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