Journalists have difficult jobs. They are often asked to deal with complicated issues and unfamiliar questions. Such is the challenge for reporters in Albuquerque, N.M., covering a string of murders involving transgender Native Americans where two of the victims were apparently involved in prostitution.
Two transgender individuals–described as “cross-dressers” by the city’s newspaper (the Albuquerque Journal) and two television stations (KRQE and KOB)–have been killed in the last month and a third person was killed over four years ago. The newspaper describes the victims as “American Indian,” while neither television station said whether the victims were Native American. All three murders took place in the same neighborhood and all three involved the victims being left in an alley or the street.
The stories are problematic for a number of reasons. First, the use of “cross-dressers” is incredibly confusing and maybe inappropriate. While the NLGJA Stylebook says cross-dresser is the “preferred term for a person who most wears clothing most often associated with members of the opposite sex,” it’s not clear whether the victims here lived their lives as women or whether they just wore women’s clothes. It’s an important distinction that is never explored in the stories. Using the more general “transgender” would have avoided confusion.
I talked with Richard LaFortune of the Two Spirit Press Room in Minnesota and he said the victims were likely transgender Native Americans who came into the city looking for work. Like other transgender people who find limited work opportunities because they are transgender, LaFortune said that some Native Americans do turn to prostitution. The most recent victim–Teri Benally–appeared not to be a prostitute, but was described as “meeting someone he met online.”
LaFortune told me that Native American transgender people struggle with the challenges all transgender people face in terms of acceptance and media visibility. Exacerbating the issue is that Native Americans must deal with traditional, often rural, communities where there is little information about transgender issues.
The issue of crimes against transgender people who are Native American is not a new one. LaFortune pointed me to a documentary making the LGBT Film Festival circuit called Two Spirits: Sexuality, Gender, and the Murder of Fred Martinez, about the 2001 murder of 16-year old Fred Martinez in Cortez, Colorado.
Despite the fact that the Albuquerque murders are a challenge to cover given the overlapping questions of sexuality, gender, Native American issues, and violence, this is a story that deserves better coverage and more analysis.
Who are the victims and how did they end up dead? What is life like for Native American transgenders and LGBT people generally? For the two victims who are prostitutes, was prostitution involved in the murders and how did they end up working as prostitutes? Are the murders connected? Are they covered by New Mexico’s hate crimes law?
Ultimately, we are talking about people who had life stories that need to be told. One place to begin would be with a comment left on KRQE’s website from “A. Goodluck Ashley”
Teri was a wonderful person. She was kind, ovewhelmingly helpful, and full of laughter. I pray that whoever ended her life be held accountable here on this earth, or thereafter. I, for one, could not label her. She was born a male, but she was always my aunt, in every and all ways. When I went to school at UNM and couldn’t afford a place of my own, she welcomed me into her home and found a job for me where she worked. I loved her then and I love her now. Where she is at there are no more labels, there is no more hate, and she can be at peace. I now pray for those out there who are persecuted for being themselves. No one should have to live in fear.