Media coverage of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues has come a long way since the days when the New York Times referred to gay people as “perverts” (12/16/50) or the New York Post (10/17/90) published an op-ed claiming that “our promiscuous homosexuals appear literally hellbent on Satanism and suicide.” Though stereotyping and sensationalism remain a problem, particularly for coverage of transgender people (see Extra!, 11-12/07), hard work by activists has succeeded in gradually shifting national media coverage to largely embrace a much more fair and respectful approach to LGBT stories and people. In some local media markets, however, the struggle continues against remarkably homophobic and transphobic reporting.
Idaho’s small, conservative media market is predominantly serviced by the top four network affiliates, one statewide daily and several smaller local papers. Idaho coverage suffers from a lack of diverse sources, unchallenged arguments, and sensationalized and even contrived stories that perpetuate LGBT stereotypes and misinform the public. LGBT issues here are generally undercovered, and outspoken homophobes have been given prominent platforms in local media (see The Fischer Files, may-chang.com). But perhaps the most egregious reporting comes when presumed criminality is involved.
NBC affiliate KTVB recently sensationalized a report about a woman, Kristina Ross, who was arrested for posing as a plastic surgeon. Allegedly giving breast exams in two local nightclubs, Ross was charged with two felony counts of practicing medicine without a license and faced up to 10 years in prison.
After his brief intro, reporter Ty Brennan (11/17/10) proudly announced, “We were first to report on the news today that Ross is transgender.”
A little later, Brennan added, “According to paperwork obtained by KTVB from the Idaho Department of Corrections, Ross is transgender and served three years at the Idaho Maximum Security Institute, a men’s prison south of Boise.” (In Idaho, it is customary—though problematic—for incarcerated transgender women to serve their time in men’s prisons.)
Then up popped an animated graphic emphasizing Ross’s gender identity, zooming in on the document’s notation “Sex: MTF,” designating Ross as a male-to-female transsexual.
KTVB played tape from Ross’ arraignment, where prosecutor Ana Mamani said, “The most concerning facts here are that the defendant is not a doctor and that the defendant is a male touching a woman’s breast under the guise of being a female.” Ross can be heard exclaiming in a loud whisper, “Oh my God!”
The LGBT community saw this reporting as transphobic, noting that Ross’s gender identity was not germane and that Ross’ outing might unfairly bias a jury (Boise Weekly, 1/12/11).
Ross’ charges have since been reduced to two counts of misdemeanor battery. Regardless, Brennan needlessly exposed Ross’ transgender status and made it a focal point of the story.
Such sensationalism is hardly unusual for Idaho media. Back in June 2009, two stations ran stories about Wayne Olin, 65, who was arrested for felony solicitation of an undercover police officer along the Boise River Greenbelt. Shortly after Olin’s arrest, the charge was reduced to misdemeanor indecent exposure.
Despite Olin never being identified as a gay man, local TV news cast his arrest as a gay sex story. On CBS affiliate KBOI, graphics behind the anchor and reporter switched between an image of handcuffs with the phrase “Crimes Against Nature” and the text “Gay Sex Sting.” KBOI ran the “Big Story” in five consecutive broadcasts over two days (6/23/09, 6/24/09).
Because of KBOI’s angle (KBOI email, 6/24/09), gay groups and advocates, including this reporter, were unwilling to comment on the story. Instead, KBOI pulled a three year-old quote from a defunct LGBT group from 2006 responding to allegations police were unfairly targeting gay men on the Greenbelt.
KTVB (6/23/09, 6/24/09) took an even more sensationalist approach, crafting a story about men having sex in the bushes and gay cruising.
Anchor Mark Johnson led the mid-day broadcast with a warning for parents, then switched live to reporter Ysabel Bilbao in the Boise Greenbelt. Pointing to the bushes, she warned of men having sex in a hidden area “right here, just across the bridge behind me.... It’s called cruising.”
Bilbao mischaracterized “cruising” as public sex acts between men; in fact, the term refers to a method—including codes and signals—closeted gay men use to find each other in a culture of fear where men have been beaten, killed or jailed for their sexuality.
Claiming “cruising” has been a problem in the area for “more than 10 years,” Bilbao told viewers police are concerned about “what may be hidden in the bushes.”
Bilbao then resurrected a 12-year-old story about adult men having consensual sex in a park bathroom 20 miles away, calling it a “hot spot.” Viewers were shown images of children playing, a restroom toilet and a shot from inside the bathroom: As the door slowly opened, the camera peered outside, ominously focusing on children’s play equipment.
From one indecent exposure incident directed at a policeman, KTVB conjured a scare tale about gay men lurking in the bushes, having public sex and possibly even preying on children in parks.
The problem isn’t restricted to Idaho’s TV news. The Twin Falls, Idaho daily newspaper the Times-News published 15 news articles over a year about an Iranian refugee woman, Nastaran Kolestani, who murdered her boyfriend. Like Ross, Kolestani is transgender. The Times-News made sure that fact was always front and center in their coverage.
Reporters not only refused to refer to Kolestani with female pronouns, they often used her male birth name, Majid. A couple of stories on August 27, 2008, led with, “A man previously described as a woman has been arrested....”
Every story made prominent reference to Kolestani’s gender status. In some reports (9/15/08, 12/30/09), Kolestani was called a “transgender man”—a phrase that actually means a female-born person who is now male, the opposite of Kolestani’s situation. Other Times-News reporting labeled her as a “trans-gendered Iranian refugee” (1/12/09, 3/20/09), a “transgendered Iranian refugee charged with murder” (8/28/08) or “an Iranian refugee who was born a male but chooses to be identified as a woman” (5/12/08).
After the paper received complaints from readers and the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, the paper’s editor, James G. Wright, published an opinion piece (4/4/09) headlined “Why We Call a Male Transsexual ‘He.’”
Wright quoted one reader who expressed being “extremely disturbed” by the use of male pronouns, the frequent use of Kolestani’s male name and the paper’s “harping on her gender identity” rather than her case. The reader offered preferable terms and suggested use of the AP Stylebook, which instructs journalists to “use the pronoun preferred by the individuals.... If that preference is not expressed, use the pronoun consistent with the way the individuals live publicly.”
After quoting the AP Stylebook entry for “transgender,” Wright wrote:
Wright concluded that to follow AP style “would mean ignoring the facts of a murder case in favor of political correctness.”
Wright’s open hostility and disregard for journalistic standards is shocking; unfortunately, it’s far from unusual in Idaho media.
Jody May-Chang is an independent journalist dedicated to fair and accurate investigative reporting, commentary and analysis of LGBTQ, politics and human rights issues. She is also a community leader and spokesperson on these issues.