Kill them to kill part of yourself

Earlier this week there was an update in the death of Sanesha Stewart: apparently the man who is suspected of killing her — let’s be clear, he was dragged from her apartment early in the morning, covered in her blood — had known her for quite some time. That doesn’t seem to fit with his claim (and the media’s original lurid story) that he was shocked to find out that Stewart was trans and flew into a homicidal rage as a result. Sadly, I wasn’t surprised to hear this at all.

Most Feministe readers will agree that the “trans panic” defense is bogus, and that one’s own fear or disgust of queer or trans people is hardly an excuse for violence or murder. But a lot of these “panics” are suspicious on more levels than one. In similar killings in the past, there’s been evidence that suggests the murderer knew very well that the victim was trans, and may have killed her in order to erase the association between them. The revelation in Stewart’s case brought to mind the aptly titled 2003 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, “Disposable People.” Washington DC activist Earline Budd, who’s dealt with her own share of transphobic violence on top of fielding more than a dozen calls a month about other trans people being assaulted, sums it up well:

Budd, like many transgender activists, believes the “discovery crime” motivation is often bogus. Most transgendered people are up front with potential sex partners about their identities and anatomies, she says — and even in cases where they’re not, “how can you say that’s an excuse for killing somebody or beating them up?”

Bella Evangelista’s murderer, Antoine Jacobs, is reportedly considering a “panic defense” when he goes to court.

According to Sgt. Brett Parson, head of Washington’s GLLU police unit, Jacobs told police he and Evangelista “were engaging in sex for hire, he liked it, the act was completed, they parted ways, and some of his friends said, ‘Hey, man, that’s a dude,’ and he returned and shot her.”

Budd suspects that Jacobs simply got embarrassed when his friends found out he’d been with Evangelista, who was well known as a transgendered woman in the neighborhood where Jacobs lived.

“This was all to show off for the guys,” she says. “He came back and confronted her, and when she turned around to walk away, he pulled out a gun and shot her and just continued to shoot her. In the back. And that’s a panic defense? Come on now.”

Jacobs is just a particularly forthright example of how many of these “panic defenses” aren’t really about panicking when you find out your date is trans. They’re about the fear that someone else is going to find out you were with a tranny. I think sometimes we’re quick to assume that homophobia and transphobia always work in this straightforward “hate the queers, bash the fags” kind of way — the sort of hate crime that Budd describes a few paragraphs later:

“5th and K is just rampant for assaults. I think guys feel like, ‘Man, I’m going to go out and beat me up a faggot tonight, one of them ones dressed in women’s clothes.'” As in most major urban areas, such hate criminals know exactly where to find their victims.

That kind of shit clearly goes down. But not usually with a loaded gun or stab wounds to the chest. Let’s get one thing perfectly clear: trans people, especially women who already live on the economic margins of a racist, classist, transphobic society, are not idiots. With few exceptions, trans people know very well that we’re potentially in danger from bigots who can’t handle trans people. Nobody wants to get into an intimate, vulnerable situation with someone who might completely flip out on you. Every sex worker who’s less than completely green is aware of that kind of danger.

Unfortunately, as far too many victims of violent crimes, sexual assaults, abuse, and rape know, it’s often the people you trust — who you think you’re safe with — who end up being the greatest danger to you. Not the bogeyman rapist lurking in an alleyway, not the drunken frat boys looking for a good time who don’t realize they’re on the wrong stroll. And it’s way more disturbing: our communities, our relationships devouring themselves — whether they’re casual hookups or something more serious. Women ending up dead in the middle of the street, in their homes, on the side of the highway.

All of this was also on my mind as I read about the gender non-conforming middle-school student who was shot in the head and killed earlier this week. There are few details about that case yet, but the news coverage has implied, and most reactions have also assumed, that this was a straightforward case of homophobia. Some kids at school were reportedly “freaked out” by the victim, and one of them killed him. But as Tricia B. points out in our comments, it would be sadly unsurprising to find out that the shooter was gay as well… or had been involved somehow with the victim, was my thought.

Seriously, when you think about this kind of situation in all its disturbing dimensions and possibilities, which is more likely? That one of the school bullies decides to take it a step beyond name-calling and shoving, pulls out a gun, and shoots this kid? Or that the killer felt personally threatened for some reason, to the point of bringing a gun into a middle school classroom and shooting someone in the head, first thing in the morning? With the few details that have emerged, it’s impossible to say.

But I fear the worst — and the worst would not just be that some homophobic asshole killed a child. There’s an even worse worst: that a child is dead, and the other child who pulled the trigger did so because he couldn’t deal with his own feelings. And now that second child will be tried as an adult, and another life destroyed.


