Transgender activists, Jersey tabloid at odds
On the warmest, sunniest day so far of spring, Coy Gordon, 42, sat in her West New York apartment with the doors locked and shades drawn. She lives in constant fear of unknown enemies who know where she lives, what she looks like and — should it provoke them — that she is a transgender woman.
Gordon is set for a court hearing today in West New York for a recent prostitution arrest, part of citywide crackdown on the local sex trade. But for many activists — and transgender women living private lives — this trial has become much larger than Gordon herself.
Gordon feels her safety has been jeopardized because of the way the arrest was covered by a Jersey City-based tabloid, the Jersey Journal. Questions meanwhile have resurfaced about the ethical limits of tabloid sensationalism in the coverage of transgender women and the real-world harm it can cause them.
Steven Goldstein, president and CEO of Garden State Equality, called the story “an abomination in reporting.”
In the Web version of that Feb. 27 article, gender pronouns such as “he” and “his” were used to describe Gordon, who has lived as a woman for the past 30 years. But careless copy errors — which were later corrected at the behest of Gordon’s legal representation — were only the tip of the iceberg.
The article listed Gordon’s address along with an interactive Google map, offering a paint-by-numbers guide to her home. Advocates argue that the mere disclosure of Gordon’s gender identity as a “transsexual” in the headline and in the phrase “transsexual sex romp” was gratuitous and exploitative.
“This arrest had nothing to do with the fact that this person was transgender,” Goldstein said.
This sort of coverage would appear absurd and discriminatory in the context of any other minority or ethnic group, according to Babs Casbar Siperstein, director of the Gender Rights Advocacy Association of New Jersey.
“If this had been a Jewish or Italian girl, would they have written ‘a Jewish or Italian sex romp?’ ” Siperstein said. “They are obviously picking on us because they think we are politically impotent.”
But editorial staff at the Jersey Journal fired back at critics.
“All of a sudden we are now the big bad newspaper who are a bunch of cavemen,” said Ron Zeitlinger, deputy managing editor at the newspaper.
He admits the misuse of masculine gender pronoun was a “mistake” that “slipped through.” But he is baffled why activists are criticizing their disclosure of Gordon’s gender identity, especially because she posted her services under a heading for “Transsexuals” on the backpage.com Web site.
“We probably should have given an attribution,” Zeitlinger said. “We have no agenda on what we call people. We just try to be accurate.”
But the fact that Gordon is transgender was precisely what made the story newsworthy, he said. He compared the incident to the public stir caused by Hugh Grant’s arrest for soliciting a transgender prostitute in Los Angeles 15 years ago.
“That’s what makes it news,” Zeitlinger said about Gordon being a transgender woman. “Every group could say you write too much about black crime, too much Hispanic crime and politicians doing bad things.”
But Siperstein, a Jersey City native, said the paper’s coverage of transgender people lacks balance and instead follows a strict, bad-news-only policy. She could not remember a single positive article written recently about the transgender community — and that is not for a lack of occasion.
GRAANJ, in corroboration with local gay center Hudson Pride Connections, held a town hall meeting in 2006. It was a celebration of New Jersey’s passage of transgender non-discrimination legislation, the ninth state in the nation to do that. Last June, activists scored another milestone in state-recognized equality, when former Gov. Jon Corzine signed a bill allowing a person’s driver’s license to reflect his or her gender identity.
“Do you think the press covered that?” Siperstein asked. “No.”
In the past decade, three news stories about transgender women have been covered by the Jersey Journal, prior to Gordon’s arrest. In 1999, Janet Aiello, a Hoboken police lieutenant, filed a discrimination suit against her then-employer following a sex-change operation.
In March 2004, the trial coverage of a Bayonne transgender woman, who allegedly was sexually and physically assaulted by a Jersey City man, was hampered by questionable copy. The paper consistently referred to the plaintiff as a transsexual, even though by the article’s own disclosure, she had never received a surgical procedure. According to the report, the alleged assailant “pulled down a thong and realized the victim was male.”
“There is a clear difference between transsexual, transvestite, transgender and drag queen,” said J. Marshall Evans, communications and outreach manager at Hudson Pride Connections.
“Transsexual” is a medical term that describes a person who has undergone hormone therapy or gender reassignment surgery, Evans explained.
Nonetheless, he thinks tabloids like the Jersey Journal prefer the term transsexual, instead of the umbrella term “transgender,” because it is a way “grabbing readers” while disregarding accuracy.
But according to one longstanding, openly gay copy editor at the Jersey Journal, “inflammatory words” are just the nature of tabloid writing.
“We are not trying to be the Washington Post,” said John Crittenden. “Our style in covering crime is to go more for the jugular than the brain.”
In his 30-year career at the newspaper, Crittenden said he has seen the newspaper go through “several incarnations of taste.” But the transgender community, in the context of crime reporting, is painted with the same “tabloid” brushstroke as any other community.
Crittenden, who also edits the newspaper’s “Letters to the Editor” section, faults activists for not once voicing their criticism directly to the newspaper.
“If you care about this issue — if you think the only ballgame in town should not be a tabloid — then write a letter to the editor,” Crittenden said. “The world is full of opinions; never be afraid to express one.”