No News on Murders of Black Transgender Women

Published: 9 March 2015

Country: US

By Adil Yilmaz

Transgender_Murders_USSince the beginning of this year, seven transgender women of colour have been murdered in the United States. Goddess Edwards, Lamia Beard, Ty Underwood, Yazmin Vash Payne, Taja Gabrielle de Jesus, Penny Proud, and Bri Golec were either stabbed to death or died from gunshots in the first weeks of 2015. The remarkably high number of murders of black transgender people did not draw any attention from prominent media outlets in the U.S. Only a few local news outlets reported on the murders, but in many cases the coverage was not correct and accurate as the murder victims were continuously misgendered and given wrong gender pronouns and names.

Civil society responded to mainstream media’s indifference towards the murders by starting #TransLivesMatter and #BlackTransLivesMatter reporting on the incidents themselves. The series of murders opened up a discussion on the interplay of discrimination based on both race and gender identity. It also drew attention to the portrayal of transgender women in mainstream media.

There have been several studies reflecting violence towards the transgender community. According to the National LGBTQ Task Force report, 61% of the 6,450 trans and gender non-conforming participants in the study suffered physical assault, while 64% were sexually attacked.

Considering the role of race in violence against transgender people, the 2011 report stresses that ‘people of color in general fare worse than white participants across the board, with African American transgender respondents faring worse than all others in many areas examined’. The organisation BreakOUT! reported in 2014 that 84% of transgender people experienced police profiling on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation in New Orleans, with 57% of them being harassed during the encounter. Further, 42% of LGBTQ people of colour reported calling the police for help and being arrested compared to zero percent of white respondents.

These figures indicate that especially transgender women of colour experience great violence, while often being deserted or further harassed by the police force. As a result, they find themselves in an extremely vulnerable position and are invisible to mainstream society when exposed to violent attacks. This invisibility, then, is the link that completes the vicious cycle of systemic violence that transgender women (of colour) are subjected to.

Penny_ProudSome might argue that transgender women have never been more visible in mainstream media than today, as public figures such as Laverne Cox found their way into popular culture. However, this is a very different form of visibility, which reflects highly problematic dynamics in the way trans women are integrated into the mainstream.

In interviews with a number of trans women conducted by Windy City Media Group, one of the interviewees addresses the ambiguous visibility of trans women: “They have been the dolls, the performers, the she-males—they are all of these objectified names, but they are not people […]The media actively deny us personhood […][According to the media] we’re tricksters who actively reshape our bodies to deceive men for our own personal agendas, uncouth people who go through society as over-exaggerated caricatures. Any trans person who dares to be downright boring makes no news”.

This pattern of making trans lives invisible outside of the entertainment context is part of a social dynamic that consumes trans women at specific moments and disposes them when their services as entertainers are no longer needed or their existence causes some sort of ‘trouble’ for mainstream society. This explains why media reports extensively on Bruce Jenner’s transition, while showing complete disinterest in violence against transgender women. Much like the police force, media plays a major role in upholding the cycle of violence transgender people face by ignoring the disproportionately high number of trans murders and thereby making trans lives invisible and silencing trans voices.

Apart from the lack of media attention, the few mainstream media outlets that have reported on the murders have often misgendered the trans women, using their assigned male names and gender pronouns to refer to them.

When it comes to trans people’s (gender) identity, using the wrong name or gender pronouns is not an insignificant little mistake, but has far-reaching implications. Disregarding a trans person’s gender identity is inherently violent because it denies them the right to identify with a gender that differs from that assigned at birth. Imposing an incorrect gender identity on trans people who have consciously distanced themselves from the gender that was assigned to them at birth disrespects trans self-agency and dignity. Moreover, it makes the struggle of trans people for the acknowledgement of their correct gender invisible.

BreakOut! addresses this very important issue in their article: “We are calling on the media to respect all transgender people and their families by using the correct pronouns and names for transgender victims and use current photographs to allow our community to maintain dignity both in life and in death”.

Not only is the misgendering of transgender people part of a social dynamic of oppression, but it also violates media codes regarding the gendering of individuals.

“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,” reported the Guardian.

Responsible media coverage gives a voice to those who are being silenced and oppressed and respects the individuals involved in the reporting. Accordingly, mainstream media outlets should have reported on the high number of trans murder victims in the United States since the beginning of 2015 and explored the interconnectedness of these attacks by taking a look at the violence trans women are exposed to in society without disrespecting the victims’ gender identity.