Public Editor

Transgender identity can’t always be verified — and it isn’t always an either/or

I have heard nothing but strong negative reaction to this blog post. Since I published it, The Star interviewed Tamara Dominguez’ boyfriend in a new story with firsthand information about her life. He said, “no one knew her as a man,” and that “she felt freedom” since moving to the United States.

Critics of this piece have called it a “defense” of the initial online-only news brief, which used the word “man.” It isn’t a defense. It is an explanation of how it was originally written, then recrafted without gender-specific language. Its target is a general-readership audience, who may not be familiar with the complexities of gender identity.

The original post, unedited:

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Journalism needs to follow facts. When they are unclear, reporters can’t jump to conclusions based on noise in social media.

That’s almost too obvious to state, I know. But I’ve heard a number of people demanding The Star do just that this morning, and it’s completely wrong-headed, even if the impulse behind it is good.

I rarely write about instances where I think The Star’s critics are wrong, because that’s not a good use of my space. But here, I think the subject is important enough to demand it.

A short story posted on KansasCity.com yesterday identified the victim of a homicide as Jesus E. Dominguez. It noted that the victim was also known as Tamara. The initial version of the story used the word “man.” Gender-specific pronouns have been removed from the version that ran in the print edition, and which is currently online.

Last night and this morning, a number of voices in social media have been blasting The Star, using words such as “hate” and other counterproductive hyperbole for not initially identifying the victim as a transgender woman.

Let’s get serious here. The Star’s record on transgender issues has been anything but hateful. Just a sampling of prominent recent stories, several of which have run on front pages:

Transgender men build their bodies, confidence at KC’s City Gym

Transgender student visibility has Missouri and Kansas colleges making accommodations

‘I am a girl’: Transgender children face a society slow to accept them

Six male-to-female transgender people from KC area to star in TV series

Finding their voice: Speech clinic helps transgender clients

Read through those stories, which are only some of the coverage this topic has gotten. It has been overwhelmingly (in my mind unquestionably) affirmative.

Back to the question about the victim in the story at hand. Police directly told the reporter they did not know whether Dominguez identified as male or female. And as the victim is deceased, it’s now impossible to get a firsthand answer to that question.

KCTV interviewed the victim’s friend, who used female pronouns. The Star didn’t have that (as of this writing at least). I’ve spoken to the newsroom, and they’re following through on the story.

There’s a vitally important principle to discuss here: Gender identity is not a binary equation to all people. There are those who look at themselves as the same gender they were born in. There are people who consider themselves the opposite gender.

But there are also people who fall somewhere else along a continuum. Some identify as both genders simultaneously — or even neither. Some identify as female but have male alter-aliases, and vice versa. Some continue to identify as their birth gender while cross-dressing. Sometimes even those closest to these people don’t know exactly how to answer the intensely personal questions of gender identiy.

The police report was succinct, identifying the victim as Jesus — the only legal name known, according to police, and noting the alias. It would have been premature, and ultimately journalistically unsound to make any assumption.

And it’s wrong to ignore a basic reality: This issue is inherently confusing and tricky. Legal identities do matter, both in trans people’s lives and in reporting the news. Despite what one may glean from the always black/white world of Twitter, trans activists speak at great length about the murky details of names, passports, and birth certificates that are serious issues trans people deal with — financial and social barriers to changing one’s legal identification, for example. Pretending they don’t exist is absurd.

You could argue the story shouldn’t have run at all until this detail was known, via an interview with a family member or someone who can be verified as a friend of Dominguez. And no, self-proclaimed “friends” in social media don’t count. Dominguez does not appear to have had a public social media presence under the name Tamara or Jesus — both rather common names, complicating matters.

The Star should obviously be sensitive to how people see their gender identities, and obviously that’s the track record.

But activism is too often hijacked by loud, irresponsible voices, even from people who mean well. I’ve heard from some today criticizing The Star for being behind on this story, yet ironically using terminology that transgender people generally consider offensive. It’s impossible for everyone to be on the same page.

But accusations of “hate?” “Violence?” These types of exaggeration are ultimately demeaning to the very real threats of literal violence that transgender people face.

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