Gwen Araujo and Matthew Shepard have both been subjects of TV movies about their lives and tragic deaths. It’s likely Angie Zapata’s story will move from last week’s news to eventual TV biopic as well, and for the same reasons: She was queer and brutally murdered because of it.
Murders of LGBT people don’t often make the mainstream news. But the brutality of the Araujo and Shepard murders demanded headlines. Zapata was beaten to death with a fire extinguisher and her murder brought intense attention to Greeley, Colo., a small town some 60 miles from Denver.
Zapata was 18 when she was killed last July by Allen Andrade, 32. But her murder, unlike those of so many transgender people before her, will not go unavenged. And unlike Araujo and Shepard, her killing has been recognized for what it was: a hate crime.
Andrade killed Zapata after he discovered she was a pre-op transsexual, after the two agreed to meet for sex and spent several hours together. On April 22, Andrade was convicted of first-degree murder. Under Colorado’s new bias-crime law, he was also the first person to be prosecuted and convicted of hate-crime murder.
The murder of a transgender woman isn’t news. Transgender murders have gone up in each of the past 10 years. What is news is the fact that Zapata’s murder has been avenged by the legal system.
Like Shepard’s and Araujo’s killers, Andrade used the “gay-panic” defense. He alleged he didn’t know Zapata was a biological man (witnesses said otherwise) and that, when he discovered it, he just “snapped” and beat her to death.
The Colorado bias law makes that tired legal manipulation less viable. It took the jury just two hours to find Andrade guilty of both murder and bias.
According to the FBI and the Department of Justice, sexual-orientation bias accounted for more than 15 percent of the 7,722 total hate-crime incidents in 2006. In more than 60 percent of these, gay men were targeted.
This data should have been part of any TV news coverage of the Zapata murder and Andrade trial. It wasn’t. The absence illuminates part of the problem of getting real information about LGBT lives on the tube.
Queers only seem to make the news in the negative — when something bad happens to them or they do something wrong. Pedophilia and the crimes related to it are still regularly equated with homosexuality. Even discourse on same-sex marriage has been negatively framed, as an assault on “traditional” marriage.
Watch “Law & Order” and queers are portrayed as killers as often as they are victims. A recent episode of “Law & Order: SVU” featured a black MTF transgender character who murdered a man who refused to allow his teenaged transgender daughter to have surgery. Last week’s episode of “Lie to Me” featured a young black rapper murdered because his down-low relationship with a top rapper would have exposed the homophobic rap world to ridicule.
LGBT lives are still anomalous to majority America, and that’s never more obvious than on TV — so few TV shows get it. The lesbian women are kissing or having sex with men. The gay men are celibate. Network execs don’t get it, news reporters don’t get it and Dick Wolf believes there are as many queer murderers as there are queer murder victims.
Intensive TV coverage of the Zapata murder brought homophobia, hate crimes and the emptiness of the “gay-panic” defense into the spotlight. It should not, however, take a murder to call attention to what LGBT people are subjected to in their daily lives. TV bears responsibility for presenting all Americans in its landscape, including queers, in a fair and balanced manner.