Today, January 18, 2011 marks 1 year since Myra Ical was murdered and still no justice! This case, like many trans murders in Houston, is now an unsolved cold case and HPD will NOT give this case another glance unless someone steps forward.
The following paper was presented at the 2010 Rice University SWGS Symposium by Laura Richardson on March 26, 2010. The paper is perhaps the most articulate and insightful deconstruction of the postmortem violence inflicted upon Myra Ical’s humanity.
For more information about Myra Ical, the media and the community’s response, please click HERE.
Syntactical Distancing in the Case of Myra Ical
Myra Ical, a transgender woman, was murdered on January 18th of this year and found in a field on the 4300 block of Garrott Street. In the police report of the incident and in many of the early media responses to the crime, Ical was identified as a man, by her birth name, and with male pronouns. One report by Houston Press, which has since been revised, even went so far as to claim Ical fooled or tricked police – as if her dead body was telling a lie to law enforcement officials who initially recognized her for what she really was: a woman. This identification serves as a second type of violence inflicted on Ical – a representational injury that amounted to a disavowal of her person.1 As with the visibility the transgender community received after the rape and murder of the transgender man Brandon Teena in 1993, the story of Ical’s violent death mobilized Houstonians and stimulated a moment of a higher level of recognition for the transgender community in our city. Over two hundred people attended Ical’s candlelight vigil, held a week after her death in the same field where her body was found. Multiple local news stations also attended the memorial, and several concerns of the transgender community, including the guides available to help media outlets write respectfully about transgender individuals and the fact that under the Texas James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act, transgender people are not protected, received increased press coverage. Ical’s death provided an opening through which transgender civil rights and rights of representation were made visible. Although her violent passing did receive a lot of coverage, there is still much to be said for Ical, the events surrounding her death, and her physical, verbal, and written victimization, for there was a third type of violence inflicted on Myra Ical. Several reports, including the original police report (which still stands unedited), labeled the field where Ical’s body was found as an “area  known to have incidents of prostitution, drug use and homeless camps,” failing to mention that the 4300 block of Garrott is just a few blocks from a metro station, multiple bars and pubs, and a 24-hour restaurant. Several online and televised news reports of the crime also included the information from the police statement about the location where Ical’s body was found in their coverage of her murder, including Houston Press and The Houston Chronicle. Why did the police and the media insist on “clausing” Ical’s murder with a sentence qualifying that the area where Ical was found was known for illegal acts of prostitution and drug use, as well as for being a site frequented by the homeless? An interpretation of two sentences of the HPD report of Ical’s murder, “Mr. Ical was found partially clothed in a field and had no identification. The area is known to have incidents of prostitution, drug use and homeless camps,” reveals the ways in which the police and media displaced Ical’s identity as a woman, scandalized her murder, and fell back on discriminatory caricatures of transgender people when representing her body. Ical was strangled to death and then identified as a man – physical and discursive violences done to her person, but the qualifying sentences of the police report inflict yet a third type of violence on Ical and the transgender community: a dictional and syntactical violence that works to distance readers from the suffering of a woman.
The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, or GLADD, created a Media Reference Guide, now in its eighth edition, to promote the fair and respectful representation of LGBT stories. This reference guide is simple, short, and easily accessible online. In the section that pertains to the representation of transgender people, the guide explains that when reporting about a transgender person, writers and newscasters should always use the person’s chosen name. Furthermore, the pronouns used to refer to the transgender person should be determined by asking the person which pronouns he/she/ze would prefer. If the media outlet is unable to ask the transgender person about such pronouns, it should always “use the pronoun that is consistent with the person’s appearance and gender expression” (GLAAD Media Reference Guide 11). Although the HPD recognized Ical as wearing a “black blouse,” it nevertheless insisted on using male pronouns and privileging Ical’s birth name. Furthermore, HPD’s claim that Ical “also went by the name of Myra Chanel Ical” is incorrect and misleading: for as many as two decades, Ical identified herself as Myra (Williams). To claim that she “also went by the name of” is to relegate her status as a woman to the position of a nickname or pseudonym. Houston Press’s current version of the report of Ical’s murder is titled with Ical’s birth name and then followed by, in parentheses, “(a/k/a Myra Ical),” while part of the URL for author Chris Vogel’s short article about the crime reads: “cross-dresser_beaten_death.” The abbreviation a/k/a works in a similar way as does “also went by the name of,” but has connotations of criminality, implying a suspect, “who are you really?” status. Additionally, Myra Ical was, in fact, not a cross-dresser, but a transgender woman. The GLAAD Media Reference Guide defines cross-dressing as: “To occasionally wear clothes traditionally associated with people of the other sex…. ‘Cross-dresser’ should NOT be used to describe someone who has transitioned to live full-time as the other sex or who intends to do so in the future” (GLAAD Media Reference Guide 9).
