The Media's Sleazy Treatment of Trans Women
How would you lead a story about the tragic death of a 25-year-old woman in a fire?
If you’re The New York Times, apparently like this:
She was 25 and curvaceous, and she often drew admiring glances in the gritty Brooklyn neighborhood where she was known to invite men for visits to her apartment.
Check out that setup, which conjures up a very specific set of mental images about this as-yet unnamed woman and her life. Only then would you grudgingly admit that she was “called” Lorena.
Then you’d follow up with a description of how she “brought two men to her apartment,” a fire broke out at 4 am, and everyone survived...except for her. Found nonresponsive at the scene, Lorena Escalera’s life as a performer and model was cut short, and the Times decided to mark that by sensationalising and exploiting her death.
Oh, the article goes on to mention.
“She was born male.”
Herein lies the difference between the sensitive treatment of death and the exploitation of a community tragedy: Lorena Escalera was a transgender woman of colour. Like many other women in her position, she was only considered newsworthy after a death in “suspicious” circumstances, at which point the paper took care to rake her name and identity through the mud.
Much is made in the article of the fact that Lorena was a sex worker, a not uncommon occupation for trans women of colour, who often struggle to support themselves financially. While her actual friends describe her as a friendly and outgoing woman with a lot of friends and fans, she’s made out to be as sleazy as possible in the article courtesy of quotes from neighbours and people on the street. Tellingly, the article skims over one of the most critical facts of her death, the fact that substandard electrical work was evidently performed on her apartment.
Like many low-income people in urban areas, Lorena’s finances limited the housing she could afford, and even with roommates, she was forced into an unsafe housing situation that came with a risk of fire. The odds on that risk ran out for her in the small hours of the morning when her home caught fire and no one saved her. This is why she died: Because she lived in an apartment that wasn’t safe.
I could say that Lorena didn’t die because she was transgender, or a woman of colour or a sex worker, but these are also contributors to the reason why she died; because she was undervalued, treated as disposable, vulnerable. Because Lorena lived in a world where being herself was extremely dangerous. And the Times chose to mark her passing by treating her like an object of gossip.
The article is rife with dehumanising quotes like this:
“For a man, he was gorgeous,” Mr. Hernandez said, noting Ms. Escalera’s flowing hair and “hourglass figure.”
Lorena was a woman. A gorgeous, beautiful, fantastic woman.
The fact that speculations about which surgeries she may or may not have undergone was deemed critical breaking news is telling of the Times' attitudes about trans women.
Two men, Al Baker and Nate Schweber, wrote this article. It went through editorial. Along the way, all the aspects of this article were approved and signed off on so it could be published in both the online and print editions of the paper. Apparently nothing about the article gave anyone room for pause. It was just another note in the crime section.
GLAAD has spoken out against the article, as have a number of prominent trans activists concerned with the treatment of Lorena in the media, and the handling of trans women in general.
It’s rare to see a trans woman at all, let alone a trans woman of colour, featured in the media for something other than something terrible that happened to her, like her death or imprisonment. When trans women are in the media, usually the coverage discusses, at length, whether they are or were “convincing enough” and the details of potential surgeries or lack thereof are subjects of gleeful supposition.
It makes standouts like Janet Mock all the more remarkable, because they defy the narrative and demand better treatment for trans women. It’s time to see a trans woman featured in the media for something other than being trans and marginalised, and it’s time to see the media treating trans women with the same respect they’d accord to cis women.
An article about the death of a cis woman wouldn’t take care to note that her home was filled with women’s clothes and shoes.