Tuesday, May 15, 2012

"She Was 25 and Curvaceous": The Death of Lorena Xtravaganza

I am stinkin' mad, which is why I'm double posting today. I just found out about the death of Lorena Xtravaganza, a performer with the drag family House of Xtravagazna. (Coincidentally, I just watched the "ball culture" documentary Paris Is Burning for the first time this weekend, and the House of Xtravaganza is heavily featured in it.) Lorena, who was killed in a fire in Brooklyn that was deemed "suspicious" by investigators, was transgender. More to the point of this post, I just found out about the way the New York Times covered her death.

The first sentence of the story reads as follows: "She was 25 and curvaceous, and she often drew admiring glances in the gritty Brooklyn neighborhood where she was known to invite men for visits to her apartment, her neighbors and the authorities said." That is, the very first line of the article shows that we're supposed to think of Lorena not just as a dead person, nor even as a dead transgender woman, but as a beautiful woman. The "catch" here is that you're supposed to read in a few paragraphs before you get to the "gotcha!" bit: She was once a he! So it's okay that we point out that she was "25 and curvaceous"; it's okay to literally put her looks before her life. She succeeded so well at womanhood that she "drew admiring glances." Hell, she was a better woman than most of us who were born that way—she had ribs removed for a smaller waist! She was "gorgeous"—you know, "for a man"—with that flowing hair and hourglass figure. 

LGBT activists can dissect the Times coverage better than I can, and in a fuller scope. But my focus here is women and appearance, and that means that in addition to the "othering" of trans people, I see this as an endorsement of the beauty standard. The Times would not have given two shits if Lorena were less successful in the feminine performance; if she looked like a dude in a dress, how would the story have been written? Would the story have been written? (It may well have been, even if the story were about a biological woman; it is a death by fire, possibly arson, which is news-friendly.) If the nation's most venerable newspaper can get away with describing a dead person in these terms in the very first line of the piece, that means it really only stopped describing all women in those terms because they "had" to, in order to shut up those mouthy feminists. The journalistic "twist" of incorporating Lorena's beauty into the piece "works" because the reader isn't initially picturing a trans woman, but a biological one. It also works because it gives us exactly what we want: the dead, beautiful woman, her hourglass figure forever taken from our gaze.

Listen, I get that Lorena being trans is part of what makes this a story, and as a writer there's only so uppity I can get about that. I get that her being different provides a "hook" in that, sadly, people die all the time in pretty terrible ways, and New York is a big city, and she was well-known in a community whose existence is predicated upon being transgender. It's not like she was a transgender dentist; by dint of being a performer she was putting herself into a position to have her sexual identity be part of what she was known for. (I'm absolutely not saying she "asked for it," by the way; just saying that her being transgender is germane to her public persona.)

So yes, I think that her being transgender has a place in this story. And since I'm pointing out the things the Times did right with this piece, I'll point out that the reporters used female pronouns throughout and managed to have a non-sensationalistic headline. For that matter, the Times could have ignored her death because she was transgender and few would be the wiser; Lorena could have been just another dead (possibly murdered) trans person and, hey, who cares, right? That would be worse. But being grateful for scraps isn't enough, not when a dead woman's beauty—whatever her origin or background—is the news, not her death. It's something that the New York Post—which is usually far more sensationalistic than the Times—picked up on. In their coverage, they did indeed mention that Lorena was a transgender performer, which was, after all, part of how she made her living. But not a word was written about her looks. The Times should have learned from its coverage last year of the gang rape of an 11-year-old by a total of 18 men, which mentioned the victim's fashion and makeup choices. But they didn't.

One of the biggest things I've learned since starting The Beheld is that the experiences of all oppressed people—trans people, gay people, people of color—are interconnected. I knew this intellectually before starting this blog, but now I know it on a deeper level. As a woman, I'm judged in part by how well I "pass"—pass as an attractive woman who knows how to send the right signals, pass as a woman who wants to be taken seriously yet still seen as desirable. Lorena Xtravaganza was also judged on how well she "passed." And as this piece shows, even if you pass with flying colors, you can still be punished in the end.

If you want to raise your voice against this kind of coverage, you can tweet @NYTimes and @NYTMetro, or write to them here


  1. Good post. Sound analysis.

    None of us are immune to pervasive, institutional sexism, even those of us borne with boy-parts. In fact, it seems media discussion of M2F transsexuals especially triggers this attitude.

    1. Thank you--and I think you're absolutely right. There's something threatening about M2F transsexuals, I think--I mean, not to allies, but to culture in general--it's something about wanting to be the "weaker sex" that's unnerving to some. Certainly it's not like F2M trans folks have an easy time of it, but I think there's almost a built-in understanding of why one would want to be a man, and it's not as threatening to masculinity (even though logically it should be!). Sort of like how there's "butch privilege"--not that butch women are exempt from the vitriol spewed at too many LGBT people, but there is also a sort of idea of seizing masculine power, which most people understand in ways they don't understand voluntarily giving it up by becoming a woman.

    2. "-it's something about wanting to be the "weaker sex" that's unnerving to some"

      Well, while this is a common trope, I do not think this has much basis in reality, i.e. that is not the reason people have more issues with M2F than with F2M.

      I think it is more of a "feminist theorist" reaction, i.e. someone trying to fit people's reactions to transsexuals into their theoretical mindset, rather than adapting their theory to people's reactions.

      Good post BTW.

    3. Anonymous, I think that's probably the case for people who are, well, feminist theorists! Certainly it's only since starting this blog that I started to see how transgender issues and feminist issues were so interrelated, and that was indeed because of some theory jazz that I now think is simplistic. I'm wondering how much of that applies to the public at large, though. Perhaps it does--perhaps it's just the same idea of people sticking to what they (think they) know instead of, as you put it, adapting their mind-set to genuine reactions they might have. Hmmm...lots of food for thought here.

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