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Visibly Unknown: Media
Depiction of Murdered
, April Carrillo
Specific examples of transgender people misgendered and misidentified in media have
been well-documented; however, little work explores how media depicts the murder
of transgender people. The current work examines media coverage of the 23 trans-
gender women of color murdered in 2016. Utilizing content analysis, we identified five
themes including the brutality of these murders, the trivialization of the murders,
misgendering the victims, the emotional toll on significant others, and resiliency among
the transgender community. In general, media reports of deaths of transgender
women of color in 2016 reveal the saliency of stigmatization. Did these lives matter?
media, transgender, content analysis, murder, minority women
On April 29, 2013, an article published in Cleveland Ohio’s Plain Dealer newspaper
had the following title, “Oddly dressed body found in Olmstead Township pond
identified” (Caniglia, 2013). The article described a body found in a retention pond
belonging to a “man” who was reported as missing. Yet, upon review of the article, it
becomes clear that although the “body” was described as male, the victim was a
woman of color whose actual name was Cece Dove. Throughout the
article, Cece was misgendered (the author used he/him rather than she/her pronouns)
and she was often referred to as “the body.” Despite descriptions of Cece’s body found
Department of Sociology & Criminal Justice, Old Dominion University, Norfolk, VA, USA
Elizabeth Monk-Turner, Department of Sociology & Criminal Justice, Old Dominion University, Norfolk,
Race and Justice
ªThe Author(s) 2019
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tied up and attached to a block of concrete, there was little acknowledgment that she
was the victim of a brutal murder. Instead, the author of the article chose to stress that
Cece was “oddly dressed” because her clothes did not match her biological sex.
The author of this article, and another that appeared the next day, used Cece’s mug
shots rather than a picture from her social media profiles. A quick search of her name
unearths several smiling, pleasant pictures of Cece that were more indicative of her
life rather than the criminalized undertones illustrated by the mug shots. When
reported on at the local level, many articles utilize practices known as deadnaming
(using the name a transgender person used before their transition) and misgendering
(using gender pronouns that reflect a transgender person’s physical sex instead of their
; Barker-Plummer, 2013; Roshke, 2017; Sloop, 2000). The case of
Cece Dove is one example of local news articles mishandling information; however,
national news outlets such as Cable News Network and Slate also reveal challenges
when covering topics related to the trans community (Riedel, 2017).
The murder of transgender people, especially transgender people of color, is on the
rise. Analyzing media coverage of this topic is important because news coverage helps
shape our views of social issues (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation
[GLAAD], 2017a). The year 2016 was the deadliest recorded year for the number of
transgender people killed in the United States, but by 2017, a new record was set when
29 transgender homicide victims were identified (GLAAD, 2016; GLAAD, 2017a).
Our work focuses on transgender deaths in 2016, when 27 transgender people were
identified as murder victims. A clear majority (23) of these individuals were trans-
gender women of color (GLAAD, 2016; Human Rights Campaign [HRC], 2016).
While the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has included gender identity as a
form of bias in annual hate crime statistics since 2015, the Bureau of Justice Statistics
posits transgender deaths are 40 times higher than what the FBI reports (FBI, 2015;
Stafford, 2015). Official statistics are conservative because countless victims are
misgendered and thus misidentified.
For these reasons, we use statistics provided by GLAAD, a U.S.-based LGBTQþ
advocacy group as well as other nonprofit organizations including the National Center
for Transgender Equality and the HRC as our primary data sources. Utilizing
resources provided by these organizations, it is important to recognize that the
invaluable stories and statistics surrounding the murders of trans women of color often
begins from places such as TransGriot. TransGriot is a blog run by Monica Roberts, a
trans woman of color, who,
matches the name of a slain transgender person to a murder victim identified only by their
legal name in local coverage [after she has been made aware of the death of someone in the
community]. Then she publishes findings on her long-running blog. (Allen, 2019, para. 2)
Yet, despite this tireless work, public awareness of this social problem remains
scant because mass media coverage habitually deadnames the victim, misgenders, and
dehumanizes them (Barker-Plummer, 2013; Roschke, 2017; Sloop, 2000). Hence, the
current work aims to better understand how media described the murders of the 23
2Race and Justice XX(X)
transgender women of color killed in 2016 by using a sample of local news articles
published between January 1, 2016 and December 31, 2016. The choice to use local
news articles is a conscious one because few national news articles covered the
murders of these women. Local news articles are defined as written works found
online from media organizations that typically report on topics of interest that cater
to consumers who live in a specific locality.
