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Category: LGBT, Media Monitoring

The New York Times Sexualizes and Sensationalizes Death of Transgender Woman

| May 15, 2012

Yesterday, the New York Times published an article detailing the “suspicious” death of a transgender woman in a Brooklyn fire. Alternating between sexualized descriptions of Lorena Escalera’s physical body and alleged sexual conduct with details about the fire that claimed her life, writers Al Baker and Nate Schweber sensationalize Escalera’s death and transform her into a caricatured spectacle.

Here are some of the details they chose to publish:

She was 25 and curvaceous, and she often drew admiring glances in the gritty Brooklyn neighborhood where she was known to invite men for visits to her apartment, her neighbors and the authorities said.

Oscar Hernandez, 30, a mechanic, said she had had some of her ribs removed in an effort to slim her waist.

“For a man, he was gorgeous…” “hourglass figure.”

A debris pile outside the apartment, which is above a funeral home, contained many colorful items. Among them were wigs, women’s shoes, coins from around the world, makeup, hair spray, handbags, a shopping bag from Spandex House, a red feather boa and a pamphlet on how to quit smoking.

The article uses Escalera’s private life as fodder for a sensationalized news bit, relying primarily on the rubbernecking shock value of her gender identification, but refusing to identify her as a trans woman. Baker and Schweber use the term “transgender” only once in the article, to describe the performance group Escalera worked for. When referring to Escalera herself, Baker and Schweber write that she was “called Lorena” and “according to neighbors, she was born male.”

Baker and Schweber do not explicitly state that Escalera worked in the sex industry, but they certainly insinuate it.

Gary Hernandez, 25, a neighbor, said that Ms. Escalera had worked as an escort and that he regularly saw her advertising her service on an adult Web site.
“She was always on her laptop posting ads about herself,” said Mr. Hernandez (who is not related to Oscar Hernandez). “Still, she was a nice person.”

Escalera’s identity as a transgender woman made her especially vulnerable to marginalization, and we are disappointed and outraged at the New York Times for perpetuating the dehumanization of trans individuals even after Escalera’s death. Baker and Schweber’s implicit marking of Escalera as a sex worker appears to have further justified their overt sexualization of her in this piece.

We are reminded of the victim blaming that followed Guinean-born Nafissatou Diallo’s allegations of sexual assault by Former Director of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Nafissatou’s status as a foreign-born woman of color working in the service industry prompted many mainstream media outlets to blame her for her own victimization. Similarly, coverage of the NYPD rape trial last year was ripe with victim-blaming descriptions of how much the defendant had had to drink the night of her attack; CBS reporter Lara Logan was said to have invited her own sexual assault in Tahrir Square because she’d once shown cleavage at an awards dinner; and even an eleven-year-old girl gang-raped in Texas was the target of victim-blaming after her brutal assault.

No one, regardless of sex, race, gender identification, or profession, deserves to be treated as anything less than human by our media.

For more resources, check out the Colorlines, TransFeminismGLAADFeministing, and Transgender activist Autumn Sandeenwho have called out the New York Times for this exploitative and biased reporting.