A fringe blogger's claim about the Planned Parenthood shooter's gender identity entered the mainstream last weekend thanks to some knee-jerk signal-boosting on the part of Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz.
"The media promptly wants to blame [the Planned Parenthood shooter] on the pro-life movement when at this point there's very little evidence to indicate that," Senator Cruz told reporters in Iowa Sunday. "It's also been reported that he was registered as an independent and a woman and a transgendered leftist activist. If that's what he is, I don't think it's fair to blame on the rhetoric on the left."
Within days, the claim that Robert L. Dear, Jr., was really a "transgendered [sic] leftist activist" who "identifies as a woman" had unraveled at the seams, revealing the red herring stitched inside.
So, why would a fringe rightwing blogger and a mainstream Republican candidate for president of the United States find common ground on a theory about the Colorado Springs shooter that could be disproved so easily? Why would they present false information about the gunman being transgender when that detail would be irrelevant even if true?
Attempts to contact Senator Cruz were not returned. But it's fair to say that stoking transphobia successfully diverted attention and sympathy away from Planned Parenthood, a nonprofit often equated by opponents with the abortion services it provides, whether or not that was the GOP hopeful's intention.
Exploiting transphobia by drawing false parallels between transgender identities and mental illness has long proven to be an effective strategy for achieving political goals, a fear-mongering tactic facilitated by the American Psychiatric Association classifying being trans as a mental disorder until only a few years ago.
Look no further than this past November, when Houston's nondiscrimination ordinance, HERO, was defeated following a misinformation campaign warning residents about "bathroom predators" and other transgender deviants. In reality, there have been zero reported cases of trans individuals attacking other people in public restrooms. Mic checked. So did The Advocate. And so did Media Matters. None of them were able to uncover a single case.
"Messages that trans people are some kind of threat in bathrooms are a baseless, fear-mongering tactic," Arli Christian, State Policy Counsel for the National Center for Transgender Equality, told me. "It's a misunderstanding of what trans actually means."
Christian clarified that neither she nor the NCTE would comment on any politician's specific words or actions, but added: "This conflation of sexual predators and people who are transgender happens often, and the two have nothing to do with each other. There are zero statistics that say trans women and trans men are more likely to be sexual predators [than cis women and men]."
There is, however, plenty of data showing how trans and gender-nonconforming people are more likely to be the victims of violent crime than cis people. According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Program's 2014 report on LGBTQ and HIV-affected communities, trans people are more likely to experience physical, sexual violence, and police violence than cis LGBQ people—trans people of color even more so. Trans women also make up a disproportionate percentage of LGBTQ and HIV-affected homicide victims included in the NCAVP's report: 55% were trans women, and 50% were trans women of color. We're not even done with 2015, and the year has already seen more reported trans women's murders than in 2014. Most of these women, like Zella Ziona and Elisha Walker, were trans women of color.
Yet despite all of this statistical evidence, trans people, and especially trans women, are often perceived as complicit in the violence they're victims of. CeCe McDonald was attacked for being black and trans in 2011, but after killing one of her attackers in perceived self-defense, she was convicted of second-degree manslaughter and sentenced to 41 months in prison. She was granted an early release in 2014.
This myth of the violent trans or gender-nonconforming predator is persistent, and decades of less than favorable representation in movies and TV has only intensified its perceived veracity. "Being trans" was enough of a motivation for The Silence of the Lambs's Buffalo Bill and Sleepaway Camp's Angela Baker to start flaying people left and right.
And when trans characters aren't playing the role of the villain, they're more often than not cast in the often equally dehumanizing role of the victim. GLAAD found that 40% of trans characters on TV between 2002 and 2012 could accurately be described as victims, often treated as disposable plot drivers for the main cisgender characters.
Laverne Cox's character on Orange is the New Black ushered in an era of increased trans visibility in the media. But an increase over basically nothing isn't the finish—especially when people still think that being transgender is considered evidence enough as to why someone might kill three people in Colorado Springs.
Bad at filling out bios seeks same.