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19th transgender murder raises questions about reporting
by Gretchen Rachel Hammond
2015-09-09

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Even as people were gathering in 20 cities across the United States for the Aug. 25 Trans Liberation Tuesday event to stand up for and acknowledge the then-18 transgender women murdered in 2015, news stories began to break about an Aurora, Illinois, woman named Keyshia Blige.

She had been shot while driving through Aurora's South Side and died at the scene.

Blige became the 19th victim.

But the incident had not occurred earlier in the day, over the prior weekend or even during the month of August.

Blige was killed in the early hours of March 7. A statement from the Aurora Police Department reached WGN news which reported the incident that afternoon. The Aurora Beacon News—part of the Chicago Tribune Media Group—followed with a more detailed article March 24.

The Aurora PD and both WGN and The Beacon News referred to Blige as a male and used her birth name. The Beacon News noted in their report that Blige had recently begun transitioning.

It was five-months later, on Aug. 23, when Elizabeth Marie Rivera—the creator of the Trans Social Butterfly Network—corrected both the Aurora PD and The Beacon News in a Facebook post.

Outrage followed as it became clear that Blige had been revictimized due to the failure of both the Aurora PD and the media to correctly report her gender and her name.

Hers was not a case in isolation.

Blige, India Clarke, Ty Underwood, Penny Proud and Jasmine Collins represent just five of the women incorrectly identified by police investigators in 2015 and subsequently by both local and national press outlets.

Lisa Gilmore is a member of the governance committee of the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs ( NCAVP ) and the principal and founder of the Illinois Accountability Initiative—a statewide project responding to LGBTQ experiences of violence and discrimination.

"There are two separate issues here," Gilmore told Windy City Times. "One is the information provided by a police department to media and the second is the media's investigation and how they develop standards on correctly identifying people."

According to Gilmore, the appalling consequences of these mistakes are far reaching. They transcend the damage wrought to the memory of the victim and the the love accorded to her by those family and friends who chose to embrace her identity.

Transgender women of color are being systematically wiped out as a result of the rejection and dehumanization they face at all levels of society, married to what Black Lives Matter strategic partner and GetEQUAL Central Regional Coordinator Elle Hearns termed "respectability politics."

"It has a huge impact on our ability to track and get a clear picture of what's happening," Gilmore said. "Particularly when we are talking about a homicide. The victim—and most important witness—can't provide us with information, so we have to rely on the accounts that someone else provides whether it is media or law enforcement. This isn't just about counting numbers. This is about preventing this kind of violence by changing the conditions in which it happens. We have to determine whether there were hate- or bias-motivated elements or if it was a case of domestic or intimate partner violence. We can't do prevention if we don't know the reality of the situations that are occurring."

Dr. Paul Schewe, the director of the University of Illinois ( UIC ) Interdisciplinary Center for Research on Violence, agreed. As a researcher he has worked with the Center on Halsted ( COH ), the Chicago Commission on Human Relations ( CCHR ) and the Cook County State's Attorney's office.

"It is entirely important that we have accurate numbers," he told Windy City Times. "Now that all sorts of research is trying to be more gender sensitive, it's a real struggle."

Windy City Times examined the issue from the standpoint of law enforcement and the advocacy groups who track and monitor media response in an attempt to determine a cause and possible solutions to misgendering and revictimization.

Crime scene 101

Brian Dorow has held the position of associate dean of criminal justice, homeland security and counter terrorism at Waukesha County Technical College in Wisconsin for 11 years. Prior to that, he spent a decade as a city of Waukesha police supervisor.

"When it comes to a homicide, the general rule of thumb is that you have 48 hours to do what you can to solve it," he explained. "Or your leads dry up and your witnesses may become uncooperative. There is high pressure in the first two days. For investigators, every crime scene has a story to tell. You have to start looking at the physical evidence there, what is not there and if there are witnesses. When you approach a body, you're going to make an initial observation—what is that person wearing or not wearing? Is there an obvious sign of trauma, a bullet wound, a stab wound? Where is the body? You have to document all this information. You look for identification—a driver's license or an identification card—or you look for identifiers. Does this person have tattoos? Is the person missing a finger? However, sometimes you don't have that information available. At that point, you have a specialist come and take fingerprints and hopefully the victim has a record of some kind where you can make an identification."

