Cleveland Plain Dealer Reader Representative Ted Diadiun wrote a column this week talking about the controversy that erupted over the paper's disrespectful mis-handling of a story that involves a transgender woman.
Diadiun's column indicates that at least the paper now recognizes that this is an issue they had been previously ignorant of. However, while not as egregiously, he made a lot of the same mistakes as the original writer did in his two pieces.
He describes Cemia Acoff as "a transgender person (in this case, a person who was born one sex but identified as the other)" and refers to her consistently either using male pronouns but attributing them to the original writer, or just by last name. Diadiun never once refers to Cemia correctly - as female.
I spoke with Ted Diadiun for about a half hour last week, and it was a very good conversation. I shared with him our guide for reporting on transgender victims of crime and talked about the role of the media in educating people about the trans community, as well as how to handle pronoun issues. By the end of our conversation, he had begun referring to Cemia as "she." But that didn't make it into the piece, apparently. Even a tiny gesture of respect like that can make a world of difference to a community that is so marginalized.
In his column, Diadiun talks about the AP Stylebook, which at one point told journalists to only use the correct pronouns for transgender people if those people had undergone, or were undergoing, gender confirming surgery. AP Style now tells journalists to use whichever pronouns match the way a person lives - or lived, in the case of murder victims like Cemia.
"The AP style change is understandable, but perplexing."
That sentence needs two more words tacked on at the end.
"… to us."
It is not at all perplexing to anyone who has even the most basic level of knowledge about the transgender community. Transgender people – particularly women of color, like Cemia – frequently do not have access to the often vast resources needed to undergo gender confirming surgery, or acquire medically-supervised hormone treatments.
Editor Chris Quinn, with whom I was in touch with throughout last week, told Diadiun:
"Where do we draw the line? What's a cop to do when filling out the gender form of a police report? What's a census taker to write? What about a driver's license?"
Here's what I want Chris, Ted, and everyone else at the Plain Dealer to ask themselves, and really spend a fair amount of time thinking about.
Why does that line need to be drawn at all?
Why shouldn't we respect a person's gender identity in all aspects of their life?
Why should cops be exempt from having to respect a person's gender identity? Why should census takers? Why should the DMV?
What, exactly, do we as a society gain when we reject and refuse to recognize a person's gender identity in any of these areas? The census counts men and women; it doesn't count medical histories. Men and women get the exact same driver's license, with the exact same rules and restrictions applied. As for law enforcement?
Well, here are some stats.
According to the National Center for Transgender Equality and National Gay & Lesbian Task Force's landmark Injustice at Every Turn study, 60% of black transgender people report having been harassed, physically assaulted, or sexually assaulted by police. Nearly half of all transgender people (46%) say they are uncomfortable asking police for help.
I've talked with both Chris and Ted enough to know that they wouldn't consider that a good thing. But they also might not be aware that that's what happens when we "draw the line" and law enforcement is not on the right side of it.
This is the kind of information that comes from dialogue, which the paper is now actively engaging in.
I hope that the Plain Dealer is on the right track. They're going to meet with trans advocates in Cleveland. They're going to listen to their stories, and hear their voices, and maybe for the first time in their lives, they'll be able to actually associate a human being, with whom they've shaken hands and dialogued, with the idea of being transgender.
Diadun begins his piece with a Don Henley quote:
"The more I know, the less I understand,"
Knowledge is always the first step towards understanding. It can be a scary one to take, particularly for people who don't have a transgender friend, family member, neighbor or co-worker.
That's why it is so important that the Plain Dealer get this right. Once they start respecting the gender identities of trans people, their readership will learn to do the same.
Back to you, Chris and Ted - if "the line" were further out, and journalists were still comfortably on the wrong side of it, what exactly would you gain? Maybe you could still run on autopilot for these stories. Maybe you wouldn't have to think about things like terminology and sensitivity. But I can tell you what the trans community would lose.
Whether intentional or not (and I fully believe the Plain Dealer staff when they say it was not) Cemia Acoff was robbed of that dignity by the way her death was reported on.