Currently, 1.4 million adults identify as transgender in the United States (Hoffman,
2015; Meerwijk & Sevelius, 2017); however, this number may be a conservative as
the U.S. Census does not collect this information. Transgender people fit under a
wide-ranging trans umbrella that encompasses those who do not conform to hetero-
normative gender presentations or identifications. This includes people who use self-
identifying terms and whose gender identity does not fit in an only man or woman
binary view of gender (such as nonbinary, gender-fluid, genderqueer) and other terms
such as cross-dresser
(GLAAD, 2017b; Stotzer, 2009). The current
work focuses on transgender women, or people assigned male at birth, whose gender
identity is female. In the United States, societal adherence to a strict gender binary
system and the role expectations based on membership helps reproduce current norms
of gender identity (Hill, 2002). This gender binary system extols male and female as
core gender categories and delineates socially acceptable modes of identification and
presentation (Jauk, 2013a; Lombardi, Wilchins, Priesing, & Malouf, 2002; Witten &
Hogan (2015) posits that, with increasing visibility and awareness of the trans-
gender community within popular culture, there is a growing acceptance and tolerance
of fluidity in gender identity and presentation. Although acceptance is increasing, the
embeddedness of the two gender binary systems within various social institutions
remains salient. Transgender individuals, who exist outside of these strict boundaries,
are often met with intolerance, stigma, marginalization, and victimization (Lombardi
et al., 2002; Moran & Sharpe, 2004; Rodr´ıguez-Madera et al., 2017). Compared to the
general population, a transgender individual is 4 times more likely to live in extreme
poverty and is twice as likely as their cisgender
counterparts to be unemployed or
homeless (Grant et al., 2011; Meerwijk & Sevelius, 2017). This is due to structural
paradigms of cisgenderism and transphobia that constrain legal protections from
discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity within social institu-
tions (Movement Advancement Project, 2018).
Transgender Persons and Violence
Cisgenderism and transphobia represent pervasive ideological paradigms that justify
violence, hostility, and discrimination against individuals whose gender identity and
presentation deviate from the normative gender binary system. Hill (2002) conceptualizes
cisgenderism as a “system of beliefs that reinforce a negative evaluation based on gender
Wood et al. 3
nonconformity or an incongruence between sex and gender,” while transphobia conveys
society’s “fear or hatred of different genders” (p. 119). Hence, cisgenderism and trans-
phobia establish a social climate characterized by institutionalized and interpersonal forms
of violence that function to police and correct perceived gender deviancy. Consequently,
the various challenges faced by transgender and trans-identified persons in the United
States stem from the institutionalized nature of genderism and transphobia within different
social institutions (i.e., employment, education, and housing). Transgender individuals
face unique socioeconomic barriers resulting in an increased risk of suicidal ideations and
systemic violence (Grant et al., 2011). Internationally, when exploring the discrepancy
between experiences of violent victimization at the individual level and reported statistics
in the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women, Jauk (2013b) argues that the
omission of transphobic violence from common conceptions of gender violence denies the
existence of transphobic cruelty at the international level and further legitimizes brutality
as a tool for reestablishing a binary gender order.
According to Grant et al. (2011), approximately 47%of their sample (N¼6,450
transgender and gender-non-conforming respondents) experienced economic dis-
crimination due to their gender identity. Further, 16%of those transgender respon-
dents engaged in sex work, drug sales, and other illegal activities for income (Ganju &
Saggurti, 2017; Rodr´ıguez-Madera et al., 2017; Sausa, Keatley, & Operario, 2007).
The systematic barring of transgender people from the labor force increases the
likelihood that these individuals will become reliant upon the underground economy
to survive. Utilizing a gender affirmation framework, which incorporates objectifi-
cation theory, an identity threat model of stigma, and an intersectional approach,
Sevelius (2013) examined the ways in which “intersecting experiences of transphobia,
racism, and sexism shaped” the need for gender affirmation including the impact of
gender affirmation on the behaviors of a sample of transgender women of color (p.
678). Findings underscored the significance of gender affirmation as a protective
factor against involvement in risky behaviors that threaten the physical and mental
well-being of trans women of color (Sevelius, 2013). These risky behaviors place trans
women of color in danger since daily threats of verbal harassment, physical and sexual
violence, and death are common experiences of those in the trans community (Jauk,
2013a; Stotzer, 2009). For trans women of color subjected to institutionalized forms of
racism, cisgenderism, and transphobia, sex work can become a necessary means of
survival (Sevelius, 2013). As subsequent research notes, the intersection of race,
gender, and violence compromises the physical and socioemotional welfare of all
trans women and increases their exposure to violence.
