WaPo’s latest offensive (and pointless) trans gender identification fail

I’ve written previously about the news media failing miserably at following their own rules when it comes to writing about transgender individuals. The Sexist’s Amanda Hess, who has done a great job of calling the press (including The Washington Post) out on these types of stories, has a write up of the latest gender identification screw up from The Washington Post.
WaPo first published a story that included an account of an off duty police officer in Prince George’s County, MD shooting two women after they dragged him with their car from the scene of a robbery. I am always disappointed when the press does not follow up on police violence – the power imbalance is such that I think these stories usually require more reporting than they receive. And there has been a lot of police violence in the DC area recently. But in terms of reporting individual’s genders there were no red flags in this piece.
But then WaPo published a follow up titled “Two Men Shot by Pr. George’s Officer Were Dressed as Women” which is all kinds of wrong. The two people identified as women in the original article were brought to the hospital, and then this happened:

It was believed at first that the two who were shot were women. But they “turned out to be males dressed in female clothing,” Officer Henry Tippett, a county police spokesman, said early Sunday.
That finding was apparently made when medical personnel began treating the two for gunshot wounds, Tippett said.


OK, so first there’s the police fail. Officers may have spoken with these two individuals, found out they were male identified cross dressers, and made a correction. Somehow I doubt that’s what happened, though. It sounds much more like someone at the hospital identified these two people as male, told the police, and the police ran with this (in which case there might be a medical professional fail too). There’s simply not enough information in the story to suggest these individuals were involved in the faux-clarification about their genders.
So the cops probably screwed up by making a second statement at all, and definitely screwed up with the clarity of that statement. But then WaPo actually ran with it.
Hess points out that these two individuals were probably either cross dressing or trans women (there are other possibilities given the fabulous diversity of gender identities and presentations). The available information makes me think they are trans women. But that’s an assumption, and should not be reported as fact, which WaPo should know:

For the Post, the distinction between “cross-dressing men” and “transgender women” is an important one. According to the Associated Press Stylebook, transgender subjects are to be identified by their gender identity, not their sex at birth. Media outlets are to employ “the pronoun preferred by the individuals who . . . present themselves in a way that does not correspond with their sex at birth,” the guide reads. “If that preference is not expressed, use the pronoun consistent with the way the individuals live publicly.”

So the follow up article completely violates the AP style guide. The piece is hard to read as anything but an attempt to sensationalize a pretty standard crime story by throwing in those freaky scary gender benders. It’s not news, and both the follow up statement from the police and the WaPo piece are completely inappropriate. There might be a real article to report here given the prevalence of police violence against trans folks. But there’s no reason to publish a correction of the first piece right now, because based on the available information it might very well be accurate – it’s not actually always necessary to stick the “trans” in front of “woman,” you know.

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20 Comments

  1. cattrack2
    Posted October 21, 2009 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    I’m sorry I see the smoke but when I read the linked to articles I don’t see the fire. Why are we castigating the WaPo? They previously identified the suspects as men, and now they’re elaborating on the suspects’ identification. As you indicate they don’t know whether the suspects identify as trans or not, so the WaPo went with a factual headline. Whether or not they were trans, they certainly were dressed as women. That’s an objective statement. Operating with limited information, this is a solid attempt at accuracy. And, btw, the WaPo has its own style guide, they would never use the AP’s, so I don’t even get the point of that attack.
    It sounds as the real issue here is WaPo’s linking what *might* be two trans people to an assault on a police officer.

  2. FrumiousB
    Posted October 21, 2009 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

    So if they don’t know the facts the WaPo should default to identifying them by their sex? Why is that better than defaulting to identifying by gender presentation, in this case, female?
    Or the individuals might just have been cis men who dressed as women as a disguise.

