The Politics of Pronouns
News coverage of murders unsettling for some in the transgender community
Eric Williams ericwphoto.com
These headlines don't sit well with Janice Devereaux, facilitator of Transgender New Mexico. The first comes from the Albuquerque Journal. The second, from KOB Eyewitness News 4's website. The third, from KRQE News 13.
Devereaux was on her way to pick up her mom in early July when her cell phone rang. It was a reporter. Within a month of each other, two bodies were found in the middle of streets or alleys in the neighborhood east of Presbyterian Hospital. In 2005, the first victim was found in the area. All three were Native American and had been beaten to death, according to police. Two are believed to have been sex workers.
“Regardless of what these people were doing when they were killed, they still had the right to live.”
Janice Devereaux of Transgender New Mexico
Devereaux hadn't known about the most recent killings until news hounds from the local daily and all of Albuquerque's news stations began calling. Her position with the transgender support group made her an impromptu spokesperson. She went over appropriate terminology with the reporters. A cross-dresser, she explained, is "typically a heterosexual male who is married, who dresses in female clothing for some type of sexual gratification." Transgender, on the other hand, is a way of life.
Teri Benally, the third victim, had lived for years as a woman, Devereaux says. But the wrong pronoun—he—dominated the coverage of her death. "They're not here to tell us how they would like to be referred to," she says. "More than likely, they would have liked to have been referred to as female."
Devereaux talked with the Alibi about the killings, the coverage and the often ignored transgender community in Albuquerque.
How do you think the headlines should have read?
They should have said the word "victim" in there somehow, because regardless of what these people were doing when they were killed, they still had the right to live. And referring to them as victims, I think, would have been more appropriate.
How did you feel about the TV coverage?
I was not all that thrilled with Channel 13's story. It went along the same lines as the Journal. I was really happy with [KOAT] Channel 7's coverage. Even when I talked to the reporters, they had gone out of their way to find out how these people were to be referred to. They went out of their way to make sure they got different things right. There seemed to be more of a human aspect to the story.
Do you think of "cross-dresser" as being a derogatory term?
There are people who identify as cross-dressers. The people that do, it's more a type of sexual paraphilia. "Transgender" is the umbrella term for everybody else. There are some people who are offended by it [cross-dresser]. There are other people who say, Yeah, that's how I get my rocks off.
Aside from the news of the deaths, what do you think the coverage imparted generally about transgender people?
I think it may have in a lot of ways reaffirmed people's beliefs who don't really know anything about us. It perpetuates this myth that we're all a bunch of drug addicts and prostitutes, which I'm not. A lot of people that I know are not. That seems to be a popular preconception. I think these stories try to reaffirm people's beliefs.
When was the last time a transgender person was in local media—and identified as such—who wasn't connected to a crime?
Not ever that I know of. I've lived here 25 years, and I've never seen anything like that.
Why do you think this story was told this way?
For the most part, I think a lot of media, they write these stories just to sell papers or get people to look at broadcasts. It's like, Oh, here's another one of those that was doing this, and look what happened.
How can you counteract that?
Just like with any other stereotype, it's important for people to know us and for them to know that we're just like everybody else. We work and pay our bills and, for the most part, just want to be normal, productive members of society.
Do you think it is a more dangerous world for transgender people?
I think it's less dangerous than it was 15 years ago. There's still a lot of work to do. The more people come out, the more visible we are, the less unique or bizarre for people it will be.
Is it strange to find yourself a spokesperson in this situation?
A little bit. It's not something that I had really expected to happen. But I was never in the closet about myself, anyway.
“How We Identify People”
Jordon Johnson, interim executive director of Equality New Mexico, says his organization wants to inform the media and the general population about transgender issues. "It's an unfortunate circumstance,” he says of the murders and their mishandling in the news. “But what can happen educationally to make sure these issues don't come up again?"
Stories about the lives of transgender people in Albuquerque would go a long way, he suggests. "Take someone like myself who identifies as transgender, who is a doctoral student at UNM," he says. "I have this life. You walk around people, and people don't know." And so, Johnson says, they don't know about the struggles some face in accessing health care, in dealing with substance abuse problems through unfriendly programs, in navigating social services when a name and a gender pronoun have changed.
Sensitivity training for journalists, health care providers and the Albuquerque Police Department is long overdue, says Alma Rosa, an EQNM volunteer. "I look at the West Mesa women, and I look at our transgender women that were murdered, and they're both being dehumanized for sex work," she says. "That's the power of media, how we identify people. It's what ends up allowing society to dismiss them or to actually be compassionate and have a personal connection. That was my daughter. That was my cousin. That was my sister. That was my neighbor."
Transgender New Mexico has provided peer support to transgender people and their families and friends since 1996. Meetings are held every Friday from 7:30 to 9 p.m. at First Congregational Church UCC (2801 Lomas NE). Go to transgendernm.org for more.