EDITOR’S NOTE: This week, in recognition of Pride Month, we feature three posts about coverage of transgender people or issues. See how Lane DeGregory of the Tampa Bay Times handled a profile in 2002, when there were few other journalistic models or guides, of a transgender woman dealing with challenges to transition. Tomorrow, a teacher and former journalist talks about her own transition and offers tips about what other journalists need to know when writing about transgender people.
When Samantha Schmidt embarked on a profile of a transgender girl, The Washington Post reporter needed sensitivity to report the story — and patience when the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted it. The resulting profile of Chloe Clark portrays her not as a two-dimensional symbol, but a student who chats with friends and daydreams about chess. Readers join in on family dinners; they tag along with Chloe to speech class.
The scenes and details aren’t included carelessly. With guidance from editor Lynda Robinson, Schmidt tightly focused on Chloe’s journey to find her voice. That becomes an understated but ironic tension throughout the piece: As Chloe transitions, she works especially hard to train herself to speak in a more female register. But on Zoom, cut off from physical contact with friends and teachers, she silences herself, fearing that people who got to know her primarily through her voice will not see her as she sees herself.
All this plays out as politicians across the country push more and more laws to deny transgender rights. The Post headline summarized the tension: “A transgender girl struggles to find her voice as lawmakers attack her right to exist.”
“Chloe had used her voice in a powerful way to come out to her parents and friends just a year earlier, but now she was struggling to use her voice at all,” Schmidt told me when I reached out to her about this story. “I also found it to be really symbolic of the way so many trans kids have felt silenced by the political debate around their rights.”
It’s an especially impressive piece considering the story’s upended timeline. Schmidt did much of the reporting as the COVID outbreak began to worsen in March of 2020. When the pandemic deepened, Schmidt put the story on hold. With further reporting in the winter, she found what she describes as a “new layer of tension:” Clark, who’d been thriving earlier, was now struggling with the social isolation brought on by the pandemic.
Schmidt said, “When I shadowed her in virtual class for a day, Chloe remained silent the entire day — and none of the students turned on their cameras. At first, I worried that this silence would mean I wouldn’t have enough dialogue for the story. But I realized the silence was the story.”
Schmidt joined the Post five years ago after graduating from The Media School at Indiana University. She jumped in to cover racial justice demonstrations around the country, and anchored the Post’s coverage of Hurricane Maria from Puerto Rico. She recently was named to a newly created position as the Post’s Bogotá bureau chief. She’s a native Spanish speaker with roots in Costa Rica, but also told me she’s reading the “The Heart that Bleeds: Latin America Now” by Alma Guillermoprieto and lots of Gabriel García Márquez to immerse herself in the culture she will be covering.
Our interview about her profile of Chloe Clark has been edited for length and clarity, and is followed by an annotation of the story.
How did stories like Chloe’s and other LGBTQ issues become part of your reporting focus?
I was working on the overnight shift at The Post as a member of the Morning Mix team when the gender and family issues beat opened up on The Post’s local social issues team. It was the summer of 2018, less than a year after the beginning of the MeToo era, and I was excited about the chance to write about the lasting impact of the movement. The Justice Brett Kavanaugh allegations broke in the second week of my job, so in the beginning I focused on issues surrounding sexual assault and consent. But I quickly realized the fuller range of stories I could and should be covering under my beat — issues ranging from maternal healthcare to childcare to LGBTQ issues. There were times when the broad nature of the beat was overwhelming, so I decided I needed to prioritize issues that were lacking nuanced coverage in mainstream news, especially stories about gender identity.
With more and more people coming out as non-binary, I noticed we had an opportunity to help readers understand these identities in a deeper way. I teamed up with a colleague, Tara Bahrampour, to write a series of stories on non-binary identity, including a piece I wrote about a non-binary pregnant parent. Writing this story and interviewing dozens of non-binary people across the country made me think about gender in an entirely new way, and it has informed much of my work ever since.
It’s constantly a challenge, as a cisgender reporter, to establish trust with sources for stories about trans communities. And understandably so: Trans people have had to face so much misinformed and harmful coverage of their community in the media over the years. I try to keep that pain and trauma in mind each time I approach a story, and I’ve been so grateful to the many, many transgender advocates, experts and young people who have helped me learn about their communities and trusted me to write about them. I’ve also made a point of educating myself, leaning on guidance from groups like the Trans Journalists Association. It’s so important to take the time to listen, to get the language right and to learn from mistakes.
