Profiling a Transgendered Life: Q&A with a Features Award Winner
Steve Stanton, the city manager in the Tampa Bay city of Largo, was fired Feb. 27 after announcing he would undergo a sex change operation to become a woman.
St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times staff writer Lane DeGregory, with reporting help from Lorri Hefland, profiled Stanton 10 days later. She has an interest in transgender issues and has written about the subject previously.
I interviewed DeGregory via e-mail to find out more on how she handled the story.
How did you get the kind of access you had to Stanton and his journals?
The second time I interviewed Steve in person, he'd asked me to meet him on a picnic table beside a running trail after his morning run. When I got there, he was wearing his work-out clothes and writing in a leather-bound journal. Of course, I asked him about it. He said he writes every day, and has since he was 10 years old. He said he'd burned some of the early diaries, but had them all since high school. "I'd love to see them," I said. "It would be so amazing to be inside your teenage head." Steve laughed and said no way.
A week later, we had gotten to know each other better. I had seen him or talked to him every day. He invited me to his home to look at old photo albums. While the photographer was making copies of old pictures, I was scanning Steve's study, taking notes. The top bookshelf was filled with red leather-bound journals with gold dates on the spines: 1978 to 2007. Starting in 1998, there were two sets of journals for each year. Of course I asked Steve, "Are those the journals?" He laughed and said, "Damn, you're drooling." I begged him, please, let me read just a bit. He laughed and went on showing the photographer his old albums.
Maybe an hour later, Steve walked to his bookshelf and took down the first volume. "What will you give me?" he asked. "Anything," I answered. I couldn't believe it, but he handed me 1978. I was shaking. How often does a journalist get access inside three decades of her subject's head? I opened the front cover, with him and the photographer watching.
What happened next was the single most frustrating moment in my 20-year career as a reporter: I couldn't read his handwriting. Not one ballpoint pen-scrawled sentence. Steve's handwriting looked like shorthand squished by an anvil. I flipped through pages, squinting, hoping. I was almost in tears.
Steve started laughing. "Need some help?" So he read to me, slowly, from the first day of the first diary, while I wrote down every word. I asked him to read from the first time he wrote as Susan, from the day he first dressed as Susan, from the day he was about to tell the mayor. Then I called him, the day I'd finished my story, and asked him to read me the last entry he'd made.
How did the four-hour interview with Stanton's wife, Donna, come about?
It came to this: 12 days, 10 phone calls, a two-page letter, a note, two stories, immeasurable groveling and a lot of luck.
The first thing editor Joe Childs told us when we gathered in the Clearwater bureau's conference room to talk about profiling Steve was, "We gotta get the wife."
Donna didn't want to talk. Steve said he wanted her to, he thought she needed to share her side of the story. He said he'd asked her countless times. But she wouldn't budge.
"Please ask her again," I said. "Tell her she's the closest person to you, and if we're going to write about you and your journey, we really need her perspective."
I ended up typing a two-page letter to Donna, then added a handwritten note from my reporter's pad. "Because you're so close to Steve, you're part of this story," I wrote. "If you don't want to talk to me, I at least need to run some things that he told me by you. I want to see if what he told me is how you remember things, about how you met, what you first thought of him. What's the best way to do that?"
I included copies of two other stories I'd written, to show her what kind of profiles I do, and told her that the subjects of both of those stories also had been reluctant to share their private worlds. [Click here and here to read those stories.]
When I drove the package to Steve's house that afternoon, his son was outside playing laser tag with a friend. I introduced myself and asked him to take the letter to his mom. I told him I didn't want to be like those TV reporters who'd been banging on his door, but I really wanted to talk to his mom. I watched him take the envelope inside.
If my editors hadn't been so persistent, I would have given up on Donna and spent more time with Steve, and talking to other people around him. But they insisted that we needed her to round out who Steve was as a husband, dad and person. Not just a bureaucrat who now wanted to wear a dress.
Two days before the story was due, I was panicking. I called and left one last message. Nothing. The next night, I was trying to e-mail Steve, but my message kept getting bumped back. I called his cell phone. He fixed the problem. I said, "Well, I guess I have everything I need now. Except for Donna."
"She's right here," Steve said.
At 8:45 p.m., he handed her the phone. I don’t know if he'd even told her who I was. I was sure she still wouldn't talk.
"Hello?" said a soft voice. "This is Donna."
I introduced myself. Thanked her for finally talking to me. There was a long silence. I told her I wanted to run some stuff Steve had told me by her, then ask her a couple of questions. Silence. So I started in.
At first, Donna was reluctant even to offer "yes" or "no." But as we progressed from how she met Steve to what she thought of him, she started adding adjectives, which grew into full sentences. She laughed, when she talked about how she hadn’t liked him when they first met.