The diction and syntax of the police report and the two news stories from Houston Press and The Houston Chronicle are working within a framework of identity displacing. I employ “displacing” instead of “displacement” to separate my use of the term from its psychological implications. By “displacing” I mean, in a simple fashion, removing from “the proper place,” with the negative connotations of “expel[ing] or forc[ing] to flee.” The substitution of male pronouns for female pronouns, the primary positioning of Ical’s birth name, and the relegation of Ical’s recognized name to a marginal status all serve to separate Ical’s identity as a woman from her person, forcing male-ness onto her body and victimizing her once again. These are all injuries that occur at the level of diction and syntax, and are displacing mechanisms in the sense that these words and their positioning work to remove Ical’s feminine identity from its rightful place: her body and the recognition of her person. Police and media representations of Ical’s body created a lack or a gap in their stripping of Ical’s identity by this act of displacing and then attempted to fill the space, cover it over, and suture it with heteronormative discourse. This space created by displacing was what community responses to Ical’s murder addressed, protesting the removal of her feminine identity and refusing to allow that discursive displacing to continue.
But at the same time as police and media reports were forcing a masculine, heteronormative discourse on Ical’s body, these accounts were also invoking cultural stereotypes of transgender people. In an interview I conducted with the director of the Transgender Foundation of America (TFA), Cristan Williams, she discussed the past hundred-year history of the representation of transgender individuals. One of the many incredible services TFA provides for the Houston community is its archival collection of pieces of transgender history, dating back as far as 1750 (TFA Library and Archive Home Page). Williams noted that in her research through the archive she has discovered that “this sensationalistic, sexualized notion of transgender expression” really only emerged about a hundred years ago, and that
It wasn’t until after the bringing in of entertainment and that image to the public conscious that I began finding the moralistic language or sensationalistic language of transgender expression that has lasted all the way up through Jerry Springer. Most of the movie posters we have going back years and years… every representation I can think of is used in a sexualized manner…. I think that our cultural reference for transgender people is muddied with a lot of references that go back to entertainment industries that have little or nothing to do with real transgender people. (Williams)
The facts that the police and media reported that Ical was “partially clothed” and found in an “area [ ] known to have incidents of prostitution, drug use and homeless camps” speaks to what Williams identifies as the “cultural reference for transgender people.” I read over sixty HPD press releases of Houston murders from October 2009 to this very week, and not one of the accounts commented on the state of the clothing victims were wearing. Additionally, not one of the reports I read made any qualifying statements about the areas in which the murders were committed. Ical’s body was found in the Midtown neighborhood, which, according to the online database Houston Crime Maps, is not even in the top ten Houston areas for reported criminal activity. The Montrose neighborhood, which is close to the 4300 block of Garrott, is ranked the tenth highest neighborhood for crime in Houston, but has less than half of the reported criminal activity of the neighborhood that comes in at number one, the Alief area, which is located west of Loop 610, between Highway 59 and West Loop Parkway. Furthermore, the Montrose area was rated by the American Planning Association in 2009 as one of the best neighborhoods in the U.S. There is no evidence that Ical was using drugs or involved in prostitution, and she was not homeless. She cleaned homes and offices for a living and had attended a concert the evening she was murdered. Given that the area where Ical’s body was found is no more dangerous than many other areas of Houston, and given that Myra was not known to be associated with drugs, prostitution, or homelessness, why are these two sentences in the police report? Why are these two sentences the ones upon which media outlets initially seized?
The answers to these questions lie partly in the structure of the HPD press release about Ical’s murder. The report first gives Ical’s birth name, then notes that she “also went by the name of Myra Chanel Ical,” identifying Myra as a transgender woman without explicitly stating the information. The report then moves to the two sentences with which this paper is primarily concerned: “Mr. Ical was found partially clothed in a field and had no identification. The area is known to have incidents of prostitution, drug use and homeless camps.” The progression of the report, then, identifies the victim, calls attention to her status as a transgender woman without directly addressing it, adds that she was partially clothed, and then offers information that serves as “explanations” as to why the crime occurred. In this way, the development of the report scandalizes Ical’s murder. The identification of her body as partially clothed, which several news sources inverted to “half naked,”2 suggests that Ical was participating in a sexual activity or was sexually assaulted. Moreover, the development of the report implies that the crime was either understandable (because of the area’s association with criminal activity, which is an exaggerated claim) or caused by the victim (as in Ical was engaging in these activities, which is why she was murdered). It is almost possible to hear the coordinating conjunction “but” between the last two quoted sentences above: “Mr. Ical was found partially clothed in a field and had no identification, but this area is known to have incidents.” What is ultimately accomplished by the word choice and sentence structure of the police report and the various media accounts based upon it is the syntactical work of distancing non-transgender people from those who are transgender. The report seems to be saying that if Myra Ical was a transgender woman who was engaging in prostitution or promiscuity, using drugs, and homeless, the Houston community does not need to mourn her death or worry that it could also be the victim of such violence. Like the displacing of Ical’s identity as a woman, this distancing works to forge a space between Ical’s experience and the experiences of not only other victims, but the community as a whole. Again, the outcry from hundreds of Houston residents found fault in this aperture and filled it with the noise of their emails and letters to the media and the noise of their collective voices at Ical’s memorial service, where they shouted, used noise-makers, and blew whistles in protest of both the physical and representational violence inflicted on Ical and the other six unsolved murders of transgender people in Houston since 1999.
