Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Stacy Blahnik killed; Philadelphia Daily News reduces her to trans status and beauty

Edit 10/14: This post originally appropriated the words of Helen G and attributed them to a cis woman. This is an act of centering the voices of cis people yet again, and I apologize. There's more  at the end of this post, but go here to read Helen's explanation of why this is so very wrong.

Trigger warning for degendering language

Stacy Blahnik, a 31-year-old woman who lived in Point Breeze in Philadelphia, was found dead by her boyfriend at their home on Monday evening. Blahnik is survived by her partner, her dogs, and many friends and colleagues.

Blahnik was known locally and nationally as an activist and mentor with the House of Blahnik. She held a position of leadership, the "Overall Mother", and focused on the emotional and sexual health of those in the community marginalized by race, sexuality, and gender identity. From their website:
The Undeniable House of Blahnik, a ballroom focused community based organization founded in 2000 by African American and Latino gay and transgender persons whose primary goal was to form a social network of progressive, supportive, and creative individuals dedicated to developing and garnishing the talents and gifts of the “ballroom” community. Our mission is to positively affect the social development of our members and to provide nurturing spaces for self-expression, and personal and professional growth.
The cause of death has yet to be announced, and some suspect homicide. A large bald white man was seen leaving her place on the day her body was found.

Details on this case are scant. Initial reports claimed that she was found with a pillowcase around her neck. Police later denied that and said that there were no signs of trauma on her body. Given that trans people face a rate of violence twice that of cis people, it is certainly more than likely that her tragic death was violent in nature.

Her death has been remembered and reported by police and media not with respect for her life as she lived it, but with incorrect information borne of bigotry and and sensationalism. This ABC news report has done an excellent job of giving basic information on the case that does not degender or dehumanize Blahnik, but it did so only at the urging of the Transgender Foundation of America. The police report and this report from Philadelphia Daily News reporter Stephanie Farr are both stunning and typical examples of how trans women are treated by the forces of cissexism.

Blahnik is referred to with male pronouns and a name she did not use. She is dehumanized from the very start, when "transsexual" is used as a noun, rather than "woman". Her clothing at the time of her death - the clothes she was wearing in private - are heavily highlighted to sexualize her death. Throughout the Daily News piece, her beauty is referred to again, and again, and again. Her body gave other women complexes! She got attention on the street! These are not compliments, but transmisogynistic exploitation of her gender and appearance.

This sexualization is not only reflective of Blahnik's gender, but also of her race. Black women have long been seen as hyper-sexual; women of color are frequently reduced to their shape and appearance and sexual attractiveness.

Two good posts on Blahnik's death and the media coverage of it have already been written. From Helen G* at Questioning Transphobia:
[I]t’s because of a legal system which is too busted, and those who run it too bigoted and transphobic, to allow for the possibility that, although some women may well be trans, that’s no reason to dehumanise them by denying appropriate documentation. By the look of it, the local PD in this instance is another one which has yet to make that great leap forward into the 21st century, where trans women are treated like the humans we are.
From Monica Roberts at TransGriot:
That means Stacey's name should not have been placed in quotation marks, since once again, she was obviously living publicly as a woman and your interviews with her neighbors should have established that.
Blahnik's life is not worth covering to reporters, and her gender is exploited for shock value. Farr, aided by the police report, focuses not on Blahnik's death, not on the circumstances of her case, not on her life and time, but instead upon the womanhood that she so clearly views as questionable. This is ground in with the very last line, which misgenders, objectifies, and trivializes a life lost: "'Whatever she was - transvestite, man, woman - she didn't deserve to die like that,' one man said."

Blahnik was a positive influence in the lives of many: her neighbors, her boyfriend, the people she worked with and for. She should be mourned and remembered for her life well lived: her good work, her relationships with her loved ones, and her considerable contributions to her community.

ETA: Please check out and share Lilith von Fraumench's open letter to the Philadelphia Daily News as well.

*Originally mis-identified as Helen Boyd, who is a totally different person. Apologies, and thanks to Queen Emily on tumblr for alerting me to my mistake.

ETA: I made a huge and very harmful mistake when I posted this yesterday by attributing Helen G's work to a cis woman with a history of appropriation.  

I deeply regret my actions and apologize to Helen G.

My act of verbal violence was a part of the long cis tradition of taking trans voices and issues and appropriating and centering them around cis voices. It was careless and cruel. 

Furthermore, I apologize to her and to my readers for not identifying my error and apologizing for my attack on her sooner. Both are indications of carelessness and unexamined privilege on my part. I will refrain from posting about trans issues for a while as I struggle to understand and atone for my actions.

Here is Helen G's explanation of why what I did was so wrong.

I also apologize to Kinsey Hope, whose expertise and friendship I selfishly used for my own learning experience.


  1. Weighing in: I think this mistake WAS indicative of cis privilege, as Helen G's name was not simply misspelled or fudged, but was replaced by the name of a cis woman writer who has a fairly loud voice and is regarded as an expert on trans issues despite saying some fairly problematic things (and, you know, NOT being trans herself). Do I think RMJ did this intentionally? No. But as I hope we know, intent is not magic. I don't think this was malicious, but it is VERY problematic that this cis woman's name came to her to write down, it was an extremely hurtful and damaging act, and an apology like this was in order. That all said: I think, at this point, RMJ is handling this very well. She made damaging mistakes in both posting the original mis-attribution and in not contacting Helen G to apologize immediately. That's what happens when you're an ally with privilege: you make damaging mistakes. You hurt people, and at that point you decide what's more important, defending yourself and your reputation (and thus, privilege), or trying to not hurt people again. RMJ has made no attempt to defend or excuse her actions, and I commend her for that. I hope she doesn't take this experience as a reason to avoid trans issues in the future.

  2. I agree with RJ.

    Also, it pains me to see two of my favorite bloggers at odds with each other. I rely on you both in so many ways. Is there some way to move past this?

    RMJ, please don't avoid talking about trans issues. People are learning from you... even if it means learning from your mistakes.

  3. When are you going to update your website? We miss you!


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