Four hours later, I had filled a legal pad. My hand was cramping. It was almost 1 a.m. "I'm sorry to have gone on like this," Donna apologized. I told her I couldn't thank her enough.
Writing the story, I realized how right my editors had been. Without Donna, the story would have seemed like a self-serving way for Steve to seek understanding. With Donna, Steve seemed both more and less sympathetic -- but certainly more real.
How were you able to get her to confide such personal details?
Donna hadn't talked to anyone about her ordeal. No one had asked her to go through their whole relationship. And by then, I knew so much about it from Steve that I had plenty to ask. I started off just asking her to confirm details, and she gradually opened -- then gushed. I think the more we talked as a conversation, the more she gave away. So instead of asking, "When was the first time you wondered about Steve's sexuality?" I asked her how he proposed and what she was thinking when he popped the question. "I was thinking, “Are you gay?" she said straight up. "I asked him that, right then." I would never have thought to ask that question!
I also shared a lot of details about my own life with her, as a wife and mother. We talked about my own marital struggles and worries about my sons, and sharing that let her feel more comfortable. She was worried about it seeming so strange that she and her husband had shared separate rooms. I assured her I know several couples who do that. "Really?" she asked, sounding relieved.
I also think it helped that it was so late at night. By the end, about 1 a.m., both of our husbands and our kids and even dogs were asleep. Our homes were quiet. It became two women sharing an intimate conversation. I kept saying, "I can't imagine how that must've made you feel." Which seemed to draw out her thoughts and introspection even more.
Did you interview Stanton's son, Travis? If not, why?
I didn't interview Travis. My editor Mike Wilson, who has two sons close to Travis' age, said it wouldn't be right to draw the son into this now, since he's only 13 and still struggling to understand himself.
Steve was fine with me talking to Travis. But Donna was, in her words, "a protective mother hen" who didn’t want Travis' photo in the paper, and didn't want him to be interviewed. I asked them both how they felt about it, but wanted to respect Donna's wishes.
You've written on the subject of transgendered people before. What had you learned that helped you with this story?
My past research and reporting helped immeasurably with this story, from the moment I met Steve. I knew the language, I knew the difference between transvestites and cross-dressers and transsexuals, I knew for most transgendered people it isn't about who they want to have sex with, but about who they feel they really are. So I didn't have to ask any dumb "I don't get it" questions, and I could speak with some authority on the subject.
I also had interviewed Steve's therapist before, for another story about another transgendered person. And I had met his attorney during the reporting of that and another lesbian-rights story. So both of those subjects knew me, and my work, going into this story. I think they trusted me not to make fun of Steve or be judgmental in my writing.
There are scenes in the story you've clearly recreated. How did you make sure you got things right?
I recreated the scenes by interviewing everyone I could think of who might have been part of the scene, and asking for very specific details, then double-checking them. For the first scene, I called Steve at 11 p.m. the night of the meeting, as soon as I knew he'd be home. I asked him to trace his steps that night from the moment he left City Hall until he got home, which had only been an hour earlier. What was he thinking? Did he turn on the radio? He said he put in a CD. I asked which one? Which song was playing?
Steve and Donna both provided the details for the night he told her he wanted to be a cross-dresser, the night she helped Susan emerge for the first time, and the night he handed her the letter confessing he wanted to be a woman. It was amazing how much their stories jibed. I interviewed Steve first, then -- without telling Donna what her husband had said -- I asked her to recreate the same scene. Every time, they matched.
There are potent sentences packed with meaning throughout the story. One of them comes after you describe the time Donna read Steve's journal. You wrote: "She didn't know it, but she had fallen in love with Susan." What thoughts went through your mind when you wrote that?
All along, Steve had told me that most of the journals were written by Susan. It might not say that, in his writing, but that's when he allowed that persona to emerge, ever since he was a child. So when Donna told me she'd read Steve's early journals, and that if she hadn't read the journals, she'd never have gone out with him -- much less fallen in love with him and married him -- I almost gasped out loud. The Steve she saw was judgmental and lacking compassion -- a characterization voiced by a number of city employees he supervised. The suppressed Susan was accepting and sensitive. Donna never saw that side until she read the journals. Steve had never let anyone see that side of him.
Language is important to a story like this. How did you determine when to use "cross-dresser" or "transsexual" or other gender identity terms?
We talked a lot about language, with our editors and with Steve. I was most worried about the pronoun issue: Should I refer to him as he or she? Him or her? Since Susan hadn't made her public debut yet, he wanted me to use him and he. Which was much easier for me, and I think made it more digestible for readers. But I received at least a dozen e-mails after the story came out, chiding me for not addressing Steve in HER proper gender.
Transsexual was a term I tried to avoid. Mainly because so many people of my generation (I’m 40) associate the term with "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." How can you not think of the sweet transsexual from Transylvania, in black leather bodice and fishnet stockings? But for Steve, and most transgendered people I've talked to, the idea is not to stand out but to blend in. The support group for transgendered people in Tampa Bay, Starburst, looks like a convention of soccer moms -- everyone dressed down.
