Alphonza “Peaches” Watson’s mom called her “the sunshine of our family.” In her mom’s words, she was “a very caring, passionate, fun person to be around, always in a talkative and playful mood.” Alphonza was a black, transgender woman, and in March 2017, she was shot in the stomach and killed.
Kenne McFadden liked to post videos of herself singing on Facebook and was called the “friendliest person ever” who could “be assertive when the time came” by one of her friends. In April 2017, her body was found floating in the San Antonio River. Kenne’s killer admitted to pushing her into the river and repeatedly misgendered her in his confession — but on March 8, a judge ruled that he will not be tried for her death. LGBTQ advocates are now calling for justice, because like Alphonza, Kenne was also a trans woman of color.
Alphonza’s and Kenne’s deaths were two in a staggering 22 reported hate violence-related killings in 2017 of transgender women of color, who are disproportionately the victims of anti-LGBTQ violence. According to a January report by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, there were at least 52 reported hate violence-related homicides of LGBTQ people last year. That’s an 86 percent increase from 2016, nearly double the number. But if you get your news from national TV news, you probably haven’t heard the victims’ names or heard reports about the growing trend of violence that has scourged the LGBTQ community.
Media Matters analyzed broadcast and cable TV coverage of anti-LGBTQ violence in 2017, and what we found was simply unacceptable. Even though 2017 saw the fifth consecutive annual increase in anti-LGBTQ hate violence, cable and broadcast TV news spent a total of less than 40 minutes covering this disturbing growing trend. Sometimes coverage didn’t even mention the LGBTQ identities of the victims, and it rarely featured voices from the queer community. What’s worse, more than half of the coverage was about just two individual cases, and those reports largely failed to connect these individual cases to the larger trend of anti-LGBTQ violence.
These deaths are not occurring in a vacuum, and they’re not isolated incidents. This is an epidemic, and it’s not showing signs of slowing down. This year already, at least six trans women have been killed in the United States alone. In January, a 19-year-old gay University of Pennsylvania student named Blaze Bernstein was allegedly murdered by a neo-Nazi associated with an extremist group that has been increasingly responsible for violence and whose racist ideology is growing in the U.S. There were four times as many gay men killed in 2017 as in 2016.
It’s no coincidence that violence is increasing at the same time that the Trump administration has prioritized eroding the humanity of LGBTQ people. Anti-LGBTQ hate groups like Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) have unprecedented influence over policy at every level. With the help of ADF, the Trump administration has issued a guidance policy that makes it easier for people and businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ people, and ADF has worked tirelessly against transgender student equality in schools. In fact, it doesn’t seem like there is any part of LGBTQ life that opponents of equality won’t go after, from adoption rights to prison policy. And now, for the first time in years, an annual report on attitudes toward LGBTQ people has found that straight adults are less likely to accept them. The full-out assault against LGBTQ people is trickling down from the top.
The media have a distinct role to play in talking about the depths of this problem, which is, quite literally, a life and death issue for the LGBTQ community. The fight for queer, and particularly trans, equality did not end with marriage, and LGBTQ people are increasingly becoming targets of violence amid an ever-growing movement to dismantle our rights. Trans women of color have been attacked just for walking down the street. Gay men have been lured to their deaths on dating apps. One man, Juan Javier Cruz, was shot and killed after he defended his friends from homophobic slurs and threats. TV news helps set the agenda for public discourse, and policy and cultural changes that can protect this community cannot happen without an informed public. The media have a responsibility to inform this community and our allies that our rights — and, in fact, lives — are at stake. And connecting the dots between vicious rhetoric and policies and the actual safety risks LGBTQ people face could show those in the middle, or even our opponents, that there are consequences to such vitriol.
And when TV news does cover anti-LGBTQ, and particularly anti-trans, violence, it’s crucial that it provide context about this epidemic. We found that less than a third of the segments discussing anti-LGBTQ violence drew a line from individual cases to the growing trend, with the rest of the coverage completely failing to contextualize the cases as anything other than isolated incidents. This community is a target, and victims’ identities should not just be an afterthought.
Additionally, TV news should work to include LGBTQ voices, particularly trans voices, in coverage. When MSNBC hosted a panel of transgender guests to talk about the Trump administration’s attacks on their rights, the guests used personal experiences to connect the dots between administration policies and rhetoric and the increased violence facing the community.
We owe it to Alphonza Watson, to Kenne McFadden, to Juan Javier Cruz — and to the 49 other members of the LGBTQ community killed in 2017 simply for being who they were — to say their names and tell their stories. The media has a job to do to help keep the rest of the LGBTQ community and its allies safe and informed. Covering their stories, and the environment that led to their deaths, isn’t just a matter of honoring their lives; it is what we must do to save others.
Brennan Suen is LGBTQ program director for Media Matters For America.