Media Hurt by Ignorance

On a recent Friday evening, during rush hour traffic, over 50 activists marched from the offices of the Boston Herald, where they joined in a demonstration against racist press opposing Puerto Rican statehood, to the offices of Bay Windows, “New England’s Largest Gay and Lesbian Newspaper.” The editors of both publications had insisted on reporting the murder of Rita Hester with pointed disrespect for her identity and transgender sensibilities. Outside Bay Windows, the protesters chanted “Bay Windows, get a clue, take the time to expand your view.”
The following are the remarks made there by one activist.

by Nancy Nangeroni

To the demonstrators at the offices of “Bay Windows” on December 11, 1998

We’re here today to talk about the media coverage of the murder of Rita Hester. Many of us have previously expressed our grief and outrage at the vigil for Rita last Friday and elsewhere. Some of us have spoken with the investigating police officers, and assured ourselves that they are taking all due measures to find the killer. It is appropriate that today we focus on the reporting of this tragedy and any hurt being done to other transgenders by that reporting. It is by this work here today that we fight for some shred of respect in this society which would otherwise have our end.

The media reporting since Rita’s death has not hurt Rita. The killer’s knife ended all of her suffering on this earth. And Rita’s family refers to Rita as a son and brother, and they take no offense at references to Rita as a man. Rita’s family has not been hurt by the press.

The hurt that IS being done is the perpetuation of disrespect and stigma for transgender people everywhere. This is an attitude problem that has made transgenders among the most violently embattled of peoples in this country. The implication of using pronouns based on genital shape is that those of us who were born male but live as women have no right to call ourselves women, no right to be referred to as she or her. According to these people, if we really want that right, we should submit to the knife and have our bodies carved upon, either by a surgeon, or by some vile defender of true manhood.

In the reporting of Rita’s murder, the worst offender was the Boston Globe. The Globe accused Rita of living a double life, and implied that she lived a life of deceit and dishonesty. Rita did not lead a double life. According to those who knew her, she had lived full time as a woman for many years, with the full knowledge and acceptance of most people around her. The tone of the Globe article constituted nothing less than a wink to the killer. To those who would enjoy doing hurt to a gender-transgressive person, calling Rita a “he” is like saying “That’s right, he was just a guy after all, trying to put one over on us. He only got what he deserved.” Anyone who knows transgender people knows that’s not it. We’re not trying to be anything but ourselves, yet we’re confounded and victimized by the expectations of others that we should be something we’re not. Our gender difference doesn’t hurt others. We struggle just to get by, and to get the foot off our necks.

The Boston Herald was better. We got lucky and drew a reporter, Anne Donlan, who is sympathetic to transgender concerns. But Anne still struggled within a framework established by the editors that required her to refer to Rita as male.

As for Bay Windows, they were somewhere in between. A disappointment to most of us. But to those of us who’ve tried to educate editor Jeff Epperly, it comes as no surprise. Jeff continues to taunt the transgender community, and to strain journalistic ethics in his quest for purity of sexual orientation and perfect assimilation. I can only wonder when the local gay and lesbian community will rise up and take action against the defining of their community in the narrowest possible terms.

When I die, whether at the hands of some lunatic or more peacefully, Jeff Epperly will not doubt insist that I be called a gay transgendered man. And I want to make it clear right now to all who are listening, that to call me a man of any flavor is to insult me in a deeply hurtful way. I nearly died once for the right to live and work as a woman, and I will not surrender that right for anything.

Rita Hester was hurt not by the disrespectful reporting of her murder. She was hurt by the disrespectful reporting of the murders of Chanelle Pickett, Debra Forte, Monique Thomas and others before her. For the next transgender person who is viciously murdered, the editors of the Globe, the Herald, and especially Bay Windows can take credit for the devaluing of transgender lives. These editors can take credit for stoking the fires of those who boil at the thought of someone with a penis daring to live as a woman.

Let’s be clear about terminology. The editors want to get it right, so let’s be a little more consistent. All you gay men and lesbians who are making love in states where sodomy is illegal, sorry, we have to call you criminals. All you gay men who have ever made love to a woman, and all you lesbians who have ever made love to a man, sorry, we have to call you bisexual. And, because Bay Windows is not a newspaper for bisexuals or transgenders, sorry, it’s not for you. Do we really want to be so correct? Or do we want to consider the implications of our actions in making our decisions?

The issue that these editors are missing is that identity judgement by others is tyranny. This is the primary issue of the transgender movement. We claim the right to live as men or women by our own choosing, and to be accorded respect for our choice.

Editors, you don’t get to decide if I’m a man or a woman. You may or may not respect my choice, but it’s not your decision. And if you choose to identify me by something other than my own choice, then don’t add insult to injury by also pretending to respect me. If you call me a man, you side with those who also call me crazy and perverse, and you feed those who would take up a weapon against me.

It’s very simple: a penis does not make a man. Our destiny is shaped not by our genitals, but by our spirit. Our spirit is strong, and in the face of hurtful ignorance, we will not be silent.