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We Need to Stop Reporting Every Trans Death as a Homicide. It's False and Dangerous.

We have reduced the lives and deaths of black trans women to an overly simplistic, tragic narrative.

On August 14, I picked up my phone and made the same call I make at least a dozen times a year: to the next-of-kin to a trans person who had reportedly been murdered.

I told Keyiariah Quick’s sister Roshauna that I am a reporter who often writes about transgender homicides, that I am trans myself, and that it’s my job to make sure her sister is remembered accurately.

Over the past 24 hours, social media had been ablaze with rumors that Quick was the 15th transgender homicide victim of 2019. Out magazine ran a profile that eulogized Quick with quotes from friends speculating that she was murdered.

"This isn't true at all,” an aggrieved Roshauna told me on the phone that day. Police reports indicated she wasn’t murdered.

Why, then, did so many of us leap to the conclusion that she was? Why did national media and LGBTQ organizations mourn her without confirming the circumstances surrounding her death?

Because she was a black, transgender woman.

Quick was at least the fourth trans “homicide” I had seen widely discussed this year where simple reporting proved the deceased wasn’t slain, or wasn’t even trans.

In September, The Advocate prematurely mourned the death of transgender woman Ja’leyah-Jamar in Kansas City, leading other outlets—NewNowNext included—to follow suit. The only problem with the story was that Ja’leyah-Jamar didn’t identify as trans. Instead of retracting the report, The Advocate updated the story in several spots about why they were misled, but it was too late. Ja’leyah-Jamar appears all over Google searches as a trans woman. He is misrepresented by Metroweekly as a slain trans woman in an article that, ironically, complains that police misgendered him.

The trend continued this week, when LGBTQ Nation, Pink News, and Out all published stories that black trans Philadelphian Alicia Simmons may have been murdered and could be the 22nd trans homicide victim of 2019. All of these articles ran without confirmation.

In speculating that Simmons was murdered, LGBTQ Nation also notes that the medical examiner found no evidence of foul play. The story goes so far as to quote a Facebook post by Philly-based journalist Ernest Owens, who chastises activists for getting ahead of themselves on the facts at the expense of her family and friends.

“Alicia Simmons was not shot or brutally murdered,” Owens wrote. “It doesn't appear to be any immediate signs of foul play when relatives found her in her house dead. She was found asleep peacefully.”

It is indisputable that black trans women face epidemic-levels of violence in this country. It is also true that for every black trans person who is murdered, thousands of others die of completely natural causes.

We have reduced the lives and deaths of black trans women to a single tragic narrative. In doing our best to track the very real violence facing trans people of color, we have begun to assume that every story ends in murder.

This is a devastating message for transgender youth. When I worked as a reporter at Into, Grindr's now-defunct LGBTQ editorial outlet, I covered Boston’s first statewide referendum on trans rights. One source I spoke to, 15-year-old nonbinary high schooler Katherine O’Connor, told me that the trans community placed so much emphasis on death, they didn’t think they could even have a future.

“Oh well, half of us are going to die out before we reach 24 anyway, so, like, why does it matter?” they said. “It was kind of really, really depressing.”

When media reports unconfirmed trans homicides, the consequences unnecessarily traumatize transgender readers who are already forced to confront dozens of very real murders annually. We don’t immediately report every lesbian death as a possible homicide because that would be preposterous. For transgender victims, and all of our readers, the same standards of reporting must apply.

In some sense, this issue stems from a need to rectify our past reporting. Just 21 years ago, for instance, black trans woman Rita Hester was murdered in a now-infamous case, and even LGBTQ media misgendered her.

Today, in our renewed commitment to faithfully document the real violence against trans people in a timely manner, we sometimes skip the very important work of verification. We must remember to funnel our energy into better, more accurate reporting on behalf of members of the trans community who are living—and dying—these stories every day.

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