The Sexist

Who Botched the Gender Identity of a D.C. Homicide Victim?

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Vigil attendees pay their respects to Tyli'a Mack.

On Wednesday, Aug. 26, one person was killed and another critically injured in a daytime stabbing outside 209 Q St. NW. In the hours following the homicide, police and reporters gathered witness testimony, formed a description of the suspect, and chased likely motives. This time, cops and journalists were also forced to devote resources to another developing story: the gender of the victims.

Within three hours of the incident, three local news sources had independently verified the victims’ gender identity with police. They all got it wrong.

Fox 5 news reporter Roby Chavez gave this report at 3:59 p.m., about an hour and a half after the stabbings occurred. “D.C. Police sources tell Fox  5 officers found two transgender male victims in front of the building when they arrived,” Chavez reported.


At 4:36 p.m., the Washington Post’s Paul Duggan filed his item on the stabbing, also published in the next day’s paper. “Police said the victims, whom they described as ‘transgender males,’ were stabbed shortly after 2:30 p.m. in the 200 block of Q Street NW.”

WUSA9’s Bill Starks weighed in at 5:23 p.m.: “Officers…arrived and found two transgender males in front of the building at 209 Q Street, both suffering from stab wounds.”

The Washington Blade’s Lou Chibbaro was the first to nail down the correct gender identity of the homicide victim, who has since been identified under her legal name, Joshua Mack, as well as her chosen name, Tyli’a. At 7:06 p.m., four-and-a-half hours after the incident occurred, Chibbaro wrote, “One transgender woman was stabbed to death Wednesday and another was in stable condition with stab wounds from an unknown assailant.”

But even after Mack’s correct gender identity was established, the struggle continued. In “D.C. Transgender Community Outraged After Fatal Stabbing”—filed more than 24 hours after the incident occurred—ABC 7 reporter Sam Ford announced: “One transgender is dead, another is in critical condition.”

Mack was not a “transgender male,” a “transgender man,” or a "transgender.” Mack was a male-to-female transgender woman who clearly appeared to be female. On the reward poster for her homicide, she’s shown wearing eye shadow, shaped eyebrows, and two long braids. “Of course, when the one young lady was murdered and the other was hospitalized, we were quite upset [with the media coverage] because they aren’t transgender men—they are transgender women,” says Brian Watson, the director of Transgender Health Empowerment, which counted both victims as clients. “I know both of the young ladies that were attacked, and they lived their lives as transgender women. They looked like women. For me, there shouldn’t have been any confusion about them being males. If you saw them on the street, you would see they were females.”

Since the victims in this case clearly presented as women, how were they initially identified as “transgender males”?

Chavez, Duggan, and Starks all attributed the “transgender males” identification to “police sources.” Duggan says that the department’s public information office provided him the term. “The police department put it out there, and we went on what they said,” says Duggan. Starks got even more specific, sourcing the terminology to Quintin Peterson, the public information officer on duty when news of the stabbings broke. “‘Transgender males’—those were his exact words,” says Starks. “I’m not trying to get him in trouble or anything, but that’s what was said.”

Peterson denies that the police originated the term. “‘Transgender males’ was never used. Not by me or anyone in this office,” he says. “We cannot be held responsible for the terminology the news media chooses to use. We did not put anything out other than what the correct terminology is.” Acting Lieutenant Brett Parson, the police department’s top liaison to the GLBT community who was on scene shortly following the stabbing, similarly defers the misidentification to media reports. “It’s the media that seems fixated on their gender identity. That issue did not come from the chief of police,” says Parson. “We’ve had to correct the media on countless occasions because they have been reporting, insensitively, terms that are not used in the community.”

Wherever the term “transgender males” originated, no one really wanted to touch it. Starks says he never asked Peterson for clarification on what the term “transgender males” actually meant. “I didn’t ask him to go beyond that,” he says. “I assumed that it was referring to a person who may be in the process of either a sex change or someone who is dressing in the clothing of another gender.” When asked if “male” refers to the victim’s biological sex or gender identity, Starks was stumped. “That’s a good question,” he says. Duggan says that the Post avoided parsing the term with a deft use of punctuation. “It was a short brief that we wrote really fast, so we decided to use, in quotes, ‘transgender males,’” says Duggan. “I got beat up a lot over that, because I wasn’t educated on [the terminology] at the time, and I was quickly educated on it.”

