Trans “People”: Intersectionality And The Distribution Of Risk

A few weeks ago, a latina trans woman named Lorena Escalera died in an apartment fire at her home in Brooklyn.

The manner in which the New York Times reported her death demonstrated an egregious lack of respect for the deceased, and equally disturbing lack of professionalism on the part of the reporter. Lorena, in this article, was only “called” Lorena. Slut-shaming hints were given as to the number of men she allowed into her apartment. Possibility of foul-play or negligence on the part of the two men who were in the apartment at the time but left her there, somehow surviving while she did not, was hinted at but quickly brushed aside in favour of several hundred printed words speculating on the nature of Lorena’s sexuality, gender, identity… the legitimacy of each, all with the constant thematic tug in the direction of finding this person just another one of the big city’s fascinating “weirdos”, her death simply providing the circumstances where she’d no longer be able to object to be treated like a Coney Island exhibit. Could no longer correct the speculations her neighbours made on her history and character, presented as being somehow legitimate content for journalism.

Notably, the article printed assertions about Lorena’s medical history. Vague wonderings about what procedures she had or had not done. One of the neighbours asserts in the article that she’d had her lower ribs removed to help grant her a more “hourglass” figure (I have never, ever, ever heard of a real life trans woman undergoing such a procedure, much less being afforded and pursued by an impoverished woman of colour living in a cheap, shoddily wired Brooklyn apartment building who may have been a sex worker. Was Lorena even able to afford SRS?). Would a report on the death of a cis woman ever include casual musings on her medical history from uninformed neighbours? Would it include irrelevant details of her medical history at all? “Ms. Crowne, who’d had an ovarian cyst removed three years prior, drowned today at Ritter’s Beach.”

And even that level of unprofessional conduct would be analogous to this only if we’re either naive or absurdly generous enough to grant the neighbours’ speculations on her medical history any credibility. Do you recall the now thoroughly debunked urban myths claiming Marilyn Manson had undergone such a procedure for the purposes of autofellatio? It’s appallingly unprofessional that the journalist would print, as though credible and authoritative, without seeking actual confirmation, what is most likely simply a product of transphobic imaginations desperately trying to grab onto some scenario that could account for finding a trans woman, a “man”, beautiful and sexually attractive. “Such beauty,” the transphobe imagines, “must be artificial. The product of a surgeon’s craft. It cannot be ‘his’ own. It cannot be natural. My nice, normal heterosexual desires must have been deceived by a fancy, technological illusion”. These are the same neighbours, remember, who later stated that she was attractive “for a man”.

(I’ll leave well alone the deeper mythic resonances tying the removal of a man’s ribs to the “creation” of a woman)

I had intended to write about this, but extensive commentary emerged in the trans (and, encouragingly, LGBTQ) blogosphere very shortly afterwards. But what I saw in that commentary filled me with renewed anger. I saw those championing for the New York Times to be more respectful of the deceased engaging in equal levels of such disrespect, albeit with different motives. While the New York Times were simply trying to sell papers, these trans people were attempting to simply sell ego, and an exaggerated image of their own opression, exploiting deceased trans women of colour to do so.

We’ll come back to Escalera in a moment, but first let’s look at Gunner Scott, a (white?) trans man writing in the Boston Phoenix about the recent multitude of deaths we’ve had in the trans community, in an article titled “It’s Still Dangerous To be Transgender In America” (notice it in the title?)…

Add racism and poverty to the mix, and it can be a deadly combination. Young transgender women of color face some of the most brutal consequences. Although there is slow-growing acceptance of transgender people and a recent uptick in visibility with the help of such celebrities as Chaz Bono, this stands in stark contrast to the experiences of young transgender women of color.

