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The Media Reacted Exactly As You'd Expect to First Trans Woman Being Executed

Jeremy S. Weis/Federal Public Defender Office via AP, File

As Madeline covered earlier, Missouri executed the first openly transgender women on Tuesday night. Amber McLaughlin, who was born Scott McLaughlin, was sentenced to death in 2006 for the 2003 rape and first-degree murder of ex-girlfriend, Beverly Guenther. While Gov. Mike Parson (R-MO) had considered an appeal from McLaughlin and attorneys based on childhood trauma and mental health problems that the jury had not heard. It was ultimately a judge who sentenced McLaughlin to death.

When news circulated of Gov. Parson considering the pardon, the mainstream media had quite the eyebrow raising response. Examples highlighted last month included the Associated Press and NPR in Kansas City, and not just because the outlets used she/her pronouns to refer to McLaughlin. 

In a report for AP by Summer Ballentine and John D. Hanna, statistics about women in prison were included, as if McLaughlin were one of them:

Missouri has only executed one woman before, state Corrections Department spokeswoman Karen Pojmann said in an email.

McLaughlin’s lawyers said she previously was rooming with another transgender woman but now is living in isolation leading up to her scheduled execution date.

Pojmann said 9% of Missouri’s prison population is female, and all capital punishment inmates are imprisoned at Potosi Correctional Center.

Further, both outlets treated McLaughlin not only as some kind of hero to emulate, whether from the reporter's own takes and/or from quotes from others. 

Ryan Krull even fawned over McLaughlin though, writing in his headline published for NPR in Kansas City that "Amber McLaughlin could be the first woman executed by Missouri since 1976," which included details of how McLaughlin lived as transgender, including while in prison.

On January 2, just before it was announced that the death penalty was to be upheld for McLaughlin, Jim Salter wrote another report for the AP, "Transgender woman’s scheduled execution would be US first."

Curiously, Salter mentions earlier on what his colleagues in the previous report mentioned above, which is that the appeal from McLaughlin touched upon gender identity:

The clemency request focuses on several issues, including McLaughlin’s traumatic childhood and mental health issues, which the jury never heard in her trial. A foster parent rubbed feces in her face when she was a toddler and her adoptive father used a stun gun on her, according to the clemency petition. It says she suffers from depression and attempted suicide multiple times.

The petition also includes reports citing a diagnosis of gender dysphoria, a condition that causes anguish and other symptoms as a result of a disparity between a person’s gender identity and their assigned sex at birth.

That being said, McLaughlin's attorney also sought to downplay it, in addition to saying his client demonstrated "incredible courage" in the face of "hate." As the report also mentioned: 

“We think Amber has demonstrated incredible courage because I can tell you there’s a lot of hate when it comes to that issue,” her attorney, Larry Komp, said Monday. But, he said, McLaughlin’s sexual identity is “not the main focus” of the clemency request.

Just as other reports had done, Salter went into painting a pleasant picture about McLaughlin, talking about another transgender inmate, who goes by Jessica Hicklin:

One person who knew Amber before she transitioned is Jessica Hicklin, 43, who spent 26 years in prison for a drug-related killing in western Missouri in 1995. She was 16. Because of her age when the crime occurred, she was granted release in January 2022.

Hicklin, 43, began transitioning while in prison and in 2016 sued the Missouri Department of Corrections, challenging a policy that prohibited hormone therapy for inmates who weren’t receiving it before being incarcerated. She won the lawsuit in 2018 and became a mentor to other transgender inmates, including McLaughlin.

Though imprisoned together for around a decade, Hicklin said McLaughlin was so shy they rarely interacted. But as McLaughlin began transitioning about three years ago, she turned to Hicklin for guidance on issues such as mental health counseling and getting help to ensure her safety inside a male-dominated maximum-security prison.

“There’s always paperwork and bureaucracy, so I spent time helping her learn to file the right things and talk to the right people,” Hicklin said.

In the process, a friendship developed.

“We would sit down once a week and have what I referred to as girl talk,” Hicklin said. “She always had a smile and a dad joke. If you ever talked to her, it was always with the dad jokes.”

They also discussed the challenges a transgender inmate faces in a male prison — things like how to obtain feminine items, dealing with rude comments, and staying safe.

McLaughlin still had insecurities, especially about her well-being, Hicklin said.

“Definitely a vulnerable person,” Hicklin said. “Definitely afraid of being assaulted or victimized, which is more common for trans folks in Department of Corrections.”

