Local media keep misidentifying trans murder victims, and the police are often to blame
News outlets misidentified each of the at least seven trans women of color who were killed in the U.S. since June
News outlets in several states misgendered or deadnamed seven trans women of color who were killed in the U.S. since June, part of a longstanding problem that is in part a result of media parroting police reports that misidentify trans people.
Misgendering is the act of referring to someone “as a gender other than one that a person identifies with,” and deadnaming is when someone calls a trans person by “the name they used before they transitioned” rather than the name they currently go by. Both are forms of harassment that unduly stigmatize trans people and go against journalistic standards.
According to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), at least 22 trans or gender nonconforming people have been killed in the U.S. this year, most of whom were Black trans women. This is the highest number the organization has recorded at this point in the year since it began tracking in 2013. As HRC’s Tori Cooper noted, “We cannot become numb to the fact that our community has learned of more killings of transgender and gender non-conforming people in the past few weeks than HRC has ever tracked in the past seven years.” Additionally, early reports indicate that two other trans women of color may have been killed in New York City on July 26 and in Baton Rogue, Louisiana, on July 27.
Unfortunately, media coverage typically identified victims based on the name and gender included in police reports. Law enforcement officials often misidentify trans people by exclusively referring to them by their legal name and gender according to government-issued identity documents. However, there are structural barriers for trans people to have identity documents that accurately reflect their name and gender -- in the National Center for Transgender Equality’s 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, only 11% of trans people said they have their correct name and gender listed on all their identity documents. According to a 2018 ProPublica report, in the span of about three and a half years, law enforcement agencies identified victims of deadly anti-trans violence “by names or genders they had abandoned in their daily lives” in 74 of 85 cases.
As the Transgender Law Center’s Mariah Moore has noted, police should be more intentional when identifying victims of anti-trans violence: “It's quite simple to see if you find a woman on the ground and she has perished, and her identity documents read differently than how she presents, that should be a trigger in your mind to say this person may be of the trans community.”
News outlets parroted initial police reports and misidentified seven trans women killed since June
Since June 9, at least seven trans women of color -- six of whom were Black trans women, and all under the age of 33 -- were killed across the country: Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells, Riah Milton, Brayla Stone, Merci Mack, Shaki Peters, and Bree “Nuk” Black. In initial reporting, news outlets based in several states misgendered or deadnamed each one of them, though some outlets later updated their reporting after outcry from community members.
The dismembered body of Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells, a 27-year-old Black trans woman, was pulled from the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on June 8. Initial news reports from ABC 6 and PhillyVoice misgendered Fells, incorrectly referring to her as a “man.” Both stories have been updated to remove that language, though PhillyVoice’s update on its reporting did not note its original error. According to Philadelphia Gay News, after local reports misgendered Fells, “Sources from the Morris Home — a recovery residence for transgender and gender non-conforming individuals — realized that the victim was resident Fells, a trans woman.” On June 12, PhillyVoice published another report which properly identified Fells and contextualized her death within the broader issue of violence against Black trans women in Philadelphia. It also noted that she was “a social butterfly” with “dreams of being a fashion designer.” On June 17, police issued an arrest warrant for a suspect, Akhenaton Jones.
Riah Milton, a 25-year-old Black trans woman, was shot and killed after reportedly being lured to Liberty Township, Ohio, in an attempted robbery on June 9. Local news outlets -- including WCPO 9, WHIO 7, Fox 19, and the Journal-News -- misgendered and deadnamed Milton in their reports based on information from the police. WCPO 9 updated its reporting after Milton’s family members corrected the error, and Fox 19 updated its written report without noting that it had been corrected. In an interview with WLWT 5, Milton’s sister Ariel Maryann noted the importance of using her correct name and pronouns, saying, “It’s been difficult because you never think it would be somebody who you love who was killed. The way to honor Riah is to honor her in death the way that she was honored in life.” The report said other family members were upset by misgendering in reports. It also noted that the sheriff's office stated it would “announce names based on what they have on record, and the victim’s name was not legally changed to Riah,” later adding that the office said her parents wanted her to be referred to by the incorrect gender. Police have since arrested three supsects in connection to Milton’s death.
