ETA Monday 1PM PST: GLAAD has released a statement on this story and you can read the entire post at their website. Here is part of it:
GLAAD reached out twice last week to Orlando news station WKMG, which appears to have first reported on the incident, as well as the Orlando Sentinel and the New York Daily News to address these outlets’ offensive coverage.
By showing such little respect for Vanessa and for transgender women as a whole, journalists reproduce harmful stereotypes that have negative consequences for transgender people’s everyday lives. Stories of crime can be especially damaging when the media’s misrepresentations end up falsely connecting the fact that an alleged perpetrator is transgender to the crime itself. This is a gross inaccuracy that makes it possible for states like Florida and more than 30 others to refuse to hire someone simply because they are transgender. It is important that the media be held accountable for these stories like Vanessa’s, and for portraying all transgender people in a fair and accurate manner.
Usually we steer clear of reporting extensively on stories about various sensationalized crimes allegedly perpetrated by LGBTQ persons, unless they involve giant jungle animals. Coverage of these crimes tend to suggest that the suspect’s actions are somehow related to the suspect’s orientation or gender identity — if the two are genuinely related, we’re there. But that’s rarely the case: unfortunately, evil does not discriminate and therefore people of all gender identities and sexual orientations kill and assault their exes, abuse innocent people and drop severed limbs in the mail.
If there’s any story we REALLY stay away from, it’s otherwise-irrelevant stories about child molesters or other sex offenders who just-so-happen to be LGBTQ. Which is why, despite being so appalled by this piece about an alleged sexual assault I read yesterday in The New York Daily News, I was unsure if writing about it was really the right thing to do (and am interested in your opinion on that). Should I really draw more attention to this thing? After all, I doubt GLAAD will be putting out a press release demanding reporter Christine Roberts be held accountable for mis-gendering a transgender woman who has been accused of sexually molesting a 14-year-old boy.
But I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It’s rare to find any mainstream stories about trans* people that aren’t in violation of at least one of the rules-for-writing-about-trans-folks, but this one really takes that violation to a whole new level. For starters, the headline of the piece is “Transgender Hotel Maid Busted For Groping Teen Boy.” AND WE’RE OFF!
1) Male pronouns are employed throughout.
Despite acknowledging that Vanessa Olmos identifies as female, the writer uses male pronouns throughout the entire piece. We open with:
“A transgender motel maid is behind bars after he allegedly molested a 14-year-old boy at a Florida Days Inn, authorities said Thursday.”
2) Olmos is described as being “born as a man.”
“Police claim that Vanessa Olmos, who was born a man, touched the victim inappropriately Wednesday while the teenager’s mother was at the Orlando motel’s front desk, WFTV reports.”
3) Olmos’ transgender status is denied by a description that is more befitting to a cross-dresser than a transgender woman.
“The 35-year-old has been dressing and living as a women since moving to the U.S. from Mexico, according to WKMG. He stopped going by his given name, Christopher, since his arrival.”
4) The piece refers to Olmos’s “true gender” of male, also implies that somehow Olmos’s MAAB status was somehow relevant to her employment:
“Amjid Akram, manager of the motel, said that he was unaware of the housekeeper’s true gender and that the motel contracts maids through a third-party service.”
So. There’s that. Before we go on, if you lack the stomach to read the entire piece yourself, here’s the bizarre description of the alleged crime in question:
Olmos reportedly knocked on the door of the victim’s motel room and said “room service,” according to a police report obtained by the local station.
Police say that when the boy opened the door, the housekeeper asked if the victim had any dirty towels and if he was alone.
Olmos then allegedly asked “Can I touch?” to which the boy reponded “touch what?”
The 14-year-old victim told police that Olmos grabbed his genitals on the outside of his shorts and said “you hot.”
The boy responded “you’re weird,” walked to the bathroom and waited for Olmos to leave.
The victim’s mother, who called the police after her son told her about the encounter, said she had already exchanged towels with Olmos before the incident.
The housekeeper told police that he never touched the boy inappropriately and did not enter the room.
For starters, I recognized that my reluctance to discuss this piece was perhaps guided by the implicit acceptance of the story as “a story about a transgender woman accused of molesting a teenage boy.” But, as much as my inner feminist recoils at questioning the account of an alleged victim of sexual abuse, she is innocent until proven guilty and this very well could be a story about a teenage boy falsely accusing a transgender woman of color of sexual molestation. Olmos, who is not only a transgender woman of color but also a recent immigrant, lacks the cultural agency and probably also the financial ability to properly defend herself or execute any kind of recourse if the charges are unfounded.
