How the Tampa Bay Times reported on a transgender kid’s prom bid

In mid-April, Tampa Bay Times education reporter Lisa Gartner received a tip that Sebastian Rollins, a student running for prom king at a fundamental school in Seminole, Florida, was transgender.

Sebastian Rollins (Photograph by Cherie Diez/Tampa Bay Times)

Fundamental schools, Gartner said in an interview, tout a “back-to-basics” approach with stricter dress codes, a demerit system and heavy homework loads. “It’s like a charter school in which they can make mandates that other schools don’t have,” Garter said. “If you’re a parent, you have to attend eight meetings a year, so it’s really about ‘all-in’ on the child’s education.”

Gartner decided the story, which the paper published last week, was worth doing: Not only would it tell the story of how such a school would respond to this student’s bid for prom king, it would touch on a recent Title IX rule change aimed at protecting transgender students. And, of course, it would show the significant steps an 18-year-old would have to take in order to do something essentially ordinary.

Next, Gartner had to figure out how to interview Sebastian. She followed her normal process of going through the school and district procedure for contacting students, but the school denied her requests that they be involved in the story. Eventually, Gartner chose to contact Sebastian through Facebook because she “got the sense” that the school hadn’t involved Sebastian in the decision about whether to participate in the story. They met for an interview.

Interviewing people who are members of vulnerable populations, including minors and high school students, including transgender people, comes with special challenges. “I told him at the beginning of the interview, if there was anything that he felt was off-limits, or if I asked a question that he felt was too personal, that he did not have to answer me,” Gartner said. “Sometimes people who aren’t media-savvy, who are not regularly interacting with journalists, think it’s like the police, that they have to answer.”

Sebastian seemed very open, Gartner said, and when writing the article she chose carefully which details to include and which to leave out.

Sebastian and and his girlfriend Samantha “Sammy” Blazejack shopping for her prom dress at a mall in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photograph by Cherie Diez/Tampa Bay Times)

Gartner did choose to include details that stick out as especially personal, though – for instance, in talking about his body going through puberty, she says “When his breasts came in, they felt wrong” and then goes on to describe that he binds his breasts now with an Ace bandage.  Gartner included this detail, she said in an email, because “It shows Sebastian wasn’t afraid to be who he was in school, as he started binding at Osceola a year ago. You can’t get a referral [disciplinary action] for binding, after all! But he wouldn’t ask to use the girls’ bathroom or to be called Sebastian. So I felt like that was an important piece, and one that he was comfortable sharing.”

This last part is key. Gartner explained what was on the record, what wasn’t, and Sebastian was comfortable with that detail being in the story.

There is no absolute rule about what to include or omit in stories about transgender people. “People are free to represent themselves however they want and it’s a problem when we police other trans folks,” Jos Truitt of Feministing.com told me last November when I interviewed her for a story about how journalists could write better stories about transgender people.

It is important, though, to remember that stories about transgender people don’t always have to be stories about bodies, about genitals and breasts. Taking that one step further, unless the story is explicitly about body parts, there is no reason to ask questions about them.

While writing and editing the story, Gartner and her editor, Tom Tobin, tried to treat the story carefully and with sensitivity. Gartner said she had observed the fallout from the Grantland story “Dr. V’s Magical Putter,” which a garnered a ton of negative publicity and elicited an apology from Grantland Editor-in-Chief Bill Simmons. “I definitely knew that I wanted to avoid very real mistakes that people can make without knowing they’re making them,” Gartner said.

Tobin encouraged her to check with the National Center for Transgender Equality. “One of the best pieces of advice that they gave me, and one that I think is common sense on some level, but I’m glad that it was at the front of my mind–if you’re unsure, to ask the source,” she said.

That advice helped when she had a question about names and pronouns. Up until a year ago, Sebastian went by his birth name. So Gartner wasn’t sure how to handle it in the story when she wrote about things that had happened in the past. “Should I be calling you Sebastian? Should I be using the female pronoun, should I be using the male pronoun?” Gartner asked him. If possible, he said, he’d prefer that she use his name and male pronouns throughout the story.  “He’s a him, and he’s Sebastian, so it wasn’t really an issue,” Gartner said.

As he worked with Gartner to shape the story, Tobin said, he did have to work out some of the language issues. “I’ve been a reporter for many years, but I am only 16 months into my first editing job,” he wrote in an email. “In neither capacity had I ever been so intimately involved in a story about a transgender person. So this was new territory for me. I know of no formal guidelines our paper has for handling such stories.” (Poynter owns the Tampa Bay Times.)

Tobin said he was “guided mostly by a desire to inform, enlighten and treat Sebastian, and everyone else in the story, with the utmost respect.”

To do that, he said, he reasoned out how the story should refer to Sebastian in the present and Sebastian in the past. “My thought process was that, since Sebastian was biologically female, and we are in the business of reporting facts, wasn’t it a fact that Sebastian was female? I (we) very quickly came to the decision to refer to Sebastian just as he would wish. My own thinking was that this was something a person gets to decide, similar to the way our society gives us great leeway to decide what constitutes religious practice.” However, he said, once they’d decided to defer to how Sebastian wanted to be represented, they were able to turn to issues more integral to the story. “As Lisa worked the story, other issues, such as how much access the school would give us, loomed much larger,” Tobin said.

Using Sebastian’s name and the pronouns he uses to describe himself may seem like common sense, but the importance of affording a transgender person this basic dignity should not be underestimated. “For me, the most surprising — and compelling — moment comes at the end of the story when Sebastian realizes that, for the first time, an adult at the school – the principal no less — has called him by his male name,” Tobin said. “I was surprised by the depth of Sebastian’s gratitude over that simple act.”

As transgender people gain more acceptance and visibility, more and more reporters and editors will face decisions about how to cover them. One good question to ask yourself in such situations is whether to do the story at all.

What’s the news value of the story? Is it only interesting because of a sensationalized or prurient perspective about transgender people?

Fortunately, there are resources available. GLAAD, CJR and Poynter have all produced guides to reporting on trans people, and newsrooms might think of creating guidelines or educating reporters before these issues come up and deadlines loom.

Though it does include some transgender reporting clichés – describing what puberty was like and what bathroom Sebastian uses — this story largely stays away from a typical or sensationalized narrative.

Gartner was especially sensitive to not making Sebastian’s transgender status seem like a crazy twist in the story. She said the story’s beginning took longer to write than everything that followed because everything she tried out sounded sensational. Eventually, she decided to lead with a description of the school: “Concrete, coveted Osceola High, with its demerit system and monthly parent meetings and ban on flip-flops, is the only fundamental high school in the state of Florida.”

Ultimately, Gartner said, she knew this wasn’t a story about a prom king candidate whose transgender status upped the news value–it was a story about a student trying to live authentically and a rigid school bending to allow that.

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