Brayla Stone, a 17-year-old Black trans girl, was found dead inside a car in Sherwood, Arkansas, on June 25. The Sherwood Police Department identified Stone by her legal name, and local news outlets KATV Channel 7, Fox 16 KLRT, Arkansas Democrat Gazette, and KARK 4 News deadnamed Stone in their reports. KARK 4’s report noted that her family asked the outlet to refer to Stone by her “birth name,” and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette also reported that her family “will remember Stone as a fun-loving and generous person who they knew” by another name “before Stone began living publicly with her gender identity.” The report noted that close to 100 “family members and supporters” mourned her at a memorial that included a transgender pride flag and “a plaque that read ‘Black Trans Lives Matter.’” Two local LGBTQ organizations, inTRANSitive and Center for Artistic Revolution, established the Brayla Stone Microgrants program in her honor to support Black trans girls and women living in Arkansas. A suspect has since been arrested.
Merci Richey, a 22-year-old Black trans woman, who also went by the name Merci “Pooda” Mack, was shot multiple times and died in a parking lot in Dallas, Texas, on June 30. An initial police report from the Dallas Police Department referred to Richey as a “transgender female,” said it had not yet “been provided with a preferred name,” and was “asking for the community’s assistance with any additional information.” Despite acknowledging she was trans, it went on to list her deadname. Texas news outlets -- including CBS DFW, Fox 7 Austin, 1080 KRLD, and The Dallas Morning News -- deadnamed Richey in their initial coverage, citing authorities. The Dallas Morning News and CBS DFW have both updated their reporting to include her correct name, though The Dallas Morning News only updated its English-language reporting but not the Spanish-language version of the story, and CBS DFW still included her deadname. On the night of Richey’s death, NBC 5 anchor Brian Curtis acknowledged she was transgender but deadnamed her after noting that “police say they do not have the victim’s preferred name.” A report in The Dallas Morning News contextualized her death within a larger pattern of violence and reported that police had arrested a man in connection to Richey’s killing.
Shaki Peters, a 32-year-old Black trans woman whose name has also been spelled “Shakie,” was found dead off the side of a roadway in Amite City, Louisiana, on July 1. The St. Helena Parish Sheriff’s Office deadnamed Peters following her death. Reports from NBC 5, WBRZ 2, and WAFB 9, which was reprinted by Fox 8, parroted police reports, using both Peters’ deadname and chosen name, even after trans advocates and family members said that she was trans and no longer went by her legal name. KTVE/KARD, however, referred to Peters by her correct name and noted in an update to its story, “We often have to rely heavily on the word of community members since law enforcement does not often share helpful information about cases involving the trans community.” The report noted that the sheriff's office had deadnamed and misgendered Peters and that advocates were calling on the office to correct reports.
Bree “Nuk” Black, a 27-year-old Black trans woman, was shot and killed in their home in Pompano Beach, Florida, on July 3. In an investigative report on Black’s death, the Broward County Sheriff’s Office referred to them as a “transgender woman” and identified them by both their nickname Nuk and their legal name. Initial reports on Black’s death from local news outlets -- including CBS4 Miami, CBS 12, NBC 6, WPBF 25, and the South Florida Sun Sentinel -- repeated language from the sheriff’s office and referred to Black by their legal name, though the Sun Sentinel’s report also included their chosen name. A People magazine article also referred to Black by their legal name and chosen name, citing the Sun Sentinel. According to a subsequent Sun Sentinel report, the sheriff’s office worked with Transinclusive Group, a South Florida LGBTQ advocacy organization, to investigate Black’s death. The story noted, “Transinclusive Group’s executive director, Tatiana Williams, said that based on conversations with Black’s family, Black used they/them pronouns. They went mostly by the first name Nuk, but also used the name Bree, Williams said.” That reporting also referred to Black as a transgender woman. A separate report from WPLG Local 10 said that Black “identified as male at times and female other times, as Bree Black.” That same report also deadnamed Black and featured an interview with two of their family members, who wished to remain anonymous and referred to Black with he/him pronouns.