Another update about Sanesha Stewart: You may have noticed that the New York Daily News is still referring to her as “she was biologically a he” and calling her by her old name, appending “who went by the name Sanesha” as if it’s a nickname. I feel compelled to point out that this is not only disrespectful, it’s a factual inaccuracy. Sanesha Stewart changed her name legally, which I know because the staff at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project helped her do it. But instead of fact-checking — or simply respecting the fact that people choose their own names, whether a judge approves it or not — the press has chosen to treat Sanesha’s name like it’s a “fake” nickname, and trumpeted her old name as some sort evidence of her “real” gender.

Let me be clear: it’s a Very Good Thing that trans people can get legal name changes — it can help with all sorts of institutional bureaucracy, being able to get a job and use your name, etc. But nobody should have to get their name legally changed to receive the basic respect of being called what they want to be called. Sensationalism-seeking journalists don’t even care if you’ve changed your name legally — they just assume that trans people, especially the poor people of color, are using “nicknames.”

Would a newspaper ever do this to anyone else? Publish a married woman’s maiden name, or assume anyone else who changed their name was just “going by” a different name, or deem that person’s old name newsworthy? Of course not. It’s just part of the bogus angle of “we’re going to reveal this trans person’s ‘true’ identity,” and part of the process of delegitimizing trans people’s gender, regardless of whether a court of law has signed and sealed their new name. Every trans person should be aware of this: laws do not necessarily protect you or support your case, not in a society that wants to erase trans people in whatever way possible.

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26 comments for “Kill them to kill part of yourself

  1. Suzanne
    February 17, 2008 at 6:06 am

    Things don’t change much. “TRANS PANIC DEFENSE?? What a load of crap. This bears remarkable resemblance to the Dan White “twinkie defense.” This kind of drivel got former city councilman White off the hook for gunning down around six people in the San Francisco City Hall building, including then Mayor of San Francisco George Moscone and openly gay councilmember Harvey Milk (White’s political polar opposite on the City Council) back in the 70’s. White later committed suicide, but that didn’t bring his victims back.

  2. February 17, 2008 at 8:33 am

    I dunno about newspapers, but a lot of people refuse to accept name changes. There are even so-called friends who demand the reason for the name-change before they’ll use the new name. Reasons that might be deeply personal. It goes the other way round too. People refusing to accept that a recently married woman did NOT change her name, thus insisting on calling her Mrs. husband’s last name, rather than her own name which she retained.

  3. Kitty
    February 17, 2008 at 9:24 am

    “Unfortunately, as far too many victims of violent crimes, sexual assaults, abuse, and rape know, it’s often the people you trust — who you think you’re safe with — who end up being the greatest danger to you.”

    Truer words were never spoken, and it’s a damned shame, too.

  4. Shana R.
    February 17, 2008 at 10:43 am

    As far as the name thing goes this is just another way that the media engages in their own “trans panic”. They chose not to acknowledge the truth for fear of stepping outside of the box of gender. It saddens me because at one time print media was a forerunner in confronting the issues that society will not deal with. Ufortunately those days are over.

  5. Neko-Onna
    February 17, 2008 at 11:04 am

    I dunno about newspapers, but a lot of people refuse to accept name changess.

    Here is my Amateur Psychologist perspective on this issue, which is one I think about a lot, as a person who has decided not to take my husband’s name.

    Names are control, just like gender is control. When people refuse to call someone by their prefered name, or treat them like a person of their prefered gender, what they really are doing is exerting control over that person. I think it’s a very basic form of jealous response- “If I can’t change my name, gender, etc, neither can YOU!” When the paper chooses to print a transgendered person’s old name, I think it is as much about reasserting control as it is sensationalism. I notice the same kind of treatment for people who change their names for other reasons, too (all of the facination with a celebrity’s “real”” name, for example). We’ve been taught to confuse the name with the thing, that there is some essential “truth” in names, so in that way names have power.

    When people sense their power/control/authority being challenged, they seek to reassert their control. Hence parents calling their children by their full name when they are angry with the child, and people calling married women by the name that “should” define them (their husband’s), and newspapers referring to transgendered people by their “birth” name.

  6. February 17, 2008 at 2:00 pm

    Let’s get one thing perfectly clear: trans people, especially women who already live on the economic margins of a racist, classist, transphobic society, are not idiots. With few exceptions, trans people know very well that we’re potentially in danger from bigots who can’t handle trans people. Nobody wants to get into an intimate, vulnerable situation with someone who might completely flip out on you. Every sex worker who’s less than completely green is aware of that kind of danger.

