DETROIT – A series of stories in The Detroit News has angered members of the trans community and has them calling for greater sensitivity from the mainstream media. The stories, which ran April 19-20, reported on the murder of Robert Armstrong, a 46-year-old father of two from Canton Township who was murdered by a man with whom he allegedly had a sexual encounter. The complaints on the coverage are many, but begin with the usage of one simple word: transvestite.
“The use of this word is derogative and inflammatory,” said Michelle Fox-Phillips, executive director of Transgender Detroit. “I emailed my displeasure to the reporter and did not receive a response. I then emailed the city desk and his answer was that since the prosecution and family members referred Mr. Armstrong as a transvestite it was okay to print it.”
Rachel Crandall, MSW, a psychotherapist and gender identity specialist, explains why the term is inappropriate.
“The term transvestite is a very negative term nowadays because it really is a diagnosis,” said Crandall, who also serves as executive director for TransGender Michigan. “It’s not real language that anybody in the community uses anymore. It really is insulting. It’s saying there’s something wrong with them. As a therapist, that’s how I think of it. When someone uses that term to refer to me, I feel very made fun of. I feel very marginalized.”
Beyond the usage of this inappropriate word, there are others issues with the stories, which were written by News reporter Christine Ferretti. Ruth Seymour, Ph.D., began, herself, reporting for the News and Detroit Free Press before deciding to teach. For about 15 years, Seymour taught a class called Reporting Race, Sex and Culture at Wayne State University, which deals with many of these issues. Today, she teaches a similar course to college professors from across the country at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla. A one-time editor for Between The Lines, she reviewed the offending story and shared her perspective.
Sex, drugs and rock’n’roll
The lead, or first sentence, of the April 20 story reads, “An Ypsilanti man faces life in prison after a jury concluded he murdered a Canton Township transvestite with a NASCAR flashlight following a night of sex and drugs.” The sentence is attention getting, much in the way that a brawl on the Jerry Springer show causes you pause for a moment in the midst of changing television channels.
“The News takes the words of the convicted killer as fact, apparently, using them in the lead without attribution and without telling us why we should trust Adams, who has a history of raping men, to declare sex consensual,” Seymour said. “Along the same lines, I don’t see any other evidence presented in the News story of ‘drugs.’ Adams apparently claimed that Armstrong was drunk when he left. Where did the drugs come from?
“It is journalistically irresponsible to describe ‘a night of sex and drugs’ – and in the lead, no less – without stating that this information came from the convicted killer, and that the ‘drug’ was alcohol … unless the News reporter knows something we don’t.”
Man vs. beast
In its coverage of the murder, the Free Press referred to Armstrong as a “cross dresser,” a term probably more accurate and definitely more acceptable to the trans community, and they did so much nearer to the end, after first calling him a “man” and a “father,” in essence, after giving him his humanity – something the News failed to do.
“The use of ‘transvestite’ as a substitute for man makes Armstrong appear to be a different species,” Seymour said. “More subtle, but very important to the impact of the lead, is that its sentence structure declares ‘the news’ to be that someone would actually face a life sentence for this type of murder. The implicit perspective is from the point of view of the man, who now faces a life sentence for what? The murder of a transvestite?”
In her classes, Seymour, who is now a journalism professor at Oakland University, teaches that such words should never be used as nouns, but rather adjectives, if they need be used at all. But without at least calling Armstrong a “transvestite man,” they make him less than a person, and instead a thing.
“What the term transvestite meant at one time is a person who likes to dress in the opposite gender’s attire for sexual excitement,” said Crandall. “That’s what the term actually meant and it really doesn’t acknowledge the person as a person. It doesn’t acknowledge any identity. It doesn’t acknowledge any personality. It takes away his personage. It robs them of that. It makes them an object rather than a person. And what can be more insulting than that?”
Finally, there’s the issue of relevance. If the convicted killer, 34-year-old Andre Adams, admitted to having consensual sex with Armstrong, why is the fact that Armstrong was a cross dresser in any way relevant to his murder? If it was alleged at any point during the trial that Armstrong was murdered because he was a cross dresser, it was not included in the News story at all. So why, then, unless for shock value, did readers of the News need to know about this aspect of Armstrong’s life?
Reflecting on the News coverage of this case, Seymour said such stories often reveal more than just a poor word choice.
“These are very unlikely to be reporters making intentional decisions,” she said. “It is more likely to be deeply held feelings and prejudices seeping out into the grammar and lexicon.”
Reporter Christine Ferretti did not respond to repeated phone calls seeking a comment. Her editor, Joel Kurth, deferred comment and instead referred BTL to Walter Middlebrook, director of recruiting and community affairs for the News. When these concerns were raised with Middlebrook, he said, “You’re making fair points. You’re making a point and it’s a very solid, fair point, and we’ll probably have to put that in review for future cases.”