The death of Jennifer Laude in Olongapo made headlines, and rightly so, for more than one reason. Evidence pointed to murder, most likely involving a member of the U.S. Marines. The Visiting Forces Agreement added legal complexities. The victim’s gender identity also made things more interesting.
Behind the headlines, I imagine newsroom debates over ethical standards. Should Laude, who was born male but who wanted to be identified as female, be referred to as a he or a she? Is the victim’s gender important in the case? Is the fact that the victim was transgender worth underlining?
Clearly, most newsrooms decided that sex sells. Not only did reports delve into gender identity, most used the word “transgender” in headlines. Some have even gone as far as tagging the victim as a sex worker, and a national daily on Wednesday ran a front page photo of Laude in skimpy clothing.
I concede that the victim’s gender cannot be ignored. It fills gaps in the story the media is now trying to piece together. But instead of gathering the pieces, what the press seems to be doing is taking one piece and drawing based on it a picture they think would buy clicks, ratings, or readership.
The ‘she asked for it’ fallacy’
One TV report about the incident, for instance, was not content in saying that Laude was transgender. It claimed the victim could have been killed precisely because of gender. In effect the report was saying that by having relations with a man despite the circumstances, Laude was asking for murder.
The obscene photo of Laude on the front page gave the same impression. “The publication of such photographs diverts people’s attention from the fact that a crime had been committed, to the titillation of the mass audience,” said the local arm of global media watchdog Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility Wednesday.
“The same thing often happens in the reporting of rape, which is an act of violence. By providing the salacious details of the crime as well as provocative photographs similar to what the Star published, the focus shifts to the ‘victim,’ which tends to imply that ‘she was asking for it,’” CMFR’s statement read further.
In this sense, the Laude slay case shares more similarities than obvious with the “Nicole” rape case. Both crimes happened near the former Subic Bay Naval Station, both implicated U.S. servicemen, and both had victims who seem to have been prejudged—Laude for gender identity and Nicole for going out with Daniel Smith in a bar.
The media, in its sobriety, shifted the focus to the Laude slay case’s impact on the Visiting Forces Agreement, which legislators have long sought to scrap for a myriad of reasons, including the “Nicole” controversy in 2005. It dawned on them, albeit too late, that the headline “U.S. soldier dragged into Olongapo murder case” made more sense.
If the media were more responsible, it could, in its reportage, have shone the light on the Filipino society’s attitude toward those who refuse to be identified through their sex organs. As soon as they theorized that the murder was due to gender, they could have place it in the context of hate crimes and how rampant it still is in the country.
In a letter published on ABS-CBN’s website, Laude’s German boyfriend Mark Suselbeck lamented the media’s portrayal of the murder victim. “If you can be sure about one thing, she was sure not stealing. That was never her attitude,” Suselbeck said, referring to reports that Laude could have been killed after being caught in the act for theft.
The German national, who said he has stayed in the country for three months while visiting Laude, also decried impunity in the Philippines, especially for crimes where foreign nationals are accused. “You can get away even with any criminal act if you are a foreigner. It just costs money,” Suselback said in his letter.
“No wonder the monster soldier did think he would get away with it. You show him that every day. Your society does. How should a foreigner respect people like Jennifer if your own society doesn’t,” the strongly worded letter read. “So face your own guilt… Learn from it. Listen to the gender protests of those who now finally stand up.”
Suselbeck’s emotional letter hurts because it was honest. It is easier to cast blame on Private First Class Joseph Scott Pemberton, a blonde alien to most of us, than on a government that refuses to protect the rights of transgendered Filipinos, on the church that excludes gays, or on the neighborhood bigot who bullies lesbians.
The importance of pronouns
In the case of transgendered Filipinos, acceptance is pivotal. In vain, they continue to seek affirmation of their identity—to be deemed female despite a penis or male despite a vagina—in this patriarchal and predominantly Catholic society. This is reflected, I believe, in the media’s hesitation to identify Laude as female.
It is ironic for a people whose national language is not keen on assigning gender marks—where “he” or “she” both translate to “siya,” “him” or “her” to “kanya,” or even “boy” or “girl” to simply “bata.” While Sweden had to introduce a gender-neutral pronoun “hen” to improve gender equality, Filipinos need only to take to heart the gender neutrality they have always spoken of. But they wouldn't.
When the U.S. media continued to use the name Bradley Manning to report on the soldier who provided classified information to WikiLeaks, they were criticized for refusing to acknowledge Manning’s wish to be known no longer as Bradley, but as Chelsea. An expert even accused the media of “making a mockery” of Manning’s announcement.
Quoting Trans Media Watch, Stuart Hughes in his BBC column advised journalists, “If you don’t know how to describe somebody, ask them. If you can’t ask, use pronouns and gendered descriptors which most closely match their presentation.” Laude may no longer able to assert her female identity, but she died presenting herself a female.
“The sooner journalists stop writing ‘Bradley’ and start writing ‘Chelsea’, the quicker everyone following this story will adapt,” Hughes quoted Slate’s Amanda Marcotte as having said. In the case of Laude, the sooner journalists stop writing “Jeffrey” and start writing “Jennifer,” the quicker everyone will stop thinking she died because of her choice, but because of a crime.
The opinion of the blogger does not reflect that of Yahoo Philippines. You may send your reactions to @kimpatria