The Associated Press violated its own guidelines while reporting on the homicide of a transgender woman in Florida, joining several state-based news outlets in misgendering the victim and referring to her as a “man dressed as a woman.” The incident is the latest in a trend of media mistreatment of transgender victims of violence.
On the morning of July 21, 25-year-old transgender woman India Clarke was found dead in a park in Tampa Bay, Florida. Clarke suffered blunt-force trauma to the upper body, though the exact cause of death is still unknown. Before her death, Clarke publicly identified as female, used female pronouns, and presented as female in her photos.
But in its news release announcing a homicide investigation surrounding Clarke's death, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office referred to Clarke as a “male dressed in women's clothing.” Speaking to BuzzFeed's Dominic Holden, Detective Larry McKinnon defended the Sheriff's Office's decision to identify Clarke as male:
“We are not going to categorize him as a transgender. We can just tell you he had women's clothing on at the time,” Detective Larry McKinnon, a spokesman for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, told BuzzFeed News. “What his lifestyle was prior to that we don't know -- whether he was a cross dresser, we don't know.”
Initial calls to 911 descibed the victim as a woman but a medical examiner later identified her as male, McKinnon said.
“He is a male,” McKinnon continued. “I can't tell you he is a female.”
In the 24 hours following the discovery of Clarke's death, state-based news outlets and the Associated Press repeatedly misgendered Clarke, referring to her as a “man dressed as a woman” and violating journalistic standards on how to refer to transgender people. CBS, ABC, and NBC affiliates in the Tampa area followed the Sheriff's report and also referred to India as “Samuel,” using male pronouns, and referring to her as a male.
The Associated Press violated its own widely-cited guidelines and referred to Clarke as a “man wearing women's clothing,” referring to her as “Samuel.” AP's misgendering was repeated by state media outlets' that republished AP's report:
The practice of misgendering transgender victims of violence violates guidelines established by GLAAD and the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association and has been widely criticized by journalism experts.
And it's a practice that's become all-too-common in 2015, a year that's seen an unprecedented string of murders of trans women.
The cycle at its worst seems to be the same: a transgender person is found dead, law enforcement officials fail to acknowledge the victim's gender identity, and local news outlets follow law enforcement's lead, misgendering the victim despite often knowing how the victim wished to be publicly identified.
But failing to report the way Clarke is publicly identified deprives audiences of the information they need to understand her death in the broader context of violence against transgender women. In instances where misgendering is intentional, it's a statement that her gender identity is little more than a deceptive costume, not worthy of being taken seriously.