Tell us about finding and reporting Chloe’s story?
I started thinking about this story in late 2019. It was around that time when a story about a Texas custody battle over a transgender child was in the news, and a few Republican state lawmakers were pushing for legislation to restrict access to gender-affirming care for transgender children. There was so much misinformation about transgender kids spreading in state legislatures and so many politicians debating decisions about children’s healthcare without actually hearing from the kids who would be affected. I wanted to find a story about a transgender kid in one of these states hearing these debates and wondering what it would mean for them. And I knew I wanted to focus on a transgender girl, because so much of the political debate focused on transgender girls.
The challenge was finding a family that would be willing to let me tell their story. I probably interviewed over a dozen families across half a dozen states last year, and so many of them were understandably terrified at the thought of having their child’s story published in a major newspaper. Some were living in states where their elected officials were trying to legally categorize parents as child abusers for allowing their children to use puberty blockers. Some of the kids were not open about their trans identities in school, or had faced bullying and harassment from their peers or the parents of their classmates. It took many weeks for me to find Chloe’s family, and I was blown away at their willingness to let me into their lives.
In early March 2020, I spent a week with Chloe and her parents in St. Louis, where they live. I shadowed Chloe in her classes and her speech therapy and spent time with her as she hung out with friends after school. I had actually written an entire draft of the story by the end of the second week of March, just as the world was shutting down and the entire news cycle was taken over by the pandemic.
How did the pandemic alter the story?
The story was put on hold. But after a few months with the story on hold, so many of the scenes in the story felt as though they were from another era — in-person classes, in-person speech therapy, shopping in malls. At the same time, many of the bills focused on trans healthcare were stalled state legislatures closed. My editor and I decided we needed to hold it until we could find a fresh way to revive it later. But I had a strong feeling the related legislation would return in 2021. And once we saw the trans healthcare bills emerge in even greater numbers this winter, I reached back out to Chloe and her family to try to re-report the story.
I learned that the pandemic had brought a new set of challenges to Chloe’s life. When I first met Chloe last year, she seemed to be thriving and coming into her own. But her remote high school classes and the isolation of the pandemic had clearly taken a toll on her, adding a new layer of tension to the story. In order to re-report new scenes for the story remotely, I ended up asking the family to let me virtually “sit in on” family dinners over Zoom. I also shadowed Chloe in one of her online classes.
What were the biggest challenges in telling Chloe’s story?
Like many of my colleagues reporting narrative stories remotely in the pandemic, I struggled to capture scenes in a natural way without being around Chloe in person. First of all, Chloe and her parents were taking COVID-19 quite seriously, so they hardly ever left the house. Chloe spent most of her time on a computer screen, either taking classes, playing video games or talking to her friends on Discord. Even when I shadowed her in virtual class for a day, she remained silent, and none of the students turned on their cameras.
At first, I worried that this silence would mean I wouldn’t have enough dialogue for the story. But I realized the silence was the story. At one point, a teacher started calling on students to give presentations. Even though Chloe was never called on, she later told me how anxious she felt in the moment. So I decided to really try to get inside Chloe’s head in those moments of silence and dread, and I ended up building the entire story from that one quiet virtual scene.
I also worried about focusing so closely on the bodies of children. It’s a really sensitive subject for many people in the trans community, and I generally try to limit how much I focus on the medical aspects of transitioning. But as more and more of these healthcare bills emerged, I realized we needed to clarify misconceptions about these medical treatments, and help readers understand the human impact of the legislation.
As I was re-writing the story, I worried about over-emphasizing the challenges in Chloe’s life. Reading over my initial, pre-pandemic version of the story, the piece had a great deal of levity and joy: Chloe hanging out with friends, thriving in class, beaming as she tried on a romper at Urban Outfitters. I unfortunately had to cut down so many of those scenes in my final draft, because Chloe’s daily life had changed drastically, and she was really struggling with the isolation of the pandemic. But I didn’t want to lose the fullness of her personality. So many stories we read about the trans community are about pain and trauma and suffering. I did my best to weave in as much as I could about Chloe’s passions and triumphs, and to capture the confidence and freedom she gained in her coming-out process. I hope I struck the right balance.