Plus, for Steve, and many other transgendered people, changing the gender they present in has nothing to do with sex. Steve didn't really feel drawn to have sex with anyone, man or woman, so using transsexual seemed to make it about something it wasn't.
I tried to let the language follow Steve's own path of discovery -- and tried to use "wants to be a girl" or "wants to be a woman" in lieu of the clinical terms that seem to carry so many preconceived notions.
When Steve went out dressed as Susan and had a doorman call him "ma'am," you wrote: "He had made it. She had made it." What decisions did you have to make about which pronouns to use for Stanton?
I actually asked Steve which pronoun he would prefer I use. I didn't want to get it wrong, or offend anyone. He said until Susan is his primary persona, he's still Steve. "He." Mr. Stanton. So that's what I went with.
But that moment at the hotel door seemed to be particularly pivotal. It was the first time Steve had entered an upscale, public place, during the day, completely presenting as Susan. And he had passed the test. So now, if just for that moment, he was she. She had made it.
There's a fair amount of disagreement over whether being transgendered is a disorder. Did Stanton agree that he suffers with a mental illness as described in the story?
We talked about that, Lorri, my editors, the therapist and Steve. Being transgendered is still -- diagnostically speaking -- considered a mental disorder. There's a definition of it in the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders." Much like being gay used to be considered a mental illness, Steve and his therapist and other transgendered people hope that one day it will be a recognized condition, but not a mental illness.
It's just our prudish approach to sexuality, and the idea that everything has to be black or white, Steve says, that makes people in this country, in this day and age, so afraid of something out of the norm of their consciousness.
What sorts of questions did you ask to help Stanton talk about his ongoing transformation from Steve to Susan?
Steve didn't really want to focus on how he dressed. It's not about clothes, he kept saying. It's about how I feel, about matching my body to how my brain and heart feel it should be. So he wouldn't give me many details about what type of dress or shoes or wig he was wearing when he went out as Susan.
Instead, he liked to talk about the sensory changes his body had been undergoing since he started taking hormones. So I asked him about that: Tell me what it was like, feeling your body change?
My favorite detail was the raindrop on the back of his hand. He'd mentioned that he'd started shaving the backs of his hands, his wrists and arms. And I asked how that felt differently. You can feel things more, he said. "Like what?" I asked. Like, your fingers. I already knew that. "What else?" Like, heat or cold, or even water. "Water? Water feels differently?" I needed that specific detail of how. So he told me about running in the rain and having to stop because the sensation of the droplet directly on his arm was so amazing, he'd never felt anything like that. Wow!
It's easy to see from the comments about your story on the Times' Web site that some people thought a story about Stanton should have included a moral as well as medical judgment of him. Why was there none of that voice in the story?
From the moment we talked about this story, we decided it would be an intimate portrait of Steve and his family. There already had been about a dozen stories about the news of the issue, how church people and Jesus felt about Steve's decision. I had done a whole story quoting people quoting God.
So I decided to tackle that first, then get out of it. By beginning with "after he had listened to people talk for four hours about how depraved he was, how sinful and untrustworthy," I hoped to acknowledge that yes, lots of people do think this is a moral issue. But they've cast their stones. Now let's hear from the so-called sinner.
What did Stanton, Donna and Travis think about the story?
Stanton was surprised that the story was on the front page. He kept saying, "I'm not really that big news, am I?" He also was upset that I'd written, "He could no longer get an erection." I pointed out that I tried to bury that detail in a slew of others about his physical changes, and he laughed and said it just bruised what was left of his manhood.
Other than that, Steve said he really liked the story. He thought it was respectful and thorough and helped explain something about his life and condition and others like him that most people couldn't begin to understand.
I haven't talked to Donna or Travis about it. Steve said Donna read the whole thing to Travis, and his only comment was, "I didn't know you'd been married before Mom!" He said Donna liked the description of her being voluptuous, but denied it was true. After the story broke, he said, they'd received "too many cards, flowers, food and well wishes" to count. Of course, they got a couple of nasty messages too. But Steve said the kids at school had been unbelievably kind to his seventh grade son.
What questions do people who've read your story most often ask?
Many people want to know what's going to happen next. Is he going to sue? Will he become the Rosa Parks of the transgender movement?
Others are worried about Donna and, especially, Travis. Are they going to stay together as a family? Is the boy being harassed at school?
We're trying to work on a follow-up story. And Steve has promised the Times will get the first photos of Susan when she makes her public debut.
Note: The original version of this article included the following wording in the headline: "Profiling a Transgender." We edited the headline as you see above to avoid reducing a person to a single characteristic. You can read more about this issue of nouns and adjectives here.