For cops and journos, employing the correct terminology is more than a matter of respect. Both D.C. police procedure and Associated Press style mandate that transgender individuals be addressed in accordance with their gender expression. According to the AP Stylebook, reporters are to “use the pronoun preferred by the individuals who have acquired the physical characteristics of the opposite sex or present themselves in a way that does not correspond with their sex at birth.” And in 2007, D.C. police adopted one of the nation’s most comprehensive transgender policies, which states that when a police officer is unsure of a person’s gender identity, “the member shall inquire how the individual wishes to be addressed (e.g., Sir, Miss, Ms.) and the name by which the individual wishes to be addressed.”

Of course, ascertaining the correct terminology becomes more difficult when the transgender individual is dead. Sometimes, even the victim’s family can’t help identify the preferred gender. ABC 7’s story on the stabbing included a quote from Mack’s brother, Aaron Walker: “I’m just hurting right now. My mom, she’s got 10 boys, and that’s one of my little brothers and for me to see him pass like that,” Walker said of Mack. (ABC 7 also misidentified Walker as “Aaron Hall,” proving that newsroom slip-ups are sometimes based in sloppiness, sometimes in ignorance).

In the event that a victim’s gender identity is unclear, sometimes it helps to do some reporting. Chibbaro took care to verify Mack’s gender identity with “sources both in the community and in law enforcement” before publishing his story, three hours after the first news of the stabbing hit. “This misidentification is not always the fault of police, or the press, or others—this is something that everyone is grappling with,” says Chibbaro. “The first concern that I have, and that I think the Washington Blade has, is whether the information is accurate.”

As the scene of the daylight stabbing grew dark, reporters set about correcting the terminology in their stories, abandoning “transgender males” for “transgender women” and swapping “he” for “she.” But for some members of the transgender community, the damage had already been done. “[S]ix hours and (at least) six edits later, we finally have gender appropriate language in an article based on a double homicide attempt that was clearly motivated by hatred and transphobia,” wrote one commenter on the Fox 5 story. “[I]’m saddened on so many levels."

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

  • kza

    What an annoying issue. Can't we just call them female? That seems a lot easier. Or shemale, which is my favorite genre of porn.

  • viola13

    I really was not shocked by the inept way the press identified the gender of these two women, but I was wholly shocked that the Washington Post failed to mention that the stabbing occurred outside Transgender Health Empowerment, identifying only the street address where it occurred. The location is a critical fact in this story, and its absence is not only sloppy journalism, it is misleading to readers. A generally aware friend of mine, for example, read the Post story and assumed that the Post was implying that the victims were involved in sex work. She assumed that if there was any evidence the attack might have been motivated by hate (like its location), that evidence would have been mentioned in the story. The coy pussy footing around smacks of heterosexism and certainly makes me question the value of the Metro section's reporting.

  • kza

    hehe pussy footing :)))

  • Thaniel

    Too bad for you, kza, that "insensitive asshats" is *nobody's* favorite genre of porn, because that's clearly all you're qualified for. STFU, sit the hell down, & there's a dim chance that even a planarian such as yourself could learn something.

  • kza

    All I'm qualified for is asshat porn? You're a sick human being for even knowing that exists. PERV

  • Moonflowrr

    KZA, for the record, "shemale" is worse than being identified as trans men. As you stated, it's your favorite style of PORN. If one is not involved in the porn industry, then why would they want to be identified with a porn term?

  • S.A. Small

    Don't feed the troll.

  • Passerby

    The Examiner was worst of all: Man murdered in double stabbing in Northwest D.C. That's their story and they're sticking with it!

  • http://www.glamazon.net Christine Beatty

    Whenever I see reporters get it this wrong, I always refer them to the AP Stle Book which has very simple and clear guidelines for reporting on transgender subjects. Even a New York Post writer couldn't fail to understand those instructions, so either the reporters were all being lazy (and couldn't be bothered to clarify the subjects' identity with the DC cops) or they were sensationalizing the story. In either case, boo-hiss.

  • ebcidic

    there is no such thing as gender appropriate language.

    Seriously.

    Grow up. This isn't junior high.

    Seriously, this isn't junior high.

