Gives Good Headline: How the Media Loves Its Sex Changes II

GLAAD named WTHR coverage of the murder of Taysia Elzy and Michael Hunt as a Worst for December 2008.  They say:

“A December 28 crime report on detailing the murder of a transgender woman and her boyfriend in Broad Ripple, Indiana used the incorrect name, the wrong pronouns and described the transgender victim’s life in a generally offensive manner….”

Some have called this “patently unfair” based on a legal name change not having been done and the attitude of the family toward Elzy: “I don’t think anyone could accuse Elzy’s family of insensitivity on this matter by still referring to her birth-assigned gender….” — ignoring, of course, the fact that it still can be rarer for families to accept and respect ones gender transition than otherwise. 

In response, reporter Steve Jefferson has stated that “Our goal is to catch the killer- NOT promote your cause” … which presumes a little bit about the role and effectiveness of the media, and raises a question about how using a name that the victim didn’t use is supposed to help jump-start potential informants’ sense of recall (it also begs the question about why asking for respect and fairness is a “suspicious agenda”).  No, it’s not about promoting a cause — it’s improper to co-opt someone’s life that way — but for Jefferson, it’s clearly become a case of refusing to acknowledge that a need to transition has any basis in reality (not to mention refusing to respect the victim period), more than it is about reporting facts (i.e. how the victim lived) or encouraging people with information to come forward (about the world surrounding a person they actually knew, rather than some obscure moniker they were probably unfamiliar with).

As to whether Jefferson and WTHR are the worst however, depends on the parameters.  Many media outlets and personalities routinely repeat this behaviour because of either the sensationalist value or out of a desire to appeal to conservative views that anything outside of the Church’s view is an “agenda” not worth dignifying or respecting.  Such behaviour continues to sell papers, unfortunately.  The fact that “everybody does it” does not make it right, but it does make it something that needs to be repeatedly addressed.  For example, coverage of the trial of Robyn Browne’s killer wasn’t always that much better than Jefferson’s reporting (how nice of them to needlessly out a former roommate as having a trans history over 20 years past, when it was totally irrelevant to the story), nor was the initial treatment by media and authorities of Angie Zapata.  Jefferson and WTHR weren’t the only media outlets that took this same approach with Taysia Elzy, either — they are simply the faces of the loudest and most insistent form of this poor media coverage for December 2008, and if the time frame is GLAAD’s parameter, then it fits.

It’s become all too common to have to reiterate some clear and specific facts for the media’s benefit.  Here’s the crux of what I’ve written before and will certainly have occasion to quote again:

“Gender Dysphoria” is a condition recognized by the medical community, and treatment follows the standards of care established by WPATH (formerly HBIGDA), which include Genital Reassignment Surgery (GRS).  It is currently listed as a mental health issue, but as GID therapists tend to concur, this is only because a specific biological trigger has not yet been determined (although there is ongoing study of genetic issues, “brain sex” and Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals which appear to possibly lead to a better understanding of its origin).  As much as mainstream society and some journalists would like to believe that electroshock therapy, anti-psychotic drugs, conversion therapy and lobotomy would help transsexuals “just get over it,” modern medicine has realized that this approach simply does not work, and usually results in suicide or extreme anti-social behaviour.  Aligning body to mind, however, has enabled transsexuals to become valued and successful people in society — people like Erica Rutherford, Ben BarresGeorgina Beyer, Amanda LeporeParinya Kiatbusaba (Nong Toom), Marci Bowers, Christine Daniels, Alexandra Billings, Lynn Conway and a host of others that we can respect.

The above is also the reason that the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists’ Association have included trans-positive recommendations in their stylebook, and why the Associated Press has adopted them.

Although the stylebook says that “To determine accurate use of names or personal pronouns, use the name and sex of the individual at the time of the action,” the media’s favorite approach to dealing with transsexuals is to put the current name in quotes, like an alias [* many times even if it is a legal name], and using the birth sex pronoun.  For any other human being, blatantly denying these basics about how a person is living their life would be unacceptable, but it exists because journalists insist on reinforcing the … take that our identities are “not real” and that we’re living fake lives, that our identities are fabrications.  Which goes to show that many of them have not even tried to educate themselves on the subject, or even realize what the DSM-IV (bible of the medical community) has to say about Gender Dysphoria.  For many of us, it was in fact that time prior to our transitions that we were putting on the superficial false fronts, pretending to be the “boy” or “girl” that everyone else wanted or expected us to be — and being miserable, struggling to function emotionally / psychically / spiritually / economically (it’s hard to be productive with something like GID constantly nagging at you) / maybe sexually, and often suicidal as a result.

Jefferson is December 2008’s reminder that the media at large (not everybody associated with it, but certainly a large swath of it) continually need wake-up calls.  Good on GLAAD and folks like Bil Browning for continuing to press the matter.  Incidentally, with regards to WTHR, it should be added that Bil reports:

“Good news! I spoke with News Director Carolyn Williams this afternoon. She’ll be discussing a possible diversity training for station staff with the station manager on Monday.

She was very kind and professional and genuinely sorry for the poor coverage. So as you write e-mails, keep in mind that she wants to make things right.”

We could stand to see more of that instead of “the agenda people are picking on me.”

    • Sue
    • January 30th, 2009

    It’s no surprise;
    really it’s just capitalizing on a group who are known to have mental health issues and large easy to push buttons.

    A question you really need to ask is, who’s fault is it?


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