Once the story came out, I was overwhelmed with emails from readers saying how much they admired Chloe for her brave decision to share her story so publicly. I realized that the most powerful display of Chloe’s strength was not in any particular scene or sentence but in the mere fact that she agreed to be a part of such an intimate and public story.
How closely did you work with your editor, Lynda Robinson, in crafting this story?
I can’t overstate how essential Lynda’s guidance was to telling this story. From the very beginning, she encouraged me to pursue my idea of profiling a transgender girl. Once I settled on Chloe’s family, Lynda and I were constantly in touch, talking through possible story structures and lede options. When we talked about reviving the story this year, Lynda was the one who suggested we frame the story around Chloe’s challenges with her voice in the pandemic.
Lynda was truly steering the ship on this project, but we also worked with a fantastic team of designers and copy editors and a local photographer in St. Louis, Whitney Curtis. And as always, I relied on my talented writer friends to talk through ledes, sentence construction, headline ideas and more. In general, I would be lost without my constant phone calls and text messages with Katie Mettler and Jessica Contrera, who have been my guiding lights on all things journalism and life since we worked on the Indiana Daily Student together, and my generous teammate and former fellow graveyard shifter Kyle Swenson.
What journalistic lessons did you take from doing this piece?
I learned that sometimes scrapping an entire draft of a story and framing it in a new way ends up leading to a more powerful piece. I often find myself feeling tied to a particular story structure or outline. But in this case, the passage of time and change in circumstances forced me to think about the piece in a new way, and I think it made for a stronger and fresher final story. I’m hopeful that the next time I have to re-write an entire draft, I’ll feel a bit less stressed about starting over, and instead see it as an opportunity to find a better way into the story.
I also learned how to zoom in on a super specific detail — in this case, Chloe’s voice — and use it to build a story that was about so much more than her voice.
Lastly, I was reminded of the importance of really taking the time to listen to young people when we write about them, and to give them the agency to tell their stories in their own words. I am still blown away by how eloquent, mature and thoughtful Chloe was in my interviews with her. It was hard to believe she was only 14 when I first met her. I made a point of interviewing her much as I would interview any of my adult sources, and I didn’t shy away from deeper, tougher questions. I remember asking her what she thought about when she heard her male classmates give their presentations. I was really moved by her answer, which ended up in the story almost verbatim: “She recognized each of their voices and visualized their faces. But she wondered if her classmates would do the same during her presentation. How would they see her?”
Do you have any advice for journalists who may be less familiar with those issues?
It’s so important for journalists to take the time to do our homework and to understand these issues in a nuanced way and to learn about the historical context behind a lot of the conversations happening today around transgender rights. These bills didn’t emerge overnight; many of them are rooted in the same messages and ideas pushed in the bathroom bills of 2016 and earlier. Transgender advocates have been sounding the alarm for years.
I’ve learned so much through lengthy conversations with transgender advocates such as Gillian Branstetter of the National Women’s Law Center, Chase Strangio from the ACLU and the writer Julia Serano, as well as transgender health experts such as Dr. Jack Turban and the folks at Whitman-Walker Health and the Williams Institute. I’ve read and re-read the style guide at the Trans Journalists Association and the work of smart trans journalists such as Kate Sosin and Katelyn Burns.
But probably my best advice for journalists covering trans issues is just to spend as much time as you can with trans people in your own community. When I first started on this beat, I spent many weekends and evenings going to local trans community events and writing profiles and daily stories about different people in the D.C. area: A trans massage therapist, a sewing class for the queer community, the fight to protect trans sex workers. Each of these stories and interviews helped me learn so much — not just about the trans community but about gender and inequity overall.
The annotation: Storyboard’s questions are in red; Schmidt’s responses in blue. To read the story without annotations, click the Hide All Annotations button, which is in the right-hand menu bar on your monitor screen or at the top of your cell screen. You can hide individual annotations by hitting the gray quote boxes throughout the piece.
