Transgender People Are Paying The Price For The Media's Willful Ignorance
The failure to effectively and respectfully cover stories about transgender people has consequences. "A state of emergency."
For those who care about the way transgender people are covered in the media — to say nothing of transgender people themselves who bear the brunt of the blow — it has been a difficult few weeks. "A chill ran down my spine" is how Caleb Hannan, a Grantland contributor, describes the moment he realized that the subject of his story was a transwoman. In the article, Hannan doesn't get a "chill" later when the woman, an inventor and entrepreneur, begs him not to out her, stating "you're about to commit a hate crime."
After describing how the subject of his story swallowed pills, put a bag over her head and died on her kitchen floor — a suicide some have suggested came as a result of Hannan's own reporting, though she did not leave a note so we will likely never know for sure — the writer's next sentence is about himself: "Writing a eulogy for a person who by all accounts despised you is an odd experience."
To review, a person was outed as transgender against her will and pushed to the breaking point and somehow not only a writer but at least one editor decided this was a story that should be published. This is no eulogy.
"The whole thing about passing is about survival," actress Laverne Cox told me recently. "Being people able to walk down the street and not have strangers recognize you as trans is about survival. We become targets for violence."
The Grantland article, published on Jan. 15, sparked an understandably heated debate among readers, journalists, and activists about ethics, the politics of outing, and the media's habit of treating transgender people as curiosities rather than human beings. Some have argued that Grantland, a sports and pop culture website owned by ESPN, can hardly be expected to exist as a standard bearer for coverage of LGBT issues.
But that's no excuse, because this is ignorance that kills. "It is a state of emergency for far too many trans people in this country," Cox, best known for her role as Sophia on Orange Is The New Black, wrote in a Tumblr post last week. That remark came a few days after a segment on Katie Couric's daytime talk show in which the veteran broadcast journalist asked Cox and Carmen Carrera, another trans woman, "Your private parts are different now, aren't they?"
The following Sunday, when Jared Leto received the Golden Globe for his performance as Rayon, a trans woman living through the AIDS plague in Dallas Buyers Club, the actor started his acceptance speech by reviewing the sacrifices he had made for the role; mainly, enduring the rigors of body waxing. How thoughtful of Leto to thank the "Rayons of the world" in passing just as he was walking away from the podium.
A week later in Minnesota, CeCe McDonald, a 23-year-old trans woman who was sentenced to 41 months in a men's prison facility for stabbing a man with a pair of scissors from her purse during a hate crime, was released nearly a year early. When the story was covered by her hometown paper, the Minneapolis' Star Tribune, the article put McDonald's first name in scare quotes and used her birth name. When reporter Paul Walsh wasn't referring to McDonald as a man, he opted for "admitted killer."
Caleb Hannan's story was published just three days later. The day his story went live, Hannan had an exchange on Twitter with Bill Wasik, a senior editor at Wired, which went like this:
Wasik: "Reread it with this thought: 'All this was written after the central subject had been driven to suicide, arguably by the the writer.'"
Wasik: "But if I were your editor, I don't know that I could have steered you any other way. The story must go on."
Hannan: "Appreciate that, Bill. These questions are going to come up when the subject of your story takes their own life."
The story must go on. So here we are, reading another article about a dead trans woman in a country in which trans people, trans women of color in particular, are murdered so frequently, most national publications don't even deem the stories worthy of being covered. How telling.
On Aug. 22, 2013, Chelsea Manning released a statement regarding her identity as a transwoman. In response, the New York Times published an article titled "'He'? 'She'? News Media Are Encouraged To Change."
The following national news organizations, including the New York Times, initially insisted on using masculine pronouns in articles about Manning: USA Today, Politico, CNN, the Daily Beast, The New York Post, NBC's Today, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe and Fox. I find it noteworthy that in 2012, when Tennessee State Senator Richard Floyd said he would "stomp a mudhole" into any trans person who came near his family, none of the aforementioned publications wrote about his comments. Are transgender people only newsworthy when they are in prison, brutalized or dead?
Recently, my editor-in-chief — arguing that I should try to be be a bit more understanding of people who don't really "get it" — said, "Saeed, you're three years ahead of most people when it comes to thinking about transgender issues." But I'm not ahead. I'm late. We are all so late. And while we, as readers, writers, and citizens, either attempt to play catch up or come up with more excuses as to why respecting the lives and realities of transgender people is just so hard, transgender people themselves are paying the price for our tardiness.
Correction: An earlier version of this post said that Dr. V was only referred to as a man after being outed in the story. She was not.