Sasha Fleishman’s skirt was set on fire last Monday on an AC Transit Bus in Oakland. According to police, the 16-year-old assailant, Richard Thomas, was motivated by homophobia (and transphobia). Thomas will be tried as an adult for aggravated mayhem and felony assault with hate crime enhancements. Fleishman identifies as agender, meaning neither as male or female. The victim was hospitalized with second- and third-degree burns.
This piece began as a story for the news section, but while researching this tragic incident, something became very clear to the Foghorn staff: The media often does not know how to deal with proper pronouns when reporting on transgender, transsexual, and genderqueer individuals.
CBS News called the victim “Luke Fleishman, who also goes by the name Sasha.” The Huffington Post confidently used the gender pronouns “he” and “his” while noting that its journalists were taking the victim’s mother’s lead on using male pronouns. Sasha Fleishman is 18 years of age – an adult. Is it right to take the victim’s mother’s lead on this? Luke Fleishman is the victim’s given name, but classmates indicate that Fleishman prefers Sasha.
“We are stuck in a binary of man and woman, and there is not a lot of knowledge in between,” said Alejandro Covarrubias, Assistant Director of the Cultural Centers at USF. “Reporters are generally writing for an audience who isn’t familiar with anything in between.”
At the Foghorn, our writers usually find a source, get their name, hear their voice over the telephone, see a photograph of them online, and make an assumption about their gender. We are not saying whether this is right or wrong, but we are asking: Is it time to deconstruct gender binaries in the media?
The Gender and Sexuality Center’s (GSC) protocol at most events and programs is to ask participants about their major/minor as well as their preferred name and gender pronoun. Convarrubias said that they think it is best to let the person in question take the lead. But what if the person in question is unavailable, lying in a hospital bed with third-degree burns like Sasha Fleishman?
We spoke to Professor Barker-Plummer, the chair of the Media Studies department, who teaches “Gender and Media” at USF. She said her way of writing and talking about non-binary or non-conforming gender has involved using “s/he” and “hir,” along with neutral nouns such as “young person” and the subject’s last name. For example: “The young person [or Fleishman], who identifies as gender neutral, was set on fire while s/he was sleeping.”
National Public Radio (NPR) reported on April 24, 2013 that a teacher studied a group of middle and high school students in Baltimore that were using “yo” to replace “he” and “she.” The former Baltimore-area teacher found that these teens used “yo” instead of “he” or “she” when they did not know the gender of the person, and sometimes even when they did know the gender.
Covarrubias explained that some gender-neutral pronouns come from different linguistics departments and other academically grounded sources that aren’t accessible to certain youth that identifies as transgender or agender.
“If we all used gender-neutral pronouns all the time, it would help undermine a lot of stereotypes, not just help us to ethically represent (trans)gender differences,” Barker-Plummer said. We cannot help but ask, is this the future of reporting on all genders?