The Media Today

The movement for Black trans lives

June 15, 2020

On May 27, two days after a police officer killed George Floyd in Minneapolis, an officer in Tallahassee, Florida, killed Tony McDade, a Black trans man. He was 38. According to the Human Rights Campaign, McDade was at least the twelfth transgender or gender nonconforming person to be killed in the US this year. That number is very likely an undercount. Last Tuesday, the known total rose to 14, following the killings of Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells, 27, in Philadelphia, and Riah Milton, 25, in a robbery in Liberty Township, Ohio. Both Fells and Milton were Black trans women, a group that is particularly vulnerable to police brutality and other forms of violence. Yesterday, activists in cities across the country marched in memory of McDade, Fells, Milton, and others, and in solidarity with all Black trans lives. In New York alone, thousands of people dressed mostly in white—a nod to a silent protest parade organized by the NAACP, in 1917—congregated outside the Brooklyn Museum. “We can’t just talk about trans people when they’re dying,” Eliel Cruz, an organizer of the event, told CNN. “But what are we doing actively and intentionally to create space for them to be safe and well?”

Yesterday’s marches were covered by major news organizations, but they weren’t especially prominent across the news cycle as a whole. In recent days and weeks, the same has been true of the killings of McDade, Fells, and Milton. There have been some efforts to move Black trans lives closer to the center of the current conversation on race. The cover of the latest issue of Time magazine features a photograph—taken by Devin Allen, whose work appeared on Time’s cover once before, following the death of Freddie Gray, in 2015—of a recent Black Trans Lives Matter protest in Baltimore. “We leave out the LGBT community, especially when it comes to the black trans community,” Allen told the Baltimore Sun. “As a straight, black man, I’m going to give the same energy that I give to all my people to that community.” Yesterday, the New Yorker unveiled its next cover, by the artist Kadir Nelson, on which Floyd metaphorically embodies the history of anti-Black violence in the US. McDade is among those depicted within Floyd’s frame. (The cover’s accompanying text online does not mention that McDade was trans.)

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Still, recent coverage clearly speaks to a longer-term complaint of Black trans activists and their allies—that Black trans lives are commonly erased within power structures and ecosystems across society, from the broader Black Lives Matter movement to the news media. As the recent protests have taken hold, “the narrative about the violence against Black trans people often gets left behind,” Nicole Cardoza writes in the newsletter Anti-Racism Daily. “Centering those that are most vulnerable is critically important in movement work, because a specific community’s distinct pain can be minimized when lumped in with others.” Writing for The Independent following the killing of McDade, Melz Owusu, a researcher and organizer, argued that “what it means to be a black cisgender man in the Western world has been conceptualised for years,” whereas “what it means to be a black trans man/masculine person is an experience many are not ready to acknowledge, and thus are not ready to protect.” 

Many of us in the news media have helped perpetuate that disparity. A resource document, posted over the weekend with input from Black trans activists and journalists including Janet Mock and Raquel Willis, notes that “Black trans women get disproportionately LESS media coverage than cis Black folks.” News outlets—often following the lead of law enforcement—commonly misgender the victims of anti-trans violence by using their “deadnames,” or the names they were assigned at birth. “There is no reason any pro-LGBTQ+ workforce should be upholding [this] as a journalistic practice,” the document says.

The issues with mainstream media coverage of trans people—and Black trans people, in particular—go beyond deadnaming and a relative lack of attention. Monica Roberts, who runs the blog TransGriot, noted on Twitter yesterday that Black trans voices are grossly underrepresented as commentators on TV news. “FYI,” Roberts wrote, “Black trans people are also Black people fully versed in talking about Black community issues and politics.” As CJR’s Zainab Sultan reported last year, the stock-photo galleries from which news organizations source images have historically reinforced lazy stereotypes about trans and gender nonconforming people. (To help rectify that, staff at Broadly, a site run by Vice, set up their own gallery with stock photos that more accurately represent trans people from a range of backgrounds.) Also writing for CJR last year, Lewis Raven Wallace listed a variety of ills afflicting coverage of the broader trans community, including the misuse of pronouns, the “systematic exclusion” of trans people from the field of journalism, and the quoting of fringe anti-trans activists to achieve “balance.”

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In the current context of police-brutality protests and COVID-19—the disease caused by the new coronavirus that has disproportionately hit communities of color—the violence and public-health crises affecting Black trans people demand more of our collective focus. Recently, prior to the killings of Fells and Milton, CJR’s Betsy Morais and Alexandria Neason composed a chronology tracking “six months of life and death in America.” In addition to McDade’s, it marked other deaths—of Monika Diamond, a Black trans woman who was killed in Charlotte in March; of a trans woman known as Lexi who was killed in New York, also in March; of Nina Pop, a Black trans woman who was killed in Sikeston, Missouri, in May—that did not go entirely unremarked, but did not rise to the top of our broader attention economy, either. This despite the fact that—as the Human Rights Campaign’s Tori Cooper told the AP, following Pop’s death—“we are seeing an epidemic of violence that can no longer be ignored.”

