Cisgender journalists have not had (and still don’t really) the best track record when it comes to reporting on the lives of trans people. Frankly, far too many people fuck it up! Included in that history is Donna Minkowitz, The Village Voice reporter who broke the story of 21-year-old Brandon Teena’s brutal murder back in 1994, which inspired director Kimberly Peirce to make the Academy Award-winning 1999 movie Boys Don’t Cry. But rather than let her reporting, which posited dangerous theories like Teena’s trans identity was perhaps the result of past sexual abuse, stay uncorrected, Minkowitz is finally “making amends” for how she wrote Teena’s story.
“For years, I have wanted to apologize for what I now understand, with some shame, was the article’s implicit anti-trans framing,” Minkowitz writes in a new essay for the Voice, where she walks through her reporting and points out her biggest mistakes. She critiques her own approach, which she says came from a place of assumption that Teena’s trans identity was a result of internalized homophobia. Elsewhere, Minkowitz notes that in interviewing Teena’s mother JoAnn Brandon she focused too heavily on her perceived homophobia rather than her grief, or the anecdotes she gave about what Teena was like growing up.
Minkowitz also sees how she falls into the same traps so many journalists do when covering trans people even today. She used incorrect pronouns for Teena and essentially denied him his trans identity in her writing. That denial, she writes, stemmed from a very simplistic understanding of who trans people could be, which was too heavily focused on surgery. “Both Brandon’s focus in his self-descriptions on whether he had had “the operation”—of course, that term has always phallocentrically stood for more than one potential operation — and my own focus on the matter reflect a belief of the early Nineties: that trans meant (solely) “surgically altering your body to align with your gender identity,” she writes.
Reading Minkowitz dissect, reflect, and correct her own reporting, you wish that other journalists would have the guts to do the same with their past writing that missed the mark. “I hope this article can be my way of making amends by revisiting Brandon’s life and murder—along with those of his companions Lisa Lambert and Phillip DeVine, who were slain in the same moments by Nissen and Lotter,” Minkowitz writes. “Their deaths became a touchstone for the then-nascent trans movement, and, perhaps more than any other single event, have shaped how Americans view transgender people.”
You can read the full story here.