Although Olmos is Mexican and therefore wouldn’t be considered “Latina,” a recent study from The Williams Institute called “Interactions of Transgender Latina Women With Law Enforcement” still offers insight into how police officers treat people who look like Olmos: two-thirds of the transgender Latina women interviewed by The Williams Institute reported verbal harassment as a characteristic of their interactions with law enforcement, 21% reported physical assault and 24% reported sexual assault. Nearly 60 percent of those stopped by law enforcement said they were not violating any laws at the time. In other words, law enforcement doesn’t require much in the way of evidence to justify handcuffing transgender women of color.
But back to the way this story is told — in addition to using “he” throughout the entire piece, this article exploits damaging myths about transgender women by attempting to present Olmos as a “deceiver,” the world’s most popular anti-trans archetype (described by Julia Serano in Whipping Girl as those who “successfully pass as women” and “play the role of sexual predators who fool innocent straight guys into falling for other ‘men.’). The language in this piece frames Olmos’ boss as the one who got fooled by suggesting that his unawareness of her gender assigned at birth somehow enabled her employment (and subsequent alleged predatory behavior) and that she wouldn’t have been hired otherwise. Whether or not the boss knew that Olmos was transgender is completely irrelevant to the crime, yet it’s so pointedly included! Last time I checked, being assigned male at birth does not affect one’s ability to vacuum. Unfortunately for Olmos, Florida does not prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of gender identity.
Even more disturbing is that I discovered, via additional research, that this terrible reporting can’t be written off as the work of a gross bigoted straight white cisgender man out of touch with modern society penning a screed for a notoriously insensitive rag that routinely publishes transphobic shit that makes our eyes bleed.
I was shocked to discover (thank you, LinkedIn!) that the writer of this piece is, in fact, a young woman named Christine Roberts who graduated from Georgetown University with an English degree in May and prior to college was enrolled at the esteemed Brooklyn Tech, where she was a National Merit Scholar. Prior to advancing from Intern to Reporter for The NY Daily News, she’s worked in internship and assistant roles for the U.S. Government and for a radio station. She was Senior Editor of her college paper and an SAT tutor. She either lives in Washington DC or New York City or both.
Furthermore, although Roberts reports on lurid crime regularly for The New York Daily News, she’s also been given a hearty portion of gay-related stories, which she’s executed more or less without bias. She reported fairly on Obama’s support of repealing DOMA, California’s law to teach gay history and Michelle Bachmann’s glitter-bombing, among other gay interest stories.
All these factors come together to form what we’ve been sold as an “enlightened” cisgender heterosexual: young, bright, well-educated, hails from diverse and liberal cities, which just goes to show how stupid that assumption is. It’s also a reminder that although we’re constantly patting ourselves on the back for how far this new generation has come with respect to accepting gay people, 99.9% of the country remains completely ignorant of trans* issues. Whereas many gay people joke about “waiting for the haters to die off,” that isn’t the case for trans* folks. Sometimes the haters are only 21.
Similarly, it’d be easy and perhaps comforting to write this off as another case of The New York Daily News being a misogynist transphobic piece of shit, which is certainly a valid description of that paper — but it’s worth mentioning that The New York Daily News has been reprimanded for their transphobic language in the past and made some visible efforts to improve.
In 2008, the NYDN headlined a story about the murder of a 25-year-old trans woman in the Bronx “Fooled John Stabbed Bronx Tranny,” which earned them a GLAAD intervention. GLAAD informed TNYDN “that tranny is often considered pejorative and dehumanizing and that insinuating Stewart “fooled” her murderer was both defamatory and irresponsible. The paper dropped both tranny and fooled in follow-up stories and changed the online version of the original report to address the concerns raised.” In 2010, apparently GLAAD had to intervene again when the NYDN misgendered another murdered trans woman of color, and the NYDN again corrected their mistake.
Recently, The New York Daily News has reported unoffensively on things like the transgender woman who successfully won a fight against her health insurance company for refusing coverage of a routine mammogram, an article which even included the sentence: “Scott, who eventually won the fight and received an apology from Aetna, is just the latest person to struggle against the institutional medical discrimination that transgender people face.”
Ultimately, no one except for Olmos can know whether or not these charges are true, but everyone else charged with crimes at least has the dignity of being correctly gendered, and she deserves that, too.
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