Below, more on Black and trans lives:

  • Rayshard Brooks: On Friday, a white police officer in Atlanta shot and killed Rayshard Brooks, a Black man. The killing reignited protests in the city, and led to the resignation of Erika Shields, Atlanta’s police chief. Yesterday, the local medical examiner ruled that Brooks’s death was caused by gunshot wounds to the back, and was a homicide. This morning, the front page of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution centers the autopsy under the headline, “A CITY IN ANGUISH SEEKS ANSWERS.”
  • Actions: The resource document on Black trans lives that was posted over the weekend includes a list of actions for improving media coverage of Black trans people, including supporting Roberts and TransGriot; supporting Black Trans Media, a project that aims to “decolonize media and community education”; and sharing and elevating the work of Black trans journalists including Willis, Serena Sonoma, Tre’vell Anderson, Tiq Milan, Ashlee Marie Preston, Shar Jossell, and Tyler Ford.
  • Erasing protections: On Friday, the Trump administration moved to scrap regulations designed to protect trans patients against discrimination within the medical system—part of a broader erasure of trans protections. The New York Times has more. Meanwhile, in the UK, the government of Boris Johnson will scrap plans to allow people to legally change their gender without a medical diagnosis. The government will “instead” move to abolish so-called “gay cure” therapies. The Guardian has more.
  • COVID-19: For the New Yorker, Jelani Cobb writes that the killing of Floyd “cannot be understood outside the context of a pandemic in which African-Americans have died at three times the rate of white Americans”; the protests that have followed, he writes, “represent a reckoning, a kind of American Spring, one long in the making and ignited not just by a single police killing.” Yesterday, Politico reported that the full extent of the pandemic’s impact on minority groups isn’t yet known—more than half of the reported COVID-19 cases in the US are not accompanied by data on race and ethnicity.

Other notable stories:

  • Breaking this morning: Maria Ressa, the editor of Philippines news site Rappler who has become a symbolic figure in the global fight for press freedom, has been convicted of cyber-libel charges. Ressa and a colleague, Reynaldo Santos, face up to six years in jail, but may yet avoid long sentences. Ressa has been a key target of Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines’ authoritarian president. As she wrote for CJR last year, Duterte “wages a relentless campaign of disinformation—patriotic trolling—to pound critics into silence. His administration spews lies so fast that the public doesn’t know what reality is anymore.”
  • The reckoning over race continues inside US newsrooms. ABC News placed Barbara Fedida, a senior executive, on leave after Yashar Ali reported, for HuffPost, that she has a long history of making inappropriate and racist remarks to staff. (Fedida called the story “incredibly misleading.”) Elsewhere, Edmund Lee reports, for the Times, on the turmoil at Condé Nast, which is struggling with a lack of diversity, as well as financially. And Joe Pompeo, of Vanity Fair, has similar reporting on BuzzFeed, where a “talent drain” has left Mark Schoofs, the site’s new editor, with a “glaring diversity problem.” 
  • Turmoil continues, too, at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where unionized staff spoke out in solidarity after management benched two Black journalists from covering protests. One of those journalists, Michael Santiago, has now taken a buyout; he wrote on Twitter that he can’t work “for someone that doesn’t love me.” On Friday, the NewsGuild-CWA, which represents Post-Gazette staff, called on the paper’s top editors to resign.
  • The Honolulu Star-Advertiser, the biggest newspaper in Hawai‘i, is laying off 31 unionized staffers including Kristen Consillio, its health reporter. Honolulu Civil Beat has more. Elsewhere, amid the financial carnage caused by the pandemic, Gannett moved to shutter two small newspapers—the Edinburg Review and the Valley Town Crier—that served McAllen, Texas, on the US-Mexico border. The Rio Grande Guardian has more.
  • For CJR, James Ball explains why the micropayment—the idea of paying a publisher a small amount to read an individual story, rather than subscribing—hasn’t caught on. Among other reasons, “newspapers and magazines have been conceived as a package,” Ball writes. “Some stories cost far more to produce than others, but it balances out because you buy the whole thing. That logic dies if you separate them out.”
  • For Vice, Laura Wagner profiles Kelly McBride, a media ethicist at the Poynter Institute who, amid other industry gigs, also serves as NPR’s public editor. “McBride’s analysis and counsel is often confused, overly concerned with optics and tone,” Wagner writes. At a time when journalists are debating the core tenets of their craft, “the leading authority on this subject doesn’t seem to quite understand what anyone is fighting about.”
  • For the Times, Michael M. Grynbaum profiles Chris Wallace, the old-school newsman who hosts Fox News Sunday. Wallace “is comfortable being a bit of an enigma,” Grynbaum writes. “For every Trump loyalist who views him as a heretic, there is a liberal who wishes he’d denounce colleagues like Sean Hannity. (To be clear: He won’t.)”
  • And Trump’s niece, Mary Trump, is working on a tell-all book that will include “harrowing and salacious stories” about the president, the Daily Beast’s Lachlan Cartwright reports. Mary Trump will claim, among other things, that she was a key source for the Times’s Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting on Trump’s taxes.

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Correction: An earlier version of this post misspelled the name of Melz Owusu.

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.