is reported.”

“When someone dies, it’s very rare for the local media to do anything other than what the local police are reporting,” she adds.

TRENDING: Sometimes journalists should become the story

In addition to the fact that news reports sometimes must be turned around in a matter of minutes—often by reporters with onerous workloads—many transgender women may not have changed their name or gender marker on legal documents, including their birth certificates and identification. When their bodies are discovered, the victim’s driver’s license may not accurately reflect how they lived their life.


Mey Rude, the trans editor at LGBTQ website Autostraddle, explains that changing your documents is “extremely difficult,” especially for a community that faces high rates of poverty. When Rude went through the name-change process, she says, it cost around $500. “A lot of trans women can’t afford to legally change their name or gender marker,” Rude says.

The process can be as complicated as it is expensive, and it varies by state. Some states require a transgender person to complete gender confirmation prior to changing their documents, while others stipulate a note from a doctor. In Alabama, for example, a trans person must present proof of  surgical transition to obtain a birth certificate that matches their gender identity. The state offers an “amended” version of the prior document but does not seal the old one, meaning law enforcement could still gain access to it.

That could lead to trans murder victims being misidentified as “cross-dressers” or “men in dresses” even after they’ve updated their documents.

“What’s really happening is that the police are giving the journalists [incomplete] information, and the journalists are not checking that up to verify the information is true,” says Autumn Sandeen, a reporter for San Diego’s LGBT Weekly. “It’s a sign of sloppy journalism, but it speaks to the fact that trans people like me, our lives are not considered authentic. That’s often highlighted in death extremely harshly.”

“A lot of the time it’s not malicious,” Rude adds. “Journalists are trying to do the best job they can, but these mistakes ignore the humanity of trans people.”


What it means to be misgendered

As these incidents show, there’s a lot of work left to be done to ensure trans stories are told honestly and respectfully. Some news outlets have taken steps to address that problem. Others publications may choose to follow and learn from those guidelines.


Mark Lorando, editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, sent out an email to staff after its reporting misgendered McElveen. Lorando writes that the Times-Picayune had “worked diligently… to develop a new gender and sexual orientation policy,” one that is “designed to ensure accuracy and consistency while safeguarding against language that inadvertently marginalizes or stereotypes any member of the LGBTQ community.”

The email, which contained a common glossary of terms used to identify members of the LGBTQ community, advises reporters to use the term “transition” to describe an individual’s process of gender confirmation, rather than “sex change,” which is outdated. The Times-Picayune suggests using the term transgender in place of “transsexual” and cross-dresser instead of “transvestite.” The style guide stresses that journalists should not use the word “transgendered,” which is grammatically incorrect, and says that the subject of a piece should only be identified as trans “if relevant to the story.”

Lorando declined an interview request with CJR to discuss how the mistake was made and the follow-up memo.

RELATED: ‘No one else is going to speak for us’: LGBTQ media rise in age of Trump

Not all publications take the same approach. The Kansas City Star stood by its newsroom policies after Tamara Dominguez, a 36-year-old trans woman, was misgendered in the publication in 2015.

Following criticism from transgender advocates, Derek Donovan, the paper’s public editor, explained the Star’s reasoning in an editor’s note. He writes that when the publication received the police report noting Dominguez’s death, law enforcement called the victim by her legal name—with a brief reference to her “alias.” Because the subject of the piece is deceased, Donovan adds that it’s “impossible to get a firsthand answer” to the question of her lived identity.

“It would have been premature, and ultimately journalistically unsound to make any assumption,” writes Donovan.

Although the Star removed gender-specific references to the victim, the report continued to refer to Dominguez by her birth name. Managing editor Greg Farmer declined to further comment on the paper’s decision-making process when approached by CJR via email.

The Cleveland Plain-Dealer, which met with representatives from GLAAD in 2013 after two reports misgendering 20-year-old Cemia Acoff, also did not respond to requests for comment. CJR reached out to its editorial staff via email. Acoff’s name and pronouns still have not been updated in the original reporting, despite receiving an open letter from the LGBTQ media watchdog group urging the paper to address the issue.

Sandeen believes that if law enforcement officials frequently give journalists incomplete information, reporters need to look for context clues that could suggest that the victim was transgender. In these cases, testimony from family members may be misleading, as transgender people often aren’t accepted at home. Trans murder victims may be subject to the same misgendering from their families as from the police. Instead, she says that phrases in police reports like “man in a dress” should be “like a bell ringing” for journalists. In the case of Dominguez, the victim having a female alias should have been a clear tip-off.

“It’s important for journalists to know that when a victim of a crime is transgender, they may not be able to rely on the same sources of information that they do in other situations,” adds Nick Adams, director of GLAAD’s Transgender Media Program. “They need to seek out members of the community who knew the victim and can speak with first-hand authority about how that person identified.”

Rude further recommends that reporters reach out to local community members on Twitter. She says other trans people who knew the victim frequently “do vital on-the-ground reporting work” by posting the deceased’s correct name and pronouns on social media.

“Ninety-nine percent of the time when a trans woman is murdered in the US, the way people find out is because of trans women on Twitter,” Rude says.


