The murders ignored by the media

20 November 2010

Written by: Sarah Green

Imagine looking in the mirror and seeing someone different stare back at you. Not a stranger, someone very familiar. But not you.

Imagine filling in a form and pausing to deliberate whether you should reveal your true identity.

Imagine living your life in the wrong body.

Today, Saturday 20 November, is the twelfth annual Transgender Day of Remembrance.  Transgender (trans*) is an umbrella term for anyone who differs from so-called ‘gender norms’.  Most people have heard the term transsexual  — someone who lives as a member of the opposite sex  — however, trans* is a far broader term which includes others who generally don’t identify with established sex and gender categories (e.g., boy, girl, man, woman).

Needless to say, there are certain complications that come from living your life outside the world of boys versus girls. Unfortunately, these problems aren’t minor. In fact, they can be life-threatening or even fatal.

Rita Hester was an openly trans woman who lived in the same community in Boston, Massachusetts for ten years. On November 28 1998, she was  repeatedly stabbed in her own apartment and later died in hospital. The Transgender Day of Remembrance was established in her memory.

Shortly after her death, Rita’s friends began the Remembering Our Dead project to memorialise the trans* people killed every year because they don’t fit within society’s expectations of boy or girl. To date, the project lists over 350 deaths around the world and one per month over the last decade. The project draws attention to violence against trans* people, otherwise known as transphobia or trans-hate, and calls for an end to this shocking rate of violence.

However, it’s not only attacks against trans* people that’s troubling. What’s really concerning about all this is the fact violence against trans* people often goes unreported by the media. When these deaths are reported, the deceased person is frequently misrepresented and, worse, demonised.

The founder of Remembering Our Dead, Gwendolyn Ann Smith, writes: ‘It can be all-but-impossible to find honest, reliable media on the death of a transgendered person: It either does not exist …or it uses names that the deceased did not own, and pronouns that did not fit their reality’. Remembering Our Dead has tracked media coverage of trans-related violence over the past 30 years with the specific aim of countering ‘the media’s reluctance to cover our deaths’.

The 1999 film Boys Don’t Cry, starring Hillary Swank, went some way towards bringing trans-related violence into public discussion. The film documented the 1993 death of Brandon Teena (otherwise known as Teena Brandon) who was raped and later murdered by two men in Falls City, Nebraska.

Boys Don’t Cry received glowing reviews and even resulted in an Oscar for Hillary Swank. Yet in the months following the film’s release, it became clear the writers and producers had not consulted Brandon Teena’s family or spoken with her friends. Lana Tisdel, Teena’s love interest (played by Chloe Sevigny in the film), was so upset by the film’s inaccuracies, she sued the makers.

At the very least, Boys Don’t Cry brought trans* people and transphobia into mainstream discussion. An increase in public awareness about transphobia is, for the most part, a good thing; it points to a future where this issue will hopefully be discussed and addressed.  The existence of trans-related violence to this day means that some will never make it to that future.

Until the violence ends, there will be a need for the Transgender Day of Remembrance.

Read an interview with two transgender Australians about how they realized they were trans* and what the Transgender Day of Remembrance means to them.

Sarah Green is a Master of Global Communications student and a member of the upstart editorial team.