Guest Blogger

Remembering Angie Zapata and Reflecting on Media Coverage of Transgender People

Filed By Guest Blogger | August 05, 2010 1:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Media, Transgender & Intersex, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: Adam Bass, Angie Zapata, GLAAD, hate crimes against LGBT people, role of media, transgender violence

Editors' Note: Guest blogger Adam G. Bass joined GLAAD in early 2007. Prior to GLAAD, Adam worked for over ten years in electoral politics, working on communications and field work in federal, state, local and issue campaigns.

Your 21st birthday is supposed to be a happy moment; it’s one of those “big” birthdays. Today would have been Angie Zapata’s 21st, but just over two years ago, Angie was murdered. On behalf of GLAAD, I sat through the trial where Angie’s murderer was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. As I thought of how to honor Angie on the occasion of her 21st birthday, I decided to take a look at how her life and her story lives on today. The way the media told Angie’s story, set the bar for media coverage of stories involving transgender people.

Angie ZapataIt is important to take into account the huge role that the media plays in shaping public perspective, and the fact that media coverage often biases criminal and legal investigations--such as when media coverage implies that an openly transgender victim shares responsibility for being attacked, simply because he or she is transgender.

In 2008, many first responders to the story of Angie Zapata’s murder, including police and media, referred to her with male pronouns and by her male birth name as well as suggesting a “trans panic” defense. GLAAD immediately began working with the media to change this, and subsequent media accounts showed drastic improvement in coverage of Angie’s story.

Unfortunately, crime stories involving transgender people are all too often sensationalized, with inappropriate focus on a person’s gender identity, and include material that is disrespectful and dehumanizing. The bodies of transgender people are rarely granted the same privacy that is given to others in the media.

Covering crime stories about transgender people can be challenging, but it is extremely important that it is done well. The first step for a reporter must be to determine if the person’s gender identity is relevant to the story--as it would be in the case of a hate crime victim. If so, the next step is to discuss the person’s gender identity without disrespecting him or her in any way. We made sure this was done with Angie’s story, and on the occasion of her 21st birthday, it makes sense to bring attention to how the media covers such stories.

In January of this year, Myra Ical of Houston, Texas, a transgender woman, was brutally murdered and found dead in a Houston field. Every initial news report characterized Ical as a cross-dressing man who was in an area known for drugs and prostitution. Even after authorities knew that Ms. Ical preferred to go by Myra, they used her male birth name and used male pronouns to refer to her.

Toni AlstonIn April of this year, transgender woman Toni Alston of Charlotte, North Carolina, was murdered in the front door of her home. First responders to the story of Allston’s murder identified her as a ‘cross dresser’ with an ‘alternative lifestyle’ and used male pronouns and her birth name instead of her chosen name, Toni. Examples of such problematic reporting abound, however there are also many recent examples of very good reporting in crime stories involving a transgender person.

In April of this year, Colle Carpenter, a transgender man and CSULB student, was violently physically assaulted in a campus restroom, targeted for his transgender status, and had “IT” carved into his chest. It took nearly 8 days for the university to release any news about the incident, but media coverage of the incident was quite fair and accurate, as Colle was regularly referred to as a trans-man and with male pronouns. His preferred name was also used without exception.

Myra, Toni, and Angie were all deceased, and unable to identify themselves. Colle survived his attack and was able to self-identify. However, with Myra, Toni, and Angie, as is the case with many transgender murder victims, the evidence of how the person lived his or her life is overwhelming--and simply cannot be ignored by a reporter. Too often reporters replace one medical examiner’s report for a mountain of evidence on how that person actually lived his or her life.

The main issues of concern for media coverage of crime stories involving transgender people are the use of correct names and pronouns, and elimination of gender-identity bias. First, it is very important that transgender people are shown respect by being addressed by their preferred name and the pronouns appropriate for the gender that they identify with. This is always regardless of whether or not a person has taken hormones, had any form of surgery, or had a legal name change. It is never appropriate to put quotation marks around either a transgender person’s chosen name or the pronoun that reflects that person’s gender identity. Also, when describing transgender people, a reporter should always use the correct terms to describe their gender identity. An example of incorrect use of gender identity terms is the USA Today story on the murder of Gwen Araujo, in which she is referred to as a “transgender boy”, called by her male birth name, and referred to with male pronouns throughout the article.

