Online they allegedly advertised as women. In police reports, their genders are listed male, and they are referred to as transvestites. And one television news reporter referred to Nakala Jackson and Tamika Jones as "two men" who were "posing as women and operating as prostitutes."
To some activists, meanwhile, they were the victims of transphobia.
Jackson and Jones were the subjects of a prostitution sting that WPXI-TV's Vince Sims reported on Feb. 4. After making contact online and arranging a meeting at a Strip District hotel, Pittsburgh police arrested the two women, charging them with prostitution. But Sims seized on their gender identity: "[T]he fact these are men left people I talked to in the Strip District speechless," Sims reported. Sure enough, video shows man-on-the-street Mike Decoske's eyes widening, then shaking his head at Sims' question. "I wish I had something better to say. But I don't have any comment."
"This whole story is treated as a totally insensitive joke and is extremely offensive," says Rayden Sorock, a Lawrenceville resident and a fellow with the Initiative for Transgender Leadership at the Regional Internship Center of Southwestern Pennsylvania.
Using terms like "transvestite" or "posing," Sorock says, "create the idea that someone's gender they present is a lie or only a transition."
Local media has struggled before with reporting on the transgender community: In 2008, reporters used a variety of characterizations -- ranging from "homeless man" to "that person" -- to describe a transgender homeless woman rescued from flooding in an access tunnel along the Allegheny River. But this time, local activists and LGBT community members are using WPXI's story as a rallying point to improve the treatment of the transgender community and are circulating a petition in opposition of "transphobic reporting."
At a Feb. 9 community meeting at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center, concerned LGBT community members and advocates discussed how to promote media guidelines -- generally, advocates recommend using pronouns that fit a story subject's "appearance and gender presentation" or asking which pronoun a person identifies with -- and a more positive image of the transgender community.
"Why are we always portrayed as child molesters, murderers or comic relief?" asked Jessica McGuinness, a transgender woman. "We're only for shock value."
For others, Jones and Jackson's arrest reflected a broader problem: socioeconomic discrimination against transgendered people. According to a report by The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality, those who identify as transgendered experience double the rate of unemployment and live in "extreme poverty"; 16 percent report having to do sex work or other jobs in the "underground economy." Further, "African-American transgender respondents [fared] far worse than all others."
WPXI's coverage of the Jones/Jackson arrests could have explored such issues, says Willa Koenig, outreach coordinator for TransPitt, a social support group for the transgendered community. Both Jones and Jackson are black, and Koenig says, "The story might have addressed the sad fact that some otherwise employable citizens have had to turn to the sex trade just to keep themselves in food and shelter." And while the issue is out of TransPitt's purview because Jones and Jackson were breaking the law and outing themselves online, Koenig says "the spot could have been handled with more sensitivity"
For his part, WPXI's Sims says he wasn't trying to stir up trouble for transgendered Pittsburghers: The piece was part of an ongoing series of reports Sims has done on prostitution.
And in any case, he says of his story, "I'm glad that it has generated a dialogue in the community about such issues."