When Should Newspapers Mention A Person Is Transgender?

When the Santa Fe New Mexican reported the arrest of 60-year-old Randey Michelle “Mikeh” Gordon for impersonating a police officer and illegally pulling over another vehicle, they opted for the headline “Transsexual faces charges of police impersonation.” Replace the word transexual with “African-American”, “lesbian”, “Iraqi”, or “pole dancer” and you’ll understand why this is a problem.

Basically, Gordon’s transgender identity had nothing to do with the story. (Her defense — that she’s had a lifelong desire to be a cop — does.) In addition, the article included the following ill-considered statements about Gordon (emphasis added):

[Gordon] a former male high-school art teacher in Westchester County, N.Y…. caused a stir in 2000 when she took the school year off with pay to have a sex-change operation

Last summer… police heard that a “person in women’s clothes who was very obviously a male” was parking a police-like vehicle along I-25…

[the State police spokesman Lt. Eric Garcia] said “the suspect likes to be called she

To the newspaper’s credit, at least they used the correct female pronoun for Gordon. But it’s clear they focused on Gordon’s transgender identity to dramatize an otherwise mundane story. And we should be outraged, right? Well, it depends on how you look at it.

The civil and women’s rights movement have taught us that the initial appearance of “others” in mainstream media always comes with severe representational issues. As trans identity continues its rocky entry into the mainstream, some media will treat it as a novelty, especially when it comes to trans criminals, even if their gender identity is immaterial to the crime story.

That’s not to say that we should accept it, or that “any press is good press” when it comes acquainting audiences with transgender people, but we should expect it to come up when it occurs. At the same time, we should also encourage local newspapers like the Santa Fe New Mexican to present members of the trans community for what they also are: community builders and individuals facing unique social challenges, and not just law breaking crazies who want to play dress up for a weekend.

Update: As some of you have mentioned, the story referenced is from November 2009, making it “old news.” Still worth covering, but yeah, it’s dated.