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Thursday, December 4, 2008

SF Weekly Challenges Guardian Op-Ed on "Border Crossers"

Posted By on Thu, Dec 4, 2008 at 4:49 PM


By Lauren Smiley

Usually SF Weekly lets its stories speak for themselves, yet the op-ed in the Guardian attacking my "Border Crossers" cover story last week -- comparing me to Jerry Springer and the Weekly to the National Enquirer -- calls for a response.

My story took a critical yet sensitive look at a quirk in the asylum system: that transgender immigrant women locally and nationwide have succeeded in winning asylum despite the fact that many have prior prostitution arrests on their records, and that some continue to prostitute even after gaining legal status. As journalistic standards require, the story neither advocates asylum nor opposes it -- and certainly doesn't present it as "egregious," as Robert Haaland alleges in his op-ed. While the sexual nature of the crime (prostitution) and the marginalized group of people at hand (trans-Latina immigrants) makes for an easy allegation that this is a sensationalized story, the root issue is the people who have won protection from the U.S. government on humanitarian grounds, and who have broken and/or continue to break the law. Those are the facts, and I've reported them.

Haaland claims this is an old story. While transgender asylum may be well known in some LGBT circles, the story surely presents a new angle for the majority of readers. Haaland also complains that I ignore the "well-documented obstacles" transgender women face in obtaining employment. Not true. I quoted no fewer than three transgender sex workers (who had gained or were seeking asylum) saying they couldn't find other work because of discrimination.

Haaland nitpicks, criticizing me for referring to Geovanni Hernandez-Montiel, the individual in a landmark case that paved the way for transgender asylum claims, as "he." I've referred to Hernandez-Montiel with male pronouns because that is how the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision refers to him (download the decision here: Hernandez-Montiel v. INS 225 F3d 1084 (9th Cir. 2000).rtf). The decision says Hernandez-Montiel alternatively dressed as a male and a female, and defined him as a "gay man with a female sexual identity," so I decided to be consistent with the court's language. Haaland fails to mention that I referred to every transwoman I interviewed as "she" in the story.

The op-ed also criticizes my quoting the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). Yes, the right-wing, anti-immigration group is controversial, and I should have perhaps described it as such. But FAIR influences immigration policy nationally (at least, the group often testifies on Capitol Hill) and is widely quoted in the mainstream press, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times. Like it or not, liberal San Francisco is still part of a country where groups like FAIR have clout, and to disregard conservative voices in a story involving a polarized issue like immigration would be to pretend we live in a vacuum.

Haaland acts as if it's a sin to write the word "hooker." Are we really so politically correct in this city that an alt-weekly writer can't use a common term for a sex worker? The newspaper in which Haaland wrote his opinion piece certainly doesn't think so. The Guardian itself used the term in the first sentence of this story about Eliot Spitzer's escort scandal.

Although the op-ed is signed by four activists, I keep citing Haaland, since he's clearly the author, even breaking into the first-person "I" at the end. Yes, I told him to write a letter to the editor (though our conversation Monday covered more issues than that) because I choose not to silence critics. Apparently he would like to silence anyone who is anything but a cheerleader for transgender asylum. Haaland is performing his civic duty by advocating for his community, and I'm doing mine. Writing an accurate story does not make you a "trans-basher" -- just a reporter.

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Lauren Smiley


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