Tuesday, February 12, 2008

now i'm angry!

[ETA: More coverage and eloquent explanation of this tragedy can be found over at Feministe.]

I read something pretty offensive on Gothamist.com the other day, and dashed off the following email to the author with the subject heading "wow, way to be offensive."
This is in response to the 'news item' you posted yesterday on Gothamist.com about the transwoman found murdered in the Bronx. (http://gothamist.com/2008/02/10/transgender_hoo.php) Beyond the basic insensitivity you showed in refering so callously to a human being who was senselessly murdered, you added insult to injury by referring to this woman as "he" and a "man."

I realize that Gothamist isn't a "real" news outlet, so perhap you don't feel bound by the same regulations as professional journalists, but how about taking a cue from the AP Stylebook, which has this to say about refering to trans individuals:

"Use the pronoun preferred by the individuals who have acquired the physical characteristics of the opposite sex or present themselves in a way that does not correspond with their sex at birth. If that preference is not expressed, use the pronoun consistent with the way the individuals live publicly."

You can find some more information about that here: http://www.glaad.org/publications/archive_detail.php?id=3869

At the very least, take a hint from this woman's neighbors and acquaintances, all of whom had the common courtesy and decency to refer to her with respect in the manner which is not only appropriate to her feminine presentation, but also clearly the manner which she prefered.

I really enjoy Gothamist, but reading this post was an exceedingly unpleasant experience. I hope that the feedback you've received (what I read in the comments, as well as my own email) can help you learn about why the things you wrote were so offensive, and how you can easily avoid such errors in the future.

Let me know if you'd like to discuss this further- I'd be happy to.


I typed it all up and sent it in a fit of rightous anger within about 15 minutes of spotting the post. That same night, I got a short email back:

Eli,Thanks for your email. This is an area I admit that I do not have a lot of knowledge about and appreciate the guidance that our readers give us. That said, I did not mean any malice or ill will. Best, XXXX

Well, I appreciate that she returned my email so quickly, and I realize that I came across as pretty mean in my intial email. I sent her back a short note saying "Sorry I was brusque, thanks for responding, hope you learned your lesson."

But now I'm wondering if I should've apologized again. I think I was pretty justified in my anger at the intial post, and I think maybe I let her off the hook too easily- particularly considering that her email wasn't so much of an apology or even an acknowledgement of wrong doing so much as it was a purely mollifying response.

She didn't acknowledge explicitly that she'd been offensive, and she didn't give any concrete indication that she's going to follow through on the "guidance" that we readers are offering her, and stop with the offensive language in the future.

Just gets my blood boiling, realizing how easy it is for a non trans person to say something as fucked up as that, and then fall so short of actually acknowledging or taking responsibility for any personal privilege and transphobia that led to the statement in the first place. "I'm sorry I hurt your feelings- I didn't mean it!" is not the same as "I'm sorry I didn't know that my comments were insulting, demeaning, and offensive, and I will try to rectify my ignorance by learning about the non-trans (or cissexist) privilege that I am practically drowning in, and seek to be more respectful and accurate in my language in the future."


Trump said...

It never ceases to amaze me that people still go through the he, she, it thing in their head and then just say what the f*ck they want, rather than considering how people actually live.

On a (not much) lighter note, myself and a colleague at work are currently arguing with a senior equalities officer about the inclusion of trans as an identifier in questionnaires. (obviously when and where appropriate) The frustrating bit of the conversation is when he said "but there aren't any trans people here anyway".

Yes, it's still 1948 in some parts of the UK.

Mordecai said...

I'm sorry this won't be a terribly insightful comment. 3 basic points:

Good for you, speaking up and not letting this crap fly!

Cissexist is an interesting word I hadn't come across before, what is its etymology?

Did they change the article? I couldn't find some of the disrespectful formulations you mentioned. If so, is it more respectful in your opinion? Why or why not?

Eli said...


thanks for our 3 points!

1- i've been trying harder to speak up

2- it has to do with the prefixes cis and trans- they're used in a lot of contexts to mean 'differently oriented' things- like in chemistry, where you've got cis and trans molecules being the same molecule but shaped differently. so they're matching prefixes in that sense, and someone somewhere decided to make a backformation and create the word "cissexual" in opposition to the word "transsexual" so that it wouldn't just be "trans" as opposed to "normal." now, there's a word that can be used to mean "non-trans" that makes it clear that it's just another way of being, rather than some kind of essential, "normality."

One place where I've seen it best used is in a book I read recently called "Whipping Girl" by Julia Serano, about transsexual identity and feminism. it's very good, I highly recommend!

3- Yeah, it looks like the article has been changed, although it hasn't been fixed perfectly. It is more respectful now (the author doesn't call the victim 'he' and 'man') but it still unnecessarily references the victim's "real" masculine name (why not use the name she used in real life?), unnecessarily details her physical appearance and surgery, and doesn't include any indication that it's A BAD THING that a woman was killed just because she was trans.

Eli said...

Trump, you're right, I'm always astonished when things I take for granted as necessary (like non-discrimination clauses, and acknowledgment that trans people actually EXIST) are greeted with disbelief or derision by the rest of the world. sigh.