    I had the interesting experience, while in Indianapolis, of being repeatedly solicited for sex as a prostitute by men who almost certainly read me as a trans woman. It didn’t matter how I was dressed, as I was approached even while wearing a very nice gray skirt suit appropriate to a lawyers office. In every case, the man was African American, which I have not yet figured out. (I am of Scottish descent)

    I certainly do not buy the “trans panic” thing, as from my own observation, the men are going well out of their way to get “tranny” sex. As for homophobic or trans phobic violence, I twice had to flee from bus stops after being threatened with injury. Once was from a gang of black men who started the conversation with “Hey, Faggot! (they misread me as an effeminate gay male) and then kindly inquired as to whether I would like to be “dropped” and go to the hospital. The other occurance was with some drunk, white frat boy types who decided I was a cock sucking mother-fucker or some such. I got away before I found out what they wanted to do to me. Fortunately I was not pursued in either case, as I am somewhat crippled and would not be able to escape a dedicated attacker. In any event, I will getting a concealed carry permit for the state I live in. Two close calls is two many, especially when you are out numbered and cannot really run away.

  7. Trixie23
    February 17, 2008 at 2:23 pm

    Y’know I really try to respect what people want to be called. I just don’t “get”, when women divorce and go back to a former married name.
    I did take my first husband’s name, then hyphenated my maiden and married name during marriage II.
    I am SO glad to have my father’s name again for the past few years!

    One of my dental patients who is legally “Dave”, goes by “DeeDee”. Why the HELL would I EVER call this obvious woman, “Dave”!? Especially in front of any other patients!? I’ll grant that it is weird when his little granddaughter says, “Grandpa”(after all she HAS grandmothers), but that is their family business and
    they are a family that thrives and functions better than many I see.

  8. Cat of many faces
    February 17, 2008 at 2:32 pm

    The trans panic defense is ridiculous. I mean, think about it. The theory behind our penal system is that we are to change criminals into people who can fit into society again.

    Isn’t someone who panics about another’s gender status and kills a very DEFINITION of a problem that needs to be reformed? Seriously, it doesn’t sound like a defense so much as the crime itself.

    It’s like saying “I needed money so I robbed a bank” as a defense for stealing. Although that’s not the best example as extreme poverty is a bit of an extenuating circumstance.

    Ah here’s a better one “He was just so ugly that i had to kill him”

    Seriously, saying that your delicate sensibilities trump someones life is a good reason to take you out of society. I.E. jail.

  9. February 17, 2008 at 3:42 pm

    Cat, they’re not the definition of a problem if the public thinks they’re performing a valuable service.
    Trans panic defenses work because trans people are already so dehumanized and demonized in the surrounding culture that for some people, the idea of a person going around killing trans folk and taking them out of the human race is a gift to the community, or at least a necessary evil to get rid of the undesirables.
    That’s where you and I see ridiculousness, and others see airtight defense–you think trans people are people deserving of the right to live, and they don’t. And if you think that trans people are a worse problem for society than killers–or that trans people -are- all criminals, killers, and dangerous lunatics–why would you consider someone purging us from the population to be a problem? Plenty of folk don’t see it as a problem if someone’s running around killing rabid dogs, after all.

  10. February 17, 2008 at 4:07 pm

    Some clarification of the “Twinkie Defense” mentioned in comment#1 by Suzanne: the trope that the defense argued that “Twinkies made him do it” is an urban legend.

    The defense argued that White was depressed as part of a diminished capacity defense, and they adduced evidence of White changing from a healthy diet to one full of junk food, including Twinkies, as indicators of his depression. The jury accepted the defense’s argument that White’s depression meant a diminished capacity for premeditation, and thus he was convicted of manslaughter rather than of murder.

    The public and media were outraged that premeditation could be ruled out considering the other facts of the case, and thus arose a conflating of the full arguments of the defense into the myth of the Twinkie Defense: basically as a way of demonising the “stupid jury” who didn’t make the finding that the public wanted. Snopes has more.

    Now it’s quite possible that some of the people on the jury thought that Harvey Milk, in particular, deserved to die because of being openly gay, and thus were only too happy to accept an argument of depression as a mitigating circumstance, but they didn’t go to the legendary lengths of accepting a totally novel argument based on Twinkies. That was just the press being derisive about their decision.

  11. February 17, 2008 at 4:15 pm

    The reasoning behind a trans panic defense, as I understand it, is that the defendant claims that they were provoked into a state resembling insanity, or overwhelming horror, disgust, and anger. I don’t know that the insanity defense has ever been successful, but arguing that killing of trans people is a “crime of passion” as opposed to a premeditated act has gotten some murderers a reduced sentence. Basically, trans people are unclean, or can “make you gay” somehow because your notions of gender get confused. So it’s a sort of moral panic about your own state of affairs, and your contact with the unclean — this is what courts, the media, and innumerable bystanders feel is “understandable.” Sympathy goes to the killer, not the dead.

