Press for Change News:
Journalists Add Fuel to
Trans Murder Epidemic
By Christine Burns
Sunday 7th may, 2006
I don't make a point of immediately reporting every trans murder case
that's brought to our attention. It's a question of balance on which I
sometimes feel rather torn.
On the one hand I feel a sense of duty to draw attention to every life
wasted in that way. It's something to be really angry about, when all's
said and done. Any other group murdered on the scale that trans people
are experiencing in some parts of the world would be a major
international issue. There's no reason to believe it's an especially new
phenomenon in those parts of the world where it happens - the only thing
that's changed is that modern communications and the work of a growing
band of trans campaigners is making it easier to see the regularity with
which it occurs. Maybe the biggest shock is to then realise the extent
to which there's a problem in the one society that's most similar to our
own - the United States.
On the other hand, from an editorial point of view, merely posting on a
series of sketchily-reported accounts culled from foreign news media
doesn't provide much of a context for understanding. In fact the sheer
awfulness of the journalism in these cases often just adds a further
insult to the life of the deceased.
Dedicated projects like the "Remembering Our Dead" web site
(http://www.gender.org/remember/) are better equipped to draw effective
attention to the sheer numbers of killings themselves. The organisers of
the current UN Petition have also pulled together a useful set of links
on their site at - http://transgenderunity.blogspot.com/
It is otherwise rare that we can find examples (as in the Gwen Araujo
story or "Boys Don't Cry") where the proper context of an individual
murder is fully explored and explained. In that context the death,
however awful, is at least granted the dignity of an illuminating
explanation. Instead of ordinary men and women being encouraged through
the media to value the victim's life as little as the murderers did,
such in-depth attention tells a very different story. People come to see
that a life like Gwen's WAS to be valued. Through that her murder could
be seen as more than a mere legal term. It had some depth and meaning.
An example of a story I previously decided to simply leave to our US
colleagues occurred less than three weeks ago, in Chicago.
See - http://www.nbc5.com/news/8830815/detail.html
This NBC story certainly has many of the elements that signal how
readers should bring their own prejudices to bear, and therefore
downrate the importance of the crime. Members of US ethnic minorities
may nod wisely at this point and say, "Yep .. That's how it's done
Some would say that NBC's reporting is an improvement on what MIGHT have
been written. There is a clinical detachment that certainly implies a
degree of care is being taken by the writer over SOMEthing. Yet, just as
we know what we are supposed to think about a murder when the victim is
described up-front as a prostitute or drug addict, there is a similar
skewing of the reader's impression when the "meat and bones" of the
story, boils down to this:
"While the medical examiner's report noted the
victim as a white male, police are referring to
the victim as a woman."
"The deceased "has male anatomy, but also has
female anatomy, and has been referred to as a she,
Krystal," Schmidt said."
Come on guys, you're supposed to be professional wordsmiths. The story
is that someone got murdered in a motel room and police were
investigating .. Until otherwise established to be relevant, the shoe
size, religion or genitals of the victim ARE NOT the point. Murder's
Blogger and podcaster Koan Bremner, featured here on PFC-News after last
year's Pride, has written a particularly reflective item about the
phenomenon. See what she has to say in her column at
Indeed, as Koan points out, we have to rely on the work of another
regular blogger, Jen Burke, to actually find a quote that turns the
murder victim Krystal Heskin into a person rather than a mere object. On
the blog attached to Jen's "Transcending Gender" site at
http://tinyurl.com/gy3ly she quotes Krystal's sister :
"Krystal was my sister. is my sister, and she was
taken away from us. Why she was, I will never
understand. The hardest part in all of this, for
myself and for all of my family has been the cruel
and unnecessary way in which the media had chose to
present this story. We love Krystal so deeply, and
these stories have just ripped us apart."
See what a difference that perspective makes? You get a similar
impression of the importance of the victim's life when Sylvia Guerrero
wrote movingly about her murdered daughter, Gwen Araujo, in "Life After
Gwen" (http://tinyurl.com/qu8aw) :
"No amount of justice can return the part of me
that these men took when they killed Gwen."
"I'm angry. Angry that Gwen's brothers and her
nieces and nephews won't get to grow up knowing
her the way her aunts, uncles, older sister and
I did. Angry that instead of celebrating her
birthday, we get together each year to commemorate
her death. Angry that, in both trials, the defendants
tried to blame Gwen for her own murder. Angry that
other young lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender
kids continue to face the discrimination she did
in our public schools and our workforce."
Without that perspective on a life cut short it's impossible to make
anything other than a purely technical judgement about the effectiveness
of the judicial outcome when trans murderers are located and brought to
justice. Because we got to know Gwen as a person, and to know people
cared about her, it's possible to understand the importance of her loss
and the seriousness of the crime that caused it.