  3. Oshaberi
    Posted October 21, 2009 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

    A medical report is not an accurate way to ascertain someones gender *especially* if they were presenting in a way that conficts with it.
    Let’s face it, the newspaper just updated this story to be sensational (even if they did have evidence the people ID’d as men, which they *don’t* have). This news *could* potentially out these people (to employers, friends, lovers) which could have huge negative impacts.
    The thing is, we don’t know for sure, and neither do they (which is clear from how they’re using a medical report as evidence of gender, whatever happened to doctor-patient confidentiality anyway).
    As they don’t know they should have kept with their initial assumption until further evidence turned up, instead of adopting a “biology trumps all” ciscentric worldview that flies in the face of how the people are presenting themselves as.

  4. cattrack2
    Posted October 21, 2009 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

    Well, I think the headline they chose covers the possibility that the assailants were in disguise. As to identifying them as men, it appears that this was a medical determination, no? So if they’re not intersex, and they’re not trans, doesn’t that just leave men?
    With all this talk about ‘sensationalism’ I can’t help but think that even if the headline read, “Trans women attack police officer”, you’d still be offended (maybe more so). So it doesn’t seem like its their words that offend you, but their subject matter.

  5. Jacob
    Posted October 21, 2009 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

    I agree. They were committing a crime. Is it not possible, indeed much more likely, that they were cis men disguised as women? I mean, yes, in any other instance, I’d be appalled at the media’s constant conflation of trans women with cross dressers, but considering they were, again, committing a crime, this was probably more a matter of trying to conceal their identities.

  6. Phenicks
    Posted October 21, 2009 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

    Ok It is HIGHLY possible that the suspects were cismen who dressed as women for disguise purposes. They werent minding their own business and were shot by the police. They were breaking the law (shoplifting) and then brutally assaulting a police officer by dragging him with their car and THEN were shot by the police officer being dragged. Why exactly the ambiguity about whether or not this was police brutality? Does being Trans mean someone has the right to drag police officers to prevent arrest? That trans people should get away with any and all crimes they commit? I call BS on that one. If its linked to the earlier shoplifting case one of the transwomen or cismen in drag or disguise actually hurt an old woman and female securiy officer in one of their shoplifting bouts in the DC/Bethesda area.
    As far as them being outed to employers I think shoplifting, assault, and dragging a police officer (ie being a criminal) is a MUCH bigger offense (if being trans can even be considered a offense) than being a transgendered or cross dressing employee. ESPECIALLY in the DC metro area.

  7. Phenicks
    Posted October 21, 2009 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

    Ok It is HIGHLY possible that the suspects were cismen who dressed as women for disguise purposes. They werent minding their own business and were shot by the police. They were breaking the law (shoplifting) and then brutally assaulting a police officer by dragging him with their car and THEN were shot by the police officer being dragged. Why exactly the ambiguity about whether or not this was police brutality? Does being Trans mean someone has the right to drag police officers to prevent arrest? That trans people should get away with any and all crimes they commit? I call BS on that one. If its linked to the earlier shoplifting case one of the transwomen or cismen in drag or disguise actually hurt an old woman and female securiy officer in one of their shoplifting bouts in the DC/Bethesda area.
    As far as them being outed to employers I think shoplifting, assault, and dragging a police officer (ie being a criminal) is a MUCH bigger offense (if being trans can even be considered a offense) than being a transgendered or cross dressing employee. ESPECIALLY in the DC metro area.

  8. Oshaberi
    Posted October 21, 2009 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

    uhh… no, I’m not offended on their subject matter of people shoplifting while presenting as women.
    I am offended by people going with a freaking *medical* report over how someone is actually presenting. And yes, people can still be trans and ID’d as males by doctors.
    And no, the vast majority of people who dress as women are not just doing so to aid their shoplifting habits.

  9. Oshaberi
    Posted October 21, 2009 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

    One point:
    No one has claimed that they didn’t commit a crime. No one is saying being trans gives you a pass to drag police officers down the street.
    What I am saying is that someone commiting a crime does *NOT* excuse transphobic behavior towards them.
    Our rights do not get thrown out the window as soon as we break the law.
    It is possible to prosicute someone to the fullest extent of the law *without* resorting to diminishing their gender and overall treating them like crap because of gender non-conformity or trans status.

