Justice Down to the Pronoun

APD, media blunder in portrayal of transgender murder victim

Monica Loera (Source: Monica Loera’s Facebook)

Monica Loera was shot and killed outside of her Powell Lane duplex in the early morning hours of Jan. 22. In the week after her death, widespread confusion about the case gave way to the knowledge that Loera was a transgender woman, and that in death she had been misgendered by the Austin Police Department and a local media that largely reports the department's language verbatim.

Most days that's a shortcut. Last week, it was a reverberating faux pas.

Last year, more than 20 trans women were murdered in the U.S. That number does little to describe the discrimination waiting for transgender people, especially those of color, at every turn. The National Transgender Discrimination Survey found transgender Americans face twice the rate of unemployment, and 90% of those who could find jobs reported harassment at work. Some respondents tried to avoid that reality by hiding who they are.

That's why it was so enraging to find other outlets using a previous mugshot of Loera to illustrate stories about her murder. Since when are victims of violent crime treated in this manner? Loera's previous sex work has also been injected into the discussion, mainly because her roommate told APD that the suspect, JonCasey Rowell, was likely a customer. Dukes, volunteer coordinator with the Transgender Education Network of Texas, said sometimes "sex work is the only way to meet your survival needs."

A quarter of transgender people surveyed had lost a job due to their gender identity. Those who are unemployed are twice as likely to do sex work or be involved in selling drugs, twice as likely to be homeless, and 70% more likely to be incarcerated. And while trans people report being happier at work after transitioning, there are significant barriers involved in that process – especially if you don't have a well-paying job.

"Many transgender people are discharged or fired when they are in the process of transitioning," said Claire Bow, an attorney who works with the Transgender Education Network. "They'll say, 'We're afraid you'll scare the customers.' Or, 'We don't have a bathroom you can use.' So when you don't have access to a traditional employment setting, that puts you in a tough situation."

Changing one's name and gender on official government documents is a complicated process in Texas. In order to change one's name, a person must petition the court, and those with felony convictions cannot change their names until two years have passed since the end of their sentence and they are no longer on parole or probation. Gender can only be changed after a person has received a court order.

Loera's loved ones are starting to fill in the details of her life. Brenda Rodriguez, a close friend, described the Monica she knew to the Chronicle. She said Monica was someone who looked out for other women. She loved to dress up. "She was funny, [and] beautiful," Rodriguez said. "I never saw her as David, I saw her as Monica. She loved Madonna, and she loved to cook."

Ronnie Simone Stephens, a prevention outreach specialist who has been in Austin since 1998, described Loera as "sweet." "She was always in good spirits," they said. "And she was sweet. She was not the type you didn't like."

City Council Member Greg Casar found out about Loera's death along with many of his constituents on the Saturday after her death. But it was not until a week later that he realized to what extent she had been misidentified by APD. Last weekend, he phoned APD to find out what its constraints were, and followed up with an official meeting on Monday. Though he wasn't given specific answers on how APD could solve this problem immediately, Casar has asked them to hold meetings with relevant stakeholders to figure out how to address this issue better in the future.

APD addressed the issue in a statement to the Chronicle. While the department is aware of the community's concern, they are legally bound to report the gender of the individual based on state ID. "APD understands the sensitivities surrounding gender identification," it said. "APD will continue to work within the confines of the law while also striving to respect the identities of the victims, witnesses or suspects."

"And I heard from people in the neighborhood, once they saw real pictures of Monica, that they knew who she was," Casar said. "But before thought that the person who was killed was someone they didn't know. And I think that's important. All of a sudden, people who live nearby, said, 'Gosh, that was Monica.' Even if they didn't know her as a close friend, a lot of people in the community had at least shopped in the same stores, walked down the same streets, and lived by the same park."

Casar's appointee to the Public Safety Commission, Daniela Nuñez, can relate to that sentiment. She lives about a block away from where the incident happened. A day before the Georgian Acres Neighbor­hood Association meeting last Saturday, she found out about how the murder already generating buzz around the neighborhood had a completely different dimension.

"It just reminded people that people in this area, there's a lot that have lived hard lives," Nuñez said. "Even though not everyone can go to a meeting of the neighborhood association, there's people that still need to be heard by all of us. And we really need to include some of those voices."

"I think one of the tragedies is so much of our lives is lost when we pass," said Bow. "Our stories are lost. And that's just one of the facts that we have to face if we're trans."

A vigil hosted by the Revolutionary Alliance of Trans People Against Capitalism (RATPAC) will be held in Loera's honor on Fri., Feb. 12. RSVP and see more details at www.fb.com/events/144488112599140.

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Monica Loera, Austin Police Department, National Transgender Discrimination Survey, JonCasey Rowell, Transgender Education Network of Texas, Claire Bow

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