Take Action: Anti-trans victim blaming in the New York Times

*Trigger warning*

Lorena Escalera was a person. She was a performer in the ball scene. She died in a suspicious fire on Saturday. And she sure as hell does not deserve the treatment she’s getting from the New York Times. This is how the paper’s article about her death opens:

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.

Called Lorena, she brought two men to her apartment, at 43 Furman Avenue in Bushwick, either late Friday night or in the early hours of Saturday, the police said.

A few paragraphs later, the article oh so cleverly reveals that Lorena was trans, or as the paper says, “she was born male.” The article relies on accounts from Lorena’s neighbors to paint a picture of her. Mostly, the account comes from two men, one of whom says he knew she did sex work because he saw her computer. The other guy is quoted as saying, “For a man, he was gorgeous. Hourglass figure.” Because apparently those words really deserved to see print.

I’m flashing back to the New York Timescoverage of the gang rape in Cleveland, TX, when the paper interviewed neighbors to paint a picture of an 11-year old girl as a slut who was asking for it. Specific stereotypes about trans women are being deployed in this article, like that we’re deceptive (it’s not that she was Lorena, it’s that she was called Lorena). But focusing on her appearance and bringing up sex work is the same old shit we always hear about how slutty women bring violence upon themselves. We don’t yet know the details of what happened to Lorena, if it was even a murder, and already the Times is blaming the victim.

Just like rape is rape, murder is murder. And victim blaming is still bullshit.

I wrote a lot of posts about horrible news coverage of violence against trans folks when I first joined this site. I’ve had to write less of these posts as the media has started to finally catch on to the fact that it’s still their job to report responsibly and professionally when the victim is trans. It is completely unacceptable this is still happening in the pages of the New York Times, especially after they were taken to task so publicly for victim blaming recently.

Other folks, including GLAADJanet Mock, and Autumn Sandeen are calling out this incredibly offensive and dangerous article as well. You can let the New York Times know you’re sick and tired of their victim blaming and transphobia by writing to them here or tweeting @NYTimes. Update: GLAAD also recommends tweeting @NYTMetro, the paper’s Metro Desk, which might get to the reporters more directly.

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7 Comments

  1. Posted May 14, 2012 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    I thought the lead in the New York Times article was very strange, especially for the publication. It just highlights the way transgender women are sexualized, objectified and dehumanized.

  2. Posted May 14, 2012 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

    I really don’t want to sound insensitive, but what exactly is the quibble?

    Should the journalist not have mentioned her gender? Just ignored it? If not ignore, how then should he or she have introduced the point?

    As for the comments of her neighbours, again, what shoudl the journalist have done? Not reported them? Well, a journalist really should not ignore any comments, particularly if there are only a few to quote.

    Should the journalist have spinned the quotes? Surely not.

    As for victim-blaming, I don’t see any mentioned in your post.

    Is it a question of ‘a transwoman has been murdered, so any mention of her sexuality is victim-blaming’?

  3. Posted May 14, 2012 at 9:13 pm | Permalink

    I sent this message to one of the co-writers. You can send him a message on this page here, and I recommend we all do because this deals with both cissexism/transphobia and sex worker stigma.

    My message:

    Dear Mr. Baker,

    I am writing this article in regards to your recently co-written article, “Woman Dies in a Brooklyn Fire that is Deemed Suspicious,” which is about the death of the trans woman Lorena Escalara. I am writing about this to you because it exemplifies two unprofessional forms of stigmatization that I frankly had to call you out on.

    First, I would like to put things straight: Lorena, no matter what her genitalia, bodily signifiers, hormones or chromosomes may indicate, was a woman. She was incorrectly assigned with the male category of sex at birth, which she did not identify with and you should not reinforce unless you feel comfortable being transphobic and cissexist (overstepping your cisgender privilege by saying that all bodies and sexes naturally should coincide with their gender identity).

