By Gwendolyn Ann Smith
I was recently pointed to an article out of Miami, Florida, about the death of Deja Jones, a 33 year old transgender woman of color. I wish I could say I was surprised to see the article label her a transvestite, used incorrect pronouns, and focused on her arrest record.
Unfortunately, some two decades after the Associated Press Stylebook was updated to tell journalists to “use the pronoun preferred by the individuals who have acquired the physical characteristics of the opposite sex or present themselves in a way that does not correspond with their sex at birth,” one still often sees coverage that mis-genders, strips away preferred names, and does its best to present transgender people in a freakish light.
Why do they do this? I think it’s a combination of factors. I can’t forget that providing a salacious story has got to also be a factor for some in the media. A salacious tale is going to sell more advertisements, after all.
Some of it, too, is pure ignorance, while some is a prejudice against those who are not presenting in the gender the reporters — or their sources — may feel most comfortable with.
There are a slew of stereotypes that come with being transgender, most of them negative. We’re confused, we’re sexually perverted, and we’re deceptive. For transgender women, we’re gay men, or drag queens, or transvestites. For transgender men, we’re lesbians — or more colloquially — dykes. Of course, these are all in spite of our preferred identity. Many of these stereotypes, especially for transgender women, are long-standing, and often come out of popular culture.
Perhaps the biggest and most ingrained stereotype is that we are out to deceive people. Indeed, the notion of cross-dressing for the sake of trickery goes back at least to Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, assuming one ignores much older myths and legends of Gods and heroes taking on a cross-gendered persona.
In the modern era, this is the role of Tootsie and Max Klinger; of Some Like It Hot to work it. It is the subtext of any number of movies, television shows, and books. With so many examples, it is almost impossible for transgender people to truly be free of the assumption that we are all simply out to deceive non-transgender people for some nefarious purpose.
This is also where the “transgender panic” defense comes from. Again, it is all about being deceived by a transgender person, and reacting to it. It serves to cast the transperson in a negative light, and their attacker in a positive one. After all, they’re simply standing their ground against the wiles of a transgender deceiver, no?
This is what, I’m sure, Deja Jones’ killer will say, if he or she is ever caught. They just did not know she was a guy (sic.) and could not help but react.
I mentioned that Jones has a record. In May of this year she was picked up for prostitution and carrying a concealed weapon. While, yes, a lot of us do end up in various forms of sex work — often just to survive in a world that can still be pretty reluctant to give us better avenues into the workplace — the assumption is that we’re all perverted, freaky, and sexually deviant.
This is what often shuts us out of public accommodations, and one reason why the right has been so successful at shuttering transgender rights bills by tying us to pedophiles and rapists creeping around public toilets. It is as if being transgender is only the very top of the iceberg when it comes to our deviance. This is also one of those reasons people so quickly turn away from any form of public funding for genital reconstruction surgery: Viagra is fine, but when you want to alter your genitalia, well, that’s over the line.
Hand in hand with this is the assumption that our deviance is sick, wrong, and the cause of our own downfall. In a lot of ways this is about blaming the victim. “Well of course she was killed,” some would say, “she was turning tricks in a dangerous neighborhood.”
There is much more, of course. No matter what we do, we are likely to be reduced to our birth names or genders. The media may claim they’re trying to somehow be “factual,” when really there buying into the above stereotypes. We’re trying to fool someone, so the media is going to inform the public — or were deviant and they just want to show people how low we’ve sunk.
I need not add that transgender people do not live in a bubble. Oftentimes, stereotypes of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people are applied to transgender people, whether or not they are truly applicable. A poor transgender person is going to face the same stereotypes applied to anyone else with a low — or no — income. Racial stereotypes will apply to transgender people just as strongly as they will to anyone else. Transgender people will face the stereotypes of women and men, sometimes within moments of each other. Age, disability, religion, and every other stereotype are on the table, in addition to those specific to transgender people.
So when the media wrote about the murder of Deja Jones, and talked about “his” transvestite “lifestyle” while painting the death as a trick gone wrong on 77th Street, they weren’t tell the real story of Deja’s life. They weren’t telling us about her family and friends, and how they know her.
They weren’t telling us anything about the person, just of the cardboard cutout they’ve created.