Three transgender women of color have been murdered in America less than one month into this new year: Lamia Beard in Virginia, Ty Underwood in Texas, and Goddess Edwards in Kentucky. Their names join the list of more than 200 trans people worldwide who were murdered last year, according to statistics compiled by Transgender Europe – and that’s only counting cases that were reported to the police and in which the victim’s gender identity was known. The real number is certainly higher.
Like the ticking hand on a clock, violence against trans women (especially women of color) is so routine we barely hear it, except in those few and far between spaces, primarily online, where trans people have created room to discuss these issues safely amongst themselves. What infuriates me most about the wider world’s reaction to these murders is the erasure and transphobia that characterizes what little discussion even occurs outside those few safe enclaves.
In all three of these recent cases, the local media and/or police force have referred to the victims using the wrong names and gender pronouns. Putting aside basic issues of respect and human dignity, does this seem to anyone like an intelligent way to proceed if you’re trying to gather actual information about a crime? Does it seem like fair, accurate and respectful journalism? Every major mainstream newspaper organization has standards for reporting on transgender individuals – including the Associated Press Style Book, which is one of the main go-to sources for media organizations that don’t have their own:
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.
The disrespect doesn’t end with misgendering or refusing to use the lived names of these women. Victim blaming is also common in these cases: often, when reporting on the murders of transgender individuals, police departments release old mugshots as identifying photos, a none-too-subtle way to suggest some level of culpability on the part of the deceased. In the case of Beard, for instance, local journalists were only too happy to play into the dual stereotypes that trans people are criminals and attempting to “fool” people by reporting that the area where Beard was found was known for “men dressed as women” engaging in sex work.
Lourdes Ashley Hunter, the National Director of The Trans Women of Color Collective, told me that the re-victimization of trans women at the hands of the police and the media is incredibly common. “The criminal justice system has no regard, respect or concern for our humanity,” she said over email.
Due to their treatment at the hands of many police departments across the country, trans women are often afraid to report crimes they’ve experienced. In order to effectively address violence against trans women, it’s necessary that the police first stop perpetuating it. “Folks must unlearn the bias and discriminatory practices rooted in structural oppression,” Hunter explained. “Do their jobs without prejudice.”
Around the country, there are some signs of improvement. Investigative journalist Nicole Pasulka recently documented the case of Patti Shaw, a transgender woman who fought the Washington DC police department over her cruel and callous treatment while in custody. Shaw sued the department, effectively establishing that “being searched by male officers and locked up with men was a threat to [Shaw’s] safety and violated her rights not as a trans woman, but as a woman.”
Changes like these are slow to come, and they often take years of battling with large bureaucracies to enter into force. Yet while it may be hard to change official police policy, it’s not that hard to change the terms of public discussion – or to pressure a news organization into doing so. The next time you read about a transgender person, look at how they are described; pay attention to the pronouns and the name being used. If it’s wrong, send a letter to the editor, or contact the journalist directly. By turning up the heat on media organizations, we can indirectly put pressure on every organization they report on – from the police all the way up to the White House. Trans people are fighting enough battles without allies. This is just one way everyone can step up.