Bill Schade is one such specialist. He has been a forensics practitioner for 40 years. Schade told Windy City Times that fingerprints are the most common starting point for a search using biometrics—one not based on a name or demographic data.

"In the 1970s and '80s, computers didn't have the power to search everything," he said. "We had to narrow the search down as much as we could and so we used sex, race or sometimes year-of-birth as a filter so that we weren't looking for a needle in the biggest haystack. Race was always something that could be subjective. How was it designated in the database? When you didn't know that, there was a chance that you would miss it in the search. As the technology has progressed, we have eliminated artificial filters because they can cause problems. The systems are so powerful now that we can do searches against the entire database and let the biometrics filter out the results rather than by a subjective decision from the person who created the record. Having said that, if we're searching an individual's prints we are doing a broad-based search against those databases and the results that come back are going to be whatever was put on file. So if the record is in the name of 'John Smith' and the sex and race is 'male and white', that will be what we report back to an investigator as a lead."

According to Schewe, the Chicago Police Department ( CPD ) is cooperating with advocacy groups to change its record-keeping practices in regards to an individual's gender identity. His own work as a researcher determined a number of factors that must be considered. "In asking someone to describe their gender identity, we came up with as many as 20 different check boxes for people," Schewe noted. "When police are filling out their forms, they don't have very good categories for indicating a person's gender identity. There are some people in the trans community who say 'no, I'm not transgender male or female. I'm male. I'm female. That's always been my identity'."

"Quite honestly in the forensics field, everybody's a number," Schade said. "I have been asked for years 'what is the real name?' because the record comes back with an alias. But we categorize a person by a number that's assigned. You can have many names, but you can only have one biometric ID number."

For investigators, even the increased ability to engage in biometrics such as facial or iris recognition and hand geometry does not change the demographic information contained within the system such as the name and gender behind an individual's social security number or state identification.

"If we're not checking a fingerprint or a facial image to confirm identity, we're creating records in error," Schade said. "That's why law enforcement has always used biometric data as a foundation. We run the biometric and we will come back with maybe a driver's license photo and then you go to that record to see what information is on file. If Caitlyn Jenner hasn't changed her driver's license and she is the victim of a crime in California and we run her prints who would it come back to? It has nothing to do with the forensic identification. It points to the correct record but it all depends on the information that's on file."

With a majority of transgender individuals living far below the poverty line, unable to get or maintain a job due to ongoing discrimination, the cost for them to change that information is well beyond their reach.

In Cook County, the filing fee alone for a name change is $337. The additional requirement that a name change must be published before a final judgement is provided can—in the case of the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin—add $150 to the bill.

Cook County offers a fee-waiver program, but navigating through a bureaucratic maze that involves multiple floors of the Daley Center in order to obtain the required forms without the help of an attorney is a daunting prospect.

Despite the efforts of advocacy groups such as the Transformative Justice Law Project of Illinois which offers free, regular name-change mobilizations to assist individuals with the filing of forms, there are many transgender individuals whose gender markers and birth names remain unchanged in the system.

Even if an autopsy at a medical examiner's office notes the presence of synthetic hormones in a body, such information is not always immediately available.

"There certainly can be a delay in those reports," Dorow said. "It depends on what you are looking for and what is needed."

Yet the question remains as to why police departments are so quick to release a victim's incorrect gender identity as information to the media—"feeding the beast" as one police source who preferred not to be named termed it.

Blige had begun hormone replacement therapy before she was murdered. Had investigators from the Aurora PD waited for reports from the medical examiner before releasing information to WGN, the fact that she was transitioning could have been taken into account despite the information contained in her public records.