A transgender girl struggles to find her voice as lawmakers attack her right to exist
The 15-year-old watched as each of her high school classmates joined the class, their names popping onto the Microsoft Teams screen one by one while the teacher took attendance. As always, the students’ cameras were all turned off, and once again, Chloe was reduced to the name on her screen — and the sound of her voice.
The teenage girl remained muted.
“All right, so we’re going to do some presentations today,” said the teacher, wearing a mask and sitting in a half-empty classroom in St. Louis, as most of her students listened from their homes across town. “Does anyone want to go first?”
It was the moment of class Chloe always dreaded, when she — and all her classmates — would have to listen to the part of herself that bothered her most, the part that still didn’t match how the transgender girl felt inside. I love how you focus on one part of Chloe’s life — her voice — as an entry point and focus. How did that idea emerge? When I reconnected with Chloe’s mother after many months, it was one of the first things that came up as we talked about the challenges of remote learning for Chloe. I remember mentioning it to my editor (Lynda Robinson) in a phone call, and I knew Chloe’s voice was going to be an important aspect of the piece. But a few days later Lynda called me and suggested the idea of building the story around it. I was immediately drawn to the narrow simplicity of it, but also the symbolism it carried. It really captured the way so many trans kids have lacked a voice in these political debates about their bodies and their decisions.
A year earlier, Chloe had sat in school with some of these same classmates, feeling more confident in herself than ever before. Her appearance had slowly begun to align with her identity in the months since she came out to her friends and family as transgender at age 13.
She had spoken out on her own behalf, even as conservative legislators in Missouri waged a fight to criminalize treatments for trans kids like her.
Her parents had taken her to appointments with doctors and therapists for months. They helped her shop for a new wardrobe of sweaters and dresses and jeans from the women’s section. Her diverse, inclusive public school embraced her decision to change her name and pronouns. And after many meetings with endocrinologists and pediatricians, Chloe’s parents and doctors agreed to let her take puberty blockers to pause the distressing changes she had been experiencing in her body since middle school. And, at 14, she also began taking estrogen, medication that helped her friends perceive her as who she was — female.
But just months later, the covid-19 pandemic shuttered her school and moved nearly her entire life online. Now, instead of seeing the version of Chloe her classmates all grew to know — the Broadway musical-loving teenager with long brown hair who would walk around school wearing her favorite yellow shirt, big headphones and trendy half-rim glasses — they simply heard her voice. A voice that had already deepened by the time she began taking puberty blockers. A voice that sounded nothing like the other girls in her school.
So instead of speaking in her personal finance class on this Thursday morning in February, Chloe stayed silent.
But elsewhere, others were not silent. In Washington, 800 miles away from Chloe’s virtual lessons on handling money, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) was denouncing transgender teens and a culture that is “now normalizing the idea that minors can be given hormones.” You place Chloe’s situation within the larger political discussion at a few points in this piece. Did you debate whether or how much to include the political context? The political discussion was always a crucial element of the story, at least at the state level. But I didn’t realize how much it would become part of the national political debate. It was a crazy coincidence that the day I had scheduled to shadow Chloe in class was the exact same day of both the Dr. Levine confirmation hearing and the Equality Act vote in the House. Here we had this U.S. senator criticizing transgender teenagers just as a transgender teenager was struggling to raise her voice in her remote high school classes.
He lashed out at Rachel Levine, the physician seated before him in her confirmation hearing to serve as the Biden administration’s assistant secretary of health and human services, a role that would make her the highest-ranking openly transgender official in government history.
“Do you believe that minors are capable of making such a life-changing decision as changing one’s sex?” Paul demanded. “You know, if you’ve ever been around children, 14-year-olds can’t make this decision.”
Fourteen was the exact age at which Chloe, her doctors and her parents made the decision for her to begin taking estrogen, following the medical guidelines for young people diagnosed with gender dysphoria and understanding the high rates of suicide for transgender youth who don’t receive the care they need. But that private choice in Chloe’s doctor’s office was now the subject of legislation across the country, with 17 states weighing bills that would bar or criminalize gender-affirming care for kids. Two of these bills are in Chloe’s own state of Missouri. This is a succinct summary. What resources did you use to learn more about the status of transgender-related legislation? The ACLU has been my go-to resource for the latest developments on the bills impacting transgender youth at the state level. I’ve relied on Chase Strangio at the national level and tons of helpful lawyers and staff in local ACLU chapters to stay updated on each of these bills, from Missouri to South Dakota to Arkansas. Freedom for All Americans also has a helpful tracker.
