Oakland Fire Highlights Need For Greater Media Accountability And Respect For Trans People In Life And Death
Blog ››› ››› ERIN FITZGERALD
A fire in an Oakland warehouse claimed the lives of 36 people, according to the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office who released the official list of victims names that erroneously included the birth name of a transgender woman, Feral Pines. As a result, the initial media misidentified and misgendered Pines, which prompted loved ones and advocacy organizations to call for journalists to update stories with her correct name. Advocacy efforts ultimately yielded proper reporting, but the steps required to get there highlight the need for media outlets to take greater care in accurately reporting on transgender people.
On December 2, a fire broke out at an Oakland art collective’s warehouse, killing 36 people including several members of the LGBTQ community. The Alameda County Sheriff’s Office later released a list of victims’ names, incorrectly identifying one transgender victim, Feral Pines, by her name given at birth, which she hadn’t used in over a decade. Her loved ones asked that officials correct the list, and the sheriff’s office eventually apologized and deleted tweets of the original list. But by that point journalists had already begun using the list as a reference for their reporting, meaning much of the initial coverage misgendered Pines and included an incorrect name for her.
When the media uses the birth name of a trans person -- a practice sometimes known as “deadnaming” -- it harms the entire transgender community, as a December 7 article published by The San Francisco Chronicle noted, quoting Eliza Wicks-Frank, Pines’ former partner of five years:
“The impact that this lack of dignity and awareness has on the community of trans people who are alive right now is it tells them that their fight is irrelevant, that they’re going to be disrespected regardless of how they fight to live their lives.”
On December 6, GLAAD issued a statement urging the media to follow established guidelines for covering news about trans victims -- including using the “gender and pronoun that corresponds with the way the victim identified” -- and clarified protocol around conflicting information, urging outlets to “listen to the friends who did know about the victim’s trans identity, and respect the way a victim identified a the time of the incident.” On December 7, a joint statement released by a coalition of LGBTQ advocacy organizations -- Equality California, National Center for Lesbian Rights, National Center for Transgender Equality, National LGBTQ Task Force, Transgender Law Center and the Trans Assistance Project -- called on both the Oakland authorities and the media to honor the correct name and gender of the transgender fire victims.
In addition, Pines’ loved ones contacted dozens of journalists and news outlets that used her birth name and asked them to use the correct name. The Guardian published an article highlighting transgender people’s struggle for respect and accurate identification, both in life and in death. Scout Wolfcave, Pine’s friend who has been working closely with media and authorities to ensure the trans victims are described properly, told the Guardian:
“We fight hard enough every single day to be seen as our authentic selves and to be treated with respect. In death, you can’t defend yourself anymore, so it falls on your friends to do it for you.”
By the end of the week, almost all of the stories that incorrectly identified Pines had been corrected thanks to the efforts of Wolfcave and an extended network of loved ones.
The Associated Press reported on confusion around identifying Pines, noting that she was called different names by friends and family. While Pines’ friends and family may have known her by two different names, her identity as a transgender woman was clear and neither of the monikers she used was the name she was given at birth. Building on existing guidelines issued by GLAAD, the article acknowledges that while sometimes identifying and discussing trans people who’ve lost their lives will be difficult, proper naming remains "critical." The need for greater media accountability and responsible journalism is clear, according to American Civil Liberties Union lawyer and trans advocate Chase Strangio:
"Being referred to as one’s proper gender and name is not a preference. It is not a choice that a journalist can make and still accurately report on the subject. When trans people are misgendered, when our old names are used, we disappear. Because at that point, our truth is taken away. A truth that we fought hard to claim."