The ethics of gender sensitivity

When Toronto Star reporter Peter Edwards profiled a jail guard who underwent sex reassignment surgery, Edwards struggled with more than just which pronoun to use. In this week's column, he offers a first-person account of the issues behind the copy.

By Peter Edwards

When Toronto Star reporter Peter Edwards profiled a jail guard who underwent sex reassignment surgery, Edwards struggled with more than just which pronoun to use. In this week's column, he offers a first-person account of the issues behind the copy.

By Peter Edwards

The whole story started when I asked a former Hells Angel about his most memorable experience at the Toronto (Don) Jail. Without skipping a beat, he replied that it was the day when a 280 pound bald guard showed up on his cell block dressed as a woman, with a wig that reminded him of Lucille Ball. The biker’s expression was more puzzled than anything else.

A friend who works at the jail confirmed the biker’s story was true. I asked if she would contact the guard about a possible story. She agreed to pass on the message.

At this point, I wasn’t so sure anything would ever find its way into print. I definitely didn’t want to “out” anyone and the Star has a policy that we don’t knowingly re-victimize people. That said, I didn’t want to assume anything. Perhaps the guard didn’t feel victimized at all. Who knows? She obviously had a story to tell, if she was willing to talk. I was definitely curious. If anyone was going to tell that story, I wanted it to be me.

Our mutual friend arranged a meeting for all three of us at a Cabbagetown restaurant. The first twenty minutes were painfully awkward small talk. We chatted about football and wrestling and mobsters. Guy stuff. Then the mutual friend reminded us why we were there. Andrea clearly appreciated cutting to the chase.

That meeting lasted more than three hours and she could have gone on longer. She cried a little when recalling the cruel words some inmates and co-workers said and laughed when she recounted how a former inmate praised her for having “balls” and coming out. The worst part, it seemed to me, was when she talked of being called a “freak” by a fellow guard. She also talked about how she always wanted to teach, and that maybe she could help teach others something by telling her story. She didn’t say exactly what she wanted to teach but I imagined it was something about our shared humanity.

She was happy with me taking notes. The agreement was that we wait some time before publication, if the story was ever published. I wanted her to be totally comfortable with going public. Once a story was posted on the Internet, it would remain there forever. I reminded her that if I filed the story, our conversation would be repeated for more than a million readers, and not all of them would be even close to nice.

Things sat at this stage for several months. She wanted to explain things to her family, which included two daughters and her elderly parents, as well as jail management.

I would have been happy to let the story die there, if that was what she wanted. She agreed that she wouldn’t speak to any other media. I didn’t want her going public out of some sense of obligation towards me or our mutual friend.

Several months later, she was bigger than ever on the story. I decided not to mention anyone else by name in the article, as there were workplace and family privacy issues at play.

I also made a decision not to interview “experts.” Andrea’s well-spoken and this was her story. There was something inherently patronizing about someone else explaining it.

I was extremely happy that videographer Pawel Dwulit chose to tell the story in an accompanying video without any voice-over narration. This was all about the world through her eyes and her voice.

One decision I had to make as I wrote the story was about the use of “he” and “she”. Obviously Andrea is a “she” now that she has had gender reassignment surgery.

Exactly when “she” became a “she” was fuzzier. Was she always a she? Was it when she was eight and consciously felt like a girl? Was it when she finally started publicly dressing as a woman? Was it when she went to Montreal for a sex change?

Andrea wasn’t dogmatic about it. I also spoke about this with Professor Romayne Smith-Fullerton of the University of Western Ontario’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies, Kathy English, the public editor of The Toronto Star, city editor Graham Parley and team editor Rita Daley.

None of us had ever handled a decision like this before. At first I tried using “she” and “her” throughout the story. That clearly didn’t work for a passage that read: “… before the sex-change operation, a prisoner grabbed her testicles and squeezed hard.”

“Her” was changed to “Roussel’s” for that passage.

For the rest of the story, I began using “her” and “she” after the time when she began presenting herself as a female publicly.

When the story was finally written, I felt nervous about the reaction. Readers have a way of surprising you, no matter how much you plan.

A couple of guards who work in corrections emailed me to note that they also had gender reassignment surgery. There was a certain amount of competitiveness about who was first with their sex change. Not that it’s a competition, but Andrea is the first known “jail” guard to have the surgery in Canada and remain on the job. There apparently was at least one other guard in the federal system. (They’re “prison,” not “jail” guards for anyone keeping score.)

Reaction from the general public included many mentions of the courage it took for Andrea to go public and tell her story. Reader Michael Michael A. Gilbert (aka Miqqi Alicia Gilbert), a York University philosophy professor and cross-dresser, wrote: “I would like to give you my appreciation for your warm and sensitive article on Andrea, the prison guard. Too often such articles are done for sensational purposes and, not infrequently, unkindly.”

He added: “I imagine that right now there are any number of yahoos and cro-magnons coming out of the woodwork and bugging her.”

Fortunately, the yahoos and cro-magnons were in the distinct minority.

I like to think that’s at least partly because of Andrea’s sincerity, sense of purpose and unique courage. For me, the most important part of the story was the final quote, which my editors and I agreed was essential to the story. It read: “God made me who I am because I have a mission to educate people. To help people behind me, following in my footsteps.”


See also: Peter Edwards' profile of Andrea Roussel for the Toronto Star