When exploring the experiences of transgender persons involved in sex work,
qualitative interviews from Ganju and Saggurti (2017) illuminated the common
experience of violence, stigma, and HIV vulnerability among these individuals. For
instance, one respondent noted that “clients come to us thinking we are women. When
they find out we are transgender persons, they abuse and fight [ ...]” (p. 909) or
engage in sexualized violence, such as rape. One respondent recounted how a client
“would rob them [ ...] terrorize them basically [ ...] with a hunting knife [ ...],”
while another respondent described how women were then mutilated and butchered by
4Race and Justice XX(X)
clients (Sausa et al., 2007, p. 774). Likewise, Valera, Sawyer, and Schiraldi (2000)
reported that among sex workers who were trans women in Washington, DC, the
majority (65%) experienced assault, mostly perpetuated by their clients. The brutal-
ization of transgender women who engage in sex work at the hands of clients, as well
as the lack of criminal justice intervention on behalf of these women, underscores
beliefs that transgender women are “easy game to be sexually exploited” and suggests
the disposability of transgender women (Ganju & Saggurti, 2017, p. 910). This
common experience with violence in the transgender community was also noted by
Rodr´ıguez-Madera et al. (2017), who reported that trans women experienced verbal
harassment and the constant fear of violence or death daily.
Moreover, the subjection of trans women of color, particularly African American
trans women, to harassment and violence by agents of the criminal justice system,
particularly law enforcement, warrants attention. At the intersection of race, gender,
and policing, Ritchie (2017) notes that, throughout American history, African
American women and gender-non-conforming people have been the subject of har-
assment, physical and sexual violence, arrest, as well as the denial of protection.
Findings from the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey highlight the
nature of harassment and violence by police against transgender people (Grant et al.,
2011). African American transgender respondents reported above average rates of
harassment, physical assault, and sexual assault by police relative to other racial and
ethnic minorities. Specifically, 38%of African American transgender people reported
harassment by police, and 15%indicated they had been physically assaulted by police
(7%indicating being sexually assaulted; Grant et al., 2011). Likewise, Carpenter and
Marshall (2017) revealed that transgender people, often, African American trans
women, are routinely stopped, scrutinized, and subjected to harassment and violence
by law enforcement. Consequently, transgender people tend to perceive law
enforcement as an illegitimate institution and are reluctant to seek out the police for
protection against victimization or to cooperate with the police (Dario, Fradella,
Verhagen, & Parry, 2019; Ritchie, 2017; Serpe & Nadal, 2017). Thus, Ritchie (2017)
argues that such state-sanctioned violence functions to create and reproduce racialized
constructions of gender that disproportionately dehumanizes and criminalizes African
American trans women.
Media and Transgender Representation
Despite the complicated history of transgender people in the United States, accounts
of trans people throughout history are being unearthed in the age of information. For
instance, Christine Jorgensen, an American veteran of World War II, publicly tran-
sitioned, which sparked curiosity about the transgender community during the 1950s
(Arune, 2006). The popularity and notoriety of Jorgensen’s transition served as a
platform for advancing transgender rights and visibility in traditional mass media,
where she was positively covered and treated as a “blonde bombshell” (Arune, 2006).
However, this did not last. Following the McCarthy era, depictions of transgender
people became poor and inaccurate providing the framework of representation
Wood et al. 5
commonly seen in media today (Barker-Plummer, 2013; Billard, 2016; Capuzza,
2014; Gross, 1991; MacKenzie & Marcel, 2000; Marwick, Gray, & Annany, 2014;
Mogul, Ritchie, & Whitlock, 2011; Sloop, 2000).
Before the rise of the Internet, LGBTQþrepresentations were either nonexistent or
depicted as victims or villainous archetypes (Marwick et al., 2014; Mogul et al., 2011).
This large division between no representation and poor representation was coined by
Gerbner and Gross (1976) as “symbolic annihilation” (p. 182) referencing the fact that
LGBTQþpeople did not have appropriate media representation akin to their straight,
cisgender counterparts. Mogul, Ritchie, and Whitlock (2011) note how media and the
criminal justice system have stereotyped queer individuals and found that villainous and
criminalized images of LGBTQþpeople fuel societal attitudes of “the killer lesbian,” the
bull dykes,and the “he–she’s” preying on normal, productive citizens. Alternatively, if an
LGBTQþperson was the victim of a crime, they were depicted as tragic figures whose
victimization or death was a result of their lifestyle (Mogul et al., 2011).
