Rev Irene Monroe

Black Media Fails its LGBTQ Community

Filed By Rev Irene Monroe | June 25, 2008 2:00 PM | comments

Filed in: The Movement, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: African-American, black, Duanna Johnson, hate crimes against LGBT people, homophobic behavior, Memphis, police brutality, racism, Tennessee, transphobia, transsexual

By now many in the LGBTQ community have heard of the news about the cop beat down of Duanna Johnson in a Memphis booking room that was captured on a surveillance video. Those of us of African descent, who don't know or haven't seen a photo of Johnson, might pick up on a cultural marker, her name, assuming correctly she's an African American sister.

While police brutality is both unbridled and rampant in the African American community, hitting an African American woman several times with handcuffs wrapped around the officer's knuckles while an African American nurse goes directly to the offending white officer to see if he's okay is another cultural marker - Johnson's a transwoman.

Monica Roberts, founder of the African American transpeople online group Transsistahs-Transbrothas, in her post "Yo NAACP, NBJC...Where Y'all At?" wrote:

"While I applaud you [NAACP] for declaring a state of emergency over the treatment of African-Americans by the police, I have yet to hear any NAACP local, state or the national chapter speak up not only about this case, but about the verbal and physical hate attacks on African-American transpeople in general. As Duanna Johnson's case graphically points out, some of the problems we transpeople of African descent face are at the hands of the people who are supposed to protect and serve us," wrote

But the appalling silence Roberts experienced from major African American organizations in this country that vow to protect and serve its community was also experienced from black media.

The Duanna Johnson story will not be featured in Jet, Ebony nor Essence.

And although I am thankful that the gay news media have captured the details surrounding Johnson's arrest the real story has not been told and that story is how the intersection of racism and transphobia unleashes its rage on the body of black transgenders triggering the type of violence Duanna Johnson experienced. It is this type of violence that is endemic in the black community, which is why black media should have reported.

Very little is understood about transgender people because they are relegated to the fringes of society. Crimes against transgender people often go unnoticed or are seen as lesser crimes. And the fact that Johnson walked away with her life she's lucky, because transgender people are often subjected to extreme violence that often results in murder.

For example, in 1998 Rita Hester, a 34-year-old African American transsexual was murdered. Ms. Hester was a male to female pre-op transsexual woman who was mysteriously found dead inside her first floor apartment in Allston, just outside of Boston, with multiple stab wounds to her chest.

But the other crime committed in the Hester case back then was the media coverage. While black media did not covered the case, the Boston Herald did, depicting Ms. Hester as he, or a transvestite, or William, or an enigma stating that even her neighbors didn't know who she was until the time of her death. This type of news coverage was not only damaging, disrespectful and demeaning to the entire transgender community but it also keeps transgender people constantly subjected to ridicule, confusion, ignorance, and ostensibly hate crimes.

Johnson explained that the officer's attack on her was because she refused to respond to the derogatory names he called her.

"Actually he was trying to get me to come over to where he was, and I responded by telling him that wasn't my name -- that my mother didn't name me a 'faggot' or a 'he-she,' so he got upset and approached me. And that's when it started."

Calling a trans person out of his or her name is unfortunately a daily indignity most face. Racism adds another indignity.

"A white person who transitions to a male body just became a man. I became a Black man. I became the enemy," London Dexter Ward, an LAPD cop who transitioned in 2004, told AlterNet.

And it wasn't until Louis Mitchell becoming a black man that he learned that "driving while black" would be such an offense. Mitchell, who resides in Springfield, MA, told ColorLines that he gets pulled over "300 percent more now than in his 23 years of driving."

Issues of race, gender expression, and sexual orientation trigger a particular type of violence against all people of color that black media cannot afford to go unreported. Not reporting what is going on its LGBTQ community not only subjects us to constant violence that goes unchecked, but it also puts the larger African American community at risk.

But the lack of reporting on these types of hate crimes in black media are for three reasons - all dealing with homophobia and transphobia.

The first reason is the "politics of silence." Black media will not report hate crimes against its LGBTQ community even if it results in death due to both homo and trans phobias. But too often its LGBTQ community won't, but for a different reason - internalizing the black community's homo and trans phobias. With being openly queer and often estranged, if not alienated, from our communities of color, reporting attacks against us by other people of color in our communities as well as by the police can make victims be viewed as race traitors. So we end up colluding in the violence against us.

The second reason has to do with the dearth of openly LGBTQ reporters in black media writing on queer topics. This month for the first time in the history of the Bay State Banner, an African American newspaper in Greater Boston, wrote an article on black queer culture titled "Pride, Family values shine in Hub's gay black culture." Why now? Because Katherine Patrick, the daughter of our governor, Deval Patrick, who's the second African American to be elected governor in the U.S., came out. The media attention surrounding her coming out finally underscored the fact that we have always been a part of the black community.

The third reason is the "politics of avoidance." Black media won't broach the topic of hate crimes against its LGBTQ population for fear it would be one more reason for white media to view violence as being synonymous with people of color.

However, the end result of this kind of homo and trans phobias in black media is that it not only revictimizes those of us targeted by these type of hate crimes, but it also puts the entire community at risk by leaving out news that ought to be left in.

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I think it's great that there's been such great coverage of this event since so many incidents like these slip through the cracks. I don't know about african american media, because I don't follow it, but the lgbt blogs seem to be following this pretty closely.

Rev. Irene,
Black media has not only failed to highlight the problems that transpeople face, but also failed to tell our stories.

There have been to my knowledge only 4 positive stories on transgender people in EBONY, Jet and ESSENCE magazine combined over the last 25 years, and those magazines are considered the iconic journalistic Bibles of black America.

Rev. Monroe,
Your post has brought up a whole host of issues for me--not only who gets news coverage, but who provides the news coverage.

I've looked up the Memphis area African American publications. One has a website, one does not. When I searched the one that has a website, I found nothing about Duanna Johnson. It reminds me of the whole digital divide theme that probably seems old to many since those of us reading this blog spend a lot of time online. But I think it is alive and well with respect to local minority publications.

The issue of media coverage reminds us that minority publications often lack resources. It also reminds us of the importance of minority reporters at mainstream media outlets. There was an African American columnist from the Commercial Appeal at one of the recent community meetings in Memphis that dealt with this incident. She regularly covers issues of race and also sexuality and gender. The public discussion in Memphis would be much poorer without her.

The other thing that your post provoked in me was that, as state GLBT organizations, many of us could do a much better job of communicating with the local African American press. While the big national African American magazines are critical, it's also important to build at the local level. That is clearly our responsibility.

Thank you for writing one of the most illuminating pieces that I've seen on this disgusting episode.
-Chris Sanders
Tennessee Equality Project

It's odd. I've taken some crap for pointing out stupidity in the Indiana Democratic Party lately, but I just feel obligated to point out how some decisions end up relative to the LGBT community. I just feel very strongly that it's up to us to police our own.

Apparently, Rev. Monroe believes the same thing, because I think she just pulled the black media over.

'When you're a Black woman, you never get to do what you want to do, you do what you have to do.'

And one of those things that Black women (and men) always have to do is remind our fellow Americans that the task of civil rights equality is not finished.

In mine and Rev. Irene's case, we have the task of not only reminding you that we people of African descent are part of the greater GLBT community, we also have to remind our African-American brothers and sisters that just because we happen to be GLBT peeps doesn't mean that we are 'less Black' or that the issues we face aren't part of the greater community dialogue.

Thanks for the help, sis.