The Sexist

The Washington Post Cross-Dressing Shoplifting Story Misfires


Yesterday, the Washington Post published a story about two shoplifting suspects who were shot over the weekend by a Prince George's County police officer. The suspects were shot after they attempted to drive away with the officer's arm lodged in the door of their getaway car. But the Post story was not concerned with the facts of this botched escape—the newspaper had already covered the particulars of the incident a day earlier. The follow-up amounted to a lengthy correction of one fact: the gender of the wounded suspects.

In its first story on the suspects, the Post wrote that "an off-duty county officer shot and wounded two women." In the second story, the Post corrected the record: the suspects "turned out to be men rather than women," Staff Writer Martin Weil wrote. Weil explains:

It was believed at first that the two who were shot were women. But they "turned out to be males dressed in female clothing," Officer Henry Tippett, a county police spokesman, said early Sunday.

That finding was apparently made when medical personnel began treating the two for gunshot wounds, Tippett said.

The headline of the story reads "Two Men Shot by Pr. George's Officer Were Dressed as Women." A link to the story goes further to label the pair: "Cross-Dressing Men Shot By Police."

There are two possibilities here:

(a) The suspects were cross-dressing men who had disguised themselves in dresses, wigs, and make-up in order to lift merchandise from a store. Any man can be a cross-dresser—all you gotta do is put on a dress. Or:

(b) The suspects were transgender women who were born with male sex characteristics, but live their lives as women. Transgender women are not guys in dresses—-they're women whose gender expression differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. They should be identified as women, not men.

For the Post, the distinction between "cross-dressing men" and "transgender women" is an important one. According to the Associated Press Stylebook, transgender subjects are to be identified by their gender identity, not their sex at birth. Media outlets are to employ "the pronoun preferred by the individuals who . . . present themselves in a way that does not correspond with their sex at birth," the guide reads. "If that preference is not expressed, use the pronoun consistent with the way the individuals live publicly."

Additionally, the GLAA media guide cautions against using the term "cross-dresser" to describe a transgender person. Cross-dressers, the guide notes, are people who "occasionally wear clothes traditionally associated with people of the other sex." The term should be employed to describe someone who is "comfortable with the sex they were assigned at birth and do not wish to change it," not "someone who has transitioned to live full-time as the other sex, or who intends to do so in the future."

It's not possible, at this point, for the Post to definitively identify the subjects as either "cross-dressers" or "transgender women." One sure-fire way to confirm a person's gender identity is simply to ask them, but the names of the suspects, both 23, have not yet been released by police.

Still, a couple of facts in the story suggest that the suspects in question presented consistently as female, and didn't just dress up "in female clothing" for their little crime spree. Initially, everyone—from the police officer who chased and shot them to the police spokespeople who announced the incident—had no doubt that the suspects were women. The suspects were only identified as biologically male following a medical examination. In short, the Post modified the gender of the suspects solely on the basis of a genital check.

If you're under the impression that a person's genitals should determine the gender used to describe them in print, consider this: Under what other circumstances would the Washington Post force its subjects to drop their pants in order to prove their gender? Let's run that test on some other stories which appeared in yesterday's Metro section. Was Noah Robbins, a 19-year-old local actor headed for Broadway, forced to display his genitals in order to be referred to throughout the piece as "he" and "him"? How about Creigh Deeds and Bob McDonnell—did the Post ensure that the candidates have penises before calling them "men"? Was Debra Rowe, former HIV/AIDS housing chief, only granted a "she" following a medical examination?

In every other instance, a Post subject is considered a woman if she presents as a woman and says she's a woman. A couple of shoplifting suspects, however, appear to have been denied that courtesy. There are several reasons for the Post not to write this story. The suspects' identities are still unknown. The gender identification in the story is contrary to style guidelines. The Post has reason to believe that the gender terminology employed by the police requires fact-checking. Further information in the case could require yet another gender correction here.

There's one reason why the Post would go ahead with this story: "cross-dressing" shoplifters make for more sensational crime suspects than do a couple of women. The story has already generated such helpful online comments as "Was dey pretty? Does dey gets to wear the dresses in prison? Big dummies," and "One can only hope that their shoes matched their dresses." Perhaps the Post received positive feedback for its previous dubious "cross-dressing shoplifter" work, published back in August. The Post is clearly capitalizing upon a "man in a dress" punchline to this modest little crime story. But obviously, the potential for some sophomoric joking is no reason to sacrifice accuracy in reporting. The true gender identities of the suspects in the case are still unclear. When you're writing a story that is exclusively centered on the gender of your suspects, shouldn't you wait until you can get it right?

Illustration by Bonnie Kennedy

  • Gregory A Butler

    Cut out the politically correct bullshit - these were men in dresses. They may have had a mental delusion that they were "women" - but they had penises, and testicles, and Y chromosomes, and that makes them MEN, no matter how many skirts or wigs they put on!