Gross (1991) argues that mass media plays a key role in delivering these narrow
messages of the victim and villain dichotomy to the public. Typically, depictions of
sexual and gender minorities fail to make a connection with viewers at home (Gross,
1991). So, when mainstream media depicts LGBTQþpeople as sex perverts and
deviants, these representations become translated into negative public attitudes
(DeJong, 2006; Mogul et al., 2011). Consequently, LGBTQþpeople develop social
currents of shame, fear, and depression (McInroy & Craig, 2015). Nonetheless,
positive media representations of transgender people exist in off-line media, espe-
cially in movies (Shelley, 2008). As a localized source of media, movies tend to reveal
more sympathetic transgender characters and illuminate gender diversity, which helps
raise awareness of the violence and socioeconomic discrimination experienced by the
Despite the presence of better representations of trans people in shows such as
Orange is the New Black and Transparent, previous studies document that media
coverage consistently misgenders transgender subjects (Barker-Plummer, 2013;
Booth, 2015), portrays transgender people as tempting cisgender people by “tricking
them” (Sloop, 2000), and sexualizes the physical body of transgender people
(MacKenzie & Marcel, 2000; Sloop, 2000). Furthermore, extant work shows that the
media have engaged in practices of deadnaming and archetyping transgender people
as villains and/or victims (Mogul et al., 2011; Roshke, 2017). Additionally, local
media coverage of crimes against LGBTQþpeople, specifically transgender people,
accentuates the exclusion of sexual and gender minorities. Essentially, in spite of the
horrific nature of a hate-motivated crime toward an LGBTQþperson, newspapers
may not cover it with the necessary level of seriousness as the victim lacks the
relatability to the general readership (Pearson, 2006). Billard (2016) identified the use
of delegitimization in media coverage of transgender people and reported that as
social awareness of transgender people increased, delegitimization decreased. Even
so, Billard found that as education on transgender increased, there were still news
outlets that provided delegitimizing coverage despite increased cultural competency.
Billard’s (2016) findings reaffirmed another comprehensive study from Capuzza
6Race and Justice XX(X)
(2014), which found that media limits the presence of transgender voices. Again,
media coverage is important as these representations of transgender people shape and
reinforce stereotypes of the trans community (Lester, 2015).
The current study utilized content analysis as an analytical tool for examining how
media described the deaths of the 23 murdered transgender women of color in 2016.
According to Berelson (1952), content analysis is a useful tool that allows the iden-
tification, description, organization, and quantification of text and images (Berg,
2004; DeJong, 2006; Garland, Phillips, & Vollum, 2016). Our sample consists of 130
local news articles about the murders of transgender women of color from January 1,
2016 to December 31, 2016.
Given the significance of local news articles in shaping societal perceptions and
conceptions of minority groups as well as the ease of accessibility and consumption by
the general public, we rely on a pool of local news articles detailing the murders of the
23 trans women of color. As previously mentioned, national news sources did not tend
to cover these murders; therefore, we had to look to local sources for such data.
Gathered local news sources came from using the Google and Google News search
engine to ensure that all possible articles were located. Using the names of the 23
women, as well as their deadnames gathered from allied news sources (news sources
that specifically address LGBTQþissues), we retrieved local news articles from the
“All Google search” and Google News. In both cases, specific parameters were set
using dates ranging from approximately 1 day before each victim’s reported death to
approximately 1 month later. These parameters ensured that we captured the initial
coverage and articles about the death, which readers are most likely to consume.
Nonlocal media articles, denoted as ally articles (i.e., autostraddle.com, advocate.
com, and washingtonblade.com) provided contextualized information on the murders,
as they tended to include more specific information concerning the victims’ gender
identity as well as their chosen name. Ally articles were essential in locating additional
local news articles describing the murders of each transgender woman of color,
especially in cases where they were deadnamed.
Approximately, 4–15 news articles were reviewed for each of the 23 transgender
women of color in our sample in order to discover emergent themes. Two coders
organized the articles into chunks of text before identifying emergent themes (Babbie,
2010; Creswell, 2013). Open coding was used to identify discrete data parts, which
allowed an examination of similarities and differences within the pool of local news
sources. The primary research question that guided this work was: How did the media
cover the murder of transgender women of color in the United States in 2016? We are
especially interested in how media discuss the victims’ gender. By exploring how
media covered these deaths, we may better understand how media characterizes the
murder of trans women of color. Do they situate these deaths as homicides or do they
recognize the gendered nature of violence? What is the focal point of media coverage
of these trans deaths? Specifically, does coverage tend to be sensational or is there an
Wood et al. 7
effort to educatei the public about the lived experiences within the trans community?
Finally, we are interested in how law enforcement is depicted in media accounts of trans
deaths. Specifically, did trans women at risk feel protected within their community?
Five emergent themes were identified in our sample of local news articles (N¼130).
Themes included the brutality of the murders of transgender women of color, the tri-
vialization of these murders, misgendering, the emotional toll on significant others, and
the resiliency of the transgender community. Next, we describe these emergent themes.