The 10th-grader knew the country was debating her right to play sports, to get medical care — debating her right to exist — but she couldn’t bring herself to read the news coverage or to speak out against the legislation. How could she find her own voice when she couldn’t bear to hear it? This is one of my favorite sentences in the piece because it so elegantly states Chloe’s circumstances. Do you remember anything about how you “discovered” or crafted this sentence? Thank you! As I mentioned, my long phone calls with Lynda, my editor, were essential in helping me conceptualize the focus on Chloe’s voice. But I struggled with how to capture the deeper symbolism beyond the literal struggle around her voice. I was worried that spelling it out for the reader would come off as cliché or forced — I didn’t want it to read as sort of “giving a voice to the voiceless” kind of story. But it struck me that early last year Chloe was feeling really motivated about speaking out against the bills — she had even thought about going to the legislature in Jefferson City to testify. Just a year later, she was barely following the news and was struggling to even speak up in class, in large part because she couldn’t bear to hear her own voice. I wanted to draw that connection in a subtle way, so I thought asking it as an internal question would be the best approach. I often find that writing sentences as questions can be a powerful way to capture the tension at the heart of a story while also getting inside a character’s head. It’s a tool I learned from the professors that really taught me everything I know about narrative writing: Tom French and Kelley Benham French.
As one of her classmates offered to present his team’s project to the class, Chloe tried not to think about her own presentation. She let her mind drift to video games and chess. I like this detail. Did Chloe volunteer it or did it emerge out of specific questions you asked? Because there was so little dialogue in this scene, I wanted to understand what Chloe was thinking about in class. When I asked, she kept bringing it back to chess and video games.
Hearing the deep monotone of three male classmates reading a PowerPoint, she recognized each of their voices and visualized their faces. But she wondered if her classmates would do the same during her presentation. How would they see her?
“Excellent, thank you guys,” the teacher said as the students finished their presentation. “All right, who would like to go next?” Did anyone from the school district know you’d be sitting in on this class? Yes, spent multiple days shadowing Chloe in person in class last year, so I had already been in touch with the principal and the school district communications director. They were extremely generous and helpful at getting me connected to their online classes.
Chloe’s choiceWhen Chloe first came out in April 2019, it was a complete surprise to her parents. They had seen no signs, no moments in Chloe’s childhood that made them wonder whether their only child was a girl, not a boy.
But Chloe had sensed that something was wrong with her body long before she told her parents, before she knew what it meant to be transgender. She remembered feeling a gray cloud over her head as a child. She felt uncomfortable taking showers and panicked seeing the images of the male reproductive system in middle school health class. You elicit vivid, moving details throughout regarding Chloe’s discovery of her gender. How would you describe your conversations with her? Chloe was such a thoughtful and introspective teenager, which made my job easy. But these details emerged through many interviews over the many weeks I was speaking with Chloe. For people who have never experienced dysphoria, it’s hard to understand what it really means, so I remember asking Chloe about her earliest memories of her dysphoria. What does it feel like for a young kid who doesn’t yet have the language to describe the feeling?
Still, it wasn’t until puberty that Chloe realized she was transgender. As she grew taller, as her voice dropped and her facial hair arrived, Chloe became depressed and withdrawn. Her grades plunged. She had few friends and struggled to get out of bed in the morning.
Then, at a summer theater camp before eighth grade, she was cast in a female role — a witch-like stepmother. She stepped in front of the audience wearing a purple dress and red wig and felt empowered. The next Halloween, she dressed in drag again. One night, she came home, stood in front of the mirror in her bedroom and imagined how her body would look as a female. She started watching YouTube videos about “how to tell your parents you’re transgender.”
It took her over a year to finally tell them, even though she knew they would be accepting. And they were. Her parents, Lisa Bruce and Guy Clark, who are divorced, began taking her to the Washington University transgender clinic at the St. Louis Children’s Hospital, where she was diagnosed with gender dysphoria. They tried their best to use her new name and pronouns and made sure her new high school would allow her to use the girls’ bathroom.