A 20 year old man has now been arrested and charged with Krystal
Heskin's murder ... so we are informed by the Chicago Sun-Times at
http://www.suntimes.com/output/news/heskin24.html. Yet are we to
understand how Michael Davis's actions should be punished when all we
told, apart from the victim's trans status, is that:
"Heskin, 31, died as a result of craniocerebral injuries
and blunt force trauma to the head"
Yep - we know that. Trans women get their brains knocked out violently.
That's not the news. Could they still not muster a single quote to
indicate that someone, somewhere, might have cared more than
professionally about that?
Some of this can be put down to lack of knowledge, of course. You get
the impression in reading the examples above that the journalists might
be struggling a bit over what they CAN say. It's habit, you see. When
members of any marginal group get violently murdered, editors don't put
their best reporters on the case. Even the rookie has limited time for
investigation, and it doesn't seem to be in the rules to go looking for
interviews with people who might really care.
Yet no excuses can be found when the reporting is not simply indifferent
but downright aggressively hostile.
A few hours ago, in Los Angeles, another murder was reported :
Under the headline "Robbery Said To Be Motive In Transgender Killing"
and next to a photo of an obviously feminine figure, the article begins
"(CBS) LOS ANGELES Police believe the fatal shooting
of a transgender man Saturday was a robbery gone bad,
rather than a hate crime, officials said."
"Juan Jose Jacobo Preciado, 26, was known as Romina.
She was shot at about 4:30 a.m. in the hallway of an
apartment in the 800 block of South Westlake Avenue,
Los Angeles police Officer Sara Faden said."
"Police were not sure that Preciado had undergone a
sex change operation and would not initially release
the victim's gender."
Why does it matter whether she's had GRS or not? Is that relevant, or
If you watch the CBS2 News video clip accompanying the rest of the story
then it seems so far that this particular murder probably WASN'T a hate
crime. It appears, at face value, to be a violent robbery - at least to
begin with. Yet to watch so many interviewees say that Romina was a she
and for the TV reporter to then still persist in describing her as a MAN
suggests a follow-up hate crime at the hands of the media. Furthermore,
it's a hate crime towards Romina's boyfriend and family.
Police want witnesses of course. They'll want people to think that this
was a serious enough event for people with background knowledge to
implicate the robbers. But is that more or less likely after the TV News
has objectified the victim as someone whose death maybe wasn't so
important anyway? In what way does reporting in this form then prejudice
the likelihood of justice?
If journalists carry on putting the victim's sensitive gender details to
the fore in cases like this then they stop being the mere reporters of
events. Instead they become a part of the story themselves - conveying a
message that crimes directed at trans people are going to be reported
and perceived in an altogether different way than those affecting other
people. One might even describe them as accomplices after the fact.
It's interesting that in both of the murder stories I've featured, the
Police appear (at least) to try and treat murder as murder. In Krystal
Heskin's case the authorities seemed to be trying, in spite of the
media, to point they way to grant the victim some dignity. Likewise, in
Los Angeles, the Police Officer interviewed on camera wasn't making a
song and dance about the murdered woman's gender or anatomical details;
that came entirely from the reporter concerned, who ought to be rewarded
with an entire prime time show about his own little twinkie.
Whilst I've been writing this article, I've watched the list of
signatures to that UN Petition climb through the 1900 names barrier.
Reading the list at
http://www.petitiononline.com/mod_perl/signed.cgi?xgender&1 is on one
level educational. You get a real sense of a world full of trans people,
who all feel much the same way about being marginalised in the very
wording of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It's also nice to
see so many friends of trans people taking part too. Take heart in that.
Yet the tiny numbers of signatures also point to the very enormity of
the challenge to protect such a small and vulneable minority. And it's
not easy when, instead of drawing attention to the serious nature of
trans marginalisation, JOURNALISTS contribute to making themselves
a part of the
In spite of the occasional dreadful example (which I don't always cover)
we seem to be making some real progress at last with the press in the UK
(touch wood). 9400 downloads of our dossier about Trans People and the
Press in the UK suggest that the topic has grabbed more than just trans
people's attention; who knows, some of those readers may even have been
curious journalists. (See http://www.pfc.org.uk/gendrpol/pcc-doss.pdf).
US media have allegedly learned a great deal from the earlier criticism
heaped on them when covering events such as the trial of Gwen Araujo's
killers. Maybe that's progress of sorts too. Yet it's a big leap from
merely learning some sensitivity to actually reporting events that would
normally be more newsworthy in themselves...
I'm wondering, for instance, how far an event like the Spanish hunger
strike would need to go in order to attract reporting in the mainstream
press in the UK or US. Would somebody actually have to starve to death?
And, if they did, would the feature be about their emaciated genitals,
or the political fight they were pursuing?
- Christine Burns
Sunday 7th May, 2006
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