Monday's L.A. Times article titled “Slaying casts light on Hollywood's transgender prostitutes” (http://articles.latimes.com/2013/feb/04/local/la-me-western-bandit-20130204) was supposed to humanize the struggles of transgender sex workers. Instead, it served to further stigmatize and dehumanize the transgender women it describes.
The article describes transgender sex workers as “male hookers dressed as women” and “men with women's breasts and clothes”. It focuses on the murder of one of these sex workers, who is referred to throughout the article with their male birth name and male pronouns. This person is also referred to as simply a gay male who dresses for attention and money.
The use of male pronouns, birth names, and terms like “men with women's breasts and clothes” to refer to transgender women brings up painful memories for many of us in the transgender community. Throughout our lives, people refuse to acknowledge our gender identities, use our birth names and birth genders to refer to us against our will, and respond with varying degrees of harassment and violence when we protest. For those of us in Los Angeles, one painful memory was an LA Times article whose headline read “Family, friends and strangers join at service for Eddie 'Gwen' Araujo, a 17-year-old boy who lived as a female.” (http://articles.latimes.com/2002/oct/26/local/me-funeral26) Gwen Araujo was a transgender woman who was brutally murdered by three men who discovered her trans identity. As our community was grieving for the loss of Gwen, the LA Times coverage, when it chose to cover this story at all, continually referred to Gwen with her male name and male pronouns. The Times refusal to use Gwen's chosen name and gender felt to many of us like a tacit endorsement of the gruesome actions taken by her murderers because they too refused to accept her gender identity.
Based on conversations with people involved in the writing of the article, it seems like Cassidy Vickers, the principal subject of the article, had a complex and ambigous gender identity. In fact, an early version of the article at one point referred to Vickers as “heshe”. The Times issued a correction, describing this mistake as a typo, but it seems more likely an indication that the author, Sam Quinones, was utterly baffled by how to refer to Vickers. The gender identity of transgender sex workers is shaped not only by their personal experience and internal feelings, but also by the economics of street life and the reality that without financial resources, accomplishing a traditional medical gender transition is all but impossible. Some transgender sex workers do have ambigous gender identities than fall somewhere between being a gay male cross dresser and a transgender woman (though other identify simply as women). Given the tragedy of Vickers' story, Vickers deserve more than this extremely sloppy account of their life. Moreover, transgender sex workers in general deserve a more dignified telling of their story that doesn't refer to them constantly with degrading terms like “prostitutes” and “street walkers”.
Gwen Araujo was murdered in 2002, when the transgender community was largely invisible to the world at large. In the intervening ten years, our visibility as a community has increased exponentially. Sports writer Christine Daniels came out very publicly while working at the LA Times (and tragically later committed suicide). The APA Style Guide, widely regarded as a standard for journalism, has now offered these very clear recommendations for writing about transgender people:
“Refer to a transgender person using words (proper nouns, pronouns, etc.) appropriate to the person's gender Identity or gender expression, regardless of birth sex.”
“If gender Identity or gender expression is ambiguous or variable, it may be best to avoid pronouns, as discussed earlier in this section (for more detailed information, see www.apastyle.org).”
In 2013, it is no longer acceptable for a major newspaper to write an article so dehumanizing and derogatory as this one. We, the undersigned, humbly request the LA Times write a more substantive correction to the language used in the article, and that it seriously consider transgender sensitivity training for all of its staff members.