Additionally, it is very important to cover transgender people respectfully not only in cases in which a victim is transgender, but also those in which an accused person or suspect is transgender. A bad example of a story with a transgender person as perpetrator is KTLA’s coverage of the trial and arrest of Crystal Dawn, who was charged with aggravated menacing and criminal trespassing. Throughout this article, Ms. Dawn is referred to with male pronouns and her birth name. On the other hand, coverage of the trial and arrest of Maria Benita Santamaria, a transgender woman charged with possession of methamphetamine, was largely well-done. Ms. Santamaria was always referred to by her chosen name and by female pronouns.

As we remember Angie Zapata on her birthday, we thank all those who regularly follow these guidelines in their reporting and encourage all reporters to follow suit. GLAAD was committed to being involved in media coverage of Angie’s murder as much as possible so that she would not be victimized yet again by problematic news stories. We worked to ensure that in death Angie’s identity would be respected and honored. It is our hope that with this information, all who work on crime stories involving a transgender person will be able to do the same an ensure that all transgender people are discussed appropriately and respectfully.

Angie, her family, and her friends are in my thoughts today. I’m honored to have been part of the effort to ensure Angie’s story was told fairly and accurately after her murder. I’m pleased that media professionals like those at The Tribune in Greeley, Colorado, were willing to take feedback and tell Angie’s story respectfully (for which The Tribune was honored with a GLAAD Media Award nomination for Overall Newspaper Coverage in 2009). Hopefully, there will be no more stories like Angie’s, Myra’s, Colle’s, or Toni’s. However, if and when they happen, the media has a huge responsibility to tell those stories well.

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Thank you Adam, and thank you for your tireless work in Colorado through the months that followed Angie's murder.

Rest in peace, Angie. You are not forgotten.

Adam I could not agree anymore with you on reporting the facts. I would like to add that alot of times the problem with media is that they get caught up in sensationalism and when they do in many cases it results in negative public view. Why does media have to be so stereotypical, is it for their ratings? Why not just say a man or a woman was murdered. Lets get rid of the labels and let the deceased families grieve for their loved ones without ridicule in peace. To Angie and the rest, you will never be forgotten. The sacrifices of their lives will someday bring total equality so that the loss of their lives were not in vain.

Personlly, I view GLAAD as an organization dedicated to total disrespect of the womanhood of women of trans or intersexed history through their continued refusal to STOP using "transgender" to refer to women of history which demeans the womanhood of those women who have corrected bodies and lives and attempts to force them into a third gender category by openly and aggressively promoting transgender as an "umbrella" term that is legitimate to use to refer to them against their will and expressed objections. That is the very definition of defamation.

I consider GLAAD a hate group as a result. One guilty of on ongoing neo-gynophobia and mysogyny. I and others have tried to address this with them for many years now only to be completely ignored. I have even had to resort to complaints with them about them to have those ignored as well.

When a group that claims to be dedicated to anti-defamation continues to defame the minority group of those born with transsexuality, a medical condition after it has been brought to their attention repeatedly, they are not the solution, they are the problem.

This petition has been up for awhile now.

Over the years I have been in direct face to face contact with literally hundreds of post-corrected women. We are all over the place in politics, economic status, sexual orientation but the one single thing every single one agrees on is that "transgender" is an insult when applied to us and totally disrespectful of our lives and
reality and our womanhood. So Mr. GLAAD, you have been silent on this when we complain in private..what is your answer now? You could have addressed this long ago and made it right, will you do so now? got a whopping 167 signatures in the two years that petition's been up! Such a massive outcry against the hated spectre of people using the word "transgender" will sure show those no good, horrible, awful people at GLAAD (and everywhere else!) the error of their ways!

friday jones | August 5, 2010 7:42 PM

Speaking as a woman of trans history who has been "post-corrected" for over a quarter of a century, I find this HBS nonsense to be divisive and odious, and I have to wonder what HBS women come to a queer site for. Isn't there some woodwork to scramble around in?

Friday, your prejudice is showing.
I am bisexual, believe SSM is a matter of basic fairness and DADT an abomination......and that GLAAD is a hate organization because of what they do and HRC stands in the way of civil rights, not the path to it. You have no idea how out I am or am not, just your assumptions based on your prejudice. So screw your damn assumptions. I have almost as many issues with many HBSers as I do with transgendered entitlement filled mysogynotists. HBSers and I agree on one thing only, transgender applied to ourselves is an open insult and demeaning of our womanhood. As a feminist, I'll never stop opposing it's umbrella use or denouncing the bullying tactics used to try to maintain it. GLAAD needs to get out and stay the hell out of this, it doesn't concern them. My community is the womans rights community and I do not want some gay guy speaking for me even if I do support his own issues.

