On the murder of Sanesha Stewart

You may have already heard about the senseless murder of Sanesha Stewart. Stewart was a trans woman of color who was stabbed to death, apparently by a male sex partner.

In the wake of this tragedy, the media has not only failed to show respect for a fellow human being whose life was cut short, they’ve been downright, outlandishly offensive. Stewart has been called a “hooker,” despite any actual evidence that she was a sex worker and claims from her neighbors that she was not. Her appearance has been commented on repeatedly. She has been referred to by masculine pronouns and her masculine birth name, with her legal feminine name referred to as a “nickname.” Here is one infamous article from the NY Daily News. It was originally called “Fooled john stabbed Bronx tranny,” though after GLAAD made some noise, they changed it to the oh-so-improved “Cops: Ex-con slays Bronx transsexual ‘hooker’.” A warning: the language below is extremely disrespectful and upsetting.

A transgendered prostitute was stabbed to death in the Bronx Saturday by a customer who was apparently surprised by the hooker’s true sex, police sources said Saturday.

The victim – a 25-year-old man who dressed like a woman – was identified by sources as Talib Stewart, who often went by the feminine nicknames of Nesha or Sanesha.

Stewart was stabbed multiple times inside a Belmont apartment building about 6 a.m. Saturday, police said.

A 37-year-old man was later arrested inside the second-floor apartment, police said.

Though the suspect’s identity was not immediately released, the sources said he was the prostitute’s john who became enraged when he learned his partner was not a woman.

Stewart, more than 6 feet tall, was known to wear stylish, provocative outfits with towering high heels, neighbors said.

Stewart also apparently had undergone surgery to give him larger breasts and other female characteristics, neighbors said.

“She looked like a girl but when she turned around, you knew it was a man,” a 17-year-old neighbor said. “She had a big jaw and an Adam’s apple.”

Neighbors said Stewart was a friendly and flirty presence on the block and was rarely hassled for his appearance.

“She’s always been Nesha to me,” said a friend who just gave her first name, Janelle. “She’s funny and outgoing.”

“It’s a shock – nobody should do something like that,” said another neighbor who asked not to be identified. “She never had any problems here.”

Stewart’s relatives visited the crime scene Saturday afternoon and angrily declined comment. Neighbors said they didn’t know if Stewart was turning tricks but they had noticed frequent male visitors to her home.

The suspect remained in police custody last night as the Bronx district attorney was determining which charges to file, officials said.

Must we list off the problems here? I hope not, but here goes, anyway.

Again, the masculine pronouns. Stewart is referred to as “a man who dressed like a woman.” Her appearance is repeatedly remarked upon as a means to discredit her gender identity and to further portray her as a “man.” She is called “flirty,” as though this should be some indication as to whether or not she deserved the violence. Though no one other than the police who never met her referred to Stewart as a sex worker, the male visitors to her home are taken as an unmistakable indication that she was having sex with these men for money.

Because women of color who have male visitors must be be sleeping with them. Because women of color who sleep with men her neighbors don’t know must be prostitutes. Particularly if they’re trans women of color. Clearly, a man having sex with her couldn’t be doing so because he actually liked her. And in the insistence that the man stabbed Stewart because of her gender (and no, not just the fact that she was a woman and it’s easy to get away with killing women) clearly implies that no man would willingly and knowingly sleep with a trans woman. It is also implied here, and has been explicitly said elsewhere, including the article’s comments, that a woman who fails to disclose her trans identity is not only being deceitful but also deserves a violent response, up to and including murder. And oh, look — the suspect’s friend uses it as a justification for the brutal, repeated, deadly stabbing, too.

Gee, I wonder why Stewart’s family “angrily declined comment.” Maybe that’s a fucking hint, assholes.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, there’s probably an additional reason besides your traditional run of the mill transphobia for the claims that Stewart was a prostitute. Simply, it lowers her social status. She is already seen as socially unacceptable and intolerable as a trans woman. Murders of trans individuals are regularly ignored, justified and sensationalized. But so are those of sex workers. The point here is to clearly to maximize the scorn that your average person would hold towards Stewart. The more socially unacceptable you make her, the less queasy your average person gets to feel about the media coverage and the fact that we either explicitly or implicitly condone her murder.

