Empathy And Spectacle In The Transgender Killing Fields: On Media Coverage Of Anti-Trans Violence

To focus on us in exclusively extreme circumstances reinforces our marginal status.
04/15/2017 06:28 pm ET Updated Apr 17, 2017

To assert that our nation is in crisis seems simultaneously banal and something of an understatement. From the blitzkrieg of deplorable EOs and inhumane legislative and budget proposals coming out of DC to the new POTUS’s itchy Twitter finger, the executive branch has come to seem, in the eyes of many Americans, like an existential threat to the nation – and to more than a few, even to life on the planet. One of the potential casualties of this situation is our capacity for empathy. When there are so many battles raging at once, how many can we reasonably follow, let alone join? How to stave off rage fatigue? How to avoid slumping into cynicism, or mere indifference?

For those of us who find ourselves on the front lines of the new régime’s assaults by virtue of our membership in one or more vulnerable minorities, both fatigue and cynicism are real dangers. We don’t have the luxury of indifference, however, or of allowing others to be indifferent to us. If we’re to combat the far-right push to further marginalize or even extinguish us as groups, we must remain a pressing concern to our allies (existing and potential) amidst the chaos.

The plight of trans Americans, the minority I belong to, is particularly difficult in the current climate. As a group, we’re relatively small, though not as small as was long thought. We’re also relative newcomers to mainstream public discourse, and our very existence is contested by many. In trying to get people to keep, let alone start caring about us, then, we have additional hurdles to overcome that are less of (or not) an issue for many other minority groups.

I’ve been arguing pretty much since I started blogging for HuffPost a year ago that our widespread acceptance by the cis majority is ultimately contingent on our being recognized as fully human. Though it may seem like a perfectly obvious point to make, it’s only when we’re seen first and foremost as friends and neighbors, and not victims (or deviants), that our plight ceases to be a sideshow and becomes for them what mainstream media organs like Time and The New York Times have declared it to be, a full blown civil rights issue.

In part because of lingering perceptions (and prejudices), though, and in part because of the prominent role that sensationalism and spectacle play in the media, the dominant narrative about us is still the sideshow one. In terms of airtime, the two main storylines about trans folks in the U.S. at present remain: (1) Our role as political scapegoats of the far right, most notably in the ongoing efforts by red-state lawmakers to pass discriminatory “bathroom bills,” and (2) Our status as victims of myriad forms of violence, in particular murder. I’ve written a lot about the first of these; I’d now like to consider the latter.

It comes as no surprise that outside academia, the lion’s share of discussion about violence against trans folks appears in the liberal media and blogosphere – the right evidently having little interest in (or stomach for) delving into the challenges facing a group that their loudest members are intent on demonizing. And it’s not all that surprising that while the violence plaguing the trans community assumes a wide range of forms – from snide looks and other microaggressions to verbal harassment to physical assaults – murders feature prominently, even disproportionately, in this discussion. Indeed, murder is often talked about as if it’s the only form of anti-trans violence that matters, even by those who should know better.

That’s not to say that there aren’t any upsides to this coverage. For trans advocates and allies, stories about murders serve a couple of purposes. In the first place, they’re effective shorthand for the high incidence of violence visited on us as a community, and in particular on trans women of color (who represent all eight reported victims so far this year). Second, and more basically, murder is an easy way to keep trans folks on people’s radar. Headlines like “At least 7 transgender women have been killed in 2017” and “Four Transgender Murders in a Week ‘Alarming Trend’” are good journalistic eye candy. These stories also confer on the victims a couple of things historically denied to trans folks: visibility and dignity. By moving beyond bare-bones, Dragnet-style summaries of the climactic event to include pictures and brief bios, they present the victims as more than mere crime statistics, in a real sense serving as obituaries for them. Additionally, they often correct other reporting on the incidents, since local news outlets frequently ignore the victims’ declared, lived identities, and deadname and/or misgender them (more than occasionally, following the lead of law enforcement and other state agencies in doing so).

I’m not at all suggesting these stories shouldn’t be reported, then. My concerns have to do in large measure with the point I raised above about proportion. Is our humanity to be visible to others predominantly if not solely in the context of victimhood – and not just any victimhood, but the most extreme form of it? Other forms of victimization like name calling or verbal or physical abuse (including rape) are experiences that many other people have gone through, and thus can relate to. Murder, not so much. To focus on us in extreme circumstances effectively, if inadvertently, reinforces our marginal status.