Kelly, when you maintain the right to use transgender as an umbrella you are maintaining the personal right to define me.....that I will oppose as long as I draw breath and makes you most assuredly not my "sister" but rather my enemy since you cannot respect my right to my own identity while you insist on your right to define my identity, those are mutually exclusive positions. I had thought you were smart enough to see that. This isn't an area of compromise, there is no middle ground. When you insist on the right to define transgender as inclusive of me, you are insulting me directly. There are only two things pretty much able to provoke me to violence, harming animals and calling me a transgender. I feel that strongly about this.

Numbers don't matter here, women of transsexual history, you know the ones actually neurologically intersexed, will always be the minority. So the justification is superior numbers? Seriously? Do you people ever actually think about what you are saying? So how many women feeling personally insulted by this is enough? At minimum the petition represents far less than 10% of us, is 1670 women enough? 10,600?

If it was just me, that would be enough in my book. "Transgender" is a political identity, scientifically it is meaningless as the very existence of women such as myself proves the science that gender identity is set prenatally and thus cannot be "transed". If it could be trans, there would not be any people born transsexuals and we have been around since the dawn of history. If you insisted you had the right to define me a democrat because of my political opinions, I think you'd be able to figure out that is ludicrous eventually...yet you insist on putting people in a political identity based on their being born with a medical condition? I owe transgenders nothing..........I am my own woman. Your "transgender" rights end at my nose, get it? This battle has always been about the right to personal self definition as opposed to others claiming the right to impose it. I'm not sure why this is such a hard thing to understand unless one is so damn wrapped up in their own entitlement they literally cannot see what they are doing to others while demanding it not be done to themselves.

And where is Adam the GLAAD man? Another blog and run post? If he sat at the trial of my murderer and tried to label me transgender I hope one of my friends would break my cane over his bigoted, disrespectful gay male head. Violence to the truth of my life is just as bad as violence to my body. Transgenders have done both to me. Gay men the former. I have a lot of lesbian allies, almost no gay male ones.

I respect Rad's right to define her own social identity as separate from the transgender community, however her personal definition of Transgender and her view of Balkanized, adversarial TS vs. TG communities do not speak for me or a majority of transsexual individuals I know. Like GLAAD, I use Transgender in the context of an inclusive social identity and not in that of Virginia Prince's exclusionary 'transgenderist' label of the past century. Speaking for myself, I proudly identify as both a transsexual woman and a transgender woman, and I consider all who transcend the bounds of assigned birth-sex my sisters and brothers in the transcommunity.

Renee Thomas | August 5, 2010 7:52 PM

Radical Bitch,

I think it is well established (certainly from my observation on the pages of this blog) that yours represents a decidedly minority opinion . . . however angry, insulting or strident it may be you are of course welcome to it. But we who disagree are under no obligation to give it much (if any) credence whatsoever.

Words and indeed the very construction of language are an important and one hopes thoughtful undertaking. Thus it seems to many of us here that “transgender” remains a useful and evocative term - if perhaps only to indicate a liminal waypoint along the journey to completeness.

Please don’t take this as an invitation to debate . . . it’s not. I disagree entirely with both the tone and substance of what you agitate for. You (and your merry band of HBS’ers) fail rather consistently to appreciate the distinction between thoughtfully and graciously disagreeing and being merely disagreeable.

Moreover, this was about remembering Angie.

Regarding criminal proceedings when the formally charged or guilty individual is transgendered;
I really don't see any reason why they are entitled to be referred to anything other than their legal names.

Being a transgendered defendant does not grant one any greater privilege in how they are addressed in a criminal proceeding or process.

Thank you for this moving piece, Adam. I was saddened to hear about Angie's birthday and the young life cut down that it represents.

I know how much attending that trial took out of you, Adam. I salute you.

Pay no attention to the "transgender umbrella" crap. It happens on just about every trans thread. Just don't feed the trolls and they go away.

Yes, there are definitely issues with coverage of transgender stories in the media. And we have to keep on working on them to get them to cover them correctly.

Of course, "working with" for me means throwing a fit. But I'll do it because someone has to.