Ettinger: There’s No One ‘Right’ Way To Be Trans

By Eve Ettinger

June 28, 2021

As the Blacksburg case goes to trial, Eve looks at the questions and comments raised about the victim.

BLACKSBURG-I suppose I must be one of the only openly trans journalists in southwest Virginia. I got a text from another journalist the day of Isimemen Etute’s bail hearing, asking if I was covering this story. I was not, and hadn’t heard of the horrific murder in Blacksburg. Then I spent the rest of that day reading articles and commentary online about the victim. I also read about the young football player who beat the victim’s head in and the Reddit threads fomenting about whether or not the victim was a trans woman or a gay man. 

This case is significant for Virginia because it will be the first test of the “panic defense” ban. The practice is banned as of July 1, thanks to a bill sponsored by Del. Danica Roem. Previously, lawyers claimed a violent panic came over their clients after learning someone’s gender identity or sexual orientation. In that “panic,” their client assaulted or killed the victim.

I will be using the gender neutral singular “they” to refer to the victim, whose last name was Smith. Their family and coworkers knew them as Jerry, while their Tinder presence used the name Angie. Smith’s nephews referred to them as “Gigi,” according to the official obituary. None of this information proves anything about Smith’s gender. All it shows is that they had a double life, and were known to use a woman’s photo on Tinder. 

Trans People Are Misunderstood

One of the things frequently misunderstood about transness is the narrative about “knowing.” The narratives that dominate media representations and conversations around queerness center on the “born this way” trope. This is the idea that the queer person always knew, that they felt uncomfortable in their own skin, etc. This is a common narrative for a reason. It does happen a lot, and it’s easier to push back on people who want to challenge a queer person’s experience out of discomfort or fear. 

If you always knew you were gay/trans/whatever, it’s harder to talk you out of your coming out and your decision to live in accordance with your identity. If coming out is an experience that is happening through recent self-discovery, it’s harder to defend (especially as our society prioritizes binaries and permanence around gender identities and sexual orientations). But If it’s a new realization, what if you change your mind later?

I’ve known many different narratives of transgender comings out. Some people never quite commit to a binary, floating in an ambiguous space. It might be for reasons either ambiguous out of comfort with a fluidity of self-presentation or out of the need to go into a certain stealth mode in certain settings for the sake of safety. Others have no interest in medical transitioning. Some have no resources to pursue transitioning, or need fixtures in their life to stay as they are for stability. 

These structures require a certain gender performance. Jobs, spouses, families are often at stake in the process of coming out, especially as trans. There’s no one right way to be transgender, to perform queerness. 

Some People Never Feel Safe Going Public

Some of the trans people I know have stories that sound like the life Smith is described as living. Closeted at work and to family, out to romantic interests and close friends. These people often pass for cisgender and may never feel safe or ready to go public with their genderqueer self. It’s possible that this was Smith’s story, and we can’t confirm it. It’s also possible that Smith was catfishing dates and was happily a cis gay man. We’ll probably never know. 

But the way this story has been talked about, focusing on rumors, on catfishing, on the suspect’s youth and potential, his family and prospects in football, has left a bitter taste in my mouth. It made things clear that journalists in our region don’t know how to write about transgender people in ways that respect ambiguity and a broad spectrum of experience and identity. They expect transness to look one way. If Smith didn’t perform gender in that particular way, they couldn’t possibly have been transgender. 

It’s a relief to me that cases like this will no longer be argued before Virginia’s courts with the panic defense as an option. But violence against trans people is an ongoing problem. Unfortunately, this won’t be the last time my peers in the media industry have a story like this come down. 

Consider What We Don’t Know

I’d ask everyone to consider what we don’t know, and to leave room for ambiguities in cases like this one, clearly identifying what we don’t know in these stories just as much as what we do know. If due diligence in this area is practiced, the conversations around transgender victims of violence are less likely to parrot anti-trans talking points, which much of the conversation around Smith’s death has echoed.

They were a complicated figure, that’s clear. And we don’t know what kind of harm they did. But no one deserves to have their skull beaten in for having different bits than advertised.

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