by Isis Piccillo, Managing Editor

The transgender pride flag flies in the San Francisco Castro District. Photo courtesy of torbakhopper/Flickr

What good is it for journalists to share a marginalized community’s story if we only further marginalize and traumatize that community?

International Trans Day of Remembrance (TDoR), held annually Nov. 20, honors the transgender people killed due to anti-trans or transphobic violence during that year. As a queer non-binary person myself, my sketchy knowledge of the history of the trans movement comes from the two LGBTQ+ classes I took in college, a smattering of information I’ve picked up from my fellow community and queer indie website Autostraddle.

For instance, I hadn’t known that TDoR began in response to the brutal murder of Rita Hester, a black trans woman, in 1998.

I also hadn’t known that the offensive coverage of her murder sparked a protest march against the media.

The Boston Herald’s breaking-news coverage of Hester’s case repeatedly misgendered her, using “he” pronouns, referring to her as a man and transvestite, and deadnaming her. Deadnaming is the term for using someone’s former or pre-transition name.

One might hope that journalists, intimately connected with and immersed in words, would be the first proponents of shifting language, rather than the gatekeepers.

The coverage that followed in the Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix and local gay and lesbian newspaper Bay Windows, was just as insensitive.

According to the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, journalists should strive to minimize harm, and “ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect.”

The inaccurate representation of Rita Hester spread misinformation about the transgender community, parroted stereotypes, and disrespected her life and memory. Nancy R. Nangeroni, founder of GenderTalk Radio, wrote in a 1999 chronology that following Hester’s memorial, outrage over the journalists’ ignorance and insensitivity sparked a ‘Truth Rally’ that marched from the Boston Herald office to the Bay Windows office.

This is a contribution journalists should be ashamed of.

The American Medical Association’s (AMA) 2019 annual meeting addressed the “epidemic of violence against the transgender community, especially the amplified dangers faced by transgender people of color.”

“According to available tracking, fatal anti-transgender violence in the U.S. is on the rise and most victims were black transgender women,” said AMA Board Member S. Bobby Mukkamala, M.D.. He also said that, due to underreporting and inconsistent data collection, the number of victims could be higher.

The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) reported that, as of the writing of this article, “At least 22 transgender and gender non-conforming people have been killed in the United States since the beginning of 2019.” According to the HRC website, the organization has been tracking data of “fatal anti-transgender violence” since 2013.

According to the HRC report “A National Epidemic: Fatal Anti-Transgender Violence in America in 2019,” at least 80% of victims have been clearly misgendered by law enforcement or media since 2013.

The College of Alameda FabLab distributed pins for National Coming Out Week Oct. 2019. Photo by Isis Piccillo

Equally important to providing sensitive coverage of violence against transgender people is to provide more than just coverage of violence against transgender people. Media stories that focus primarily on violence expand the narrative of victimization. Transgender people deserve the same broad spectrum of coverage that shows, rather than tells, the nuance and depth of the community

In response to questions regarding an article that used Mx. as a gender-neutral alternative to Ms., Mr. or Mrs., associate masthead editor for standards at the New York Times Philip Corbett, wrote in 2015: “The Times is not looking to lead the way, set the rules or break new ground. Our hope is to reflect accepted, standard usage among educated readers.”

Corbett seems to think journalists play a passive role in the distribution of information, falsely assuming that inaction is the most neutral choice. Is this bystander journalism?

Media shapes the social landscape and cultural attitudes of our society, whether we like it or not. By actively avoiding the use of accurate pronouns and respectful, up-to-date language, journalists perpetuate injustice and can also hinder a cultural shift by denying exposure to evolving language.

Language is fluid. Language evolves. One might hope that journalists, intimately connected with and immersed in words, would be the first proponents of shifting language, rather than the gatekeepers.

“There’s nothing complicated about this, except the convoluted justifications offered by those who refuse to honor such a simple, humane, and consistent request,” said Nangeroni in her 1999 article about Rita Hester.