Sensational trans-bashing at SF Weekly

Pub date December 3, 2008
SectionNews & OpinionSectionOpinion

OPINION SF Weekly published an article Nov. 26 with the headline "Border Crossers." The subhead explained the thesis: "Long rap sheet? No problem. Transgender Latina hookers in SF are successfully fighting deportation by asking for asylum."

The title successfully encapsulates the Jerry Springer-like journalism masquerading as a feature article in an alternative weekly in San Francisco. While I would normally just dismiss this as another example of how SF Weekly is turning into the National Enquirer, the article is important in that it reveals the intense discrimination transgender immigrant women who do sex work face in San Francisco — and unfortunately, quite possibly jeopardizes an incredibly essential legal protection.

The writer, Lauren Smiley, apparently believes she has unearthed a shocking secret: that transgender women may receive asylum in the United States based on intense discrimination in their home countries. So trans immigrants can avoid deportation even when they have been arrested for prostitution and have rap sheets.

As Smiley notes, immigration judges and asylum officers have the discretion to grant asylum when a transgender woman presents a showing of a well-founded fear of persecution based on gender identity. Even Smiley admits that transgender women face violence and intense discrimination in their home countries; however, what Smiley finds the most egregious is that some small subset of the asylum-seeking women have been prosecuted for sex work.

What Smiley single-mindedly ignores is the astonishing statistics that show an unemployment rate of more than 50 percent for transgender women of color, and perhaps even higher statistics for undocumented women in San Francisco. Instead of pointing to the well-documented obstacles transgender women face in employment, Smiley interviews one transgender woman who was able to get a job as evidence that transgender women really do not have to be "hookers" to survive. (Yes, she really did use the word "hookers".)

Without any context or analysis, Smiley quoted Dan Stein, president of the "Federation for American Immigration Reform" (FAIR) as a credible critic of the practice of granting asylum to immigrant transgender women. The Southern Poverty Law Center recently officially designated FAIR as a hate group, but nowhere in her article does Smiley mention that the organization is considered one of the least trustworthy, if not laughable, sources for information on immigration.

What concerns me most is not the cheapness of the shot, but rather that — like so much sensationalist journalism — a piece like this gives fuel to right-wing activists like FAIR. Even Smiley notes that the Republican Party has included in its platform an end to the practice that has literally saved many lives.

What is even more astounding is that last year, Smiley received an award from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation for an article about how doctors were using a new treatment for transgender children so that they wouldn’t develop into their biological sex until after puberty — which would give those kids the choice to transition later.

Yet in the Nov. 26 piece, when describing the landmark case of Geovanni Hernandez-Montiel, who was the first to get asylum based on gender identity, this award-winning writer frequently refers to Giovanni using the male pronoun "he." While I would not expect most journalists to give a nuanced perspective on Giovanni’s gender identity, I do expect a journalist who has received an award from an LGBT media watchdog group to allow for a more fluid understanding of Giovanni’s gender. I called Smiley and she acknowledged that she should have better described FAIR. When I asked her about the other problems, she simply said I should write a letter to SF Weekly.

In San Francisco, can’t we expect and demand better?

Robert Haaland is co-chair of SF Pride at Work, a LGBT labor organization. Alexandra Byerly is program coordinator, EL-LA Program Para Trans-Latinas. Nikki Calma is a member of the Commission of the Status of Women. Cecilia Chung is chair of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission