On Tuesday morning, 25-year-old India Clarke was found dead outside the University Area Community Center in Tampa, Florida. Clarke, a cosmetology student, had been beaten to death, making her the 10th transgender woman to be murdered this year—nearly as many as in all of 2014.
In keeping with a pattern that followed many of the previous nine murders of transwomen this year, coverage of the investigation by local media often misgendered Clarke—identifying her with male pronouns or her birth name rather than her chosen name—despite established journalistic guidelines dictating that the media use an individual's preferred name and pronouns.
This refusal to acknowledge a name change is unique to transgender people. Journalists comply when rappers change their names, "which they do frequently," says Andrew Seaman, ethics chair for the Society of Professional Journalists. It shouldn't be any different, he argues, for people who identify with a gender and a name different from those they were assigned at birth. So why do some journalists insist on misgendering India Clarke and other transgender people in the news?
In Clarke's case, the misgendering began with the police investigation. Despite the fact that Clarke clearly identified as female on her Facebook page, investigators have insisted on identifying the victim as male. "We are not going to categorize him as a transgender. We can just tell you he had women's clothing on at the time," Detective Larry McKinnon, a spokesman for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office told BuzzFeed News. "What his lifestyle was prior to that we don't know—whether he was a cross-dresser, we don't know." (The only explanation as to why officials can't refer to Clarke as a woman appears to be the fact that the medical examiner identified her as a male.)
Despite the fact that Clarke clearly identified as female on her Facebook page, investigators have insisted on identifying the victim as male.
"The police were basically saying, 'It's a man in a dress,'" Seaman says. "And what often happens—too often actually—is that journalists just take police reports and descriptions and run with it."
While most journalists may be in favor of a policy in which any and all story subjects are referred to by their preferred pronouns–she, her, he, him, etc.–and updated style guides reflect that, another part of the problem may be that bad habits can be hard to shake. Advances in technology and medicine are often slow to catch on, and the same goes for journalism, according to Seaman. "When there's a change in practice it takes time," he says. "You can see the same thing with the terms 'undocumented' and 'illegal' immigrants. There are still places that use the term illegal immigrant when much of the profession has moved to undocumented immigrant."
Even the Associated Press has, in the past, violated its own rules, as the Washington Post reported earlier this year:
In the minutes after Caitlyn Jenner's Vanity Fair cover went public yesterday, the Associated Press made a big whoopsie: They tweeted — and then deleted — a message in which they referred to Jenner as a "he."
But it's more than just a "whoopsie" for the people who are misgendered. It undermines transgender acceptance and dignity, and in cases like Clarke's, it could impede justice. "LGBT anti-violence organizations have long warned that misgendering transgender victims and quickly downplaying gender identity as a factor in investigations can alienate people who know the victims and who could provide tips that identify a suspect," BuzzFeed's Dominic Holden writes.
At this point, officials in Florida don't consider Clarke's gender identity to be a motivating factor in her murder. But too often, transgender individuals are subject to violence because of their identities. A 2011 survey of nearly 6,500 transgender and gender-non-conforming people found they are bullied and harassed at rates that far exceed the general population: Sixty-one percent of survey respondents were the victim of a physical assault, and 64 percent had been sexually harassed.
"It's sort of like something breaking by a thousand little cracks. Each little bit of mistrust adds to that."
The Sheriff's Office is looking into Clarke's alleged criminal history for leads into her murder instead. But the local media's coverage of her prior arrests (which did not result in convictions, according to the Advocate) reinforces stereotypes that are all too common in media portrayals of transgender people. In an analysis from GLAAD of transgender-inclusive television, the organization found that trans-characters were cast as victims 40 percent of the time, and villains more than 20 percent of the time. A fifth of all transgender characters on TV were cast as sex workers. Further, Chai Jindasurat, co-director of community organizing and public advocacy at the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, told the Guardian that willfully using the wrong pronouns for victims such as Clarke helps to maintain the transphobia that led to the violence in the first place.
"You're not doing anyone any favors by misgendering someone," Seaman adds. "If you could avoid the harm caused to the victim, and in this case, the victim's family and friends who are the ones dealing with the aftermath of this, why wouldn't you?"
Consistently stereotyping and mistreating any group can negatively impact the relationship between the media and its consumers and sources. Misgendering can breed mistrust, according to Seaman, which ultimately leads people to question the credibility of not only the journalists who make these mistakes, but the media at large.
"It's sort of like something breaking by a thousand little cracks. Each little bit of mistrust adds to that," Seaman says. "If a person is not treated fairly if they talk with a journalist, that person may not want to be interviewed again, that takes that voice out of the conversation. And we need that voice in the conversation."