    The provoking factor is, of course, the trans person’s very existence. So blame goes on trans people, even to the extent that some people (gay men & lesbians, even) have publicly said that they felt or would feel sexually assaulted or raped by trans people who didn’t disclose their trans status soon enough. To these people, punching a trans person in the face, or spewing transphobic vitriol online, is some sort of self-defense against being “tricked” into sexual attraction for someone who has body parts they find unacceptable.

    However, the point of what I wrote above is that this whole “sudden shock” leading to a “crime of passion” is bogus. The killers often know beforehand or from intimate personal experience that their victim is trans. There’s no surprise, no panic at the fact that the other person is trans. It’s more like “I was fine with sleeping with this trans woman until I was exposed, or couldn’t pretend it wasn’t happening any more… so then I killed her.” This is a pattern, and I suspect it’s far less legally defensible. However, that’s in part because then the conventional wisdom of the courts etc. would be that the killer is a “closeted gay man” regardless of how he identifies, and therefore will get less sympathy than a “straight man who was tricked into feeling gay.”

  12. Marissa
    February 17, 2008 at 5:23 pm

    Reminds me of how rape cases most often act as means for society to monitor and police the victims’ actions, punishing, and acting as warnings to, women who don’t conform to traditional roles. You know, by being so bold as to leave their homes and maybe have a drink with friends before being raped. Somehow I am not so convinced that our jury system is all that effective in protecting members of society.

  13. CBrachyrhynchos
    February 17, 2008 at 6:11 pm

    Holly: Well, it’s not even an insanity defense. I did some digging into the issue of mitigating and aggravating factors in regards to the Indiana bias crime debate (in the context of the torture/murder of Shorty Hall.) And at least in Indiana state law (and in the statutes of many other jurisdictions) “sudden heat” is a mitigating factor which can be used to distinguish voluntary manslaughter (usually a 5-20) vs. murder (20+, with the possibility for capital/life penalty hearing). So I suspect that in these cases the defendants are not arguing for classic insanity, instead, they are arguing that the case is more analogous to an argument gone wrong than premeditated murder.

    I’m a bit disturbed at how people are so quick to jump to the double tragedy narrative of the murder of Lawrence King. Until we get some evidence that is the case, my anger and sympathy lies entirely on the side of Lawrence. There is something that feels wrong about putting the attention on the possibility that the perp, maybe couldbe motivated by internalized self-loathing and not on Lawrence.

  14. CBrachyrhynchos
    February 17, 2008 at 6:37 pm

    Or in other words, the game is not to argue that a person is clinically incompetent at the time that the crime happned. The game is to say that the victim provoked the defendant into a spontaneous crime of anger that shouldn’t be considered “murder.”

  15. February 17, 2008 at 7:13 pm

    A couple more things about the shooting here in California:

    – While “middle-school” is technically correct because junior high in California continues to 9th grade, the victim was 15 and the suspect is 14. That’s one of the reasons he can be tried as an adult: 14 is the minimum age for that in California. For some reason, it was bugging me that people seemed to be assuming that these were 8- or 10-year-olds.

    – I’m sure that no one here will be surprised to find out that the father of the suspect has a couple of domestic abuse charges and a drunk driving conviction. So, yeah, kid in shitty situation makes it worse.

    Also, he is officially being charged with a hate crime, which in California is a sentencing enhancement and not a separate charge.

  16. Suzanne
    February 17, 2008 at 10:06 pm

    tigtog: Thanks for your “twinkie defense” clarification. I was one of the many who found the jury “manslaughter” decision appalling, particualrly in the face of evidence such as Milk being shot no less than six times. If that doesn’t indicate intent, I don’t know what does.

  17. Sharon
    February 17, 2008 at 10:32 pm

    Victim blaming pure and simple. I have a friend who is trans and African-American and has been jailed on trumped up charges. Would this have happened had T been a white male? You tell me.

  18. February 17, 2008 at 11:57 pm

    As a Trans-woman and also a business owner who works with clients in the domestic violence prevention industry (AVACA, Inc.) as well as the owner of LGBT Family Services, Inc., both located in San Francisco. As well as a person who has suffered two attacks and has been beaten and raped. I can speak both personally and professionally I believe about the following subject.