Media Coverage of the Description and Brutality of Murders of Trans
Women—But Not Gender-Based Violence?
Local news articles illustrate how the media portrays the death of trans women of
color. Specifically, media coverage tends to focus on the sheer brutality of murders
against trans women who are left for dead; however, media does not describe these
deaths as gender-based violence. For instance, a local news report covering the death
of Dee Whigham reported that after Dee was stabbed approximately 119 times “her
face, and her throat was slashed three times,” she was left alone to die (WLOX Staff,
2016, para. 3). Dwayna Henderson, a sailor accused of stabbing Dee Whigham, was
videotaped leaving the victim’s hotel room alone about 23 min after entering the room
with her at 8.30 p.m. According to Deputy Leo Allen, within that 23-min window, Mr.
Henderson “took a shower in the room and left the water running” (WLOX Staff,
2016, para. 5). Dee Whigham’s body was found by her friend, who phoned the police
around 10 p.m. that night. Similarly, Brandi Bledsoe, an African American trans-
gender woman murdered in October 2016, was found in a driveway “wearing only
underwear and had [a] white plastic bag covering her head and both hands” (Ferrise,
2016, para. 4). Once they were killed, media coverage suggests that these women were
dumped or left to suffer and die in solitude.
These articles also reflect failure to define these murders as gender-based violence
The trans women in our sample were often homicide victims; however, these murders
did not occur in a vacuum, rather these women were murdered because of who they
were, yet this is rarely acknowledge. Instead, media coverage focused on the lurid
details of these murders. For example, the death of Erykah Tijerina, a Latina trans-
gender woman killed in her El Paso, TX, apartment in August 2016, was ruled a
homicide despite the autopsy report describing the personal nature of Erykah’s murder:
Tijerina was stabbed 24 times, including more than 10 times in the back and once in the
left cheek below the earlobe. Tijerina was also slashed approximately 20 times around
the shoulders, neck, and hands. (Villasana, 2016, para. 4)
Additionally, the death of Deeniqua “Dee” Dodds on July 13, 2016, an African
American transgender woman who was shot in the neck and died after sustaining her
8Race and Justice XX(X)
injury, was also not defined as gender-based violence. Instead, the assailants respon-
sible for Dee Dee’s death were convicted of first-degree murder with no additions that
acknowledge any basis in cisgenderism or transphobia. In the case of Skye Mockabee,
who was found “lying face-down, bleeding from her mouth ...her body showed signs
of head trauma,” her death was also ruled a homicide (Shaffer, 2016, para. 5). In
response, Mockabee’s mother challenged this determination, arguing that “Whoever
did this was not comfortable with my baby being the way that [she] was. They
couldn’t accept it.” (Shaffer, 2016, para. 7). Failing to label these offenses as being
gender-based minimizes the severity of violence against transgender people—partic-
ularly transgender women of color.
The Trivialization of Trans Lives
Media accounts of the murdered trans women of color in 2016 tended to trivialize
trans lives. Media accounts point to the lack of legal safeguards designed to protect
transgender people against the threat of violence. Local news reports of Shante Issacs,
a transgender woman of color murdered in April 2016, state that she repeatedly
informed police officials of harassment. Yet, law enforcement failed to safeguard
Shante’s safety. Rather, two carloads full of people ambushed Shante and her friend,
Josh Swan, who was then stabbed, beaten, and shot on the sidewalk. In Chicago, T.T.
Saffore, an African American transgender woman, was murdered after her throat was
slit on the West Side. An article that reported her death ensured that readers knew this
happened in an area riddled with “crime, gangs, and high-risk activity” (Negovan,
2016, para. 2). According to Jaliyah Armstrong, a close friend of T.T. Saffore, “[T.T.]
is the third person killed around here and there is nothing done about it” (Hammond,
2016, para. 18). Shante’s death, as well as T.T. Saffore’s, reveal that these victims
sought help prior to their death. Further, media accounts of their death aim to place
blame on them and not on the legal system that failed to protect their safety.
Another way media coverage aims to place blame on trans women for their death,
which we posit trivializes lives, is illustrated by Riley’s (2016, para. 9) coverage of
Keyonna Blakengly’s death. Riley included a quote from one of her friends, Foxx
Jezell, which read,
the word on the streets & from close friends is that she was the victim of “pussy stuntin.”
[sic] I just saw her post a few days ago that she was celebrating her birthday. This is
becoming routine. Girls please be careful out there because the same trade that will have
you will be the same trade that will murk u [sic].