"It's usually case-by-case," Dorow said. "You've come across a body. You know the clock is ticking. There is pressure. When homicides hit the news, that's the front page and gets a lot of attention in communities that have a small number of homicides each year. But there's no protocol that says you have to release information at a certain time. It's based on the situation, the needs of the investigation and whether or not the investigators are looking for the general public to come forward. There could be not enough awareness in this area. It requires further training now and in the future."

Windy City Times asked the Aurora Police Department about their policy in releasing information to the media. Director of Public Information for the City of Aurora Dan Ferrelli released the following statement:

"While every homicide investigation presents unique challenges based on facts and evidence and are investigated as those elements dictate, one consistent rule is that the Aurora Police Department will only release the name and other identifying information on a homicide victim after the family of the victim is notified. The identification is generally based on documents such as ID cards and drivers licenses, visual observations made by personnel, medical records, statements made by family and friends, and other factors. When a homicide occurs, our number one focus is finding the person or people responsible for taking a human life, no matter what the gender of the victim may be, and holding the offender responsible. If during the course of the investigation, we discover that there are signs that lead to a hate crime or other extenuating circumstance, those factors are taken into consideration and aggressively addressed."

Ferrelli went on to note the Blige investigation as "a very good example of the challenges we face in these types of cases. From the time we began investigating this murder it was evident that the victim had the physical characteristics of a male, he was dressed as a male, his identification listed him as male, all of the interviews we conducted ( including family members ) referred to Ms. Blige in masculine terms ( 'him, he, etc.' )."

In May 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice Community Relations Service ( DOJCRS ) began to offer transgender law enforcement training in partnership and collaboration with a number of police departments across the country and advocacy organizations such as the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Taskforce.

Grande H. Lum is the director of the DOJCRS. "Since we launched over a year ago, for example in the Chicago area, our regional office has held trainings in North, Central and Southern Illinois for over 1,000 law enforcement officers," he told Windy City Times. "The identification of gender is fundamental. When you provide training to law enforcement officers, especially ones who are going to an academy, that's where it can make a significant difference in understanding that the [gender] preference of an individual is critical. I don't think we want situations where a transgender victim is being misgendered and it's picked up by the media. I don't think that helps anyone."

The curriculum for basic recruit training at the Chicago Police Department comprises 1,000 hours ( over twice the Illinois state mandate ) and between 400 and 480 hours for the Cook County Sheriff's Department and other statewide academies. It is governed by the Illinois Law Enforcement Training & Standards Board. They have yet to include the DOJCRS's or any transgender sensitivity training.

Calls to the board were not returned.

"There certainly are some police departments who are reluctant or resistant to bringing in this training," Lum acknowledged. "Our services are strictly voluntary. We can do this work because the jurisdiction was opened up by the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009. At the same time, there have been a lot of requests and we've heard very positive things from communities. They can see the benefit and the value of their officers going through [the program]. Law enforcement organizations that are effective are ones that understand their communities better."

"In the [Wisconsin] academy you get diversity and sensitivity training built into the curriculum," Dorow said. "I'm involved in the training of in excess of 10,000 police officers on an annual basis. The law enforcement profession is always evolving. At the end of the day, it comes down to training. Especially with a homicide, it's so crucial to know all of the facts. Proper identification is only going to help your investigation and the successful prosecution of a suspect."

Ferrelli said that the Aurora PD would "consider training offered by the Department of Justice in order to bring a sense of justice to all crime victims."

Along with the training already offered by the DOJCRS, Lum announced that the department will release a roll call video to coincide with this year's Transgender Day of Remembrance.

It has been created with the participation of transgender individuals and experienced police officers. "The video will have different scenarios where there's an interaction between a law enforcement officer and an individual who is transgender," Lum said. "We use a situation where there's been a traffic stop and one where a police officer comes to an apartment. It provides some best practices and you can also see [what happens] when it doesn't go well. I think it's going to make a difference because the audience is going to be law enforcement officers."

The media

However, the video's audience will not be the general public who receive their transgender sensitivity training from the media outlets which report a crime against a transgender individual.