    Do I have to repeat myself about the shallowness and immaturity above?

    Martin Luther King said that some day all the children will be judged by the content of their character. So let yourselves be judged by the content of your character, by your education, by your success in life, by how you treat others.

    Ask to be judged on how you want yourself to be treated at the expense of mocking others? Ask to be judged on the most shallow nature of humanity?

    This ain't junior high. grow up.

  • Match

    @ebcidic- So if you're a man and I wrote an obituary calling you a woman, you wouldn't mind?

  • b

    Amanda Hess writes the worst kind of trash I'd expect on a tabloid.

  • Sussie

    Political correctness have destroyed this country. These creatures don't have ovaries and cannot have babies. Why in the hell you are calling these freaks women? They are an abomination.

  • Victor

    Ummmm... Sussie, I don't know what the "right" way of handling the identification of transgenders is, but if your yardstick is the presence/absence of ovaries and reproductive capability then what do we call women who have had hysterectomies? "Formerly known as a woman"? or is there some symbol you would prefer?

  • Elle Mueller

    @ebcidic
    I do believe even you are brilliant enough to believe there is such a thing as 'gender appropriate language'. It's simple: men are called men, he, and him; women are caled women, she, and her. What you are rusty on, is what is and isn't a man or woman. To that, I refer you to my response to 'Sussie' just below this sentence.

    @Sussie
    I am a woman with no ovaries since birth, and cannot have babies. Am I a freak? Or am I a woman? Your kind of hatred which sweeps people like me into the argument is the true abomination.

    When someone in my church told someone else I wasn't born 'normal', I was attacked as a transsexual and a gay man, nearly killed three times, nearly raped twice. It didn't happen only because I managed to hurt them faster and run farther. The police weren't sure they wanted to help either!

    Talk less, think and listen more - you do not know enough about people who are born differently to distinguish us from transsexuals.

    Just because someone is infertile or castrated does NOT mean God finds them to be an abomination - whether by Catholic, Protestant, or even Jewish or Islamic standards.

    Do you stand in a higher judicial court than the Almighty's?

    If someone took your ovaries and uterus due to cancer, you could not prove that you once had them - all evidence is circumstantial. How would you protect your own self from someone else calling you an abomination without resorting to mudslinging?!

    Think, woman! Think before you speak from ignorance!

  • kza

    @Moonflowrr

    Yea uhh I wasn't serious...

  • Mitch

    Great article Amanda, Kudos to you!

  • B

    @Ella Mueller

    Well said!

  • Sussie

    Screw all of you, this was a man, not a woman. To you men attracted to a she male, you are freaks and an abomination.

  • Sussie

    Ella Mueller, you don't sound like a woman, but a freak in a Science Fiction movie. lol

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  • Elle Mueller

    @Sussie
    How very unkind.
    Funny how everyone I know who made fun of someone who broke abone also later had at least one broken...
    ...And you mock my lack of reproductive organs...

    Although I generally don't wish your kind of treatment on anyone, may you live to see extremely interesting times.

  • kza

    Sussie is running for god. Keep on judgin'!

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  • Jesse Helms

    Kza, who told you there's a God? Didn't you know, many people told believe in a make believe God? Know one have seen Angels or this so imaginary God.

  • kza

    What? Who said I believe in god? I haven't believed in him/her since I graduated from my catholic high school :)

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  • Jesse Helms

    LOL@Kza

  • David Dillon

    This is for Sussie, I was born male, have a penis and testis, and yet I have breast due to a chemical imbalance...from "our Creator". He seen it fit to put estrogen in a male body - mine, for what? I have lived with a c cup since my adolescents Years and often I am told I am a tranny, a t-girl , a transexual and a freak as well. I for one never point a finger at anyone for then I will have three pointing back at me.

    Your insensitivity leaves me apalled that you would just throw out there "this was a man" when you use the term abomination...which comes from the Bible. Sex is determined by what lies between the legs. Gender lies between the ears. God did not create all of us the same or we would be little automatons marching to the same beat of His drum! If we were all chemically balanced the same there would not be any illnesses or any use of drugs to get "US" right.

    God did not make a perfect world, nor the inhabitants either. Some were born with a few cells called a brain...those who weren't are just plum ignorant. I am apologetic that your in the latter class. Just plum ignorant.

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