In response to criticism from the LGBT community and allies over its coverage of a fire that killed a transgender woman this weekend, the New York Times released a statement that reveals a lack of understanding of how serious this problem is.
New York Times Metro Editor Carolyn Ryan stated: "We typically try to capture the personal stories of those whose lives are lost in a fire, and we sought to do so in this case. We certainly did not mean any disrespect to the victim or those who knew her. But, in retrospect, we should have shown more care in our choice of words."
Unfortunately, the problem with the Times’ article on the death of Lorena Escalera, a transgender woman of color, is bigger than their “choice of words” or with their attempt to “capture” her story. It’s their failure to recognize trans women as women.
The decision by writers Al Baker and Nate Schweber to call her “curvaceous” in the first sentence was not a poor choice of words. It was a poor choice of focus. The way this entire article is framed comes directly from an idea that transgender women are curiosities. That they’re other. That they should be treated differently than other people. Saying that Lorena was “called” Lorena, even though that is exactly how police identified her, was not a poor choice of words. It was a disrespectful jab at her identity as a trans woman, by implying that she wasn’t really Lorena.
Lorena was a daughter. She was a friend. She was a beloved member of a community. But the only elements of her story that writers Al Baker and Nate Schweber seemed concerned with were; what she looked like, what her neighbors thought she looked like, and whether any items that would typically belong to a woman were in her apartment when it burned. Very little of this is relevant to the actual personal story of Lorena Escalera’s life. It seems very clear that this personal information was included in order to “spice up” the story by exploiting Lorena’s status as a transgender woman – not to actually inform readers about her life.
“As my city's and our nation's paper of record, I would expect the New York Times to treat any subject, regardless of their path in life, with dignity,” said trans advocate and journalist Janet Mock. “In Lorena Escalera's life she was so much more than the demeaning, sexist portrait they painted of girls like us. It goes beyond a ‘choice of words.’ According to the Times' limiting, harmful portrait of Lorena, she was nothing more than a ‘curvaceous’ bombshell for men to gawk at. That is not the ‘personal’ story of any woman, and until we treat trans women like human beings - in life and death - with dignity, families and struggles, our society will never see us beyond pariahs in our communities.
Unfortunately, many Americans, including members of the media, do view transgender people – and trans women of color in particular – as curiosities at best, or not deserving of basic human dignity at worst. And very few Americans know any trans people in their day-to-day lives, so this viewpoint is never dispelled. This is why extra care must be taken when reporting on a story that involves a transgender person, especially if that person is no longer able to speak for themselves, as is the case here. Writers and editors alike must be made aware of how common this underlying bias is, and make a conscious effort to remove it when they see it.
This is where the Times’ statement truly fails. Not only does it not show an understanding of what the problem with the original article was, it also makes no assurances to the community that it will educate its writers and editors about how to report on transgender people in the future. There’s nothing forward-looking in the Times statement.
GLAAD did ask the Times to detail what steps will be taken in the future to ensure this doesn’t happen again. We were told that this statement “will be all there is from us on this.”
But this statement is not good enough. The New York Times has highlighted the personal and inspiring stories of transgender people in the recent past, including an article on Harmony Santana, Laverne Cox and other transgender actresses, a piece on triathlete Chris Mosier and one on classical pianist Sara Davis Buechner. We can be almost certain that the New York Times does understand the problems with its piece on Lorena, and is embarrassed that it ran. Now it’s time for them to say so publicly, and to tell its readers that steps are being taken to ensure that an article like this won’t be printed again. We thank members of the LGBT community, including trans leaders like Janet Mock, Autumn Sandeen, Laverne Cox, and Jennifer Finney Boylan, trans author and New York Times contributing writer, as well as Colorlines and Feministing, for bringing attention to this story. We hope to continue putting pressure on the Times until they offer assurances that changes will be made.