"The press is looking for information, they follow the police scanner and they want it as quickly as possible," Schade said. "Usually [the media] accuse us of withholding it. The last thing we want to do is release bad information."

"In Keyshia's case, The Beacon News could have taken a very different route," Gilmore said, "by not using her former name or a headline referring to her as male. But they took the route of gendering her as a man even though they were getting information from very close to her that she had started transitioning."

The media does have help.

Among the many resources that they have made freely available to the press, the nationwide advocacy group GLAAD has an extensive transgender Media Reference Guide as well as a Doubly Victimized repor—a step-by-step guide with examples of what and what not to do in everything from pronoun usage to the appropriate use of names when reporting but not exploiting the transgender status of an individual who has been the victim of a crime.

The National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association has a similar report for media to use, and at their conference in San Francisco Sept. 3-5, several panels addressed the misgendering of transgender subjects, both alive and dead.

Dani Heffernan is the senior strategist for transgender media at GLAAD. "I think journalists who are covering these stories need to understand why victims who are transgender are misgendered," Heffernan said. "When they are receiving these reports from police, if they think that the victim might be transgender, they should be reaching out to family members, to local trans or LGBT organizations in the area to find out more. Journalists should be open to making changes to their stories when people in those communities contact them and say 'I know how a person identified'. They should be receptive to that."

Despite the resources available, looking back over the 19 known women murdered in 2015 shows that many of the media outlets are not open to correcting an initial misgendering.

The nonprofit monitoring organization Media Matters for America has called to account a number of press outlets for misgendering and misidentifying transgender victims. LGBT Program Director Carlos Maza believes there is no excuse.

"The media's insistence on blaming police reports or deferring responsibility to police departments isn't a widely accepted reflection of journalistic practices," he told Windy City Times. "This idea that a news outlet's only job is to repeat press releases without questioning their validity or doing their own investigative research contradicts the public's general understanding of what the role of the media is. The excuse that media outlets are exempt from responsibility is curious because, in any other area of reporting, if there is no fact checking or followup we understand that to be bad journalism."

GLAAD has often stepped in with a number of strategies designed to positively intervene and assist media outlets who misgender or misidentify a trans individual. The results are mixed.

"We've had situations come up with small and national papers when they become aware of the guidelines or the story that they wrote is inaccurate that they are open and genuinely concerned about making those changes," Heffernan said. "There are also times when that doesn't happen and when one conversation with a journalist is not enough to have changes made to the story. Then we are talking to local organizations on the ground about next steps."

"Unfortunately in some cases we're still dealing with transphobia," Maza said. "There are still journalists out there who don't take trans people, their stories or their identities seriously and it's going to be very hard—even with pressure—to encourage them to stop misgendering trans victims of violence. For a bigger subset of the journalistic population, the issue is fear and anxiety about being ahead of the herd or at the cutting edge of what really is a revolution within the industry and social acceptance of the LGBT community at large.

"The movement from treating trans people as jokes and punchlines to taking them seriously has occurred relatively rapidly in terms of the media landscape," he went on. "Especially for small-town reporters, the fear is 'I don't want to call someone trans when they're not. I don't want to be the one who's over-zealous.' There is a reluctance to chance old habits. The failure to correctly identify trans victims properly is in conflict with basic and widely accepted journalistic guidelines. It has gone beyond laziness. It has gone beyond ignorance. It is now an active form of bad journalism and the work that activists and advocates have to do is to remind journalists that this is not an acceptable practice and there is no credible defense."

When a media outlet is resistant to change, GLAAD's next steps are designed to bring attention to the problem and to apply public pressure.

"There was a national outlet that had misgendered a transgender woman of color who was brutally murdered and they were not initially open to making changes to the story," Heffernan recalled. "GLAAD worked with local advocates. There was a petition asking for the paper to make changes to the story. That led to an editorial board meeting where we talked to the outlet about their style guide. Eventually they did ensure that their coverage of transgender people will be respectful going forward."

