A man named Steve McMillian apparently stabbed Sanesha Stewart to death on Saturday morning. Who was she? She lived in the Bronx. She was tall and femme and well-liked by her neighbors. She was a client at the law project where I volunteer, but I never met her myself. Some of my colleagues helped her get her name legally changed more than a year ago. None of the above mattered at all to the news media, which handled this tragedy with the appropriate combination of sensitivity, respect for the victim, and a very cold eye for the man who the police dragged from her apartment, covered in her blood.
Oh no… wait one second and back up. There was no respect and no cold eye, none at all. I must be imagining some completely different universe where young trans women of color aren’t automatically treated like human trash. Where we all live, business as usual is to make a lot of comments about what the murder victim dressed like and looked like, reveal what her name was before she changed it, automatically assume she’s getting paid for sex, and to make excuses for the alleged killer.
And please note: “Cops: Ex-con slays Bronx transsexual ‘hooker’” is not the original headline of this NY Daily News article. The original one was “Fooled john stabbed Bronx tranny,” until pressure from the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation got them to change it. They are still suggesting that people take action by writing to the editors–follow that link for more details.
The Daily News also published a follow-up story in which Sanesha’s downstairs neighbor insists that she wasn’t getting paid for sex; the Daily News doesn’t offer any proof for their earlier assertion that Sanesha Stewart was a “hooker,” other than “police sources.” And as many trans people in New York City will tell you, the NYPD assumes that almost any young, Black or Latina trans woman walking around on the street, or going into an apartment building with a guy, is getting paid for sex work. Profiling is constant; women have been arrested around here simply for having a gathering in someone’s apartment, apparently it’s too suspicious. I mean why would any normal person want to hang out with one of THEM, right?
I don’t know if Sanesha Stewart was doing sex work or not, and I don’t think it really matters, other than the fact that the usual assumptions are being made. I don’t know what else to say. This kind of thing always leaves me at a loss for words, there’s not much to do but sit, and cry, and wonder how long it will be until the next murder. Until the next young, poor or working class, Black or Latina trans woman is murdered just for being trans, and then mocked by so-called journalists before her body cools.
Worst of all is the fact that even the newer article ends with a hint of what will undoubtedly be part of the next chapter of this story: the “tranny panic” defense.
Ramel C., 37, said McMillan had a girlfriend. He said his life-long friend must have been shocked to discover he was with a man.
“I’m not saying that’s a reason to kill anyone,” he said. “But I’m sure he was in some type of turmoil or shock.”
(Right, because no guy with a girlfriend has ever slept with or dated a trans woman.)
Read this, and then go look at some of the comments on those stories and the other news sources that megan_julca rounded up. The “trans panic” defense was used in the trials following the murder of Gwen Araujo, and those murderers got reduced sentences. We still live in a place and time where people think it’s “perfectly understandable” that someone would flip out and want to kill a trans woman just because they find out she’s trans. And those are the people who claim not to condone violent criminal reactions! Others are happy to step right up and say (at least on the anonymous Internet) that they’d react the same way and do the same thing. Trans people take the blame; trans people should be the ones walking around with prominent badges of shame, so all the “normal” people don’t make the wrong assumption. The question nobody ever seems to ask is, why would you automatically assume that the person you’re on a date with isn’t trans?
I mean, would you want someone to make that kind of assumption about you and your body — and have that kind of failed expectation when it turns out you’re not trans? Let’s say, for the non-trans folks in the audience, that you go on a date, and your date for some reason makes an assumption about your body, or the gender category you were assigned to at birth. Later on they find out they’re wrong: you’re not a trans person! What the hell?! So misleading. Are they justified in feeling like they want to beat the crap out of you? Should they get a lesser sentence if they kill you? Or how about if they just threw up everywhere like in The Crying Game. Of course, “common sense” would never say yes to any of these questions — and the only excuse that can be given is that non-trans people are “normal” but trans people are “weird.” The freaks pay the price and are the ones who must make sure nobody’s interacting with them who doesn’t absolutely want to.
I’ve got nothing else but tears and disgust. But I’ll quote from what some other people had to say.
Lisa Harney talks about the different treatment of trans women and I have to quote a lot of this because it’s good:
Imagine the response if a cis woman’s murder were filled with detailed discussion of her appearance and how it obviously contributed to her murder, as if her murderer’s reactions were instinctive and perhaps understandable? Imagine if a cis woman’s murder was presented as she deceived a man into thinking she was more attractive than she really was, and upon discovering that it was all makeup, plastic surgery, and a corset, he savagely stabbed her to death? What if she’d legally changed her name – would the press be sure to dig up her birthname for added sensationalism? Referred to her legal name as a “nickname?” What would be the response if news stories so thoroughly delegitimized and sensationalized a white cis woman’s identity while reporting her murder?
belledame seethes about the inherent homophobia+transphobia of the “panic” excuse, and a bunch of other stuff besides:
Because there’s nothing worse than finding out you are sexually attracted to, hell, even had fond feelings about, is there? a person whose gender and/or sex is not the gender and/or sex you are SUPPOSED to be attracted to, according to God or your parents or the lads or the Sisterhood or the feverish little rabbit running your brain. Who doesn’t understand -that-? the raw revulsion, the terror, the PANIC leading even unto VIOLENCE that such momentary existential cage-rattlings provides. It’s only human.
And last but certainly never least, little light memorializes as only a true poet can. I almost don’t want to quote her — like all of her posts, it’s an elegant and spiritual work of art that needs to be appreciated in full. But this part haunts me into repeating it:
We all might die alone. But some of us have to be ground and ground and ground down into the ground so the rest of us can feel a little better about our own chances at avoiding it. We have to make them more alone, even in death. We have to take away their names and their dignity. We have to take away even the chance that they might be mourned as real human beings who are gone and never coming back, who are missed by loved ones somewhere, who meant something. A murder is incomplete, and we cannot stand ending on an unresolved chord. We all have to join together and finish it, so the eyes of the murdered cannot accuse us in our sleep.
In the past, I have been known to complain that far too little attention has been paid to the fact that there are multiple oppressions at work here. We talk about these as murders of trans people, recall them again on the Trans Day of Remembrance. But it’s not just any transgender people who are being murdered: over and over, the most vulnerable members of the population are the ones who are extinguished. People who are living on the margins, women who have had to do what they can to get by, women targeted by racism and poverty on top of transphobia. That’s who’s getting killed at nearly ten times the average rate of the American population, according to one estimate.
But little light’s words remind me that this is also about all of us. Even without a guiding intent behind the wave of blood, the repeated and constant murders of young trans women, year in and year out, wreaks psychological terror on innumerable trans people. Why? Because they are murdered for being trans. For not fulfilling the “correct” expectations. And that’s something we should all care about. When you are undressed — by your lover or an X-ray machine, in front of a customer or a doctor, on a stage or in a bedroom or a police precinct — do you meet the expectations of those who gaze at you? Should it matter so much if you do, if you don’t? What would happen if you didn’t?
Does anyone ever deserve her fate?
- Kill them to kill part of yourself by Holly February 17, 2008
- Demand Respectful and Accurate Reporting on Lateisha Green by Cara May 6, 2009
- Trans Panic Defense Underway in Trial for Angie Zapata’s Murder by Cara April 20, 2009
- INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence has a new website by Holly May 15, 2008
- Trial for the Murder of Lateisha Green Receives Total Media Blackout by Cara June 12, 2009