Transgender homicide victims are frequently misgendered in local media reports about their deaths. Though some news outlets may be motivated by transphobia and bias, others -- like The Kansas City Star -- have justified the practice of misgendering transgender people by using shoddy appeals to journalistic integrity.
On August 15, Tamara Dominguez became one of the latest transgender woman of color to be murdered in the United States when she was repeatedly run over by an SUV. According to local reports, the Kansas City Police Department identified Dominguez using both her birth name and her preferred name, Tamara.
The Kansas City Star identified Dominguez as a “man” in its initial report on the murder - violating GLAAD and Associated Press guidelines and contributing to the widespread problem of misgendering transgender victims of violence in local news reports. In response to criticism from the LGBT community, The Kansas City Star eventually removed the problematic language from its report.
On August 18, Kansas City Star's Public Editor Derek Donovan published a defense of his paper's initial report, which exemplifies the problematic ways that local media outlets can justify the practice of misgendering transgender victims of violence.
'We Can't Know For Sure'
Central to Donovan's defense is his argument that news outlets can't know with certainty if a victim of violence is transgender, especially when the victim is deceased:
Police directly told the reporter they did not know whether Dominguez identified as male or female. And as the victim is deceased, it's now impossible to get a firsthand answer to that question.
KCTV interviewed the victim's friend, who used female pronouns. The Star didn't have that (as of this writing at least). I've spoken to the newsroom, and they're following through on the story.
But as Donovan notes, other local media outlets, including KSHB and KCTV, reached out to Dominguez's social circle, including her roommate, to confirm her identity. Other reporters have used social media to confirm victims' gender identities. In other words, when faced with a question about how a subject identified, they did actual reporting rather than just making a snap judgment about Dominguez's gender identity.
That kind of reporting is important beyond merely respecting the victim. Ignoring a victim's gender identity can hamper police investigations, and it makes it harder for the public to understand the nature and frequency of violence against transgender people.
'Reporters Shouldn't Assume'
Donovan also argues that gender identity isn't always clearly defined, so journalists' attempts to define a victim's gender identity would require them to make a “journalistically unsound” assumption:
[T]here are also people who fall somewhere else along a continuum. Some identify as both genders simultaneously -- or even neither. Some identify as female but have male alter-aliases, and vice versa. Some continue to identify as their birth gender while cross-dressing. Sometimes even those closest to these people don't know exactly how to answer the intensely personal questions of gender identiy. [sic]
The police report was succinct, identifying the victim as Jesus -- the only legal name known, according to police, and noting the alias. It would have been premature, and ultimately journalistically unsound to make any assumption.
It's important that Donovan acknowledges the fluidity of gender expression and identity, especially for people who identify as non-binary. But that isn't an excuse for intentionally ignoring a news subject's gender presentation and preemptively choosing “male” over “female.” According to Donovan, the police could not tell his paper “whether Dominguez identified as male or female,” so when the Kansas City Star called Dominguez a “man,” it made a “journalistically unsound” assumption about her gender identity, too. Rather than respecting gender fluidity as Donovan suggested they should have, they failed to determine how the victim would want to be identified, substituting a news subject's chosen identity with a reporter's own assumptions and biases, based apparently on nothing more than the name “Jesus.”
'We Follow The Victim's Legal Gender'
Donovan claims that identifying Dominguez as a woman would ignore “basic reality,” distinguishing her gender identity from her “legal identity”:
And it's wrong to ignore a basic reality: This issue is inherently confusing and tricky. Legal identities do matter, both in trans people's lives and in reporting the news. Despite what one may glean from the always black/white world of Twitter, trans activists speak at great length about the murky details of names, passports, and birth certificates that are serious issues trans people deal with -- financial and social barriers to changing one's legal identification, for example. Pretending they don't exist is absurd.
It is true that it's often difficult for transgender people to have their gender identities legally recognized.
But that isn't an argument for refusing to acknowledge the way they prefer to be identified, especially after their deaths. The legitimacy of a transgender person's identity isn't contingent on a passport or birth certificate.
News outlets don't ask for legal documents when they talk about cisgender people. Reporters don't ask for passports or birth certificates to verify the names and identities of cisgender news subjects. Forcing transgender people to legally prove their identities before being taken seriously isn't tied to a widely-accepted journalistic norm, and it trivializes trans people by reinforcing the idea that trans identities shouldn't be taken seriously.
'It's Hard To Correctly Identify Victims'
Donovan concludes by explaining that properly identifying transgender victims of violence can be difficult, even for reporters who make an effort to reach out to the victim's loved ones:
You could argue the story shouldn't have run at all until this detail was known, via an interview with a family member or someone who can be verified as a friend of Dominguez. And no, self-proclaimed “friends” in social media don't count. Dominguez does not appear to have had a public social media presence under the name Tamara or Jesus -- both rather common names, complicating matters.
[A]ctivism is too often hijacked by loud, irresponsible voices, even from people who mean well. I've heard from some today criticizing The Star for being behind on this story, yet ironically using terminology that transgender people generally consider offensive. It's impossible for everyone to be on the same page.
It's a sentiment that's been echoed by other journalists -- determining someone's gender identity can be burdensome, especially when law enforcement misgenders a victim in initial press releases. In local news environments that prioritize quick, breaking news reports, stopping to investigate a victim's gender identity is a lot to ask. And journalists don't want to incorrectly identify someone as transgender if they aren't sure.
In those cases, the solution is to avoid using gendered terminology to describe the victim, as several outlets did in their reports of Dominguez's death. Using gender-neutral descriptors, and then amending reports once the victim's gender identity is confirmed, allows local media outlets to avoid making harmful or lazy assumptions in their coverage.
2015's unprecedented streak of homicides of transgender women has brought renewed attention to the problem of misgendering in news media. But journalists have been grappling with how to identify trans people, and specially trans victims of violence, for years. As the trans community continues to gain visibility, ethical journalism will require that reporters let go of their excuses and do the necessary work of figuring out how to accurately and responsibly identify trans people from the very first draft of any article.