A wildly insensitive New York Times article on the life and death of trans artist and drag performer Lorena Escalera flared tensions between the gender-variant community and the paper when it was published as part of the Sunday edition on May 14. The article, called "Woman Dies in a Brooklyn Fire That Is Deemed Suspicious," served as a painful exemplar of the media's salacious, oversexualized understanding of trans women of color, said Carmen Carrera, Escalera's friend and fellow trans-identified drag performer. Carrera is most widely known for her performance on the third season of Logo reality series RuPaul's Drag Race.
"You know what it is? I knew Lorena from shows we did in the New York City scene," said Carrera in an interview with me. "She was much more than what they were trying to portray her as. She was always happy, always having a good time. And she was definitely a big inspiration to me."
Left to right: Raven, Lorena Escalera, Carmen Carrera
Escalera, whose success as a drag performer likely inspired many, was a direct influence on Ms. Carrera, who recently came out as transgender herself.
"When I read that article, I was like, 'Wow, are you serious?'" she said. "They put her gender above everything else. My first thought was, 'When I die, is that how it'll be? Nothing's going to matter besides my gender? Nothing I do for others, nothing else? What's the point, then?'"
Carrera described her disgust with The New York Times' depiction of Escalera as "curvaceous" and the fact that the writers of the article (Al Baker and Nate Schweber) depicted Escalera as a 25-year-old woman who "often drew admiring glances in the gritty Brooklyn neighborhood where she was known to invite men for visits to her apartment."
"If she was a non-trans female that was killed, they wouldn't have described her like that," she said. "The article makes it OK to portray trans people like, 'Oh, she was an escort. Oh, she was promiscuous.' It's just disrespectful and shows so much ignorance."
Carrera, who recently made an appearance on the television show What Would You Do? as herself, said she lives as openly trans in order to combat such ignorance. In the episode of What Would You Do? Carrera plays a waitress confronting an angry longtime customer. The actor opposite Carrera is supposedly disgusted to find out that Carmen was once "Christopher" and used to identify as "he." The show was meant to raise awareness of trans issues.
"Sometimes I feel so discouraged," said Carrera. "Why do I feel like I can't have any pride in myself? The only thing that really keeps me focused is just doing what I do, doing my shows, being a positive role model. That's it."
Carrera says she chooses to live with "utmost fabulosity," regardless of offensive comments and questions thrown in her direction.
"No matter what they tell you, being trans is definitely nothing to be ashamed of. It's the coolest thing around," she said. "Believe that."
With a similar "utmost fabulosity," Janet Mock, an editor at People.com, recently began a Twitter campaign called "#girlslikeus" for trans women and girls of color whose identities are so often negatively portrayed in the media and elsewhere.
"Where do we begin?" said Mock in an interview with me regarding the Times article. "It's kind of like a double-edged sword. When [the media] finds out that someone is a trans person of color, they seem to either ignore the story or blow gross stereotypes of transgender women way out of proportion."
Mock made reference to the lack of coverage for CeCe McDonald and Paige Clay, two trans women of color whose stories of injustice received virtually no mainstream media attention. She said that following the NYT article, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) contacted her for a statement after seeing her outrage over Escalara's story on Twitter. She gave them a statement, and GLAAD responded by amplifying the #girlslikeus campaign.
"I just felt bad for Lorena and the people who love her. It was a tough life to live, and she lived it gracefully and wonderfully," said Mock. "We lost someone who was very loved. And in that article, they stripped away her dignity in such a way that it was extremely disheartening. So it tells me: You can go to the pinnacle of what our community says is success, be a role model like her, and still be beat down. It was extremely upsetting."
Following a statement released by GLAAD, New York Times Metro Editor Carolyn Ryan issued a comment on behalf of the paper.
"We typically try to capture the personal stories of those whose lives are lost in a fire, and we sought to do so in this case," wrote Ryan. "We certainly did not mean any disrespect to the victim or those who knew her. But, in retrospect, we should have shown more care in our choice of words."
"That's where it scares me," said Mock in response to the statement. She was frustrated not only with the Times' use of words such as "curvaceous" but with parts of the article that objectified Escalera as a person only emulating a woman, someone who tricked men into sleeping with her. At one point, the Times quotes Oscar Hernandez, a mechanic familiar with Escalera.
"For a man, he was gorgeous," Mr. Hernandez said in the article, which also quotes him as taking note of "Ms. Escalera's flowing hair and 'hourglass figure.'"
Is that type of reportage simply a misstep of word choice?
"It was just sloppy and arrogant," she said. "The Times won't even step up and say they were really wrong. It's beyond a choice of words. To me, this incident shows that [we as a community] are not organized enough yet to fight back at something like The New York Times. We need to organize. We need to make sure our voices matter."
In an attempt to provide this type of organized, vocal support for trans people in the press, a new grassroots group called the Trans/Gender Identity Media Advocacy (TIMA) organization is being formed on behalf of gender-variant people in the U.S. (full disclosure: I am an active member of the organization). TIMA aims to address egregious media portrayals such as Escalera's and supports accurate representations of gender-variant people in the media within larger conversations on race, ableism, class, and other intersecting identities. The group is offering free media consultations for trans/gender-nonconforming people involved in potential press projects, people who are currently having difficulty with the press, and media members covering trans-related topics. To contact TIMA, visit their website here.
"We need more support. And we need more sensitivity from the media. See, the thing is this, I love myself," said Carrera at the close of our interview. "I just wish people would accept me for how I accept myself. Accepting myself is hard enough. I can't please everyone; I just wish people would have respect, especially for someone like Lorena."