In May of 2020, Selena Reyes-Hernandez, a transgender woman, was killed in the Marquette Park neighborhood of Chicago. Her death bothered me deeply. And then, Selena was deadnamed and misgendered in a major newspaper.
Deadnaming is the act of referencing a transgender individual by their former name. Misgendering is the act of identifying someone by a gender identity that they do not claim. Selena’s memory was further diminished when her photo was not attached to the story; only a photo of the person who took her life.
I searched and found a friend of Selena’s who shared photos of her, which I forwarded to media outlets. I believe these simple steps helped readers understand who Selena was, and by extension, who transgender people are. All media, and media sources, should take heed: You can and must do more in reporting on trans deaths. Doing so protects trans lives.
The American Medical Association has called the killings of Black transgender women an epidemic in the United States. 2021 has now surpassed all previous years for fatal violence against transgender people, including the deaths of four women from Chicago. The numbers are likely higher because transgender people are frequently incorrectly identified post-mortem.
How cops and the medical examiner operate
In private conversations with journalists and newsrooms this year about the inaccurate coverage of the trans community, I learned some stories were informed by police reports and breaking news services that issue identifying details that can be incorrect from the start. As a Black transgender woman and a journalist, I am uncomfortable allowing this to go on. In my time as a radio producer in Chicago, I often followed up with police to confirm names and pronouns, and checked social media to see if people were correcting reports.
I vowed to next look into the sources of incorrect information on the police newswire. In September, a social media reporter deadnamed a Black transgender woman and cited the medical examiner’s report as their source. It was clear I needed to reach the Chicago Police Department and the medical examiner.
I learned CPD updated policies for interactions with transgender people in June, including how police identify trans people in official reports. CPD said it must conduct a department-wide training to implement the policy, but it didn’t know when this training will take place.
I reached out to the medical examiner’s office about the most recent deadnaming incident and was told they are required to report what is known in vital records. The medical examiner personnel indicated that if someone wishes to have their vital records changed to reflect authentic name and gender marker, resources are available. This is true, but Black and Latinx transgender people have disproportionately more difficulty accessing these resources, with financial and legal barriers preventing them from updating their own records. These barriers must be removed.
Already I have identified three ways to improve coverage of trans people: journalists can confirm information from official sources with people closer to the trans people involved. Police must update training for interactions with trans people and document them in official reports. Lawmakers must remove burdens for citizens to update their own vital records to accurately reflect authentic identity, and update requirements imposed on medical examiners about publicly releasing information based solely on vital records.
Greater numbers of Americans are more aware that transgender people exist, and the Census Department has finally begun counting us. This representation must be reflected throughout society, including in the work of those responsible for our safety and public safety, and of those who report on the taxpayer agencies and the powerful people who lead them.
There is a system in place that allows the violence of deadnaming and misgendering to take place in Chicago. Now that we know, we must act. To not address these systemic flaws is an intentional act, akin to killing trans victims a second time.
Morgan Sherm is a veteran radio producer who works to ensure accuracy in the news media for transgender people in Chicago.
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