Friday, April 23, 2010

Media's Discomfort With The "H" Word

Cheyenne (top) and two of her alleged attackers

Hate crime against people within the LGBT coalition became nationally legally acknowledged late October with Obama's signing of The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. It expanded upon the hate crime law created in the 1960s to include acknowledgment that hate crimes are frequently perpetrated against people for reasons of their sexual orientation, gender identity or expression and disability. Yet, many in the media feel it's a sign of their "journalistic responsibility" to keep the question of a possible hate crime out of their stories until it's officially acknowledged by the police or district attorney. Many media outlets don't even like to use the phrase, "being investigated as a possible hate crime" or "could be seen as a possible hate crime" in their stories until it's literally screaming from the consciousness of anyone encountering the story. One has to wonder, what's the issue with noting the obvious and stating, "this is a serious possibility" much like other endless conjecture which so often finds its way into hate crime stories (the victim's sex life/drug usage/atypical "lifestyle").

Kids will be kids
This story appearing in the Lexington (Kentucky) Herald-Leader leads with the headline, "Police say there is no evidence an attack against gay teen was a 'hate crime'." In it, the paper goes to great pains to assure us how police do not think a hate crime occurred against a lesbian student, Cheyenne Williams, when "Williams said three teens (girls) took her against her will to Flat Lick Falls, physically abused her and tried to push her off a cliff." This occurred on the 'Day of Silence' when students are supposed to be made aware of bullying and harassment against LGBT students). Part of the crime (including hate speech) appears on video. Of all the aspects of this crime (the 3 girls have been charged with kidnapping and attempted murder.) the Herald-Leader needs to first assure us those who know best (the police) say it's not a hate crime. There is no mention in the headline how this incident involved attempted murder (trying to push Cheyenne over a cliff) or how she was kidnapped. Its subtext needs to first calm the reader how this community is not about hate—it's a group of crazy kids.

All opinions are equal
Mention is made farther down in the story how, on the Day of Silence, students at the school were wearing tags saying, "Gay is not the way" until the principal made all students remove their stickers related to the commemoration (as if wearing a sticker promoting tolerance is somehow the same as wearing a sticker expressing bigotry).

Oh Mommmm...
The local CBS News affiliate reports on it this way: "Police say the incident involving high school teens may have been a prank." Okay, but it might NOT have been a prank. They admit they have arrested the 3 girls on attempted murder and that they tried to push Cheyenne over the cliff. (Just like MTV Punk'd, isn't it?) At the same time, it's called, "a prank gone bad." Define "prank." The station goes on to report (referencing Cheyenne's mom who wants it investigated as a hate crime), "In fact, police are saying this whole ordeal may have been blown out of proportion." They beat her daughter, called her homophobic names and tried to push her over a cliff.. Moms can be so over-protective!

Nope, no hate crime. Show's over—move along

Crossdressers: beloved by all
Another story from earlier this week falls into a similar category of refusing to even acknowledge the possibility of hate crime. In Danielson, CT (a town of several thousand near the Rhode Island border) the body of a dead male-bodied person was found who was dressed in women's clothes. There was a trail of blood leading to the body. Of all the possible headlines for the story, the Norwich Bulletin chose this one, "Police: Foul play unlikely in death of Danielson man." WFSB Channel 3 in Hartford used this headline, "Police Say Crossdresser's Death Not Criminal." Phew, good thing we got that unpleasant possibility out of the way. Now we don't have to question our own dominant culture of transphobia so life, unchanged, can continue.

There is no questioning (in the media's mind) whether police have ever had issues with people in the LGBT community, whether police have ever had sensitivity training related to the involved populations and whether their, perhaps, narrow view of the story should automatically be viewed as gospel.

Mayberry RFD
The detective said, "There was no trauma to the body and it appears he died of natural causes or some type of illness.” Yes, it turns out the deceased (who was a local named Queenie/born Patrick Kelly) had been coughing up blood at a bar earlier in the evening. It's also true, however, that without an autopsy certain types of trauma are unlikely to turn up by immediate visual examination. For instance, if someone punched Queenie in the stomach, ruptured an internal organ (yes, a hate crime) which in turn caused vomiting blood. Is that impossible? Is the idea someone male-bodied wearing woman's clothes could have been attacked so far-fetched it has to be immediately dismissed?

WTNH-TV includes a quote which further cements the idea how he got along with everyone (a familiar meme in reporting transphobic crimes) "That's actually kind of sad (him dying) because for him, he was a guy who kept to himself,” Delvalle explained. “(He) walked around town and never tried to get into a fight with anybody.” Who said he did? Do all victims get attacked because they start fights? In another account, a local told News Channel 8, "Kelly used to wear skirts and dresses and high heels, which was just fine with the many people who knew Kelly." But was it fine with the many people who didn't know Kelly?

She didn't have problems with people
so then what's the problem?
The NY Daily News reported the murder of Amanda Gonzalez Andujar this way, "She never had any problems with anybody. She was full of life." Sorry, but lots of people had problems with her. She very likely got stares from them every day on the street, or from the comments of guys who both sexually objectified her and ridiculed her womanhood, when she walked into possible places of employment or to receive health services. We know, as a trans woman, she had lots of problems in this world. Why does media feel the need to smooth over the likely oppression a gender variant victim encountered?

It's fair to say, in a culture which marginalizes people who are different, where there has been a pervasive pattern of violence against those with variant gender presentations and identities, when someone attempts to push one of those people over a cliff or their dead, crossdressed body is found in a parking lot, NO possibility should be excused. Media... thanks for reassuring us the world isn't an ugly place with people filled with hate. But I think we're capable of deciding those issues based on the facts and the social history and values of the involved communities.

4/24/10 Addendum: I notice in the reporting of a recent attack on a trans student in a bathroom at CSU-Long Beach special emphasis is being made to characterize it this way: "The University Police, according to the release, believe that this was an isolated incident and there is no additional threat to the campus community." And they know that how? You mean it's not part of systemic societal transphobia? No "regular" people have to worry about their safety? That so comforting.

4/24/10 Addendum: Lez Get Real has more information about the Cheyenne Williams kidnapping and attempted murder which further disputes the police and media notion of the attack as some kind of prank.


  1. thank you for another excellently written post Gina

  2. Thanks for saying something about this. Authorities are terrified about actually applying the hate crime label in *any* case, since the statistic forces people to acknowledge that there's a problem in their community, and part of it is them.

    In Edmonton, Alberta:

    First, the officer didn't file a report at all. Then, when the outcry became impossible to ignore, they investigated the failure to file, but no disciplinary action was taken. Finally, they've investigated, found the kids, and charged a 14-year-old. Not surprisingly, they've announced it was not a hate crime but just "kids being kids," though all evidence says otherwise.

    In the same week, the Pride Centre in Edmonton was broken into, equipment stolen (centering mostly on a computer that contained mailing lists and contact information), and property destroyed. The cops also failed to do much to investigate and are dismissing the hate crime designation before even arresting anyone.

    "Nope. It doesn't happen in our community."

  3. Mercedes, thanks for the link to the story. Don't we all know people under 18 are incapable of perpetrating hate crimes? We like to call them youthful pranks.


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