an open letter to WPXI: stop yr transphobic reporting practices

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so, this morning my boyfriend and i were looking for something totally unrelated on our local news’ website, and we came across this horrifyingly transphobic news segment: “Police Bust Men Posing as Female Prostitutes”.

In case you don’t feel like clicking that link and watching that awful video, 2 transwomen prostitutes were arrested recently in a sting. The news chose to portray them as men trying to pull a fast one on the johns of Pittsburgh. The reporter actually showed pictures of the women (who have long hair, breasts and who pass as women) to a random douchebag on the street and saying something like, “can you believe these people are REALLY MEN?!” they recorded his reaction: shaking his head in mute disgust, saying, “wow, i don’t even know what to say.”

we were both so angry after watching this clip. my boyfriend curled up in a ball on the couch. we didn’t say anything for a minute, and then he said, “i feel physically ill right now.” i rubbed his back and said, let’s do something about it. so he called the news station & called the jail (he is actually arguing with a reporter on the phone as i write this!), and i wrote the following letter to WPXI. i’m posting it here so that more people can read it. i encourage anyone who is outraged to call, write or email WPXI.

February 5, 2011

WPXI

4145 Evergreen Road

Pittsburgh, PA 15214

To Whom It May Concern:

I was saddened and appalled by WPXI’s news item on February 4, “Police Bust Men Posing as Female Prostitutes in Strip District.” I feel that reporter Vince Sims (as well as the editors, producers and anyone else involved with the story) treated its’ subjects in a derogatory and disrespectful manner that was completely uncalled for, and requires an immediate public apology.

First of all, the story’s title is inaccurate. Tamika Jones and Nakala Jackson are not names anyone would associate with men. Their feminine appearance, female names, and the presence of breasts on their bodies are indicators that they are not men at all, but transgendered women. Their birth sex is irrelevant, as they clearly pass as women, identify as women, live as women.

While I don’t know Jones or Jackson personally, and cannot make a statement as to what they were doing in that hotel room, they were definitely not “men posing as female prostitutes.” They were not a pair of men who thought it would be hilarious to trick some unsuspecting johns into having sex with them. In all likelihood, they, as is the case with many transgendered women, probably found prostitution their only viable work option. Imagine interviewing for a job with a female name and long, flowing hair; and then having your employer ask for ID and having to sheepishly hand them a driver’s license with an “M” instead of the “F” they were expecting. Changing one’s gender legally is a very expensive, time-consuming process; some states will not allow it at all without a note from a surgeon stating that the person has undergone genital surgery (which can cost upwards of $100,000 and is not covered by any insurance). This lack of appropriate papers makes on-the-books employment an extreme challenge for many transwomen who cannot afford a legal gender change, and many turn to prostitution simply to survive. Dozens of trans prostitutes are killed every year by enraged johns who “discover” their “real” sex. It’s no laughing matter.

Sims’ tactic of interviewing a random man on the street, showing him pictures of Jones and Jackson and asking if he believes they were men, is stunningly unprofessional. The man-on-the-street (who’s not even from Pittsburgh!) shaking his head in mute disgust is presumably meant to drive the story’s point home–that these women are “freaks”. I can think of no other circumstance in which a reporter would show pictures of women to random people, record their disdainful reactions, and call that news.

The AP Style guide, 2006, says this about reporting on transgendered people: “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.” I realize that standards are different for broadcast journalism than they are for print; however, I would like to think that WPXI holds itself to industry professional standards.

I actually watch WPXI news every night. I think it’s the best local news in the Pittsburgh region. However, until WPXI publicly apologizes to Tamika Jones, Nakala Jackson, and the transgender community in Pittsburgh for its thoughtless, unprofessional and sometimes downright cruel reporting of this story, I will never watch it again.

In Struggle,

[my legal name]

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2 responses »

  1. THANK YOU! THANK YOU! THANK YOU! I am posting this on my facebook and sending it around, including the contact info for the station. This was appalling!

  2. I wonder if you could contact the Citipaper – you know how they have that column that criticizes media stories every week? I would do it but I don’t know how. It’d make a great story for Citipaper, anyway, transgendered ignorance and bias in Pittsburgh….feel free to email me if you don’t know what I am talking about.

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