Jazell also indicated that Keyonna’s murder “was likely due to the sex work that
she was engaged in [ ...]” (Riley, 2016, para. 2). The coverage of Keyonna’s death by
Riley (2016) stated that “police claim that Blakeney may have been engaging in
prostitution at the time of her death” (para. 4); however, there was no discussion
about the complex nature of the relationship between trans women of color and sex
work. Another article covering Keyonna’s death by WRC-TV highlighted Keyonna’s
Wood et al. 9
involvement in sex work (this appeared in the first paragraph). Four paragraphs later
they included the following information: “Court records show Blakeney was arrested
at a hotel in Capitol Heights, MD, on April 3 and charged with committing a third-
degree sex offense against a 14-year-old boy. Additional information on that alleged
crime was not available” (WRC-TV Staff, 2016, para. 4). While the latter information
was not relevant to the case at hand, media coverage of Keyonna’s death included
previous arrests or contacts with the police published in the same article as their death.
The sexualization and objectification of transgender women of color exacerbate their
risk of interpersonal violence. Further, this kind of coverage trivializes their deaths.
Unsurprisingly, deadnaming and the practice of misgendering occurred frequently
within our sample of local news articles. For example, news coverage on the death of
Monica Loera used her chosen name but then incorporated diction such as “formerly
known as,” “born as,” or “aka” followed by her name given at birth. In another case,
articles on the death of Skye Mockabee employed deadnaming and misgendering
during initial reports on her death. Specifically, News 5 Cleveland deadnamed her by
stating “26-year-old Shawn ‘Skye’ Mockabee was a transgender woman [ ...]” (Bash,
2016, para. 4). Although familial acceptance of a transgender identity existed, this
acceptance clashed with family members’ use of incorrect pronouns in describing
their lost loved ones.
For instance, Shannon Thomas, the mother of Rae’Lynn Thomas, an African
American transgender woman of color that was murdered in August 2016, was quoted
saying “[She] was just a lovable, sweetheart, would do anything for you. [She] didn’t
deserve to have what happened ...happen to [her]” (Ralston, 2016, para. 9). In the
original article, the incorrect pronouns are present, but the correct ones are provided in
this work. However, Shannon Thomas’s misgendering of her daughter, Rae’Lynn
Thomas, may have been caused by the trauma of losing her child. Research suggests
that such toxic stress interrupts inhibitory controls, cognitive flexibility, and working
memory, all of which impedes on an individual’s executive functioning (Barr, 2018).
In our sample, women were misgendered in 26 articles (families misgendering their
loved ones in 17 articles). It is beyond the scope of this work to determine why family
members misgender loved ones. Regardless, in this moment of grief, we also clearly
see an outpouring of love from both family and friends. In media coverage of these
deaths, the use of deadnaming and misgendering, as well as an emphasis on the
criminal history of these women, distorts the image of these women as victims and
decontextualize their experiences with violence to their criminal history.
Emotional Toll on Significant Others
Available news articles emphasized the emotional toll on significant others (i.e.,
family members, friends, and partners) resulting from the murders of these women.
Described by her family as “the light of their lives,” Rae’Lynn Thomas suffered at the
10 Race and Justice XX(X)
hands of her mother’s boyfriend, James Byrd, whose animosity toward homosexuality
and gender binary transgressions prompted Byrd to “[pull] out a gun, [shoot] Rae and
then [start] to beat Rae” (Ralston, 2016, para. 5). As reflected below, Shannon Tho-
mas, Rae’Lynn’s mother, was overcome with intense emotions of grief, pain, and loss:
I wasted 8 years of my life on that man and he took my child away, I don’t know if
anyone knows how it feels to sit there and watch your child die a violent death, telling
you [she’s] dying and there’s nothing you can do about it. No-one knows my pain about
it. I can never ever get my [daughter] back. Never. (Ralston, 2016, para. 11)
In a similar vein, Skye Mockabee’s mother expressed her inner pain and grief
regarding the death of her beloved Skye, who suffered fatal head trauma before being
found in a business parking lot in Cleveland, OH. Phyllis Carlock, who had contact
with Skye 5 hr before her death, recalled her daughter saying that “she loved her and
the two would always be together” (Shaffer, 2016, para. 10). In an interview with
News 5 Cleveland, Skye’s mother repeated, “I just want my baby back, I just want my
baby back,” while shedding tears (Bash, 2016, para. 2).
Beautiful descriptions of these women by friends and family were included in some
of the newspapers in our sample, including underlying qualities of their loved one,
while community members were found to express frustration among their grief.
