Editors' Note: Guest blogger Adam G. Bass joined GLAAD in early 2007. Prior to GLAAD, Adam worked for over ten years in electoral politics, working on communications and field work in federal, state, local and issue campaigns.
Your 21st birthday is supposed to be a happy moment; it’s one of those “big” birthdays. Today would have been Angie Zapata’s 21st, but just over two years ago, Angie was murdered. On behalf of GLAAD, I sat through the trial where Angie’s murderer was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. As I thought of how to honor Angie on the occasion of her 21st birthday, I decided to take a look at how her life and her story lives on today. The way the media told Angie’s story, set the bar for media coverage of stories involving transgender people.
It is important to take into account the huge role that the media plays in shaping public perspective, and the fact that media coverage often biases criminal and legal investigations--such as when media coverage implies that an openly transgender victim shares responsibility for being attacked, simply because he or she is transgender.
In 2008, many first responders to the story of Angie Zapata’s murder, including police and media, referred to her with male pronouns and by her male birth name as well as suggesting a “trans panic” defense. GLAAD immediately began working with the media to change this, and subsequent media accounts showed drastic improvement in coverage of Angie’s story.
Unfortunately, crime stories involving transgender people are all too often sensationalized, with inappropriate focus on a person’s gender identity, and include material that is disrespectful and dehumanizing. The bodies of transgender people are rarely granted the same privacy that is given to others in the media.
Covering crime stories about transgender people can be challenging, but it is extremely important that it is done well. The first step for a reporter must be to determine if the person’s gender identity is relevant to the story--as it would be in the case of a hate crime victim. If so, the next step is to discuss the person’s gender identity without disrespecting him or her in any way. We made sure this was done with Angie’s story, and on the occasion of her 21st birthday, it makes sense to bring attention to how the media covers such stories.
In January of this year, Myra Ical of Houston, Texas, a transgender woman, was brutally murdered and found dead in a Houston field. Every initial news report characterized Ical as a cross-dressing man who was in an area known for drugs and prostitution. Even after authorities knew that Ms. Ical preferred to go by Myra, they used her male birth name and used male pronouns to refer to her.
In April of this year, transgender woman Toni Alston of Charlotte, North Carolina, was murdered in the front door of her home. First responders to the story of Allston’s murder identified her as a ‘cross dresser’ with an ‘alternative lifestyle’ and used male pronouns and her birth name instead of her chosen name, Toni. Examples of such problematic reporting abound, however there are also many recent examples of very good reporting in crime stories involving a transgender person.
In April of this year, Colle Carpenter, a transgender man and CSULB student, was violently physically assaulted in a campus restroom, targeted for his transgender status, and had “IT” carved into his chest. It took nearly 8 days for the university to release any news about the incident, but media coverage of the incident was quite fair and accurate, as Colle was regularly referred to as a trans-man and with male pronouns. His preferred name was also used without exception.
Myra, Toni, and Angie were all deceased, and unable to identify themselves. Colle survived his attack and was able to self-identify. However, with Myra, Toni, and Angie, as is the case with many transgender murder victims, the evidence of how the person lived his or her life is overwhelming--and simply cannot be ignored by a reporter. Too often reporters replace one medical examiner’s report for a mountain of evidence on how that person actually lived his or her life.
The main issues of concern for media coverage of crime stories involving transgender people are the use of correct names and pronouns, and elimination of gender-identity bias. First, it is very important that transgender people are shown respect by being addressed by their preferred name and the pronouns appropriate for the gender that they identify with. This is always regardless of whether or not a person has taken hormones, had any form of surgery, or had a legal name change. It is never appropriate to put quotation marks around either a transgender person’s chosen name or the pronoun that reflects that person’s gender identity. Also, when describing transgender people, a reporter should always use the correct terms to describe their gender identity. An example of incorrect use of gender identity terms is the USA Today story on the murder of Gwen Araujo, in which she is referred to as a “transgender boy”, called by her male birth name, and referred to with male pronouns throughout the article.
Additionally, it is very important to cover transgender people respectfully not only in cases in which a victim is transgender, but also those in which an accused person or suspect is transgender. A bad example of a story with a transgender person as perpetrator is KTLA’s coverage of the trial and arrest of Crystal Dawn, who was charged with aggravated menacing and criminal trespassing. Throughout this article, Ms. Dawn is referred to with male pronouns and her birth name. On the other hand, coverage of the trial and arrest of Maria Benita Santamaria, a transgender woman charged with possession of methamphetamine, was largely well-done. Ms. Santamaria was always referred to by her chosen name and by female pronouns.
As we remember Angie Zapata on her birthday, we thank all those who regularly follow these guidelines in their reporting and encourage all reporters to follow suit. GLAAD was committed to being involved in media coverage of Angie’s murder as much as possible so that she would not be victimized yet again by problematic news stories. We worked to ensure that in death Angie’s identity would be respected and honored. It is our hope that with this information, all who work on crime stories involving a transgender person will be able to do the same an ensure that all transgender people are discussed appropriately and respectfully.
Angie, her family, and her friends are in my thoughts today. I’m honored to have been part of the effort to ensure Angie’s story was told fairly and accurately after her murder. I’m pleased that media professionals like those at The Tribune in Greeley, Colorado, were willing to take feedback and tell Angie’s story respectfully (for which The Tribune was honored with a GLAAD Media Award nomination for Overall Newspaper Coverage in 2009). Hopefully, there will be no more stories like Angie’s, Myra’s, Colle’s, or Toni’s. However, if and when they happen, the media has a huge responsibility to tell those stories well.