Transgender children are coming out to their parents earlier and earlier, allowing them to consider puberty blockers that can temporarily pause the deepening of the voice among trans girls or the development of breasts in trans boys. The medications are reversible, allowing trans children to stop using them and continue puberty if they change their mind. Access to puberty blockers during adolescence is associated with lower odds of transgender young adults considering suicide, according to a study from Harvard Medical School and the Fenway Institute. This, too, is a succinct description. How did you research the medication-related aspects of the story? I’ve had many lengthy interviews in the last few months and years with experts such as Dr. Jack Turban at Stanford University School of Medicine and Johanna Olson-Kennedy at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. It has also been helpful to read through existing medical guidelines and research on the benefits and risks of puberty blockers and hormone treatments.
But by the time Chloe started taking puberty blockers, she was already taller than most of the other girls in her grade. Her shoulders had broadened, and her voice had deepened.
Her parents struggled with whether to let her take estrogen treatments, which, unlike puberty blockers, would lead to more permanent changes in her body, and could someday impact her ability to have children. But after researching the benefits of gender-affirming treatment and many long conversations, they decided it was Chloe’s body, not theirs, and she should be allowed to make the choice. Chloe’s parents are a valuable presence in the story. Were they hesitant to talk? Chloe’s parents were incredibly honest and forthcoming from the very beginning. I had several phone calls with Chloe’s mom, Lisa Bruce, early on in my reporting process before she and Chloe’s dad, Guy Clark, and Chloe agreed to have me visit them in St. Louis. I know they had reservations and fears about the impact the story could have on Chloe, but they wanted Chloe to be the one to decide if she was comfortable with the idea. They hoped the story could be empowering for her in some way, that it would help other families of trans children who were in similar positions and that it could help readers understand the experiences of kids like Chloe. They really believed in that goal from the beginning of the reporting process. It was important to me that my story focus on a family that was 100 percent on board with the idea. After spending several days with them in their home, we had gotten to know each other really well. Building that trust from the very beginning was essential.
As the hormones began to take effect, her parents could see it was the right decision for Chloe’s health and happiness. Her grades and mood improved drastically. She became more extroverted and made close friends with a group of other LGBTQ students through her school’s “Rainbow Alliance.”
On a shopping trip at Urban Outfitters early last year, her face lit up as she flipped through racks of rompers. In her computer programming class, she sat at the front of the room, asking her teacher for new coding challenges and beaming as she solved each one. On a Friday after school, she walked around downtown St. Louis with her friends, posing for Instagram photos in front of museums and churches. Were you able to witness these scenes, or were they described for you? I witnessed all of the moments described in this paragraph. In fact, I had written most of these moments as fully-formed scenes in my earlier draft of the story, but we had to cut them after a year had passed and after the pandemic had paused in-person classes. I wanted to try to weave in these details in some way, even if it was brief. [/annotate]
After years of feeling trapped in the wrong body, Chloe was beginning to feel free.
Then headlines began appearing about politicians in her state — and across the country — trying to take away the treatments that had given Chloe this newfound confidence. A national debate soon emerged about transgender girls like Chloe and whether they should be allowed to play on sports teams corresponding to their gender identity.
To Chloe, it was yet another reminder of the hostility facing transgender people, but especially transgender girls and women.
In St. Louis, about 80 percent of the transgender children referred to the pediatric transgender health clinic at St. Louis Children’s Hospital are transgender boys. Only about 20 percent are transgender girls, said the clinic’s co-director, Christopher Lewis. His hypothesis for this gap is rooted in a society that still values masculinity over femininity, even for children who aren’t transgender. It’s okay for a girl to be a “tomboy,” but it’s not okay for a boy to wear a dress. Because of this stigma, Lewis believes trans girls are less likely to accept their own identity and less likely to have the family support to seek out medical care. How did you seek out Christopher Lewis, and why was he an important figure to include? I wanted to interview Dr. Lewis because this is the same clinic where she received treatment. I was also curious about this phenomenon that had been mentioned to me by other advocates and researchers who work with trans youth — that they generally see more trans boys than trans girls. I wondered why that might be. I was fascinated by the concrete example of the breakdown in the St. Louis clinic, and I felt that Dr. Lewis’s hypothesis raised interesting questions not only about trans kids but about society’s broader expectations for girls versus boys. It helped underscore why I wanted to focus this story on a transgender girl in particular.