Marilyn “Monroe” Cazares, a 22-year-old Latina trans woman, was found dead in an abandoned house in Brawley, California, on July 13. Her sister Aubrey Cazares said her body had been “stabbed” and “burned.” The Brawley Police Department deadnamed Cazares in an initial press release following her death. Reports from Imperial Valley Press, The Desert Review, Holtville Tribune, and KYMA noted that Cazares was a trans woman but also repeated police language and used her deadname. Most of these outlets’ written content still includes her deadname. When speaking to local media following Cazares’ killing, family members initially referred to her with he/him pronouns but “have since affirmed her identity and vowed to refer to her by her preferred name and pronouns,” according to LGBTQ Nation and a Facebook post by her sister. Lorissa Espinoza, Cazares’ aunt, told ABC News that Cazares was “a very proud member of the LGBT community” and that “she often would come home in tears because when she decided to transition people would say and do awful things.” Her family has launched a GoFundMe for “a beautiful service in celebration of her life” and is coordinating an August 1 march from the site of her death to the Brawley Police Department “to hear her name and show recognition to what happened.”
Reporters should approach police reports with skepticism, particularly when reporting on trans victims
Spurred by the protests against police brutality and racism across the nation, journalists have been reevaluating using the police as a reliable source, which could help newsrooms more accurately report on anti-trans violence as well.
The Washington Post reported that police often use false or misleading language to describe police-involved killings, for instance, including those of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. As Susan Chira, the editor in chief of the Marshall Project -- a nonprofit news organization focused on the criminal justice system -- explained, “The basic [journalistic] principle should be, treat the police like any other source, with the same degree of skepticism as you treat any other source.”
Additionally, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Journalism Ethics has written that crime reporters “who are new on the beat or strapped for time often rely heavily on what the police tell them” and thus report on stories completely from the police's viewpoint, according to Criminal Justice Journalists President Ted Gest, who also recommended that no single source should be treated as authoritative. In 2020 alone there have been numerous incidents documented in video and audio recordings proving police accounts to be false.
Moreover, police have a long-standing record of assaulting and abusing members of the trans community. A 2013 report by the Anti-Violence Project found that “transgender people were 7 times more likely to experience physical violence when interacting with the police compared to cisgender survivors and victims.” Police also disproportionately use anti-loitering laws and other pretexts to profile and arrest trans women of color for allegedly engaging in sex work based simply on their clothing or for being in possesion of condoms.
Media should keep these factors in mind when citing police reports and press releases -- especially when those reports involve the trans community.
News outlets should never refer to a trans person by their deadname and should work with the community to get accurate information
Trans people face rampant discrimination in employment, housing, and health care, which in turn contributes to the community’s already high risks of suicide and violence. These injustices also disproportionately affect Black trans people, who face both anti-Black racism and anti-trans discrimination. In fact, a 2016 report by Mic estimated that the murder rate for young Black trans women in the U.S. is 1 in 2,600, which is four times higher than the murder rate for young adults (1 in 12,000 at the time). The American Medical Association has called these attacks on the trans community, particularly against Black trans women, an “epidemic of violence.”
As GLAAD, HRC, and trans advocates have repeatedly stressed, news outlets reporting on these issues should never refer to a trans person by their deadname without their explicit consent, especially following a person’s death. When authorities identify a homicide victim as trans but refer to them by their legal name, news outlets must work with family members and the community to identify the person’s current name, which may or not be what is listed on their legal documents. These standards are stated clearly in the Trans Journalist Association’s style guide:
A friend, family member, or the police may misgender or deadname your source. Do not use that quote in your story without a correction. Use brackets to replace the incorrect information with the correct information for text stories. For video or audio stories, reporters should find another clip or write around the deadnaming or misgendering. If this is not possible, consider not using this person as a source.
Moreover, when a victim’s family or other members of the community notify reporters of a person’s correct name and gender, news outlets should acknowledge their error, remove the deadname, and issue a correction.