    First, when you say, Lorena “was born male,” you reinforce the idea that people can be “born” into certain genders, when this is not true: we come to ascertain our gender identity with time. Even though you may have been assigned the male category of sex (based on whatever arbitrary body parts the doctor’s thought equated with one gender or the other), your gender identity is something that does not correlate to assignments of sex. No one’s “born male” or “born female” – someone may be sexed “male” or “female,” that is, assigned and designated a certain sex, but not born with that sex.

    Second, when you quote Mr. Hernandez, “For a man, he was gorgeous,” you should consider how damaging it is to include a quote with a perspective that (i) reinforces the notion that her gender identity, her being female, is somehow inauthentic, fake, and superficial: gender identity is something very real to every trans person. And you (ii) reinforce the idea that trans bodies and trans people somehow cannot be fully beautiful or fully human individuals who can be desirous, sexy or attractive: trans individuals can be incredibly beautiful people. Furthermore, combined, this quote exemplifies the idea that trans bodies/people can only be beautiful so long as we constantly remind ourselves that these gender identities are, at the end of the day, not real or should not be respected: do not reinforce the idea that trans bodies cannot be beautiful or that trans identities cannot be authentic.

    Third, when you say, “the charred body of a man,” you completely privilege the body over Lorena’s own gender self-identification. Let me stress this point, her body does not equate to her gender; your body does not necessarily equate with your gender; my body does not equate with my gender. Sex and gender are two incredibly distinct things, and if you want to argue that we should follow sex as a category, feel free to look up how sex is a construct, hard to discern, and far more complicated than you appear to realize (think, for instance, intersexed people). And you finally write, “The dead man was not immediately identified by the authorities,” do you intend to completely ignore her self-identified gender identity?

    Fourth, though this is not as much about trans identity as it is about sex worker stigma, do not reinforce stigma against any form of sex workers. When you include the following perspective, “She was always on her laptop posting ads about herself [...] Still, she was a nice person,” you reinforce the idea that sex workers are somehow immoral, bad, abnormal and even ‘mean’ people. Have you ever met a sex worker? Somebody who consensually partakes in sex work, often out a mixture of economic need? What makes Lorena conceivably bad, simply given her status as a form of sex worker? This is a reification of the Madonna/whore binary, where sex workers are constantly stigmatized as bad people. I do not legitimate her sex work, but I ask that we do not generalize or stereotype this poor woman who has just recently died.

    Overall, the article remains particularly disheartening. Like many recent articles about the deaths of trans people and trans sex workers in particular, you not only encourage cissexism and transphobia, but also discrimination against sex workers. Please educate yourself about trans/sex worker rights, because this article proves incredibly unprofessional and tacky since we are talking about the lost life of a woman. When any other woman would be killed, do we focus on their gender identity? Their profession? No, we don’t.

    I would like to say, despite my heavy criticism, that I do give you props for using the accurate gender pronoun to some extent. As journalists, we need to learn how to represent people without degrading them. I ask you to take up that challenge.

    Sincerely,
    Einar Ragnar Jónsson
    Brown University

  4. Posted May 14, 2012 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

    I sent this message to one of the co-writers. You can send him a message on this page here, and I recommend we all do because this deals with both cissexism/transphobia and sex worker stigma.

    My message:

    Dear Mr. Baker,

    I am writing this article in regards to your recently co-written article, “Woman Dies in a Brooklyn Fire that is Deemed Suspicious,” which is about the death of the trans woman Lorena Escalara. I am writing about this to you because it exemplifies two unprofessional forms of stigmatization that I frankly had to call you out on.

    First, I would like to put things straight: Lorena, no matter what her genitalia, bodily signifiers, hormones or chromosomes may indicate, was a woman. She was incorrectly assigned with the male category of sex at birth, which she did not identify with and you should not reinforce unless you feel comfortable being transphobic and cissexist (overstepping your cisgender privilege by saying that all bodies and sexes naturally should coincide with their gender identity).

