Wednesday, October 13, 2010

An Open Letter To The Philadelphia Daily News

To the editor, Philadelpha Daily News, and to the Internet in general:

Before I begin, I want to make clear that the Philadelphia Daily News is hardly exceptional in the way it treats trans folk. Nearly every news organization in the world does what you did. But that doesn't make it acceptable--it just means that you are all morally culpable.

What could I possibly be talking about? I'm talking about the way you reported the murder of Stacey Lee. Let me spell it out for you.

Citing the story, "Body of transsexual found in Point Breeze" ( the very first problem is in the headline. "Transsexual" is not a noun, but an adjective. And this is hardly grammar policing--it matters, in a big way. The media treats "transsexual" as if it is a separate category from "man" and "woman", and thus encourages people to think of us as something exotic, alien, and threatening. I presume "trans woman" would be far more accurate here, and would at least remind people that they're dealing with a person and not a thing.

Then you get right to the police report. Know this: Police everywhere are notorious for transphobic behavior. It should be no surprise that the police insist on recording a male name and gender for the victim, even though her neighbors knew her as a trans woman. When you help strip a trans woman of her identity like this, you murder her again. It's not enough that Ms. Lee was killed, apparently; you have to make sure her life is erased by emphasizing the misgendering done by the police. If you wish to show respect to trans folk, you must respect this fact and push against it. Her name was Stacy; that's how she lived, and that is how she should be remembered.

And then there's the matter of focusing on Ms. Lee's appearance. What does it matter if the victim is beautiful or not? Who cares if the victim gave some non-trans woman a "complex"? She's dead! A moral outrage has been committed, and you spend four paragraphs--eighty-one words!--focusing on her attractiveness instead of the tragedy. Why is that? To what end? More othering, more exotification? You may as well call her attractiveness as a threat justifying her murder, explicitly, rather than implying it by discussing it needlessly.

And you just had to use that quote at the end:

"Whatever she was - transvestite, man, woman - she didn't deserve to die like that," one man said.

More exotification--treating "transvestite" (as if Ms. Lee were one!) as something separate from "man" and "woman"? It doesn't matter that it's someone else's words, since you allowed them to be quoted.

But there's something far uglier. "She didn't deserve to die like that"? No, she didn't deserve to die, period! Whoever you quoted might have been counted among the mourners, but the choice of phrase reveals that this person doesn't really care if Stacey Lee lived or died, as long as it wasn't a gruesome death so close to home.

In conclusion, this is a pattern seen time and time again when trans murders are reported. API guidelines, which state that a trans person's identity and name should be used and honored, are thrown out the window; the focus is on the victim's attractiveness instead of the horror of the situation; and interview quotes are selected not to shed light on the person who died but to emphasize the otherness of the victim.

You can do far, far better. For shame.

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