Following the death of Goddess Diamond, family and friends remembered her as
“Beloved ...kind ...[a] leader” (Hogan, 2016, para. 3). A friend of Mercedes Suc-
cessful described her as “a beautiful person inside and out ...one of the funniest and
one of the kindest people I ever met” (Rude, 2016, para. 2). Remembering her close
friend, T.T. Saffore, Jaliyah Armstrong stated, “She loved everybody. She brightened
up everybody’s day, everybody loved her. That’s why I don’t understand who could
ever have killed her” (Negovan, 2016, para. 7). Conversely, a community member in
Richmond, VA, expressed frustration at a Diversity Richmond event that honored
Noony Norwood’s death in November 2016,“Why can’t my sisters and my people just
be able to be ourselves, and why can’t we just live?” (Turner, 2016, para. 5). The death
of transgender women of color extends beyond the LGBTQþcommunity to the
family and close friendship networks that vicariously suffer alongside their taken
Resiliency of the Trans Community
In the wake of the murders, local news articles illustrated the unification and sense of
collectivity among members of the trans community as well the larger LGBTQþ
community. On July 27, 2016, The Sun Herald captured the unifying and collective
force of a candlelight vigil held in remembrance of Dee Whigham (Isbell, 2016).
Reverend Errol Montgomery-Robertson of the Lighthouse Community Church in
Biloxi, MS, described Whigham’s death as brutal and indicated that such violence is a
sad reason for people to come together (Isbell, 2016). For Reverend Montgomery-
Robertson, despite aching hearts, rivers of tears, and a deep wound caused by the loss
Wood et al. 11
of Dee Whigham, who he described as having a “great understanding of who she was,”
he called for the community to evaluate what happened and to move forward together
(Isbell, 2016, para. 3). A similar memorialization of Erykah Tijerina reinforced the
galvanized agency of the transgender community in not only uniting, but in seeking
justice and bring about awareness of the violence directed toward trans women of
color and the transgender community at large. As expressed by Annette Ornelas, an
attendee at the candlelight vigil for Erykah, Erykah’s death marked the second
transgender death in El Paso, “the first one received no justice, so we want justice for
Erykah. She didn’t deserve to die the way she did. So we want to do some justice for
her” (Iraheta, 2016, para. 9). The death of Noony Norwood, described as a
“bittersweet moment,” motivated the local transgender community in Richmond, VA,
to move forward and “[push] for more acceptance and understanding in the City of
Richmond and beyond” (Turner, 2016, para. 7–9). Although devastating and trau-
matic, the resiliency of the trans community ensued as these deaths fostered a renewed
sense of community and collective action oriented toward greater awareness, visibi-
lity, and justice.
We aimed to better understand how media presented the death of trans women of
color. Emergent themes revealed that media focused on the brutality of these deaths
but failed to describe such murders as hate crimes or gender-based violence. Mis-
gendering individuals was common in our sample of media covering trans deaths. In
our sample of 130 local news sources covering the deaths of 23 transgender women of
color, the message was clear—their lives are disposable (Billard, 2016; Capuzza,
2014). This delegitimization stemmed from practices of misgendering transgender
people (Booth, 2015), portraying transgender people as criminals (Sloop, 2000),
sexualizing the physical bodies of transgender people (MacKenzie & Marcel, 2000),
employing deadnames (Roschke, 2017), and failing to report violence against trans
women of color (Pearson, 2006). While some of these murders occurred within more
progressive regions in the United States (i.e., the Western and Northern United States
as well as large cities), the normalized practice of poorly and inadequately covering
the deaths of trans women of color was evident in extant news coverage. Still, local
news sources seemed to capture the resiliency of the trans community in the face of
adversity. Specifically, local news sources highlighted community organizing and
collective action in the trans community as they sought justice—helping shift the
sociocultural landscape for greater visibility and communal acceptance (Iraheta, 2016;
Isbell, 2016). This finding breaks from Gross’s (1991) assessment of poor LGBTQþ
representation, particularly the trans community, as their quest for justice, legal
protections, and acceptance was generally presented positively (Hogan, 2015).
Nevertheless, our emergent themes identified as the disposability of trans lives and
misgendering help to support structural ideological paradigms of cisgenderism and
transphobia. These paradigms justify and perpetuate institutionalized and inter-
personal forms of violence against transgender people especially among transgender
12 Race and Justice XX(X)
women of color (Hill, 2002). The increased risk of violence for transgender women of
color is potentially, as the current work suggests, precipitated from the lack of proper
media coverage and delegitimizing practices that mask the lived experiences of
transgender women of color and the adversities embedded therein (Capuzza, 2014).
