Comments on Article about Homicide Victim
Note: two letters to the editor
Letter #1: Why use male name?
By a serendipitous chain of events, I ended up at the Soka Gakkai Buddhist Community Center Jan. 3 for the memorial service of Roberta Nizah Morris. She was a trans woman who was apparently bludgeoned and left to die in the streets of Philadelphia.
I never knew her. However, on the night of the memorial, I came to know Nizah through powerful testimony to her life given by those who spoke of her. I was absolutely stunned at the level of impact she had had on the lives of more than 150 people filling the room.
Throughout the entire service, I heard heartfelt and sometimes tearful, yet often joyous and celebratory stories of how she had changed people's lives, not the least of which was to educate through her authentic presence what it meant to live in the world as a woman born male-bodied.
Nizah's presence in that room was palpable by the very fact that, among others, an older African-American lady got up, and spoke movingly and with total honestly of the difficulty she initially had accepting Nizah's difference, but eventually coming to understand the unique and special woman she was.
This lady recounted how Nizah kept watch over her little dog while she was away for the holidays. The entire time she referred fondly to "Miss Nizah." Her family was sitting in the front row, and a niece got up and spoke of her Aunt Nizah using similar terms.
In fact not once during the entire service did I hear Nizah referred to as Robert or with male pronouns. It was a truly amazing night.
Imagine my confusion then when I picked up PGN the next day and read the report on Nizah's death that began by referring to "Robert Morris," only later adding: "also known as Naja." ("December Murder Investigated," Jan 3-9 PGN).
Who was this report about?
If PGN had spoken to anyone intimately involved in Nizah's life- instead of just the police - it would have found out the real truth of who Nizah was. If that was not possible, then at least professionally comply with The Associated Press and National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association guidelines; trans people are first and foremost who we say we are, and not reducible to an "also known as" persona.
Better yet, use compassion, and follow the respectful example of her Buddhist sangha. The discrimination, violence and murder trans people experience links to the dehumanizing and erasing language used before and after our deaths.
It's time for PGN to break this connection instead of continuing to deny the dignity and reality of our lives through repeated name and pronoun misuse.
Letter #2: Name trivialized homicide victim
In a society in which the press continually ignores or slanders the lives of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people, I rely upon the media created by our communities to present a more accurate and complete version of our experiences and struggles.
At year's end, one of the members of our community died as the result of injuries sustained on the streets of Center City. Police, perhaps not working with all due haste, are investigating it as a murder. Roberta Nizah Morris, a trans woman whose life was honored by more than 100 people last week at the Soka Gakkai Buddhist Community Center, will likely be once again memorialized late this year at the international day of remembrance for victims of anti-trans violence.
It is heartening that Nizah, a woman I did not have the fortune of meeting, was remembered in such a loving way by her community, friends and family on Jan. 3.
Many of us have had the experience of attending memorial services for our lovers, friends and family, including those who have died of AIDS, in which their birth family erases their history, obscures their gay lives, and ignores the families of choice that brought them joy and support.
Thus, it is a painful irony when a community newspaper chooses to perpetuate the mischaracterization of gender and the lived realities of Roberta Nizah Morris, identifying her as someone named Robert, then adding a misspelling of her first name as an "also known as."
As we enter 2003, can we have a commitment from PGN that this widely read newspaper will absolutely honor the realities of the lives of transgendered and gender queer people?
Will PGN serve as a model in its commitment to the standards of both AP and National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, in identifying people as who we say we are, not as how we are perceived or trivialized by an ignorant society and police force?
May our new year bring us success in our fight for the safety to live the truths of our lives, both within our communities and in larger society, and a commitment from our community organizations and initiates to respect the lives of all people, regardless of our gender or genders.