It should go without saying that this is not okay, but apparently it doesn’t. So allow me to clarify: this is not okay.

It is not okay to murder any woman. It is not okay to murder a woman of color. It is not okay to murder a trans woman. It is not okay to murder a sex worker. It is not okay to murder a trans woman of color who is a sex worker. It is not okay to say that someone is a sex worker without evidence. It is not okay to devalue a person if she is a sex worker. It is not okay to murder someone because you made an assumption about their gender and feel that they “tricked” you. It is not okay to justify this kind of response. It is not okay that this scorn and disrespect is so widespread. It is not okay that some self-professed feminists also engage in this kind of hate speech — and yes, they do.

I wish that I had more to say that is original. I don’t. And a lot has been said already by other bloggers.

Megan Julca has extensive links to other media coverage. Lisa Harney discusses how cissexual women would rarely receive this kind of treatment. Belledame writes angrily about transphobia and justifications for the murder of trans women. GallingGalla discusses the difficulty of living as a trans woman in a dangerously and deeply transphobic society. Holly at Feministe explains why it is a problem to assume that a person is not trans. GLAAD is still asking people to write to the Daily News about their insistence in referring to Stewart as a man.

And right now, I have nothing but disgust and contempt for humanity.

0 thoughts on “On the murder of Sanesha Stewart

  1. Pizza Diavola

    The contrast between the way Ms. Stewart’s neighbors speak of her and the way the ‘journalist’ goes out of the way to be as gloating and insulting as possible speaks volumes.

    Stewart, more than 6 feet tall, was known to wear stylish, provocative outfits with towering high heels

    Oh, I see. She was “stylish” and “provocative,” so she was asking to be murdered. Typical victim-blaming of a woman for being murdered when you don’t even give her the respect of treating her as a woman otherwise is impressive.

  2. whatsername

    Yah the coverage has been beyond disgusting. I’m glad I’ve only had to read bits and pieces of it on the blogs I read. If I’d had to hear this shit on the nightly news I might have pulled all my hair out already.

    I’ve been discussing the case with my current events discussion board crowd and so far it’s been interesting, some defense of “well of course he was mad” but less than I was expecting. An encouraging sign for me at least.

  3. brandann

    ooh that article made me soooo very angry…i am new to learning my way around trans issues…i want to be better informed…and i know that that article is horridly offensive and distasteful…all her friends and neighbors referred to her by her preferred pronoun…so why the fuck can’t the media make a half assed effort? i am trying to change my view of automatic assumption…i look forward to a day when people stop justifying this shit as “he lied to me”…no, you just have a narrow view of what is “normal”, ass hat. broaden your horizons…i did…

  4. Kristen

    Cara, thank you for highlighting the horrific treatment that transpersons experience in our society. I’ll admit six months ago I had no idea that transgendered people experienced this type of “discrimination.” (My totally bad.) I haven’t known any transgendered people very well. (There was a transgendered woman in my high school, but I don’t recall anyone making a big deal about it – of course she wasn’t a close friend so I wouldn’t necessarily known.) I couldn’t at first believe people could be so hateful over something that has absolutely nothing to do with them.

    This and other blogs have convinced me that we have to have special legislation protecting this clearly vulnerable group. But this particular story has finally convinced my husband that there is a large segment of the population is really hostile towards transpeople and we need to do something to help…so thank you.

  5. Cara Post author

    Kristen, I absolutely agree about protection laws. Thanks for bringing it up. There absolutely has to be hate crime legislation that covers gender identity. That this legislation is so highly resisted, I think, is probably an indication of how badly it’s needed. But trans* people are some of the most vulnerable and discriminated against in our society. Employers legally can and regularly do fire their employees for coming out as trans*. And as we’ve seen with this story, that major problem pales in comparison to some of the others out there.

    Brandann, I agree that the assumption is a hard one to break. I certainly haven’t achieved it. The difference is that you and I seem to understand that this is our problem and society’s problem, and not the fault of trans* people. Yeah, if you actually ask a person before sex if they are trans/cissexual and a false answer is given, that would be lying and rather unethical (regardless of which direction the lie was in). It still wouldn’t even come close to justifying murder, and I somehow doubt that in all — or any — of these these circumstances that the “tricked” murderers asked that kind of question.