Chloe had fought against all of that. She thought about driving with her mother to Jefferson City, Mo., to testify against the anti-transgender legislation in her state, to use her voice to tell lawmakers why these medications were so important in her life.
But that was before the pandemic changed everything — and changed Chloe.
‘Don’t think too much’Chloe touched her chin, then her belly, focusing intently on her breathing and posture. Facing a bright blue wall in a small room at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, she stretched her arms above her head and around in circles, softly releasing a “shhh” sound.
“And you remember why you do this?” said Mary Blount Stahl, a speech-language pathologist, in what would be their final session before the pandemic shut down everything.
“It releases the tightness in here,” Blount Stahl said, touching her throat. “We’re going to ask these muscles to change how they’re working.”
Chloe nodded, relaxing her shoulders. She knew this already — she had been coming to these appointments for months. The sessions were expensive, exhausting and sometimes discouraging, and her parents wondered if they were worth it. But Chloe hoped the lessons would bring her closer to a voice that matched her femininity.
Could she make it sound breathier or make her pitch go a little higher?
“That male voice tends to go down at the end and the female voice up,” Blount Stahl said.
“That one’s so hard because it’s just such a subtle thing,” Chloe said.
The pathologist motioned for her to sit down at a microphone in front of a computer screen and to count to five. “One two three four five, one two three four five,” Chloe said into the microphone, speaking with a slightly softer, breathier voice than usual.
She cringed as Blount Stahl played the recording back.
“Don’t think too much about what you want your voice to sound like,” the speech pathologist said. “Let’s see what comes out easy.”
“One two three four ahhhhh,” Chloe said into the microphone. She looked at the screen and saw the number listed for her average pitch: 174.
“For the female voice, we want it between 190 and 260,” Blount Stahl said. “If we can get close to that, then we’re going to get more of the feminine voice that resembles you, that meets your personality.”
Chloe tried it once more, with a bit more breath.
“How comfortable did that feel?” her pathologist asked.
“That actually wasn’t that hard,” Chloe said. “There was a little, tiny bit of tension here, but not a lot.”
The instructor pointed to the screen. “Did you see that? Your average?”
Chloe whispered, “239.” The dialogue really makes this section seem visceral. How did you record it? Do you look for opportunities to get dialogue, rather than more conventional quotes, in stories when possible? Before I even visited Chloe, I knew I really wanted to try to sit in on her speech therapy session. It’s an aspect of a person’s transition that I had never seen written in a story in an up-close way. I was grateful that Chloe and the speech pathologist agreed to give me the access to the appointment, back in March 2020 (before the pandemic.) I qsat in the corner and recorded the entire session. I always prefer dialogue over quotes in stories, especially for a narrative piece like this one. It was important for me to show and not tell, and to help really bring the reader into Chloe’s life and both the challenges and joys of her transition.
She beamed, bouncing slightly in her chair. It was higher than she had ever gone before.
“That’s telling you that the vocal mechanism can do that, we just don’t want it strained all the time,” Blount Stahl said. “A believable voice is one that keeps going, that can be authentic. If you can get up to the highest on pitch for a female voice, but you can’t sustain it, then it isn’t really you.”
“Then what’s the point?” Chloe said, nodding. This is a great scene. Talk about how long you were at this session, and how you decided what portions to include. I was at the session for more than an hour, and there were so many great and fascinating moments that helped us understand the internal struggle Chloe was dealing with on a daily basis over her voice. I had never thought about the differences in male and female voices in such a detailed way, but it struck me that trans people probably think about this constantly, on a daily basis throughout their lives. A voice is such an essential part of a person. But for cisgender people, most of us don’t think about the sound of our voices unless we have to listen to a recording. Imagine thinking about it constantly, every time you speak. It sounded exhausting. I knew I wanted to include the moment when Chloe beamed with excitement at the high pitch she reached. It was a rare moment of joy in the piece and captured this feeling of validation and affirmation that is a beautiful part of a trans person’s transition. But I was also interested in this tension for Chloe between finding a feminine voice that is authentic to her gender identity while also making sure she wasn’t straining her vocal cords, and making sure it was sustainable. It must be such a difficult balance. That’s why I chose to end on that sentiment.
