A transgender man’s murder in August has become a teaching opportunity in progressive Wayne County, Michigan, as mourning friends and family members were forced to defend his gender identity after death.
The senseless killing of 26-year-old Jean Butchart, shot in the head by a stranger on a hot August evening in Belleville, shocked his loved ones. But a cascade of misinformation based on conflicting reports about his gender worsened their heartbreak.
As police searched for Butchart’s killer, conflicting information on the victim’s driver’s license led police and the media to misgender him as a woman.
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“It was an honest mistake,” Julisa Abad, a trans woman who serves as director of transgender outreach for the advocacy group Fair Michigan, told news outlet MLive.
On the day of his murder, Butchart had started a new job doing landscape maintenance at a mobile home park. First responders found him motionless on the ground with no pulse and a gunshot wound to the head. He was declared dead at the scene.
While Butchart’s driver’s license identified him as male, his name had yet to be changed on the document. As such, his license reflected his deadname. Though Michigan has made changing sex on identity documents relatively easy and affordable, a name change is more complicated, time-consuming, and, for some, prohibitively expensive.
Witnesses at the crime scene identified Butchart as Jean, using the French pronunciation common in the Great Lakes region close to Quebec, so police were aware of the victim’s male gender identity.
“They called him Jean,” Van Buren Township Police Chief Jason Wright said. “That’s how we knew.”
Over the next few days, as the crime was reported internally and to the public, conflicting information on his driver’s license became a source of grief.
First, the Van Buren Township Police Department posted a news release about Butchart’s death in association with the capture of Matthew Torrey Tiggs Jr., 22, who was charged with Butchart’s killing as well as an attempted murder and assault in two other incidents over 10 days in August.
That release identified the victim as “26-year-old Jean Butchart” with no gender indication.
Then, when the prosecutor’s office issued a news release, the release identified Butchart by their deadname with “Jean” added in quotes, as is customary with nicknames.
“Because the names were female names with no explanation of the gender identity of the victim, it was wrongly assumed that the entry ‘male’ [for Butchart] was a mistake,” explained Maria Miller, the prosecutor’s office director of communications.
That misinformation was amplified in news reports and on social media, leading to frustration and anger among Butchart’s friends and family, who overwhelmed officials with an email campaign demanding a correction and a formal apology.
“We apologize to his family, friends, and to the transgender community,” Miller said in an email. “We immediately corrected this error after we confirmed Mr. Butchart’s gender identity. There was never any intent to misgender Mr. Butchart.”
While the mistake was traumatic for Butchart’s friends and family, Miller called the case “helpful” in spurring cultural competence training for officials in Wayne County.
Now, 18 area police departments have attended a special training session, with more planned for other Wayne County police departments and the sheriff’s office.
“We have to realize that not everything is coming from a place of malice,” said Fair Michigan’s Julisa Abad. “We’re all still learning all the alphabets of the LGBTQ+ umbrella – I don’t even know all of it.”