New Haven Register, May 15, 2003
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Transsexual promotes sensitivity in media
William Kaempffer, Register Staff
NEW HAVEN - Most people never give much thought to pronouns, that is unless you're the executive director of an advocacy group for transsexuals and cross-dressers.
For Jerimarie Liesegang, of the Connecticut TransAdvocacy Coalition, pronouns can be downright consuming.
She'll dispatch e-mails, citing the Associated Press Stylebook, to newspapers, which refer to a transsexual as "he" instead of "she" in a story. She'll inform television anchors before their newscast of the preferred vernacular of transgender.
She urges sensitivity in reporting when history, she says, tells her that instinct is to sensationalize.
So when the media reported a transsexual from the Dwight-Kensington neighborhood was found murdered last week in her apartment, Liesegang began making calls and writing pointed missives.
According to family and friends, Horacio Mercado, 24, was born a man but lived as a woman, even though Mercado never had a sex-change operation. People in the neighborhood knew Mercado as "Jessica" and said she someday hoped to have the surgery.
In conversations, Marisol Boyer, a family friend, consistently refers to Mercado as "she" because "that's what she wanted."
The distinction might seem trivial, but it's not to a transsexual whose very sense of identity and self can be undermined, Liesegang said.
"I am a woman and consider myself as a woman," said Liesegang, 52, who was born a male. "When I walk into a place and they refer to me as a 'he' it's upsetting because it's invalidating. It goes to a validation of
who we are."
"It's not just what's between our legs," she added. "Our brain is a big component of our sexual identity."
For decades, the transgender community had been relegated to seclusion, neither accepted nor understood by society, viewed with uncertainty as neither man nor woman.
In recent years, however, Liesegang and other advocates have been emboldened to fight for rights and recognition, both in the state legislatures and the media.
Like gays and lesbians, transgender people say they didn't choose their sexual identity but were born with it. According to Liesegang, some people who are "inherently female" are born into the bodies of males, and
Transgender is an umbrella classification for people who live in that gray area of sexual identity. It includes transsexuals, cross-dressers and intersexuals.
The TransAdvocacy Coalition lobbies for legal protection in the community, advances legislation, holds seminars and educates the media about transgender issues.
In the late 1990s, transgender advocates met with the Associated Press when it was revising its stylebook to express concerns about how the community is portrayed and the use of pronouns.
When local media outlets identified Mercado, the slain transsexual, as a transvestite, Liesegang pointed out that term is considered derogatory in the community.
"It behooves upon us to educate and educate positively," she said. "Words have power. Unfortunately, some of those words can have very negative images. Whether you like transvestite or not, it's a word that
emblazons a bad image."
In the use of pronouns, the media often get it wrong and the rules in the AP Stylebook can be ambiguous.
According to the stylebook, reporters should "Use the pronoun preferred by the individuals who have acquired the physical characteristics (by hormone therapy, body modification, or surgery) of the opposite sex and present themselves in a way that does not correspond with their sex at birth.
"If that preference is not expressed, use the pronoun consistent with the way the individuals live publicly."
Transgender people argue the last sentence applies to transsexuals who live as the opposite sex even if they aren't undergoing hormone therapy or had an operation.
"Where we run into difficulty, we have people who continue to use the wrong pronoun," she said. "Once you're told, then whether you agree or not, then it's wrong."
The body was discovered in Mercado's apartment at 1341 Chapel St. at 3 a.m. Friday after the fire department responded to a blaze. They found the victim on a mattress, stabbed at least twice in the neck.
The mattress had been set on fire and Mercado's body was partially burned, police said.
"Probably the most offensive thing is that the media still refuses to honor the person's wishes in death, or they sensationalize it. It lacks understanding," Liesegang said. Adding in the same breath, "Sometimes, the community, we tend to be a little sensitive but (that's because) we're always being poked at."
William Kaempffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at 789-5727.