In the aftermath of the Elliot Rodger murder spree in Isla Vista, California, many people wanted to attribute his violence to mental illness. In fact, we had no evidence1 that Rodger had any mental illness known to cause violent behavior, much less that a specific illness did cause that behavior in Rodger’s particular case. On the contrary, we had plenty of evidence that Rodger’s violence was motivated in significant parts by racism and sexism, sexism directed outward at others and racism internalized, contributing, by turns, to an entitlement he articulated to be as a result of being half white and feelings that his failures were due in part to being the child of one Asian-American parent.
We know this because he ranted about it. He ranted about race, he ranted about gender, he ranted about sexual interactions, and he ranted about heterosexual norms and expectations. And he did so in both written form and a video created not long before his murders and death. His words alone are sufficient evidence to believe that sexism and racism played very significant contributing roles in causing his violent behavior. But some people, attempting to stamp down the crazy-blaming arguments that Rodger must have been mentally ill and that this mental illness must have caused his murders, cited things that weren’t actually true. In one particular case, cm’s changeable monicker moved – nobly! – to correct one particular mistake (made by ck):
[…] the six dead women in this story did absolutely nothing wrong, and realistically couldn’t have done anything that would’ve deserved this. Maybe I’m missing something, but I think that the only thing we can do for these women now is to try to find some way to prevent this from happening again.
I can’t let this pass without noting that four of the ‘six dead women’ were, in fact, men.
(This lack of attention to, you know, facts drives me up the wall. I’m sorry, but there it is.)
This (however well intentioned, and of course I think it was well intentioned), contributed to anger I had already been feeling over the relentless certainty that cis* people seem to feel every time there’s one of these mass murders that we can be sure of the genders of the persons involved. In fact, we can’t. The media will inevitably erase trans* victims in the future as they have for as long as media have existed in the past. I was more than merely frustrated with this cissexist certainty that no one shot by a mass murderer could possibly be trans and that everyone killed must have a straightforward and easily understandable relationship to society’s gender categories that will inevitably be accurately and completely reflected in their government-issued IDs (a certainty that I in no way mean to imply was merely cm’s, no it also manifested in ck’s and nearly every other person writing about Isla Vista at the time). And so in response I wrote:
Yes. Facts. It’s a fact that four of the ‘six dead women’ were reportedly men.
And, again, I’m not pissed off at cm’s changeable monicker so much as I’m pissed off at the relentless confidence that we just fucking know no trannies were killed. It’s just so easy to be sure that the victims, no matter how many, will all belong to one or at most two genders. Couldn’t possibly be any other way.
I’m fucking tired of it. Mostly I’m just fucking tired of people not seeing that **you can’t end misogyny without substantially taking on and eroding trans* oppression**.
How, precisely, will misogyny end if there are still only 2 permitted genders?
How will you police the boundary of woman without sneering at women who don’t know their place?
What will you do when no woman is murdered unless and until she violates some gender taboo?
Be content? Really?
Fuck every single comment in any of those Isla Vista threads that pretended for half a second that we “know” the genders of the victims – any or all. No matter what help they did or didn’t provide on this or that sub-issue, every single comment that took that shit for granted is part of the fucking problem.
If you can’t give a shit about the trannies, at least give a shit about the excuses trans* hatred gives to murderers of cis women.
How’s that for a feminist manifesta?
So, what makes me bring this up now? Because my magical powers of prophecy have been validated, again. In the Dayton mass shooting the killer was said to have killed his sister. This was widely, widely reported. But it turns out that he didn’t. Instead he killed his trans sibling who was not a sister, and was very probably a brother given his preference for masculine pronouns. And yet the media reported otherwise anyway, erasing the true nature of Dayton’s loss. Splinter News was responsible for first reporting this:
Accounts from friends and social media profiles belonging to a victim in last weekend’s shooting in Dayton, OH, whose name was previously reported as [X X], indicate that [X] was a transgender man who went by Jordan Cofer and used he/him pronouns.
It’s entirely understandable that the reporting was wrong. Cofer’s legal name was given out by police, and the police gendered Cofer in a manner congruent with Cofer’s legal sex as recorded on government ID. Moreover, Cofer had feared mistreatment by family and discrimination at school, and thus was mostly closeted in relation to those groups of people, people that reporters would seek out first for information on a shooting victim. But the fact that this is understandable doesn’t undercut my point. The fact that it’s easy to see how mass media would get this shit wrong, especially in the reporting frenzies that are guaranteed after a mass shooting, means that we should be more skeptical of media reported genders (and, frankly, races).
In this case, (at least according to Splinter) an account linked to Cofer tweeted his brother, his murderer, hours before the shooting rampage and Cofer’s death. This means that his murderous brother had at least some info related to his masculine identity before the killing. We don’t know, and Splinter specifically does not suggest that we have, enough information to say that this even might plausibly have been a hate crime, much less that Cofer’s murderer was definitely motivated by anti-trans* bias. But we do know that Cofer was scared of the reactions his family might have to his masculine identity, name, and expression. Therefore, when we who know that this type of protective response to cissexist family (a closeting, a closing off of information about one’s trans* identity and experience) is common, and when we know records kept by the government are done so in a manner that invisibilizes trans* experience, and, finally, when we know that media will rely on these two sources of information about gender first and foremost, we can only conclude that accepting media accounts of victims’ genders uncritically inevitably leads to permitting cissexism to erase the lives a murderer has ended.
As Splinter says:
People can debate about whether the fact of his gender identity is newsworthy. What is clear, though, is that his friends are free to remember him as they knew him.
The trans community also has a right to account for its dead. [emphasis mine]
Although we don’t know that Cofer was murdered because he was trans*, we do know that some trans* people are. Continuing to treat as reliable media reporting of the genders of persons who cannot speak for themselves means that some murderers will gain accomplices in both the media and its consumers – that means you – in accomplishing the ultimate goal of violent cissexism: the erasure of trans* existence. When a murderer kills a trans* person and the media reports that trans* person’s gender as if it were certain and simple and cis, the media does not merely allow this act of violent erasure. No, the media in reporting erroneous gender actively completes the violence to a trans* life begun by that murderer.
Unless you own a newspaper or TV station or other outlet, you can’t control whether the media you consume participates in violent anti-trans* hatred in this way. But you can actively resist the cissexist certainty that no victim could possibly be trans*, that we must assume cisgender even in the face of certain knowledge that the media can make gender errors and does make gender errors all the time.
Don’t participate in the erasure of Jordan Cofer. Don’t participate in media cissexism. Don’t make the violent erasure of trans* lives any easier than it already is.
1: At the time – remember we’re speaking about what happened “in the aftermath”. I also know of no information now, but I haven’t done research on Elliot Rodger to see if anything has changed since then… it’s really not relevant to the point I’m making.