Friday, March 13, 2009

Trans murder trial faces hurdle; media makes a sideshow of pronouns

A Colorado man is set to go on trial next month for the murder of 18-year-old Angie Zapata - though that trial is now facing a potentially serious snag after the judge ordered the defendant's confession thrown out because of overreaching by police. The local Greeley Tribune has covered the story extensively; the quality of their coverage has been mixed. (Compare this to a very professional and respectful profile of the case by ABC News.) Today they an unfortunately sensational article devoted to the use of pronouns in the case.

All of this is quite beside the point of this case, a tragedy shockingly similar to the murder of Gwen Araujo in California in 2002. But the issue is not without some news value, if not, as the paper's approach suggest, simply because it's "odd." As National Center for Transgender Equality director Mara Keisling hints in the article, the contestation of trans identities themselves is invariably a strong undercurrent in these cases, and here as elsewhere the defense has to some extent tried to dehumanize the victim by invalidating her identity. Even as the prosecution and defense are contesting the guilt of the accused, they are also, with each reference to the victim, contesting who she was. While the article suggests that the court may address this linguistic issue before trial, I expect this will not be the subject of any ruling; the lawyers will just keep using their contrasting language.

Unusually, the article makes a point of its own journalistic conventions by pointing out that the AP stylebook directs reporters to use language consistent with individuals' gender identity and expression. Many reporters don't know that this guidance exists or choose not to follow it, and I have periodically taken it upon myself to point it out in letters to the editor.


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