  10. FrumiousB
    Posted October 21, 2009 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

    I never said I was offended. I am merely asking the question, if the gender of the individual is unknown, but the presentation is feminine, why is the “solid attempt at accuracy” expressed by calling the individuals men? Isn’t it just as accurate, given the limited facts, to call them women?

  11. kisekileia
    Posted October 21, 2009 at 10:27 pm | Permalink

    I am guessing that the appropriate thing for the Washington Post to do would have been to report only the gender information they actually knew–that the suspects had male genitalia and were dressed as female. Neither we nor the Post have enough information to determine whether the suspects are cis men, trans women, genderqueer, or whatever. I am not trans, so I am not the authority on this, but since we do not know how these people identified, I think we (and the Washington Post) should probably avoid referring to them with any specific gender identifier.

  12. Oshaberi
    Posted October 21, 2009 at 10:40 pm | Permalink

    What someones genitalia looks like can be a very private matter. What business does it have being in the news, especially without the person in question permission?
    Also, cis people almost never have their genitalia written about in news stories, whereas it’s common in stories about trans people.
    Would you like it if you were in, say, a car crash, and the subsequent news report mentioned your genitalia?

  13. Gular
    Posted October 21, 2009 at 10:41 pm | Permalink

    And why is it that trans folk are less likely to commit a crime? What makes them any less suspect than anyone else to shoplift?

  14. kisekileia
    Posted October 21, 2009 at 10:43 pm | Permalink

    That’s a good point. Maybe specifying that information wouldn’t be appropriate after all. I can see how the discord between the people’s gender presentation and their anatomy would be newsworthy, but I’m struggling to think of an accurate and sensitive way to report it.

  15. Oshaberi
    Posted October 21, 2009 at 11:56 pm | Permalink

    Ah yeah, noting that someone is (or might be) trans is newsworthy, but it’s usually newsworthy for all sorts of problematic reasons (re: treating trans people as curiosities or spectacles or freaks)
    I’m not saying never have news stories about trans people, I am saying that first of all their privacy should be respected, and second of all their trans status should be somehow relevant to the story.

  16. TD
    Posted October 22, 2009 at 12:04 am | Permalink

    I believe the question is not, is a trans woman any less likely to commit a crime. But instead that given a shoplifter who was dressed in womens clothing, what is the comparative chance that the person is a cross-dressing male vs a trans woman.
    I’m not convinced that there needs to be any difference between criminality for the cross-dressing to be the more likely of the two scenarios, partly because disguises are not exactly uncommon in criminal undertakings.

  17. cattrack2
    Posted October 22, 2009 at 12:33 am | Permalink

    Its entirely normal for newspapers to identify suspects’ and victims’ genders. Without talking to the people it may not be possible to ascertain gender identification however. What do you propose they do? How would you have handled the headline? How do we avoid being offensive here?
    I’m trying to figure out what’s fair, and I think its sometimes necessary to differentiate gender from gender identification and gender presentation.

  18. Jacob
    Posted October 22, 2009 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    And no one here is saying their crime excuses transphobic behavior. What we’re saying is the fact that they were committing a crime – one that might necessitate a disguise – plants a considerable seed of doubt that they were trans at all – it is quite likely that their wearing women’s clothing had nothing to do with gender presentation and everything to do with disguising their identities.

  19. Anacas
    Posted October 23, 2009 at 2:17 am | Permalink

    Yes, because everyone knows the easiest way for a shoplifting man to go undetected is cross-dressing. It’s not like trans people are generally under far greater scrutiny than cis people are as they go about their daily lives… oh wait.

  20. nikki#2
    Posted October 23, 2009 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    I know, the OP implies this was an act of police brutality when it clearly was not. I am seriously disapointed.

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