Better reporting on the deaths of transgender people would more accurately represent the violence faced by the trans community, as well as depicting the fullness of their lives. Although nine murders have been reported so far this year, it often takes weeks for news reports to be corrected and updated, meaning that it’s difficult to obtain exact numbers. Although initial reports suggested that 26 trans women were killed last year, India Monroe—who was murdered on December 21, 2016, in Newport, Virginia—wasn’t correctly identified until January.

While Vice writer Diana Tourjee calls the continued misgendering of trans victims a “disgusting slap in the face,” Adams explains there’s a reason it’s so painful for transgender people to see their fellow community members stripped of their identities in death.

“A transgender person has already been harmed by being the victim of a crime,” Adams says. “To be misgendered on top of that is adding further weight what is already a profound harm.  When you do that to one individual—especially in a media context—it can feel as if you’re doing it to every trans person. You’re sending a message that transgender people are not who they say they are.”


A way of undoing someone’s identity

This is not a new problem. When Ennis began working at CNN 33 years ago, this is how she expected transgender people to be treated: with a mixture of ignorance and fear. Ennis, who came out as trans in 2013, says the media “didn’t even have a word for it.” Often transgender people were looked at as merely “confused” gay men. If a trans woman were killed, she may have been referred to as a “drag queen” or a “transvestite.”

“We were depicted as perverts, freaks, and people who were outside the norm,” Ennis says. “We were seen as bad people.”

Adams first began working at GLAAD in 1998, when there were very few news stories being written about trans people. He says that it was thus very difficult to predict how local news outlets were going to cover the deaths of transgender individuals. After 17-year-old Gwen Araujo was killed in 2002, the original New York Times story called the transgender teenager a “man from suburban Newark who frequently wore women’s clothing.” USA Today claimed that Araujo was a “transgender boy” and referred to her gender identity as her “lifestyle.”

When her killers were sentenced four years later, journalists still struggled with the right terminology. The Los Angeles Times called her “transgendered.”

“You never knew what kind of reaction you were going to get,” Adams says, “whether journalists would be open and respectful to the idea of portraying a transgender murder victim’s identity accurately or whether they would flat-out refuse to.”

He says that things have begun to change in recent years, citing Laverne Cox’s Time magazine cover in 2014 as a crucial tipping point in transgender representation. Diana Tourjee, who works as a staff writer for Broadly, the women’s vertical at Vice, says that Chelsea Manning’s coming out a year earlier was just as pivotal. After the controversial whistleblower announced that she would be transitioning, Manning’s disclosure forced newsrooms across the US to devise guidelines on how she would be covered. Slate, MSNBC, and The Huffington Post were some of the first to adopt feminine pronouns, while publications like The Boston Globe and The Daily Beast were slower to adapt.


“We reached a point culturally where it was no longer OK for journalists to decide on their own accord how people should be referred to based on their own assumptions about what makes someone a man or a woman,” Tourjee says.

Despite the frequent mistakes in reporting on trans lives, many publications have taken steps to bring their understanding and coverage of transgender people into the 21st century. Earlier this year, the Los Angeles Times unveiled updated guidelines on the trans community, which included the recognition of gender-neutral pronouns like “per” and “zie,” which are sometimes used by transgender people who identify as neither gender. The reference guide also advises writers to avoid phrases like “born a woman” when referring to trans men. Instead, the paper recommends “designated female at birth” or “identified as female at birth.”

“There are two main goals: to be respectful to those we write about, and to be clear to our readers and avoid distracting them from the main point of an article,” wrote Phil Corbett, the Standards Editor at The New York Times, in a post on the subject.

Another important rule of thumb for journalists is to avoid any former names that a trans person no longer uses in their daily life, especially in cases where a transgender individual has been murdered and cannot advocate for themselves. Jennifer Boylan, an op-ed columnist for The New York Times, explains it like so: If she were writing an article about the death of Gerald Ford, it wouldn’t be necessary to say in the first paragraph, “Ex-president Ford—formerly known as ‘Lesley King’—died of a heart attack today.”

And yet this is how news publications like USA Today, ABC News, Miami Herald and Sports Illustrated have continued to refer to Caitlyn Jenner, the gold medalist who came out as transgender in an interview with Diane Sawyer nearly two years ago.

“Sometimes knowing a person’s former identity is helpful,” Boylan says. “Sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s just a way of undoing their identity.”

GLAAD, which first unveiled a media reference guide with expanded trans terminology back in 1999, works with publications and newsrooms to bring them up to speed on LGBTQ issues as language and identity continue to evolve. Eighteen years later, Adams says the demand for that information is overwhelming. He jokes he has “no hair and a grey beard” because his phone has been ringing off the hook for the past three years with journalists and editors calling him with questions. The Transgender Media Program, which was founded two years ago, allows Adams to devote all his time to answering those queries.

“There’s been an increase in the quantity and the quality of the questions we get asked from journalists who want to do a better job of telling transgender stories,” says Adams. “That has really, really changed a lot.”

RELATED: I tripped up while reporting on gender and sexuality. Here’s what I learned.

Nico Lang is an award-winning reporter, essayist, and editor. His work has been featured in The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Esquire and others. Follow him on Twitter @nico_lang.