In the past few months, several such women have been killed due to what is most likely hate-motivated violence. Some of these women included Deoni Jones, who was stabbed in the head while waiting for a bus; Coko Williams, who was shot outside her home; Brandy Martell, who was shot while sitting in her car; Paige Clay, who was shot in the head and found dead in an alley; and, just a few weeks ago, Lorena Escalera, who died in her apartment from a suspicious fire. This is not just a bad spell of violence for transgender women; this is an ongoing epidemic. According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, in 2010, transgender women made up 44 percent of the 27 murders related to hate violence against the LGBTQ community reported nationally.

What has shifted slightly in the past year has been coverage of these cases by the mainstream media. Some reporters are helping to show the humanity of those lost by including stories from friends and family about how loved and cherished they were, and how much they will be missed. This type of reporting is challenging the idea that transgender women are not valued.

Just a few years ago, media coverage labeled transgender women as “men in dresses” and “perverts,” and insinuated that they were responsible for their own deaths. There is still some use of incorrect terminology in reporting today, as well as inappropriate disclosure of past names, but a number of more recent stories focus on the fact that violence and discrimination against transgender people has a ripple effect on all of us. Family and friends have lost someone they loved, and society has lost that person’s potential for greatness.

Bolding is my own.

And let’s take a look at Asher Bauer’s open letter to the New York Times in response to their coverage of Lorena Escalera’s death…

Editor,

How dare you.

The transgender community is hurting really badly right now. Since the beginning of this year, five trans women of color have been killed– Deoni Jones, Coko Williams, Paige Clay, Brandy Martell, and Lorena Escalera– three of them (Coko, Paige and Brandy) in April alone.

Another trans woman of color, CeCe MacDonald, is expected to spend 41 months in a man’s prison for defending herself from becoming the victim of a similar hate crime.

Transgender artist Mark Aguhar also committed suicide this year. Her loss was crushing to many, especially to young trans people who live in isolated areas and depend on the internet for a sense of community. She is far from being the only one. 41% of transgender people have attempted suicide, and this number does not take into account those who have completed suicide successfully. No wonder, given that we constantly hear about people like us being murdered. It leads to a certain sense of hopelessness.

Trans people, especially trans people of color, are dying constantly, by murder or by suicide. Trans people who dare fight back, like Cece MacDonald, are punished for surviving. The rest of us live in fear, and are exhausted by grief.

Your disgraceful article about Lorena Escalera, a talented young model and performer, was utterly devoid of compassion, respect, or of awareness of its context. It was smug, sneaky, and mean. It started out referring to Lorena as the beautiful woman she was, albeit using a series of misogynistic tropes and innuendos about her character, then made the “shocking” revelation that she was transgender mid-stream, and ended by referring to her as “the dead man.”

Trans people are often accused of being “deceivers” for not broadcasting our gender history to the world (no wonder that we are hesitant to do so, given the murderous way that non-transgender people sometimes react when we come out!). I felt that your article was in fact deceptive. It started out somewhat innocently, and ended up downright insulting. In retrospect, I suppose the comments on Lorena’s appearance (since when is it appropriate to refer to a dead woman as ‘curvaceous?’) should have tipped me off to its slimy intentions,

It’s bad enough that our trans siblings are dying left and right, without the media spitting on their dead bodies and trying to take their hard-won genders away.

The fact that so many of you non-transgender people think that it is OK to mock the dead shows that you lack the smallest shred of human decency.

You should all be ashamed of yourselves.

Disgustedly,

Asher Bauer

Again, bolding is my own.

Do you notice the issue here? What’s being left out? Let’s take a look at the deaths (and attempted murder) that were referenced:

Deoni Jones

Paige Clay

Brandy Martell

Coko Williams

Mark Aguhar

Lorena Escalera

CeCe McDonald

And one more hint: Mark was AMAB genderqueer, not a trans man.

All of these deaths, despite the articles being framed as about how it’s “dangerous to be transgender in America”, or the constant fear that trans “people” live with on account of how many trans “people”, how many of our trans “siblings”, get murdered, were all trans women of colour.

