Imagine for a moment, that tragedy has struck your family or friends. A suspicious late night fire broke out, and although many people were saved, your family member, your friend, died in the fire. You read this in the newspaper as the first sentence in the story:
She was 25 and curvaceous, and she often drew admiring glances in the gritty Brooklyn neighborhood where she was known to invite men for visits to her apartment, her neighbors and the authorities said.
Curvaceous? Gritty neighborhood? Inviting men for visits? She is dead, for God's sake, a young woman burned to death in a suspicious fire. Ah, but this is a transgender young woman of color, and the headline screams "Woman In Group Of Transgender Performers Dies On Brooklyn Fire."
At least they acknowledged that her gender identity was that of "woman." So then why these quotes?
"Called Lorena, she brought two men to her apartment..."
"According to neighbors, she was born male..."
"For a man, he was gorgeous..."
"Ms. Escalera had worked as an escort and that he regularly saw her advertising her service on an adult Web site..."
"Still, she was a nice person."
"A debris pile outside the apartment, which is above a funeral home, contained many colorful items. Among them were wigs, women's shoes, coins from around the world, makeup, hair spray, handbags, a shopping bag from Spandex House, a red feather boa and a pamphlet on how to quit smoking."
"Human interest," you say? A journalist merely reporting what was said, you say?
I think not. This story is shot through with transphobia. The issue has been raised with the New York Times by a number of journalists and GLAAD. The Times acknowledged a deficit in their "choice of words, but refused to make any corrections to the article, or indicate that their journalists will be given any information or training on how to report such stories, and their further response is in the title to this article: "That will be all there is from us."
But that is not all there will be from us. There is a petition to sign at the end of this post.
New York Times Metro Editor Carolyn Ryan defended the Times article as follows:
"We typically try to capture the personal stories of those whose lives are lost in a fire, and we sought to do so in this case. We certainly did not mean any disrespect to the victim or those who knew her. But, in retrospect, we should have shown more care in our choice of words."
Personal stories? Do you know what the Times has said about victims in its previous stories about deadly fires? Nothing like this, I assure you. In fact, after looking at a dozen Times stories about local fires, I noted that there's often no "personal interest" included. But let's take a look, shall we, at the "personal stories" included in the Times' previous coverage of deadly fires.
Here's an example from May 1, 2012, which tragically killed four people.
The deaths sent waves of grief through two communities.
The Sullivan family had lived in the house for more than 10 years. They had been involved in local sports and the schools; Meaghan and Mairead attended Carmel High School.
Mayor Anne McAndrews of Larchmont, in Westchester County, said Captain Sullivan had been "the face of the department for the whole community." She said he had been essential in organizing the annual Memorial Day parade, a 5K run coming up and just about any event that required community and police interaction.
Ms. McAndrews said she would often see his smiling face in the three-story building that houses the village government offices as well as the Police Department. "He brought his own sunshine," she said.
"He was just part of Larchmont," said Elizabeth Alfieri, who owns a floral shop on Chatsworth Avenue in Larchmont.
Ms. Alfieri, the florist, said Captain Sullivan would sometimes honk and wave from his patrol car or come in and buy flowers for his wife or daughters.
Ms. Alfieri said she would talk with him about their dogs. The Sullivans had just adopted a fourth Yorkshire terrier, which Donna Sullivan adored, Ms. Alfieri said. It was not immediately known if any of the family's dogs had survived the fire.
From a February 24, 2011 story about a fire that tragically killed five people:
On Friday, mourners stood in the drizzle and gawked at the charred shell of the former farmhouse. Some left balloons decorated with Spider-Man, Barney the Dinosaur and teacups, along with stuffed puppies and yellow, white and pink flowers.
"These were wonderful people," Andrea Thompson, 43, said as she tied heart-shaped balloons around a telephone pole and hung a teddy bear on police tape."I was devastated."
These are the types of "personal interest" that appear in Times articles, when it does appear. There's nothing about the victim's shapely figure, sexuality or gendering. It's quotes from neighbors who reminisce about how wonderful the victims were. And that is as it should be. Such stories are panegyric obituaries to people who died in tragic circumstances. It's not an occasion to showcase them as a zoo specimen or circus sideshow. The "personal interest" defense is not credible. It is a cover-up. Saying that the Times could have shown "more care in our choice of words" speaks very loudly about the Times' failure to understand what it means to be sensitive to a fire victim who is transgender.
As GLAAD wrote in its blog post on the issue, the problem with the Times' article is bigger than their "choice of words" or with their attempt to "capture" her story. It's their failure to recognize trans women as women.
Janet Mock had it right in the GLAAD post, where she was quoted as follows:
"As my city's and our nation's paper of record, I would expect the New York Times to treat any subject, regardless of their path in life, with dignity," said trans advocate and journalist Janet Mock. "In Lorena Escalera's life she was so much more than the demeaning, sexist portrait they painted of girls like us. It goes beyond a 'choice of words.' According to the Times' limiting, harmful portrait of Lorena, she was nothing more than a 'curvaceous' bombshell for men to gawk at. That is not the 'personal' story of any woman, and until we treat trans women like human beings - in life and death - with dignity, families and struggles, our society will never see us beyond pariahs in our communities.
Laverne Cox well described my feelings upon reading the description of the debris pile that included personal articles of the victim in her Huffington Post article:
Reporting on trash in articles about the deaths of transgender women enrages me in ways I can't even explain. When I wanted to kill myself, I felt so utterly dehumanized and demoralized by living in a world that was not having me. I have struggled and continue to struggle to not only have dignity and to carve out a place in the world for myself but to treat myself as if my life matters. My life matters. Transgender lives matter. Lorena Escalera's life mattered. Rest in peace, Lorena.
Rest in peace, Lorena.
Here's a petition you can sign targeted towards Carolyn Ryan, the Times Metro Editor, who said their only problem was "a better choice of words"