  • Amanda Hess

    How do you know they had Y chromosomes?

  • Hondo Howard

    What an idiotic waste of space. For all the dumb stuff the Post does, you wrote 1000 words about this?

  • Victor

    Amanda... you have to have a Y chromosome to have a penis. Only the rarest of genetic disorders (about 10-15k in the entire nation) will present as male a genetically XX individual. The possibility that two of them are in the same car, shoplifting, is ridiculous.

  • Julia

    Thank you for writing this. The distinction between sex and gender is one that far too few people recognize, but you'd hope that major media outlets would at least try to get it right (it doesn't take much research to see that cross-dressing isn't the same as being transgendered). If they don't, they deserve to be called out on it. And the fact that they can get it wrong probably means that the general public doesn't have a good grasp of the issue either, which makes your detailed explanation all the more important.

  • kza

    The real story here is that if these two were dating, a lesbian crime wave is upon us. If they are in fact women and not just dressing that way to avoid being identified corrrectly had they alluded being arrested.

  • Victor

    ummm wait. if they're both drunk and have sex with each other, who is raping whom by default??? I MUST KNOW!!!

    On more rational thoughts, I'm going to guess that the two suspects are not answering questions from the media right now. So how would the author get this special privvy information which you seem so willing to assume exists? I'm betting that assuming they are cross dressers is playing the odds pretty good. Given standard demographic spread, he's much more likely to get it right. The suspects are genetically male, phenotypically male, dressing as women. While I'm sure it is very important to them whether they self-identify as men or women, it is only one facet of their description. Self identification does not change genetic or phenotypical presentation.

  • Amanda Hess

    Actually, I'm pretty clear in the piece when I say that that specific information as to the gender of the subjects does NOT exist, and that's why the article should never have been written. At this point, it's just a guess. And newspapers shouldn't publish guesswork as fact, especially when it's offensive to large groups of people.

  • Leann

    The "1000 words" Amanda devoted to this, do not appear to have been enough, if the other commentors still don't get it. While YOU may be glued to going by the 'Y' chomosome, Ms. Hess accurately discusses the 'style book' on how journalism is to correctly address issues like this. Her points are very sound.
    And by the way, many women have XY chromosomes, but they suffer from androgen insensitivity, which is perhaps what that South African althelete has. Most of these women live their lives NEVER KNOWING they are not XX, but XY!! It's only when they are tested or try to have children that this intersex condition exists.

  • Victor

    They made a correction. So? The first article was genetically and phenotypically incorrect. What if these are just cross-dressing guys? Is it okay to mis-identify guys who identify as males, but not okay to misidentify guys who identify as females? I call BS.

    Would you prefer that no crime report be made until
    1 - a medical examiner looks down each individuals pants/skirt
    2 - a full genetic workup is performed so the exact genetic makeup can be presented
    3 - the suspect is interviewed and gives a full debriefing on their gender identity as well as past gender identities

    Wow... no info will get out.
    The article is factually correct. The suspect is physically male and dressed in the manner of the opposite gender (therefore "cross-dressing") there isn't ANY assumption as to what the individual's sexual identification is. This appears to be "just the facts ma'am"....

  • Much ado ’bout nothin’

    Shoplifters get caught is not news. Shoplifters get shot IS news. And so, when the police identify the shoplifters as female, and they turn out to have penises, that's something that "advances the story," as they say in the news biz. Not a correction, but a new fresh lede for the story. That's how the news biz works.

    The news biz, Amanda. Learn about it. It can help you gain perspective.

  • Magnetic Crow

    Looks like you have your 'Sexist/Cissexist/Transphobic comments of the week' already, Amanda. And it's only Monday!

    I agree with you 100%. This was INCREDIBLY unprofessional of the Washington Post to publish, and just serves to further marginalize one of the most vulnerable minorities. They'd better keep the suspects anonymous after this. If they don't, they will literally be putting their lives in danger.

    Shame on whichever editors let that one through. :(

  • Emily H.

    A lot of ill-informed people have shown up to point out that all trans women are just "dudes in dresses"; it just further demonstrates the need for pieces like these. As Hess points out, the Washington Post itself agrees that trans people should be identified by the gender they identify with, so they've contradicted their own policy.

  • Pingback: Transgender Shoplifting Story Inspires Absurd Corrections - The Sexist - Washington City Paper

  • Kamantha

    This is what is wrong with the Washington Post and why I stopped reading the Post. Poor or just flat out incorrect reporting, leaving out information, and one sided editorials (ie: anything about Fenty or Rhee).

  • Jenny

    Who the hell cares?! This "paper" has become so hipsterish and PC.

  • Pingback: Sexist Comments of the Week: Transgender Shoplift Edition - The Sexist - Washington City Paper