The more respectful of the two articles, Gunner Scott’s, does explicitly acknowledge, to a degree, the disproportionate distribution of risk, but then turns around and makes the claim that despite the clear manner in which the violence falls almost exclusively on trans women, and to a much more frequent degree on trans women of colour, that this nonetheless is indicative of the conditions that the transgender community, himself notably present, live under.

And honestly, Gunner, what the fuck does Chaz Bono’s “visibility” have to do with the circumstances these women lived and died with?

I hear Gunner Scott went kayaking last week. I hope he had a nice time.

Asher Bauer doesn’t even bother with that much. The deaths are all trans women, but the moment he pulls away from specifics and into the abstract, into making declarations of the community’s experiences, they become “trans people“, “trans siblings“, “People like us“.

The fact that Bauer explicitly acknowledged the disproportionate distribution of violence and risk along lines of race while continuing to erase how that violence falls along lines of gender makes it painfully overt. Makes it almost impossible to regard as unintentional. While acknowledging the racial discrepancy wouldn’t hurt his image or his cause, his ability to pose himself as one of “us” who are afflicted by this climate of fear and violence, acknowledging how trans men are simply not living under that same climate would ruin his ability to stand in the “us” like a righteous sibling of the dead, speaking about his oppression. So he says “people”, says “us”, and just hopes it never occurs to us how safely he can walk down the street at night. Hopes it doesn’t occur to us how secure and insulated is the vantage point from which he dares describe the fear that “the rest of us” live with.

And Boys Don’t Cry remains the principle cultural artifact we think of when envisioning transphobic violence. Brandon Teena is sure to be mentioned at every TDoR, before the guys go off to kick it at Dean Spade’s dance party. Even while the disabled black man who was murdered that same night, in the same farmhouse, by the same men, was cut from the film. Forgotten. Feel free to mention it in the comments if this is the first time you’ve ever heard he existed.

There was a time when trans men were deeply fucked over within the trans community. While trans women at least had a few pockets of existence in the cultural landscape (albeit as objects of ridicule, disgust and pathologization), and we had certain networks of information, certain resources available, trans men were all but entirely erased. Invisible. Non-existent.

But over the years the situation has shifted dramatically. Trans men now enjoy considerable resources and access. They’re capable in many instances of enjoying spaces and resources that are both geared towards women and towards men. They can, and do, freely inhabit certain women’s spaces even as those same spaces explicitly exclude trans women. They can be lauded as ground-breaking and forward-thinking, getting a little ticker tape parade (and a lot of sex), for stating the exact same ideas trans women feminists have been shouting to deaf ears for years.

Yet a lot of the same attitudes of fighting aggressively to be heard, and have themselves acknowledged in the trans community, such as insistent use of term trans people, the attitudes that were at one point an extremely justified and much-needed response to widespread erasure, have begun to be the hallmarks of entitlement and privilege. A means of exploiting oppressions and violence that explicitly target trans women of colour as a means of marketing their own oppression to the public. A means of appropriating dialogues that rightfully should be based around listening to the women affected. A means of steamrolling over trans women, speaking in our place, speaking for us, speaking from the vantage point of privilege. Ignoring the particularity of our experiences and suffering and fear.

Claiming TDoR for a fucking dance party, where the few AMAB attendees, having just listened to a long list of names of deceased women like themselves, undoubtedly stand around awkwardly, being ignored as the unsexy wet blankets of the celebration.

I can’t help but wonder what exactly these dance parties are celebrating. I hope it’s not what I think it is.

In short, what were once strategies for combating erasure have become means of erasure. Dominance. Maintenance of privilege. Exploitation.

When you use the term “trans people”, the least you can do is think about why, what it is you’re referring to,  and what it is you may be excluding. Are trans people really what you’re describing? Or is it just the most convenient term for your agenda?

On whose behalf are you writing?

Intersectionality counts.