Despite these successes, Heffernan acknowledged that there is still a great deal of work to do: "This year especially, I hope that most journalists are aware of the enormous levels of violence facing transgender people and transgender women of color in particular."

"The solution is really as simple as looking at context and clues, being patient and cautious," Maza said. "In a lot of cases where a news outlet misreports the gender of a victim of violence, there is at least enough evidence to raise concerns about whether the gender identification given by the police department should be taken at face value. We've seen that a lot this year where news outlets noted in police reports that the victim was dressed in a way that was atypical for their gender or went by a name that wasn't their birth name, or was referred to by friends and loved ones and by themselves on social media using gender markers or names that weren't in alignment with police reports. Those kinds of clues should tip-off even amateur journalists that maybe using the gender identification given by the police department isn't the safest bet and maybe there's more to the story. There really isn't a credible defense of doing bad reporting."

Windy City Times reached out to the Aurora Beacon News for comment on their March 24 article.

Editor Anne Halston replied with a statement.

"As you know, our story talked about Bryce Stiff's stage persona of Keyshia Blige," it read. "But we did not know that was an identity or name used off the stage. We relied on information presented to us at the time through public documents and interviews. The police identified the shooting victim as Bryce Stiff, a man. The victim's mother, other family members and friends all referred to the victim as Bryce and used male pronouns. At the funeral, some friends even wore commemorative T-shirts that referred to the victim as 'Bryce'."

Halston went on to state that the Beacon News does utilize available resources when writing about transgender individuals. "As a newspaper, we follow the AP [Associated Press] guidelines on gender identity issues. I am familiar with the GLAAD guidelines and have consulted those as well."

The AP's most recent guidelines are: "Transgender: Use the pronoun preferred by the individuals who have acquired the physical characteristics of the opposite sex or present themselves in a way that does not correspond with their sex at birth. If that preference is not expressed, use the pronoun consistent with the way the individuals live publicly."

"The gold standard for journalists at large should be GLAAD's guidelines," Maza said. "The AP doesn't give guidance about general practices that journalists should be adopting when researching and writing these kinds of pieces. When news outlets are dealing with quickly evolving media landscapes, if there is a concern or a question about the victim's gender marker, the impulse should be cautious and neutral in reporting or be very certain about the way that they're identifying. It is easy to use gender neutral markers, to not use gender pronouns, to not include the word 'man' in a headline. Those things are very rarely necessary for an initial news report about a crime."

"As we're talking to a paper, we really press the importance of accurately identifying transgender people in their stories," Heffernan said. "Our report that specifically talks about those people who are victims of crime is called Doubly Victimized because these—usually transgender women of color—who are killed or murdered are revictimized by the media coverage that misgenders them. It is disturbing to see the lack of attention being brought to these murders on a national level. If the media is not covering them or not doing it correctly then we just don't know the numbers of transgender women who are being murdered."

"When a news outlet misgenders a victim it is straight-up, dangerous misinformation for the general public which is trying to understand what occurred in these incidents," Maza said. "It robs audiences of the ability to see the landscape under which these particular events are occurring. All the public hears about trans people are these high-profile celebrities or the sensationalistic trans stories that we typically see. They don't see the real acts of violence that have almost become unremarkable at this point. There's no context for a reader or television viewer to understand where this violence comes from and what potential solutions might be. When a media outlet parrots a police department report, it serves to undermine the success of the investigations being done about these incidents."

"It is important that we understand the level of violence and discrimination facing transgender people," Heffernan noted. "The consequence of not covering it is that people don't have a clear picture of what life is like for so many transgender people in this country."

GLAAD's Media Reference Guide can be found here: www.glaad.org/reference/transgender .

GLAAD's Doubly Victimized report can be found here: www.glaad.org/publications/transgendervictimsofcrime .

For more about Media Matters for America, visit mediamatters.org

For NLGJA's stylebook: www.nlgja.org/stylebook/ .

For assistance with name changes visit tjlp.org .


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