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GenderTalk: In Newsweekly on Rita Hester and the Media
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The Media's Trouble With Trans
Reprinted with permission from IN Newsweekly
vol. 8 no. 16, dated Dec. 18, 1998

Editorial by Fred Kuhr, IN Newsweekly News Editor

Journalists have a hard time dealing with the issue of transsexuality. But that is no excuse for demeaning the memory of the victim of a brutal and senseless murder.

Rita Hester, a 34-year-old transsexual who resided in Boston's Allston neighborhood and whose legal name was William, was stabbed more than 20 times during the Nov. 28 attack.

That was the first crime. The second crime was the way the local media handled coverage of this heinous act.

The Boston Globe was the worst offender in the mainstream press. With the headline "Stabbing victim a mystery to many," writer Daniel Vasquez seemed more concerned with the victim's gender identity - and the neighbors reaction to it - than the murder itself.

The Globe story also paints a picture of someone who led an "apparent double life," someone who angered neighbors with "late-night loud music," a "nightclub singer and a party-thrower." Hester is shown as someone who is not worthy of sympathy, someone whose life, perhaps, was not worth more than a curious peek - as a freak to be easily dismissed.

How sickening that the Globe would sink to such a journalistic low. While the Boston Herald did better, much better in fact, its two stories should not go unchallenged.

In fact, the Herald seemed to show its struggle with language. In its Nov. 20 story, the headline refers to Hester as a "transvestite." The following day's headline calls Hester a "transgender" murder victim.

To its credit, the Herald quotes Matthew Carlos, editor of the magazine Transgender Tapestry, explaining the difference between transsexual, transgender, cross-dresser and transvestite. A lesson we in the media direly need.

The Herald also talks to friends and acquaintances in order to paint Hester as a real person, not the freak show that the Globe portrayed.

Concentrating on the fact that Hester was a "call girl," however, makes us question some of the Herald's sincerity.

And although we as a community haven't reconciled the inclusion of transgendered people in our civil rights movement, we at least expect more understanding and better coverage from the gay and lesbian press. In the case of the Hester murder, however, that hasn't necessarily been the case.

We were particularly stunned by the decision of Bay Windows, a gay and lesbian weekly serving the Boston area, to constantly refer to Hester as "Rita," quotes and all. In most news accounts, crime victims are referred to simply by their last names.

To see a gay newspaper playing petty word games with someone's name and, therefore, denying that person's identity, even in the aftermath of their death, is startling.

Not that IN Newsweekly is above criticism. We avoided the pronoun issue - whether to refer to Hester as "he" or "she" - by attempting to avoid pronouns altogether in last week-s story. We also used a clunky construction in the first paragraph identifying the victim as William/Rita Hester.

We here at IN Newsweekly, as well as other news outlets, are still in the process of being educated on these issues. Over time, these issues will be resolved. After all, it-s not that long ago that newspapers referred to gay people as "avowed homosexuals."

But journalists need to be willing to be educated. In the meantime, ignorance is no excuse for insulting a community and the memory of one of its members.