At the same time, there are features of this reporting that further emphasize that status. Take for example the standardized format of stories about trans murders. This feature is in no small measure a function of genre: crime reporting, and obituaries, tend to follow long established conventions, after all. Still, the feeling of sameness among the articles – picture and name of victim given, circumstances of their death summarized, details about their life provided, running tally of murder victims for the year updated – contributes to the (mis)perception of interchangeability that all minority groups fight against: One trans person [lesbian, Muslim, African-American, etc. etc.] is pretty much like any other. And since trans folks, as noted, are newcomers to the mainstream, we’ve been afforded little time to counter that misperception by becoming familiar to the cis majority in our full diversity. Indeed, a large percentage of the latter group say they’ve never (knowingly) interacted with any of us. Lacking that baseline familiarity as a group, we remain easy targets for those who would exploit misperceptions about us for their own advantage (viz. the “bathroom bill” demonizers).

A survey of the headlines suggests another, more disturbing assumption that these articles (again inadvertently) reinforce: that our status as victims is in some sense inevitable. Consider the following sample drawn from the first page of links that came up in a Google search using the keywords “transgender,” “violence,” and “2017”:

· At least 7 transgender women have been killed in 2017

· Four Transgender Murders in a Week “Alarming Trend”

The fourth and fifth headlines in this list, “How Many…?” and “These Are…,” give the impression of inevitability with particular force: it’s as if the fact of our being murdered at a high rate is simply in the way of things. Indeed, together they sound like they could have been taken from a Q&A about statistics on tornadoes in the heartland during the same period. Only the last of these headlines (“Alarming Trend”) throws this sense of inevitability at all into question. (Note also that six of the top ten ranked hits about “violence” against trans folks are focused on murders.)

Even the running tally of victims for the year is, I think, problematic. Again, it’s not that this information isn’t important; but if the goal of placing so much emphasis on it is to ring the alarm bell about the plight of the trans community, I’m not sure how effectively it does that. Proportionally, eight murders of trans folks in three months is a lot, in particular given that one part of the community, trans women of color, is disproportionately affected. As a raw number, though, eight pales in comparison to the number killed in less than a half hour at the Pulse nightclub last summer, or the monthly murder stats in Chicago. There’s also the more basic question of how stories about murders play in the mainstream. With the wide-open gun laws in this country and increasing normalization of mass shootings as part of our national life, and with the surging valorization of unfettered, unthinking alphaness that the new POTUS both epitomized and exploited in his run to the White House last year, we’ve become inured as a nation to a certain level of toxic masculinity and the brutality that comes with it. In such a climate, our capacity to respond empathetically to violence, even in its most extreme forms, can’t help but be blunted. The way that media reporting on violence often plays up its sensationalistic aspects, moreover, has conditioned us to consume it in some measure as entertainment. If headlines about murders are good eye candy, then, they risk being little more than that: eye candy. Indeed, one can imagine a worst-case scenario in which the emphasis placed on the tally of murders transforms the transgender killing fields into the arena for a Hunger Games-style spectacle: How big will the pile of dead trannies get this year? (NB: I don’t expect Las Vegas will be giving odds on the final body count anytime soon.)

There’s no easy fix for this state of affairs, of course. Seismic cultural shifts like the mainstreaming of trans folks require not only constant urging, but also time. A key element in effecting this particular shift, though, will be rounding out the dominant narrative about us. It’s about proportion again, in short. Yes, we’re disproportionately targeted for violence. Yes, many on the far right are banging the gong for our erasure from public life. Yes, we suffer a high incidence of homelessness and poverty, due in no small part to discrimination against us by landlords and employers, not to mention law enforcement. Yes, we often take up sex work to survive, and like members of other marginalized communities engage in substance abuse and other “risky behaviors.” Yes, we’re far more likely to take our own lives than are members of the cis majority. But we’re also present in most any workforce you care to name: not just the entertainment, fashion, and service industries – and sex work – but finance, the sciences, healthcare, education, “blue collar” fields, law enforcement, and increasingly politics. We’re far more likely to serve in the military than our cis counterparts. We belong to every faith and ethnicity. We’re Republicans as well as Democrats. We’re spouses and partners, parents and grandparents, children and grandchildren, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, classmates and co-workers. We buy groceries and gas, shop at bookstores, department stores, and hardware stores. We eat out at restaurants with you, attend concerts, plays, and sporting events with you. We’re your neighbors.

If the idea of our being profiled doing typical stuff in everyday contexts strikes you as a little absurd, try googling “transgender” and “healthcare” or “law enforcement” or “religion” and see what percentage of the sites that come up aren’t focused on discrimination against us. For those of us who don’t have the privilege of being pictured in these contexts as a matter of course, such portrayals are a necessary part of our becoming familiar to others. Being embraced as fully human means being at the point where our presence in others’ quotidian is no longer newsworthy. Our gains in many of the areas of life listed above are being chronicled by sympathetic mainstream media organs like NPR and The New York Times as well as liberal blogs, advocacy groups, and other organizations. More needs to be done, though; for to the extent that this larger context for our lives is lacking, the media’s continued focus on our victimization will be a dead end for us.

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