Basically, I had someone say to me that if a hate crimes case didn’t get widespread coverage, didn’t spark large protests, or catalyze new legislation, then it wasn’t noteworthy enough to warrant its own entry. Well, part of the reason I started the project was because so many cases don’t get the kind of coverage that a Matthew Shepard or Brandon Teena gets. In fact, many don’t get coverage beyond their local areas, and don’t spark huge protests in part because the victims are already members of marginalized groups; people we tend to care even less about in death than we do in life.
This is one of those stories.
Back in April, I bookmarked a post at Blabbeando about a memorial for Shanesha Stewart, because I wanted to follow up and research her story for inclusion in the LGBT Hate Crimes Project. I figured I’d take whatever my research turned up and create an entry. But my research didn’t turn up much in the way of media coverage beyond a handful of articles that were short on detail and heavy on disrespect for the victim; articles with headlines like “Fooled John Stabbed Bronx Tranny,” that assumed Stewart was a sex-worker when those who knew her said she wasn’t, and that consistently disrespected the victim’s gender identity by referring to her with male instead of female pronouns even though AP style makes the standard clear:
Use the pronoun preferred by the individuals who have acquired the physical characteristics of the opposite sex or present themselves in a way that does not correspond with their sex at birth.
If that preference is not expressed, use the pronoun consistent with the way the individuals live publicly.
With each story/entry, I try to gather as much personal information as I can about the victim, to paint a picture of the person to whom this crime happened; to convey that there was a life before the hate crime that altered or ended it, and that it was a life worth counting and remembering. Kai Wright put it very well, writing after Shanesha Stewart’s murder and Lawrence King’s murder.
The victims are easily dismissed because they rarely evoke adjectives like “angelic,” used so often to describe Matthew Shepard. Instead, in reporting on Sanesha Stewart’s murder, the New York Daily News described her as “a 6-foot man in high heels and lipstick” and speculated she was a hooker. No wonder such a bizarre creature got itself killed, the report seemed to suggest.
We shrug off this sort of casual defining of gay lives as freakish in all corners of our society, from media to politics to schools. In 2005, a schools advocacy group, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, surveyed just over 1,700 gay high school students. Eight out of 10 reported hearing words like “faggot” and “dyke” used “often” or “frequently” at school by other kids. Nearly a fifth said they heard it from school personnel as well. Two-thirds reported being harassed themselves because of their sexual orientation, and nearly half said they got picked on because, like Lawrence, they didn’t act appropriately boyish or girlish.
But, as the little information I found made clear, Shanesha Stewart was not just some “bizarre creature” who of course got murdered. She was someone’s child. (Her grandmother said “I’ve always been close to him, I didn’t care what he was.”) She was somebody’s friend. (A neighbor said, “She’s always been Nesha to me. “She’s funny and outgoing.”
So, what happened to Shanesha Stewart ought to matter to somebody.
Shanesha Stewart (1985 – February 9, 2008) was an African American transgender woman who was stabbed to death in her Bronx, NY, apartment by man who lived in her apartment building.
Stewart, 25, stood over six feet tall and enjoyed wearing stylish outfits, with high heels. Born Talib, she had begun the process of transitioning to female, and she had undergone breast augmentation surgery as well as surgery to gain other feminine features. Neighbors described her as a friendly, flirtatious presence in their Belmont apartment building.1) Stewart had moved into the apartment building three years earlier, was well loved by neighbors in the building2), and rarely ever hassled because of her appearance.3)
Stewart’s neighbor, Steven Bamberg, reported hearing Stewart in distress at about 5:00 a.m. on February 9, and called police. Police responded at 6:00 a.m. Inside they found Stewart, suffering multiple stab wounds. She also had defensive wounds on her hands.4) Police arrested Steven McMillan, 37, who was still inside Stewart’s apartment. Police sources said Stewart was a john who flew into a rage upon discovering that Stewart was biologically male. Bamberg, however, denied that Stewart was a sex-worker.5) A police spokesperson added that McMillan and Stewart were in a “known-to-each-other” relationship.6)
McMillan had returned to New York upon being released from prison, after serving eight years on a drug charge, and was living in a temporary shelter with a friend. Bamberg said McMillian had been at Stewart’s apartment before the murder, claiming to have left something there.
Stewart died at the scene. A spokesperson for the medical examiner’s office said that Steward was died of a punctured throat and lung.7) A
Many LGBT activists were upset by media handling and reporting of Stewart’s murder, taking issue with reports that Stewart was a sex-worker when neighbors said she was not, and with the use of masculine pronouns to refer to Stewart instead of respecting her gender identity. Of particular concern were the headlines used in original reports of Stewart’s Murder. The New York Post initially published the story under the headline “Fooled john stabbed Bronx tranny,” but changed the headline at the urging of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.8)
The New York Police Department was criticized for assuming that Stewart was a sex-worker – and the media for reporting that she was – despite friends and neighbors’ statements that she was not.