The Advocate July/Aug 2022
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Cleveland Plain Dealer Headline Stokes Transphobic Fears

Cleveland Plain Dealer Headline Stokes Transphobic Fears

When a company dedicated to serving its community as a provider of accurate news and information denigrates members of that community in its reporting, that company becomes the news instead of merely reporting on it. And when it happens again — after local and national advocates have publicly shamed and ridiculed the publication for its reporting on that minority population, that is also news. 

That's exactly what just happened with The [Cleveland] Plain Dealer's latest attempt to cover transgender issues. The newspaper, which has a history of problematic trans coverage, ran a story online Thursday evening under the headline "Cleveland's Transgender-Friendly Legislation Would Open All Public Restrooms and Showers to Both Sexes."

The attention-grabbing headline seems to stoke the unfounded fears of those opposed to equal access for transgender people, who claim that allowing trans people to use the restroom that corresponds with their gender identity is tantamount to inviting male sex offenders and predators into women's spaces. The article, written by City Hall reporter Leila Atassi, is presented as a straight news story. 

In reality, the proposed ordinance — which is embedded in The Plain Dealer's story — is a standard nondiscrimination ordinance aimed at ensuring equal access to public accommodations for citizens, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, and several other protected characteristics, including veteran or disability status. 

The text of the ordinance only mentions bathrooms once, in its first paragraph: "The City of Cleveland and employers should allow full access to facilities without qualification to all citizens and employees, including those denied access to bathrooms, showers, locker rooms or dressing facilities consistent with their gender identity or expression."

The two City Council members who introduced the policy told The Plain Dealer the ordinance is designed to give transgender people the power to use whichever restroom aligns with their gender identity. The ordinance will be discussed publicly Wednesday, when it comes before Cleveland's Workforce and Community Benefits Committee

Opponents of such equal accommodation efforts continue to mislabel this and similar ordinances as a "bathroom bill." The continued prevalence of this scare tactic in antitransgender campaigns is simply, provably, not true. In fact, experience and research shows that transgender people are the ones most at risk of harm when they use public facilities like restrooms, locker rooms, and other gender-segregated spaces. 

A recent study revealed that seven out of every 10 trans men and women — that’s 70 percent of the trans people surveyed in the Washington, D.C., region — reported being denied access, verbally harassed, or physically assaulted in public restrooms. 

The Plain Dealer is owned by Advance Publications in Staten Island, N.Y., which is managed by the sons of the late publishing patriarch S.I. Newhouse. In addition to that newspaper, Advance also owns some of the most famous publicatopms in the world, including Glamour, GQ, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Vogue, and Wired magazines, as well as link-sharing website Reddit. 

Unfortunately, this most recent loaded headline is not an exception, but rather the latest example of entrenched transphobia inThe Plain Dealer's newsroom. In April 2013 the body of a transgender homicide victim, who was reported missing a month earlier, finally turned up. The Plain Dealer's original headlines that time were "Oddly Dressed Man Found in Olmsted Township Pond Identified" and "Brutal Slaying Marks the End of Cleveland Man’s Fight for Acceptance."

Police told the media the badly decomposed body was dressed in a "red Betty Boop" tank top, a hoodie, and three black bras but nothing else. Cemia "Ce Ce Dove" Acoff, 20, of Cleveland, had been stabbed to death, and there was a rope around her waist that was tied to a concrete block and a steel pipe. 

Once police identified Acoff through DNA, the newspaper repeatedly misgendered the victim, according to GLAAD, by using her legal name and describing her as a man, even after learning that she identified as female, then further added insult to injury by publishing what GLAAD called "irrelevant" details of her police record. 

After being contacted by GLAAD and in response to critical coverage by The Advocate among others, The Plain Dealer revised its online stores of Acoff’s murder to reflect the proper pronouns and remove what GLAAD described as "a few of the more sensationalized aspects of the stories," including dropping the word "man" from its online headline. However, it’s worth noting the newspaper’s URL for one story still refers to Acoff as a "man," while the story therein uses Acoff's male name and reads "Acoff had identified himself as a woman to to [sic] RTA officials."

As public pressure mounted against The Plain Dealer's problematic reporting, the newspaper publicly admitted its ignorance on transgender issues in a column the following week by its reader representative, but then went on to complicate the issue further by repeating some of the original writer’s transphobic mistakes.

GLAAD joined local advocates in calling on the newspaper to use the incident as a "teaching moment." The group first initiated conversations with both an editor and that reader representative at The Plain Dealer, and then encouraged the newspaper’s staff to meet with a local LGBT group’s transgender advocate. 

Jacob Nash of nonprofit trans housing support organization Margie’s Hope and the Cleveland Transgender Community Outreach Committee discussed the importance of context, why proper pronouns are necessary and provided The Plain Dealer’s staff with resources for proper reporting on trans issues. 

"I can't say 100 percent they will change their reporting but I am hopeful they will," Nash told GLAAD in June 2013. "It was a really good exchange, we had a good dialogue about transgender issues."

Proof of that came later in 2013, when Equality Ohio joined GLAAD in soliciting The Plain Dealer’s coverage of the Transgender Day of Remembrance, and to its credit, the newspaper did cover the annual event.

And the Plain Dealer was proactive in accurately reporting the two unrelated murders of transgender women in December 2013, which happened just one day apart, and the sentencing of Acoff’s killer to life imprisonment almost exactly one year ago.

The paper was not singled out; GLAAD also met last year with the staffs of The New York Times  and the Los Angeles Times

A GLAAD representative confirmed that the organization has been in touch with The Plain Dealer regarding the latest story. While the story has apparently been updated with comments from Equality Ohio and the authors of the ordinance, its headline remains unchanged. 

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