  6. Patrick

    This all kind of goes back to the debate some months back about including trans people in that gay rights/labour bill (Can’t remember the bill’s name but I’m sure all here remember it). Things aren’t going to get any better if the the T gets left out when seeking rights for the LGBT community.

    It is sad that Sanesha Stewart’s name has to join all the rest mourned on the Trans Day of Remembrance.

    Reading that report made me ferociously angry! That level of disrespect for the dead is abhorrent. Sexist, transphobic bastards!

    Thanks for posting this article Cara, though I wish you hadn’t had to.

  7. Paul


    Trans kids forced to go through school as their birth gender because of society’s “only after 18” view also makes me mad.

  8. Sera

    Of course, Belledame also uses this poor dead woman to further her own agenda, stating publicly that Sanesha was not only a sex worker but a proud sex worker, despite the fact that there is no evidence for either.

  9. Cara Post author

    Um, where? I see that absolutely nowhere in her post. She says that Stewart was allegedly a sex worker despite evidence, and then later goes on to say that even if she was, the disrespect is still uncalled for.

  10. Judith

    I knew Nesha and her brother and I play tennis, this is truely a horrific crime and the news media are only adding insult to what is a devastating situation. I was truely sickened and appalled when i read the papers, and in Nesha’s defense she was no prostitute, she liked men and when is that a crime. Now had it been a white woman the media would have portrayed her as a victim and not some “freak” who deserved what “he” got. And as they continue to cover this story the headlines are more intrusive disrespectful tasteless and down right disgusting, and they seem never to leave out her race and repeatedly calling her, male. It is a true injustice to minority women wether female by birth or other, itis truely appalling and shameful the little respect pepole higher show for quality of life. MY GOD WETHER SHE WAS MALE FEMALE OR BOTH THE FACT IS SOME ONE LOST THEIR LIFE, AND THE NEWS PAPERS SEEM TO DISREGARD THAT AND HOW THE FAMILY IS GRIEVING. IT IS TRUELY TRUELY SICKENING AND SHAME ON YOU DAILY NEWS AND THE OTHER PAPERS.

  11. christina

    When i saw the article in the daily news I looked at sanesha’s face and said to my boyfriend this girl looks like this little boy i grew up with on third ave named talib.his grandma was simply miss stewart to me and my mom daisy.miss stewart lived across from my little sisters grandma angie and i remember talib as a little happy boy in his catholic school uniform.We were always in our hallway practicing cheers and dance moves that he was great at.I’m 3 years older and everyone knew he was gonna probally be gay but we loved him for him.As i read the article and looked at the picture more i started to cry and i told my b.f this is talib the little boy i grew up with I hadn’t seen him since about 1995 when my grandma died but i still recognized him even as nesha.R.I.P.”nesha” You were and always will be remembered. love christina

  12. Creamy

    I just found out about this today when a friend of mine was reading the article on it. I myself found it very offensive to the individual and agree that it was very tastless. Before she finished reading the article I said that sounds like someone I went to High School with and sadly enough it was Nesha. I saw Nesha about 6 years ago for the first time as Nesha. We spoke she told me her name, which she got from a friend of ours who was always very nice to her. She was very pretty and taking care of herself. I’m disgusted at how the media described this situation and assumes that she was a prostitute. Nesha told me out of her own mouth that she wasn’t doing that and FYI if she was a prostitute trust and believe the so called “JOHN” new Nesha was Transgender before he got there. If he stabbed her to death what was he doing in her building on the 2nd floor? I’m disgusted at how this was put out there. Nesha was someone’s family and friends to many. I wonder how all these people would feel if this happened to their loved ones. Would they like for them to be be described in that fashion? Nesha I miss you and I’m sorry things turned out this way for you.

  13. Creamy

    Look what I found

    Meanwhile, the News is the only newspaper that continues to report on the stabbing death of Talib Stewart (also known on the street as Nesha or Shanesha), a transgendered man who allegedly was killed by ex-con Steve McMillian in the Bronx earlier this week. McMillian had initially told police that he’d been surprised that Stewart, who dressed in women’s clothing, was still a male but police sources yesterday told the News that McMillian and Stewart had known each other for some time and had been seen together. That puts a crimp in McMillian’s purported defense that he killed Stewart because he’d reacted angrily after finding out Stewart was not a woman.

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