Stacey Blahnik Lee*, a trans woman of color, was murdered in her home in Philly two days ago. The Philly Daily News published an article (which has now been taken down from the paper’s website) on Stacey’s death that was deeply disrespectful of her as a human being and perpetuated a number of transphobic and transmisogynistic stereotypes (see the Trans Griot, The Prophet Lilith, and Deeply Problematic for more on this). I sent the email below to Stephanie Farrs, the author of the article. It appears from the contact that Erin has made with Stephanie that she’s somewhat open to addressing the issues with the article, so the more people speak up about the problems with it, the better.
I’m writing about your article on the murder of Stacey Blahnik, which was problematic in a number of ways. It was both disrespectful and out of keeping with AP Stylebook standards to put her name in quotes and repeatedly referring to her by a name that was not hers. The repeated references to her appearance, the sexualization of her death (“naked or half-dressed in provocative clothing”) and implied speculation about her sex life (“they would often see strange, white men in nice cars coming and going from the house during the day”) were irrelevant, degrading, dehumanizing, and victim blaming. Stacey didn’t “pass for a woman,” she was a woman. She wasn’t a “transsexual;” she was a transgender woman. Writing about her as you did stripped her of her identity and treated a human being as an exotic sex object.
I understand that you are planning to write a follow up to this article. I hope your follow up will correct and apologize for the errors in this article. I hope you’ll also take some time to highlight Stacey’s work with trans and LGB people of color, and to write about who she was to her family, loved ones, and friends. I hope you’ll also use this time to raise awareness about the epidemic rates of anti-trans violence and murder, particularly among trans women of color like Stacey, and to educate your readers about the pervasive discrimination and lack of access to health care that trans people face on a daily basis.
[update] The author sent back a very defensive reply refusing to retract or apologize for any of the content of the article because everything she reported was fact and reported no differently than any other murder, claiming that a GLAAD representative had no problem with the gist of the article, and claiming that she was being insulted and accused of not caring about murder victims (I gather that parts of the email I got were copied and pasted to or from emails she sent to others who wrote in to complain). I sent the following reply back to her:
It’s disappointing that you’ve chosen to make criticism of your article about your intentions and your character rather than what you actually wrote and its implications. If you had written an article with obsolete or improper terminology regarding someone’s race or ethnicity, and full of racial and ethnic stereotypes and harmful tropes, the fact that you were well-intentioned and/or care about people of color would be irrelevant given the problems with what you’d actually said. The same goes for gender.
Secondly, GLAAD is not a transgender organization. They don’t speak for transgender people, and don’t have the best record on transgender issues.
I didn’t know Stacey, and I can’t speak for her. But I do know that there was and is relevant information about Stacey’s life and work easily available through a simple Google search – that she was a beloved activist and mother figure at a local trans and LGB organization for people of color. I’m puzzled as to how this factual information didn’t make it into your piece, while neighborhood gossip about Stacey did.
Your words did sexualize Stacey’s death. A huge portion of the article was about her appearance and sexual desirability to men – including that a woman in her neighborhood was envious of her appearance – which is entirely irrelevant to a report on someone’s murder. You described her as possibly wearing “provocative clothing” when she was murdered – a phrase I highly doubt you would have used to describe a murdered man’s attire, and a phrase that makes little sense given that Stacey was found in her bedroom. It’s hardly newsworthy information that people are sometimes not completely dressed in the privacy of their own homes, not least their bedrooms. A secondhand rumor that she was found half naked is not a “fact” that readers need to know about a murder investigation. Nor is neighborhood gossip about how many strange men showed up at her house when she was alive a relevant “fact.” Your discussion of Stacey’s (alleged) attire when she was found dead, of her attractiveness, and of speculations about her social life are every bit as inappropriate as they would be in an article about, for example, the rape or sexual assault of a woman. Including these elements in your article perpetuated victim-blaming stereotypes.
You quoted someone saying she “passed as a woman,” which was inappropriate, degendering, and dehumanizing. She didn’t pass. She was a woman. Her assigned birth name had nothing to do with her murder and was not information anyone needed to know. The title of your article – which perhaps was not your choice – was not only incorrect in the terminology it used, but incredibly dehumanizing and degrading.
All of these aspects of your article did violence to Stacey’s memory. You may have intended to do her justice, but what you wrote did not accomplish that. And if you’re not willing to examine how what you wrote was dehumanizing and objectifying and perpetuated dangerous anti-trans stereotypes, then yes, it’s better that you don’t write about transgender people.
*Corrected from Stacey Blahnik.