No Respect Paid: The New York Times' Anti-Trans Coverage (And Why There's Hope for the Future)

*Trigger Warning*

This week, the New York Times covered the death of a Lorena Escalera, a Brooklyn woman who perished in a suspicious fire. They could have opened with a colorful description of her career in the ballroom scene—Escalera was a member of the House of Xtravaganza. Or they could have focused on the poor electrical circuitry in her apartment—a probable cause of the fire and symptomatic of lower-income housing. Instead, Al Baker and Nate Schweber opened with neighborhood gossip and physical descriptions: “She was 25 and curvaceous, and she often drew admiring glances in the gritty Brooklyn neighborhood where she was known to invite men for visits to her apartment, her neighbors and the authorities said.” This turns out to be a set-up for them to mention that Lorena Escalera “was born male.” You know, according to neighbors.

Many writers have already noted why this kind of coverage is both disgusting and dangerous:

Jos Truitt, Feministing:

Mostly, the account comes from two men, one of whom says he knew she did sex work because he saw her computer. The other guy is quoted as saying, “For a man, he was gorgeous. Hourglass figure.” Because apparently those words really deserved to see print.

Specific stereotypes about trans women are being deployed in this article, like that we’re deceptive (it’s not that she was Lorena, it’s that she was called Lorena). But focusing on her appearance and bringing up sex work is the same old shit we always hear about how slutty women bring violence upon themselves. We don’t yet know the details of what happened to Lorena, if it was even a murder, and already the Times is blaming the victim.

Janet Mock, GLAAD:

I would expect the New York Times to treat any subject, regardless of their path in life, with dignity. In Lorena Escalera’s life she was so much more than the demeaning, sexist portrait they painted of girls like us. It goes beyond a “choice of words.” According to the Times’ limiting, harmful portrait of Lorena, she was nothing more than a “curvaceous” bombshell for men to gawk at. That is not the “personal” story of any woman, and until we treat trans women like human beings—in life and death—with dignity, families and struggles, our society will never see us beyond pariahs in our communities.

Autumn Sandeen, Pam’s House Blend:

It’s not just that trans people, at a rate of about one a month, are violently killed; but it’s also about how trans people are often revictimized in death by how media covers their deaths. Lorena Escalera deserved better—trans people deserved better—than what the New York Times published…The New York Times needs to again work on getting the narratives of trans people better—and even first ask themselves whether an article about a trans crime victim needs to mention that the victim was trans if that fact isn’t with certainty germane as to why the crime victim was targeted.

GLAAD and many folks on the internet called for an apology and a response from the New York Times. Yesterday, Metro Editor Carolyn Ryan released a statement: “We typically try to capture the personal stories of those whose lives are lost in a fire, and we sought to do so in this case. We certainly did not mean any disrespect to the victim or those who knew her. But, in retrospect, we should have shown more care in our choice of words.”

Okay, but as s.e. smith asked at xoJane, would coverage of a cis woman’s death mention that her apartment was filled with women’s clothes ands shoes? Like Autumn Sandeen said, why are trans women, especially trans women of color, revictimized in death? If they really wanted to capture Lorena’s story, they would have talked to her family and friends who knew and loved her, and celebrated her legacy as a Brooklyn club headliner.

Poor media coverage is one reason why editor and trans activist Janet Mock is launching the #GirlslikeUs campaign, raising awareness about trans women of color of today and trailblazers who came before. Mock’s must-watch USC Lavender Commencement speech from last week took on similar issues of the dehumanizing news coverage of trans women of color (if there is any at all). Speaking about the recent death of Paige Clay and trans women murdered before her (and before their time), Mock said “For trans women of color, these women’s murders are constant reminders that who we are falls so outside of the box of what society says is acceptable that our deaths and even our lives don’t matter. We are in effect disposable….So I made the choice to use my voice, to speak up, to live visibly because being silent would be a disservice to me and the many women who came before for me and the brothers and sisters I fight alongside today and the ones whose voices have been silenced by intolerance and hate.”

Mock’s goal is short but powerful: “To let our communities, allies & sisters know we exist. We’re visible and you, my dear sister, are not alone.”

a screenshot of one of Janet Mock's tweets. In it, she writes, Going to bed with these women on my mind. I vow to do more. Be more. #lorenaescalera #justiceforpaige #brandymartell #freeCeCe #girlslikeus

Here’s what you can do. Follow the #girlslikeus Twitter hashtag, write to the New York Times, and sign this Care2 petition calling for an apology that acknowledges the discrimination against trans people.

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by Kjerstin Johnson
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Kjerstin Johnson is a writer and editor in Portland, Oregon. She is the former editor in chief of Bitch. She tweets at @kajerstin

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