A Flood of Controversy | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

A Flood of Controversy

The rescue of a woman from freezing waters has become a lesson in gender sensitivity and understanding

Rebecca Hare's dramatic Feb. 7 rescue from rising icy river water was a compelling story on its own: The homeless 27-year-old was at risk for hypothermia and drowning after the river began flooding into a locked tunnel beneath the David L. Lawrence Convention Center Downtown, which she'd snuck into to seek shelter. After an hours-long effort, county rescuers managed to save Hare from the near-freezing waters of the Allegheny.

But one aspect of the story, which had nothing to do with inflatable rafts or water temperatures, got into media reports in a way some call insensitive or disrespectful. Hare is transgender: She was born male, but identifies and presents herself as female and, as some reports noted, is in the process of surgically altering her body to match.

In its original coverage of the incident, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette referred to Hare as a "homeless man." KDKA-TV's Alison Morris, meanwhile, described Hare as "a man in the process of having surgery to become a woman." Over at WTAE, Janelle Hall reported: "The waters of the Allegheny started to rise and trapped that person. Ninety minutes into the rescue, paramedics pulled a 27-year-old transgender woman to safety." Jeremy Boren's account in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review was the only local report that left out any mention of Hare as transgender, referring to her as female throughout.

"For a trans person, that's the one thing they can hope for: that it doesn't even come up," says Emilia Lombardi, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh who studies transgender issues. "The major issue is the issue of respect, more than anything else." Hare's gender was irrelevant to the rescue story, Lombardi says, and yet "Trans-ness becomes part of the story. It seems tacked on for titillation."

GLAAD, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, publishes a media guide that recommends that people "who identif[y] as a certain gender, whether or not they have taken hormones or had surgery, should be referred to using the pronouns appropriate for that gender." It also states that "If it is not possible to ask a transgender person which pronoun he or she prefers, use the pronoun that is consistent with the person's appearance and gender presentation. For instance, if a person wears a dress and uses the name ‘Susan,' feminine pronouns are appropriate."

"Typically, when someone is self-identified as trans, [we advocate] being respectful of the pronouns they used," says Corey Johnson, eastern media field specialist for GLAAD.

Betty Hill, executive director for PERSAD, a local agency focused on the mental health of sexual minorities, says that different media outlets' handling of the pronoun question revealed their levels of sophistication. "[The Trib] showed the most cultural competence."

Television reporters' use of non-specific words like person or victim "suggests that there was at least enough sensitivity to know that they didn't know, but not enough to pursue what is the respectful thing to do," Hill says. "When in doubt, respectfully ask, and let the person identify themselves, to learn at least the skills to be able to ask respectfully. People are afraid to ask each other questions about who they are. My experience in general is, if you come across as a person whose heart is trying to understand who I am, I don't mind you asking about me."

Both Hill and Lombardi commended James Holman, the county's emergency-management district chief, for referring to Hare as female in speaking with reporters.

"People who work in rescue, police, first responders, people who have to deal with the variety of the public really do need training," says Hill. "They're going to have to respond to all kinds of people in all kinds of situations. Those special workers who people need to be able to rely on when they are in the worst situations of their lives need people who are culturally competent."

"I know it's very hard for professionals in that kind of situation where they're dealing with a large number of things and what gender the person is might be secondary to getting them to safety," says Lombardi. "That's quite understandable, but they did very well. It shows professionalism."

If reporters were intent on discussing issues of gender, Lombardi and others say, they could have done so by focusing on a deeper question: whether Hare's trans status was a factor in her being homeless in the first place. Transgender people are often stigmatized and marginalized, and sometimes even homeless shelters struggle to find a place for them.

"We're not designed as a shelter system to make these accommodations," says Adrienne Walnoha, the executive director of Oakland-based Community Human Services Corporation. The private nonprofit social-service agency takes a special interest in the plight of transpeople accessing services.

In most shelters, people live in a congregate living situation, sharing space with the other residents. But residents, Walnoha says, can feel threatened by a person they perceive as different. Women in shelters are often victims of domestic violence and can "look at [a transwoman] as a sexually deviant man coming into their space," says Walnoha. In men's shelters, meanwhile, "the automatic assumption is that if someone's making a transition, they're gay, and that puts the person in a position of being victimized."

That puts shelter staff in a tough spot. "If you're working in a facility and the people staying there say, ‘I don't want to stay with this person, I don't feel safe,' it's very difficult to make the decision of who is more important," says Walnoha. "You don't want to put the transperson in a position of being in a place where they're not wanted."

Local and state shelter organizations say that they accept transgender women and men, but that accommodations must be made to make the transperson feel safe, as well as others already in the shelter. Sometimes this means segregating the transperson or making alternate arrangements.

Bethlehem Haven is an Uptown nonprofit that operates homeless shelters for women and matches them with social services. Interim executive director Michelle Atkins says, "We would certainly welcome a transgender person into our system and make every reasonable accommodation to make them feel welcome."

However, she notes, there is likely to be some level of segregation for such a person. "Showering is a big issue," Atkins notes. "Depending on where they are in their transition we may have them go to another facility to shower." The shelter generally sleeps four women to a room, but a transwoman might be put up in a single room. "Many of the women here have a very legitimate fear of men," Atkins says.

But transwomen have such fears, too. "The transgender community is vulnerable to abuse in a men's shelter," says Caroline Woodward, Bethlehem Haven's director of development and public relations. "We make the effort not to turn them back to the streets. They have a higher population of homelessness, because of transphobia -- they can't find housing or work, and medications are expensive."

"We serve individuals by how they identify; we don't ask for proof of gender," says Michelle Bond, executive director of the Alle-Kiski HOPE Center, which operates women's shelters for victims of domestic violence. "We have served people who were transgender. The consistent philosophy among my peers is that if an individual identifies [as a woman in need of services], they're served."

Nicole Lindemyer is the policy director of Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, a statewide network of social-support systems for victims of domestic violence. "There are options like hotel vouchers or doing a customized safety plan," she says, in cases where a transgender person might cause traumatized clients to fear for their own safety.

Citing confidentiality rules, shelters declined to answer specific questions about individual transwomen in their system, or if Hare was known to them or stayed in their shelters. However, Woodward says that "more than one transgender woman," is in their system currently. "We sit down with them one on one and make sure they understand we're not ostracizing them," she says.

But Pitt's Emilia Lombardi and others say more can be done to protect transgender men and women from being discriminated against. For example, while state law prevents discrimination on the basis of gender, it offers no protection to those who have transitioned, or are transitioning, between genders. At least two pieces of current legislation would change that: state House Bill 1400 and Senate Bill 461 would extend anti-discrimination protections to Pennsylvanians regardless of gender identity.

But government itself is often part of the problem. While shelters try to accommodate clients of various identities, it can be difficult convincing federal agencies of that. When shelters ask for federal funding, says Walnoha, the agency is "going to ask who you're serving, men or women. The system is not set up to be responsive. Across social services, we put out hoops for people to get through. It's hard to get through those hoops when you're already beaten down."

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