    People attack others for two basic reasons * they are themselves running/hiding from their own sexual or gender issues and believe attacking someone who is “out” will prove they are not like the person they attack or * the attacker feels the need to “correct” or “keep the order and control”. As if in a relationship, or as a member of society at large, someone is the decider and keeper of the rules, and if broken, someone must be punished for not conforming to a set of rules. Being the victim of a hate crime myself, when attacked, I was told that I was being raped to show me what a “real” man was like and the beatings were to show how much of a “freak” I am. As if my attackers were the keeper of conformity and there to enforce societies rules.

    I see language in almost every article that is about someone who is transgender or gender queer that they are “non-conforming”. This language was also used in the most recent article where a teenage child in my own state was shot and killed at school only days ago. My heart goes out to the friends and family.

    It is for this very reason many attack… they feel that someone must step in to punish the person who is “non-conforming” and they feel justified in doing so. I started several months ago asking the local LGBT organizations and media to stop using this language as part of there description of individuals with-in the LGBT community as who are we to be “conforming” to. As a member of the LGBT community we conform to our “own” identity and life as we see it, and that the use of the term “gender non-conforming” only ads to the belief that we are some how in default, wrong or defective. As someone who is an advocate of our human rights, our own Gay and Lesbian community can understand what it is like to be viewed or described as being “sexually non-conforming”. It has negative connotations.

    I understand the many ways society has been conditioned both past and present to conform to what is considered “natural” behavior. This is of course one of the greatest fallacies known to our society. As we are each individuals and live and love in a manor unique to our own understanding and good will. It is however a total break down of our rights and privileges when even our own LGBT Community, as well as the media that reports on our community, uses language such as “gender non-conforming”. I believe it sends the wrong message to society and ask anyone who reads this to see the wisdom in ending this type of description or language regarding our community and instead start dialogue on how each person “conforms” to their “own” understanding of self and are unique as snowflakes and has the right to do so.

  19. February 18, 2008 at 2:23 am

    Suzanne, I don’t blame anyone for being outraged at the jury’s verdict of manslaughter in a case that had as many clear indicators of intent to most eyes as did the Dan White case. As Barbara Mikkelson says on Snopes, people chose to believe the myth of the successful Twinkie defense rather than acknowledge a bleak fact of our society:

    Better to believe the jury was hoodwinked by some pseudo-scientific nonsense about junk food than to acknowledge the fact that our legal system sometimes absolves defendants of responsibility for the most heinous of crimes.

    People who are Othered by our society get shafted by our legal system all the time, because most jurors share general social prejudices and are willing to give people accused of harming one of Them the benefits of doubts that they would not extend if the victim were one of Us. It’s part of the same trap where many non-feminist women fall into victim-blaming women who are raped: they are Other, they are not Us, and They did something to provoke rape, which We would never do. Ingroup reassurance is the basis of all myths and legends, and urban legends about gays, transfolk and rape victims are no different.

  20. February 18, 2008 at 2:03 pm

    It is for this very reason many attack… they feel that someone must step in to punish the person who is “non-conforming” and they feel justified in doing so.

    My husband and I were talking about the case and he brought up several others recently where the violent bully saw him/herself as the enforcer of society’s standards. When other people ridicule the bully for adhering to those standards (as in this case), the bully is usually totally incredulous that other people aren’t supporting him/her. After all, s/he is following society’s rules — why is everyone else breaking them!?!!

  21. February 18, 2008 at 4:58 pm

    I think Neko-Onna is right about this being a control issue, but i would say that it goes farther than just names – it’s about society controlling anyone who doesn’t fit the standards for “normal”. The New York Daily News’ response is so typical – tragedies like this are either ignored or framed in a way that dehumanizes the victim. And they almost never talk about the perpetrator’s identity the way they do the victim’s. In the NYDN story, we get all the “shocking details” about who Stewart was and what she looked like, but there’s almost nothing about McMillan. They certainly don’t identify his race – if they did people might actually sit up and notice that, by and large, these kinds of murders are committed by white men. And that might lead to scary questions about what exactly is going on in our society that makes white men feel entitled to be the “enforcers” of what is acceptable social behavior. And how much do you want to bet that the editor at NYDN who approved this story just “happens” to also be a white man? But the media will never point that out, because as long as Whiteness is invisible, the systems of privilege remain intact.

  22. ftmark
    February 21, 2008 at 3:36 pm

    The name thing is really not okay. I’ve actually thought, if something happened to me and I died tomorrow, I’m fairly positive that everything would have my legal name (which I haven’t used in 2 years – I just haven’t legally changed it yet). No one knows me by that name, but that doesn’t matter at all, does it?

    Sometimes, I wish being trans was easier.

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