McLaughlin may have raped and murdered an ex-girlfriend, but could at least be counted on for "a smile and a dad joke" once being able to transition and develop friendships. 

Salter reported on McLaughlin's ultimate execution as well, which, other than details of McLaughlin's final moments and statements from Gov. Parson, was nearly the same piece as his report from the night before. 

The only similarly humanizing description of the raped and murdered victim, Guenther, was in the context of statements from the governor when denying McLaughlin's appeal. 

"McLaughlin terrorized Ms. Guenther in the final years of her life, but we hope her family and loved ones may finally have some peace," Parson said in his written statement that is included in Salter's reporting about the execution.

Krull also wrote on McLaughlin's execution, which was again published for NPR in Kansas City. While there was still focus on McLaughlin's friendship with Hicklin, there was also a surprising amount of attention given to what Guenther endured at the hands of McLaughlin, as well as what Guenther's younger brother brother, Al Wedepohl, who witnessed the execution.

Wedepohl is also quoted when it comes to McLaughlin's gender identity:

The brother of McLaughlin’s victim, Wedepohl, says that he's been bothered by the recent focus on McLaughlin's identity as transgender woman. He feels that his sister has been entirely lost in the onslaught of news coverage given to McLaughlin’s case in the past month.

He says that he doesn't want to belittle anyone, but he feels like McLaughlin's transition is a "ploy.” He adds, “It seems like it's pretty premeditated to try to get out of the death penalty."

McLaughlin's attorneys and other supporters lobbied until the end for her life to be spared. They say that her gender identity should have no bearing on her case.

While McLaughlin's attorneys appear to have gone back and forth on the role gender identity should play, they weren't the only ones. The Washington Post caused a bit of a headache in their tweet from Tuesday night, which linked to an article from Maham Javaid. 

As Javaid's piece mentioned further:

Despite the media focus on McLaughlin’s gender identity, McLaughlin’s co-counsel said that it has nothing to do with the 27-page petition for executive clemency that her lawyers submitted to Parson on her behalf in December.

“Her gender identity is not relevant or remarkable to the appeal for clemency,” said Kent Gipson, McLaughlin’s co-counsel. “Her gender identity never came up during discussions with the governor’s legal counsel.”

But others claimed it was relevant, raising questions as to if that excuses McLaughlin committing rape and murder:

Although McLaughlin’s co-counsel said that her gender identity was not crucial to the lost appeal, in their letter to Parson, U.S. Democratic Reps. Cori Bush and Emanuel Cleaver II, both of Missouri, said that alongside the horrendous childhood abuse McLaughlin suffered, “she was also silently struggling with her identity, grappling with what we now understand is gender dysphoria.”

Others have argued that focusing on McLaughlin’s gender identity is legitimate. McLaughlin will be the first woman executed by Missouri since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.

“In the circumstances it is relevant who Amber McLaughlin appeared to be to the judge and jury, during the trial,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. “That she is a transgender woman is a legitimate fact to consider if you look at the background of her case.”

Alexis Vida Rangel, policy counsel at the National Center for Transgender Equality, said that “recognizing that Amber McLaughlin is a transgender woman is essential to recognizing her humanity, especially in the context of a criminal legal system and a society that continue to deny the humanity and basic rights of our community.”

It also raises the question as to whether those on the left might want to actually consider the mental health associations with gender dysphoria before pushing on children what often amounts to genital mutilation and/or sterilization, in the name of "gender-affirming care."

The report also casually mentions that McLaughlin, who started cross-dressing at 12, didn't even begin transitioning until a few years ago, while on death row. "McLaughlin transitioned in the past few years while on death row. In an interview, she told St. Louis Public Radio that she was about age 12 when she secretly began wearing women’s clothing. “I knew then this is what I wanted to be,” she said," Javaid wrote.

People quickly took notice over Twitter. In addition to the nearly 250 replies that the tweet received, 54 of the 86 retweets were quoted retweets. 

Our friends at Twitchy, who had also last month covered reactions to the buzz generating the clemency appeal, on Tuesday night highlighted coverage from Vice, Mack Lamoureux, who mentioned the AP in his reporting. 

Twitter users also reacted to a tweet from user Natalie Pilgeram. Although she now has her tweets protected, the Tuesday piece from Tuesday revealed how Pilgeram had tweeted that she was "Wearing pink today in solidarity w/ #AmberMcLaughlin, scheduled to be executed this Tues evening – the 1st woman to be murdered by the state of Missouri since 1976." She also included "#ClemencyForAmber" and "#EndTheDeathPenalty." 


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