Consequently, the lack of information or knowledge regarding the nature of violence
against transgender women of color potentially fosters normative notions that trans-
gender lives are disposable and insignificant. Further, if knowledge is not dis-
seminated effectively, or does not reach those populations that are vulnerable to the
threat of violence, preventative strategies cannot be adequately implemented. Dele-
gitimization through deadnaming, misgendering, and underrepresenting the racialized
experiences of transgender women with violence, immortalizes the continued
demonization and dehumanization of the lives of transgender women of color to
affirm that their lives do not matter.
Our theme unit identified as the emotional toll on significant others captured the
social currents of vulnerability, loss, pain, anger, and deep-seated grief experienced by
immediate family members, friends, and community members after the death of a
trans individual. Though available literature references media representations of the
transgender community (Arune, 2006; Capuzza, 2014) and the LGBTQþcommunity
more broadly (Marwick et al., 2014; Mogul et al., 2011), little research discusses the
ways media represents the families and immediate social networks of murdered
transgender women of color. Content analysis revealed the ways in which significant
others (i.e., family members, friends, and community members) oftentimes felt
powerless and were, themselves, murdered. For instance, the mother of Rae’Lynn
expressed how “I don’t know if anyone know how it feels to sit there and watch your
child die a violent death [ ...] No-one knows my pain about it. I can never get my
[child] back. Never” (Ralston, 2016, para. 11). The magnitude of grief and inter-
nalized feelings of pain and powerlessness warrants deeper exploration to illuminate
the vicarious victimization and subsequent feelings about death witnessed by family
members, friends, and community members.
The lack of intersectional recognition, particularly along the lines of race and
gender, was consistent throughout the local news sources collected for analysis. The
lack of attention given to intersectionality within the context of these women’s deaths
reinforces findings from Capuzza (2014). The experiences of discrimination and
adversities of transgender women of color, particularly their experience with violent
victimization, further marginalizes their stories, silences their voices, and encapsu-
lates their lives within the generalized frame of transgender violence. The ramifica-
tions on societal responses to transgender violence is one that ignores within-group
variations along the lines of social location differentials (i.e., race, gender, class,
Limitations of the Current Work and Future Directions
Limiting our data to the use of Google News and Google search engine in locating
local news articles undoubtedly misses relevant data. The restriction to Google limits
Wood et al. 13
the potential sample of local news articles, as Google only has access to electronic
news sources. Future research should examine both electronic and printed news
sources and integrate other search engines. Data collection procedures, specifically
the parameters set for locating news articles (i.e., using only articles covered 1 day
before the reported deaths and 31 days afterward), constrained the sample of local
news articles to these fixed parameters. Expanding the parameters for the collection of
local news sources would be advisable in gathering additional news sources.
Examining media representations of LGBTQþpersons, particularly transgender
women of color, warrants future research. The delegitimization of transgender lives
through mass media outlets perpetuates systemic forms of violence and exclusion that
further marginalize and disenfranchise the transgender community (Billard, 2016).
Hence, future research might conduct a comparative analysis that examines the rep-
resentation of transgender women of color murdered and how their deaths are covered
in local news articles versus coverage in allied articles. Different media outlets may
well vary in how they cover these murders, providing a basis for addressing delegi-
timization and properly representing trans lives in the media. This comparative
analysis could potentially isolate intersectional effects related to race and gender on
media representations. Collectively, future research has the potential of expanding
criminological epistemology related to the intersection of violence, race, gender
identity, and sexuality.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship,
and/or publication of this article.
The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of
Elizabeth Monk-Turner https://orcid.org/0000-0003-1882-6946
1. Individuals whose gender identity differs from the sex they were assigned at birth (GLAAD,
2. Individual’s internal sense of one’s gender (GLAAD, 2017b).
3. Acronym for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer, with the þincluding all
sexual and gender minorities (GLAAD, 2017b).
4. A reclaimed self-identifying term to refer to describe someone who wears clothes associated
with a different sex (GLAAD, 2017b).
5. A reclaimed self-identifying term that has origins in the medical and psychological com-
munity (GLAAD, 2017b).
6. Those who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth (GLAAD, 2017b).
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Frank Wood is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology and Criminal
Justice at Old Dominion University. His research broadly focuses on juvenile delin-
quency and victimization, with a specific focus on traumatic stress and youth
18 Race and Justice XX(X)
April Carrillo is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology and Criminal
Justice at Old Dominion University. As a queer criminology scholar, her research
interests revolve around LGBTQþpopulations and the criminal legal system, center-
ing on trans populations.
Elizabeth Monk-Turner is a professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminal
Justice at Old Dominion University. Her research appears in Justice Quarterly, Crit-
ical Criminology, Social Science Indicators, and The American Sociological Review
among others. Currently, her work centers on media studies, gender inequalities in
higher education, qualitative methods, and sampling in unique populations.
Wood et al. 19