The Year of Trans “Visibility”? Media Coverage on Caitlyn Jenner vs. the Murder of Trans Women

Some have claimed that 2015 has been a landmark year for trans visibility. Think ‘Transparent’, think Caitlyn Jenner, think Laverne Cox and Janet Mock. 2015 also marked the greatest number of murders of trans women in the United States: there were at least 22 documented cases in 2015.

While the mainstream media covered the experiences - and physical transformation - of affluent white trans women like Caitlyn Jenner, or the fictional familial melodrama of Maura Pfefferman, there was next to no coverage on the horrific and tragic murders of trans women this last year. These women were also disproportionately women of colour.

This, we think, begs the question: what kind of visibility is meaningful visibility?

A report by the Human Rights Campaign details the homicides of 21 trans women in the US in 2015 (the report was released before the end of the year, in November). This is more victims recorded than in any previous year. Although the result of transphobic violence, none of these homicides have been reported as hate crimes; hate crime law in most states do not include gender identity.

This, we think, begs the question: what kind of visibility is meaningful visibility? There has been some coverage on the murder of transgender women, but many media outlets focus on the violent details of the death - often mis-gendering and highlighting the sexual history of the victim - without bringing attention to the common factors of prejudice and lack of opportunity that permeate through these women’s lives.

If we compare mainstream media coverage of Caitlyn Jenner against mentions of murdered trans women, a pretty stark, but unsurprising picture is painted. Below is our headline analysis* of Google News search results, over the course of 2015.

Although Caitlyn Jenner made headlines frequently in the New York Times, the Globe and Mail, and especially the Washington Post, these same publications make little mention of the murder of trans women, despite being the historically highest rate of transphobic homicides in the US. That being said, it could be worse - The New York Times and Washington Post each published an article discussing the rise in transphobic homicides last summer. Nevertheless, there remains a salient disparity in coverage. 

What exactly does this unbalanced coverage of transgender issues mean? It means that transgender women like 30-year-old Lamia Beard - who died January 17, 2015 after being found on the sidewalk suffering from a gunshot wound, or 24-year-old Ty Underwood - who was also fatally shot on January 26, 2015 do not get the same sympathy as successful, celebrity trans women. It means that the stories of murdered trans women are ignored and erased while their senseless deaths are justified, through accusations of sexual promiscuity. Again, we are reminded that in the eyes of the mainstream media, some lives simply matter more than others.

Major outlets are eager to detail Caitlyn’s celebrity interviews, magazine photo-shoots, and documentary TV series. But no mainstream media details Ty Underwood as a down to earth friend and family member, or a dedicated nursing assistant who was planning on returning to school to further her career. No mainstream media reports that Lamia was fluent in french, sang at community funerals, and earned a full scholarship to a Floridian college but chose to attend a school closer to home because she valued family. If these and countless other transgender women are even mentioned, it is often a plot point - stripping away their remaining humanity.

The stories of trans women are ignored and erased while their senseless deaths are justified, through accusations of sexual promiscuity.

Although alternative and specialized media outlets like The Advocate and Alternet a do a better job at humanizing transgender women by reporting on their lives, the lives of their families and the aftermath of their murders, unfortunately their reach pales in comparison to major media.

For many trans people, being themselves is a dangerous, political, and even fatal act that locks them out of many personal and professional opportunities. Unbalanced coverage can lead to misinformed assumptions about what it means to be trans and the challenges trans people face daily while erasing the diverse of experiences and lives of people within the community. So, although it is important to celebrate the visibility and success of trans people like Caitlyn Jenner, Janet Mock, Laverne Cox, Andreja Pejic and Chaz Bono, next time you read an article about them, be sure to also acknowledge that their stories are far from the norm.

*Our headline analysis searched for any articles that contained a mention of (1) Caitlyn Jenner, or (2) the words murder/manslaughter/killing/death, and trans/transgender in the same headline.  Some articles which fit the search parameters but were unrelated to the topic of interest were excluded (e.g. article about trans fats, article about a Transgender Bangladeshi who catches murder suspects).

This is Part 2 of a series investigating media coverage of ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ victims in 2015. You can read Part 1 here.