Monday, October 20, 2014

Down the toilet bowl

WHEN you lose your way, try Googling your way out.

After a week of listening to television reports about the death of Jeffrey Laude, I went online to clear up my confusion. It was not just the event and the circus that immediately pitched tent. The way it was reported and the manner I was filtering the story made me doubt if I understood myself at all.

How could the killing of a 26-year-old Olangapo resident shake my world?

First, I am the type of consumer who digests television news to stay updated. I know the risks of eating fast food (and being as cavalier with my news consumption) but news is a commodity I want served, at the end of a day of technical writing, as light as dinner and as a prelude to the series of soap operas that I hope will usher in at least eight hours of sleep.

But Laude’s death offers no easy escape.

First, he didn’t just die; he was killed. Second, Jeffrey was better known as Jennifer. According to accounts, he preferred to be her. That’s a choice that defined/defines him/her in life/death.

(Blame not just media but our entire culture for the slashes (/) that are liberally sprinkled in this story. According to punctuation rules, the slash frequently substitutes for “or,” referring to a choice of mutually exclusive conditions, as in “he/she” means “he or she,” assuming the one cannot be the other. But the slash can also be a way of not taking sides in a contentious point: for instance, using “freedom fighter/terrorist” to sidestep accusations of labeling or stereotyping. And the slash can be used to surface submerged connections between apparent contradictions: “love/hate”.)

All the TV reports I heard referred to the “killing of a Filipino transgender woman”. Would it have mattered if the media was simply reporting the killing of one Jeffrey Laude, not the Jennifer Laude?

I think the circus came to town the minute someone first reported, “Filipino transgender woman”. Male or female, news anchors latched on to the phrase, with voice inflections and glances more pregnant with innuendoes than a herd of promiscuous slashes. I saw how the phrase broke the composure of an official, asked on camera to theorize why Jeffrey/Jennifer was killed. Either the protocols of police training or broadcast performance prevented the poor man from raising his hands to cover the smirk that bloomed like molds as he imagined for us the murderous instinct that must have seized Jennifer’s companion when he came face to face with Jeffrey in the motel room.

On print, a reader of the phrase focuses on “killing” first, followed by “Filipino transgender woman,” according to the words’ order of appearance. A reader less lazy than I may even get up and Google “transgender” to better understand. Unlike a transsexual who resorts to medical intervention for sex change, a transgender chooses a gender identity different from his or her sex at birth.

But for a TV viewer like me, the eyes and ears are faster to the draw than vocabulary checks. I heard “gay prostitute,” “German fiancĂ©,” and “American serviceman”. I saw nightly the death scene, described by a top-rating talk show host as “iconic”. She didn’t elaborate except to say, with portent, “we all know what this means”.

The head crammed into the toilet bowl may have one meaning, many or none at all. A TV host acting like a semiotician poses as many dangers as a journalist speculating on a police investigation within the time constraints of primetime TV news. When the case shows no fresh leads, the recourse is to turn on the victim, and disassemble his/her life. What happens to the victim and his/her family’s right to justice?

Yet, justice, too, is at the root of gender. What we consider as masculine or feminine is not determined by nature but nurture and culture. In a world that holds up the heterosexual as normal, we see only as shadows in our periphery the “others”: lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.

The news media can correct the myopia of gender-based crimes. Or join the queue in perpetuating violence against those we judge as “different”. We don’t have to actually ram heads into toilet bowls; we can just replay the image nightly.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s October 19, 2014 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday editorial-page column

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