The Houston community was able to rally around Ical and protest the displacing and distancing done by police and media reports, but while TFA director Cristan Williams says that Ical’s vigil was “probably the largest single transgender action in Houston,” Williams has seen no increased involvement or attendance at TFA events since Ical’s murder. “But you have to put that question in context,” she says:
Most of the community members have known people who have been murdered or have friends who have [committed] suicide or have been beaten up themselves or have their own story of victimization to tell. While the story itself is tragic, it’s not something that is shocking to the community. To give more context: for most transwomen who get ready to leave the house, for whatever reason, it takes about two hours to get ready. It’s not to look like a diva, it’s taking time to look passable so that you’re not beaten or harassed…. You’re spending that much time just to get out of your house, month after month, day after day. That is the reason why most of the clients we work with have symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. [They] know[ ] friends who’ve been beaten, murdered, [and] fear[ ] those things themselves. (Williams)
Increased exposure to violence highlights the intense vulnerability of the transgender community. That vulnerability is heightened by police and media reports that “ignore industry standards” and perpetuate what Williams identifies as the“boilerplate representation” of transgender people (Williams). She locates the community’s strong response to Ical’s murder in “the disrespect shown by HPD and local media, [ ] trying to hide who Myra really was in favor of falling back on a tired, old, caricature of transgender people: the freak, the prostitute, the other” (Williams). “Falling back” on these “tired” representations underscores the displacing and distancing done by the HPD report and media coverage of Ical’s murder. These spaces created within the body of Myra Ical and between her body and the bodies of Houston residents are openings that must be addressed over and over again in order for the larger community to recognize her suffering and the suffering of transgender people, the majority of whom have been victims of violence as a result of a history of cultural prejudices surrounding the transgender person – a history partly comprised of displacing and distancing, creating spaces that must now be filled with noise. At the end of our interview, Williams concluded her answers to my questions with a poignant call to the best way to address this distancing and make a difference for the transgender community:
Our goal in the event that we held [memorial for Myra] was to inspire that part of yourself that is really, really natural and is in every single person. That when you see someone suffering, that there’s a natural response to help. When things like this happen, what we try to do is call attention to that part of each person’s self that innately sees beyond the cultural conditioning to recognize that this person is – that we’re talking about – a human being who suffered, and that even after she suffered there was more wrong done to her…. Fundamentally, what I hope that that consciousness raising produces is an intolerance of intolerance, a sensitivity or a new awareness of the game that’s being played…. And so… that’s how you and everyone who came to the vigil and everyone who saw the news report [reacted]. My hope is [that] on that level, that personal level, that it does spark those kinds of interactions where when our culture’s representation of transgender experience is brought to a fore, that people have a desire or a willingness, drive, to be able to address that appropriately. (Williams)
David Valentine, in his 2007 book, Imagining Transgender, spends a chapter exploring the ways in which a theory of violence can be a useful tool for political activism for the transgender community. He writes that “for violence to be understood as violence, a story must be told about it” (Valentine 228). What this statement points to is also what Williams articulated to me at the end of our interview: that it is only in the recognition of the suffering of others and in the responses to that suffering on an innate, emotional level that violence can be properly addressed, condemned, and eliminated. This personal level is precisely what those two sentences in the police report and media coverage of Myra Ical’s murder sought to distance themselves from and is a violent action because it is ultimately injurious to the transgender community and to the memory of Ical. This created space, this aperture formed by stepping back, is an opening for political, social, and emotional responses of people protesting, making noise, and then closing the distance.
Works Cited“Displacing.” Merriam-Webster Online. < http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/displacing>.“Transgender Community Seeks Answers to Murder | MyFoxHouston.com.” Web. 30 Mar 2010. <http://www.myfoxhouston.com/dpp/news/local/100125-transgender-murder-victim-vigil>.GLAAD Media Reference Guide. 8th Ed. January 2010. <http://www.glaad.org/Document.Doc?id=99>.“Great Places in America: Neighborhoods.” Web. 21 Mar 2010. <http://www.planning.org/greatplaces/neighborhoods/2009/index.htm>.“Houston Crime Maps | Super Neighborhood.” Web. 21 Mar 2010. <http://houstoncrimemaps.com/neighborhood/>.Houston Police Department. Press Release. “Deceased Victim Identified in Incident at 4300 Garrott.” 20 January 2010. < http://www.houstontx.gov/police/nr/2010/jan/nr012010-1.htm>.Lezon, Dale. “Houston police seek clues in death of man left in field.” The Houston Chronicle (Chron.com). 20 January 2010. <http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/metropolitan/6826157.html>.Transgender Foundation of America. Library and Archive Home Page. < http://www.tgctr.org/tg-library/>.
Valentine, David. Imagining Transgender: An Ethnography of a Category. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007. Print.
Vogel, Chris. “Ruben Dario Ical, 51 (a/k/a Myra Ical), Bayou Body Count No. 17.” Houston Press. 20 January 2010. <http://blogs.houstonpress.com/hairballs/2010/01/cross-dresser_beaten_death.php#comments>.
Williams, Cristan. Phone Interview. 23 March 2010.