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When a city official changes sex: The inside story

Last week here on the blog, I featured a story about a public man becoming a woman, by Lane DeGregory, a human interest writer at the St. Petersburg Times, as the Story Lab Pick of the Day. I wanted to know more about how she got the story, how she reported it and what she hoped to achieve in writing it. So I called her up. Here’s an edited version of our conversation. (I took out my “um”s and “cool!”s)

Brigid: Lane, I loved this story, Introducing Susan Stanton. How did you find it?

Lane: The photographer who covers Largo got an anonymous tip that the city manager, Steve Stanton, was becoming a woman. At first, everyone thought, ‘No way!’ He was a very masculine, Alpha Male kind of guy who worked out with firefighters.

The reporter who covers City Hall had to go and ask him. He didn’t deny or confirm it. He said, ‘Meet me in my office.’ So she had a news story that broke the news. [Steve] had entrusted a small circle of people to let them know he would be starting electrolysis and hormone therapy to gain their support and someone let it get out.

The city reporter followed it as it became a giant controversy – the City Commissioners decided to have a hearing to consider firing him for being untruthful with them. I was reading these stories in our news pages, and I told my editor that I wanted to know the back story. [Steve] said he’d known he was a woman since he was 14 years old. And I wanted to know what it was like, living in the wrong body for 30 years.

My editor talked to the city hall editor to see if it would be ok if we worked together. Her stories, appropriately, were covering the politics. I was there at the hearing when they fired him. It was the first time I met him in person. It was only two weeks between the time the story broke and the hearing when they fired him.

Brigid: How did you get him to open up in the middle of the firestorm?

Lane: He didn’t want to share a lot of personal stuff until the board decided what to do. I followed him out of that hearing and told him I’d like to write about him. The city hall reporter and editorial writer who’d known him for 14 years brokered a meeting for me the next morning.

I said, “I want to be at your elbow, from the time you were a little boy until now to cover the back part of the story.” He was pretty interested from the beginning, but cautious. He’d say, ‘I’m going running, I’ll meet you when I go running.” Or, “I’m going to get a haircut, I’ll meet you while I get a haircut.”

Brigid: How long did it take to earn his trust?

Lane: For two or three days, we met in parks, restaurants, barbershops. I said, ‘You know I want to come home with you.” And he said, ‘I know you do.’ I knew he’d moved out of the master bedroom and was living in the den. Just being in the house was really illustrative.

Once I got in there, he was a very open, very rich source. He was media savvy and knew what I wanted. He joked with me, didn’t have any kind of guard up. He was also very introspective. He had kept a journal from the time he was 14 years old. He had 30 years-worth of hardback, burgundy journals on bookshelves in chronological order. He’d write on one page, “I’m writing tonight as Steve.” Then on another, “I’m writing tonight as Susan.”

At one point, I asked, “Can I see your journals?” He said, “I thought you’d never ask.”

He took his journals down, it was one of those journalistic nirvana moments. But I couldn’t read them! He’d written in a kind of short-hand. So, for hours, he sat there and read his journals to me. I knew that was the only way I would get his soul. It was such a gift. It really made the story.

Brigid: What were you hoping readers would take away from the story?

Lane: Everyone thought it was so abhorrent and completely unfathomable. And yet, I’d talked to other transgendered people. It’s almost like it’s something wrong that they want to fix. So I wanted to try to illuminate what it felt like, mentally and psychologically, to feel that you’re in the wrong gender. He was fired because the commissioners said he lied. But which was the lie? I thought that was really interesting.

One of the things I like best about being a human interest writer is that you can make strangest people normal and show the strangeness in normal people.

Brigid: What kind of feedback did you get?

Lane: The worst decision we made as a news organization was to run that piece on the front page on Mothers’ Day. I’m not sure how many editors were clued in to that fact. When it came out, that was the number one complaint. I just kept thinking, That’s so unfair to him and the story. If it had run any other day, it wouldn’t have been an issue
That was a bad timing thing.

The reaction was equally mixed. Half of the people thought, “Oh my Gosh, we had no idea what he was going through” to others, “The dude’s a freak in a dress, why’d you put that on the front page?”

Brigid: What’s she doing now?

Lane: CNN made a documentary, which hasn’t aired yet. She’s testified in Congress with Barney Frank. I talked to her right before Christmas. She’s been hired as a city manager in a smaller town in Florida. She’s gotten divorced, but is still in contact with the ex-wife and has a great relationship with their teenage son. Which is amazing, but wonderful.

Now that she’s being treated as a woman, she told me she feels she has to bring a man with her when she’s negotiating. She doesn’t feel that she’s as respected as a woman.

Brigid: Did you run into any obstacles in putting the story together?

Lane: The wife. She did not want to talk to me. That was the hardest part. One night, I called at 11 p.m. to fact check. I had sent letters, cards, gone by the house, and she had stonewalled me. I was talking to Steve, he said, “Anything else?” I said, “I want to talk to your wife.” He said, “Well, she’s right here.” And handed her the phone.

I was so shocked, I didn’t know what to say. So I just started by saying, “My husband and I have had problems in our marriage. It’s hard to explain to kids. What did you tell Trevor?” I was willing to share that my marriage has had some rocky bumps. I can’t relate to my husband becoming a woman, but I can relate to a rocky marriage and wondering what you tell the kids. We talked on the phone for hours that night.

Brigid: And how was talking to Trevor, their teenage son?

Lane: My older son was almost the same age. I could relate. I knew he wouldn’t make eye contact. We talked while he played video games.

By Brigid Schulte  | January 18, 2010; 10:26 AM ET
Categories:  How I got that story, Journalism , The inside story  
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