Wednesday, April 21, 2010

EQUALITY (of Coverage?)

Jorge (l)... Ashley (r). Which death is more important?

The horrible murder of Jorge Steven Lopez Mercado in November, 2009 was unquestionably, the most highly reported crime against an LGBT person since Matthew Shephard's murder. Not only were there literally hundreds of news stories in major media, but there were vigils throughout the United States held in memory of Mercado's death. Moreover, the crime was written about and featured on countless large blogs throughout the Internet.

What so many of these stories and memorials didn't cover was how Lopez Mercado was completely presenting as female at the time of the murder which police have stated happened while Mercado was doing sexwork. Lopez Mercado was always very clearly identified by media as a gay male and how the crime was an example of homophobia and "gay panic." Needless to say, gender identities can be complex and evolving and it isn't entirely clear what the victim's gender ID was... gay man who did occasional drag but had recently started hooking while presented as a woman, or young person who was evolving into a more trans identity with a pit stop in the gay community? While this issue is still being debated, it's clear there was a large will by much of the media to paint the murder as a homophobic crime against a young gay male. Almost immediately, Lopez Mercado entered the realm of anointed community martyr. The trial of his accused murderer is scheduled to begin on May 3.

Considerable controversy was generated when some local memorials for Lopez Mercado were scheduled on the same date as the Transgender Day of Remembrance without even acknowledging the TDOR or suggesting the two should be combined since the Lopez Mercado murder was, even taken at face value, a transphobic crime. Regardless of one's ID, the accused murderer has stated he thought he was picking up a female prostitute (or, at its more reductionist, a trans woman prostitute) and not a guy.

Ashley's grieving mother

Yup, another one of those...
The naked, dead body of Ashley Santiago, a transgender woman who worked as a beautician and lived near in the town of Corozal near San Juan, Puerto Rico, was found in her kitchen last Monday, April 19. She had been stabbed 14 times and was lying in a large pool of blood. Her mother had tried to reach her on Sunday, was unable to get through and contacted the police who, ultimately, discovered her body. Ms. Santiago's 2009 Toyota Corolla was missing and her house was in disarray. Her murder was reported in a couple of Spanish-language outlets—misgendering her as male, calling her a homosexual and using her male birth name.

We're all queers, that's all that counts
Pedro Julio Serrano, a native of Puerto Rico who works for the National Lesbian and Gay Task Force, spent a lot of effort in the Lopez Mercado case justifying his identification of the victim as a gay man (and faced many accusations from the trans community of perpetrating "trans erasure"). He did speak out about the Santiago murder and try to clarify that she was, in fact, a trans woman, not a gay male and that her female name and appropriate pronouns should be used. Queerty, in reporting the murder on 4/21, referred to the crime as a "Queer Murder" without even knowing if the victim actually identified as "queer" or not (not all trans people do). Evidently, putting queer in the headline makes it more interesting to their readers than just identifying her as a woman or another trans woman.

Don't even bother
While news of her death is quite recent (in English, it was only reported in the Boston Edge LGBT newspaper) it's quite a contrast to the huge outpouring which accompanied the Lopez Mercado murder which was discussed and condemned by virtually every large LGBT organization and media outlet and, within a few days, mainstream media like the New York Times. In contrast to to either story is another recent trans murder which occurred at the beginning of April. Toni Alston, an African-American trans woman, was murdered at her front door in Charlotte, NC and there has overwhelmingly been silence from LGBT media and nationwide mainstream media (and a profound amount of misgendering by the local Charlotte media which identified the victim as a crossdressing male). Three crimes, three deaths, three dead LGBT people, totally different media outcomes. What is different about these cases? Why does one case create a torrent of outrage while the other two are largely ignored or receive only minimal local coverage.

Either you have star quality...
Similar questions can asked about the Constance McMillan case in which a lesbian student wasn't permitted to attend the prom of her Mississippi high school while wearing a tux. It received an huge outpouring of national outrage and international coverage. Curiously though, many of the stories and blogs got the issues wrong. The school was okay about her going to go to the prom with her girlfriend, what the school objected to was her wearing the tux. Again, an issue of gender presentation not sexual orientation. An excellent discussion of these issues is in the April 6, 2010 Bilerico post by Antonia D'orsay called "A Prom and Pretty (Ugly) things."

Media star Constance with Ellen (l)...
unknown outcast Juin (r)

... or you don't!
What made this even more bizarre was the entire underside of the story: that a gender variant student, Juin Baize (then identifying as MTF) was literally blackballed from even attending the school and was forced to leave town after bullying. This student was a friend (or, at least close acquaintance) of Constance and Constance really only wanted to wear the tux as a protest against Baize's harassment (Constance did not initially plan on wearing a tux). The school officials largely didn't want her to wear the tux because they were afraid another crossdressed boy—or Juin—might try to attend the prom. Subsequently, Constance appeared on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, received a $30,000 scholarship for college and was invited to be a presenter at the GLAAD Media Awards in LA. Juin Baize... received none of those and only scattered media attention. This is not to minimize Constance's incredible courage and what she went through, but one has to ask, which is worse, not being able to dress the way you like at your prom, or to be unable to attend school and be harassed from even living in your town?

Constance presenting Wanda Sykes
at the LA GLAAD Media Awards:
Was Juin invited?

One has to question how stories are prioritized within the LGBT media world? (much less the larger mainstream media) Are all LGBT lives really equal? Are all stories of murder and injustice equally valued? Which stories generate outrage and mobilization and which stories are largely ignored? Which victims become icons and community flag-bearers and which are doomed to invisibility?


  1. Excellent questions. This post needs to be seen by lots of people, especially those who can do something about media coverage.

  2. Nailed it again! Too bad we'll find too many of our own who are quite comfortable with our so-called allies prioritization of Trans issues, allowing these orgs the validation they need to continue status quo. And all is right with the world (save for us dissident 'trannies'....)

    And the beat (down) goes on.

  3. I think you have brought these issues home. two perfect examples of how our community sets priorities.

  4. As much as I don't like to compare LGBT murders this does point to a glaring inequality in the exposure of transgender murders when compared to gay murders. You also nailed 'queerty' for attempted assimilation of the transgender identity.

  5. the mainstream LGBT organizations love exploiting trans oppression for profit. this is how the non-profit industrial complex works. actual queer folks don't matter to groups like the HRC-- except for the fabulously wealthy ones. all they care about is gay marriage and gays in the military. and sometimes they want hate crime legislation-- which actually hurts us and does nothing but lock more people in cages.

  6. The LGB only seems to include the T when we are unemployed or murdered. By "include" I mean made gay just long enough to get legislation passed with our examples before chucking us under a random bus.

  7. This is a very sad reality, and I'm glad you so clearly and cogently pointed out the discrepancies in coverage and support. At the same time, I think that any support for young LGBT people is a major upstat, and I'm glad that Constance received the support she did. Our community is beginning to understand and embrace trans young people, but so much more is needed -- so much more. After ENDA is signed into law this Fall (that's taking every spare minute right now), I think I will turn to looking for ways to help young trans people.


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