    First, when you say, Lorena “was born male,” you reinforce the idea that people can be “born” into certain genders, when this is not true: we come to ascertain our gender identity with time. Even though you may have been assigned the male category of sex (based on whatever arbitrary body parts the doctor’s thought equated with one gender or the other), your gender identity is something that does not correlate to assignments of sex. No one’s “born male” or “born female” – someone may be sexed “male” or “female,” that is, assigned and designated a certain sex, but not born with that sex.

    Second, when you quote Mr. Hernandez, “For a man, he was gorgeous,” you should consider how damaging it is to include a quote with a perspective that (i) reinforces the notion that her gender identity, her being female, is somehow inauthentic, fake, and superficial: gender identity is something very real to every trans person. And you (ii) reinforce the idea that trans bodies and trans people somehow cannot be fully beautiful or fully human individuals who can be desirous, sexy or attractive: trans individuals can be incredibly beautiful people. Furthermore, combined, this quote exemplifies the idea that trans bodies/people can only be beautiful so long as we constantly remind ourselves that these gender identities are, at the end of the day, not real or should not be respected: do not reinforce the idea that trans bodies cannot be beautiful or that trans identities cannot be authentic.

    Third, when you say, “the charred body of a man,” you completely privilege the body over Lorena’s own gender self-identification. Let me stress this point, her body does not equate to her gender; your body does not necessarily equate with your gender; my body does not equate with my gender. Sex and gender are two incredibly distinct things, and if you want to argue that we should follow sex as a category, feel free to look up how sex is a construct, hard to discern, and far more complicated than you appear to realize (think, for instance, intersexed people). And you finally write, “The dead man was not immediately identified by the authorities,” do you intend to completely ignore her self-identified gender identity?

    Fourth, though this is not as much about trans identity as it is about sex worker stigma, do not reinforce stigma against any form of sex workers. When you include the following perspective, “She was always on her laptop posting ads about herself [...] Still, she was a nice person,” you reinforce the idea that sex workers are somehow immoral, bad, abnormal and even ‘mean’ people. Have you ever met a sex worker? Somebody who consensually partakes in sex work, often out a mixture of economic need? What makes Lorena conceivably bad, simply given her status as a form of sex worker? This is a reification of the Madonna/whore binary, where sex workers are constantly stigmatized as bad people. I do not legitimate her sex work, but I ask that we do not generalize or stereotype this poor woman who has just recently died.

    Overall, the article remains particularly disheartening. Like many recent articles about the deaths of trans people and trans sex workers in particular, you not only encourage cissexism and transphobia, but also discrimination against sex workers. Please educate yourself about trans/sex worker rights, because this article proves incredibly unprofessional and tacky since we are talking about the lost life of a woman. When any other woman would be killed, do we focus on their gender identity? Their profession? No, we don’t.

    I would like to say, despite my heavy criticism, that I do give you props for using the accurate gender pronoun to some extent. As journalists, we need to learn how to represent people without degrading them. I ask you to take up that challenge.

    Sincerely,
    Einar Ragnar Jónsson
    Brown University

  5. Posted May 15, 2012 at 8:43 am | Permalink

    This is just disgusting. I’m spreading the word.

  6. Posted May 15, 2012 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    THANK YOU for calling this out. I JUST read the story and was horrified at the flagrant disrespect the writer treats her with because of her identities. I am glad the author got the pronouns right and used her preferred name, but the otherwise prurient and voyeuristic treatment of her gender, sexuality, and line of work would never be reflected in the death of, say, a cis male office worker.

    Her marginalization and multiple oppressions make it okay to essentially publicly mock her after her death brought her existence to NYT’s attention. BOO.

  7. Posted May 16, 2012 at 1:07 am | Permalink

    As another resident of the “gritty Brooklyn neighborhood” where this fire occurred, I’m not sure why it’s relevant how “curvaceous” or “gorgeous” Lorena was. I saw one local report Saturday morning that only stated a woman had died, but gave no other information about her. I don’t know if maybe the writer thought they were being complimentary by talking about how attractive she was, but honestly given the tragedy of the story it just seems sort of sensationalistic. I’ll write a letter and ask them to stay with relevant facts in a story like this, but probably in the morning when I’m more awake.

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