‘Are you okay?’Almost a year later, Chloe sat at her mother’s kitchen table, eating mac ‘n’ cheese, as her parents tried to suggest things that would lift their daughter’s mood.
Sitting next to her, Chloe’s father suggested she get back to practicing piano. What if she tried exercising or leaving the apartment more often?
They needed to try something. Ever since the pandemic first shuttered her school, Chloe had barely managed to keep her grades afloat. She went from earning almost straight A’s in her competitive magnet public school to hardly turning in a homework assignment on time. When she first started Microsoft Teams classes, Chloe’s legal name — the dead name that she couldn’t bear to see — had appeared on the screen. Her parents had to work with the principal and teachers to change the name in the system. I like how efficiently you introduce the term “dead name,” as well as its effect on Chloe. Was this always the way you introduced it or did it change during writing or editing? My editors often remind me of the need to clarify and define terms like “dead name,” which are commonly used in the trans community but still unfamiliar to many of our readers. I wanted to explain that Chloe hadn’t yet legally changed her name, while also introducing our readers to the term “dead name” and clarifying what the term means; it’s a name that is extremely distressing for Chloe to hear or see. I’ve used similar descriptions of a person’s dead name in previous stories about trans people, so it was a pretty natural sentence for me to write. I don’t think it changed much in the editing.
In the months since, Chloe’s teachers had been patient with her, allowing her to turn in assignments late or sometimes not at all. But after nearly three semesters, her parents worried their daughter would keep falling behind.
“How are you feeling about it, sweetie, about school and not being in the classroom?” Bruce asked as she ate Ethiopian food.
“It is horrible,” Chloe said, fidgeting with her belt and barely touching her food. “I use up all my energy going through all the classes and doing some of the homework, and then I still have things to do. And everything takes up so much energy.”
“Can I ask you a question? There’s zero consequence,” her mom said. “Would you want to go back into the school?”
“Motivational wise, I think it’d be good for me, but also it’s a risk,” Chloe said. Were you here to witness this conversation? How did you capture it? I actually watched this family dinner over a Zoom call earlier this year. I’ve tried to capture scenes virtually in previous stories during the pandemic, and I’ve often failed miserably. It’s just so tough to get a natural scene through a computer screen; the audio and angles are usually all off, or it never feels truly authentic. So I was surprised at how well it worked this time, and I think it’s because Chloe and her parents had gotten used to having me observe their lives after having spent many hours with me in their home. They were accustomed to having me listening to their conversations without having a direct conversation with me. They kind of just propped the laptop on Lisa’s kitchen table, and went about their normal dinner, which they let me record.
Metro Academic and Classical High School was transitioning to a hybrid approach, allowing some families to choose to send their students into the classroom. Chloe and her parents had decided against it, because of the risks of exposure. But now they wondered if it was necessary for their daughter to feel like herself again.
Chloe spent most of her time on the computer, playing chess and video games and talking to her friends on Discord. She hardly left the apartment while staying at her father’s place, and Clark had caught her sleeping through two of her classes. Her parents worried she was becoming depressed.
Her mother said Chloe’s doctor had suggested that the teenager find a therapist. “If you had someone you could check in with once a week that would be helpful,” Bruce said.
“I guess,” Chloe said. “But that’s not necessarily the problem. It’s the lack of real human contact, and I don’t think talking to a therapist is going to help.”
What Chloe really wanted, she thought, was to go back to seeing her friends and classmates in person, to feel like they could see her as who she was, and not just what she sounded like on Discord or in virtual classes.
She wished she could take her next step in her transition: breast augmentation surgery, a procedure that would make her feel more comfortable in her own body. But her parents insisted she needed to wait until she was 18, as is generally recommended for transgender young people considering surgery.
Three more years felt so far away to Chloe. She worried about what could happen during that time. Would lawmakers take away her access to her medications? She had managed to get an implant for her puberty blockers, which would cover her for at least two years, but she continued to take estrogen pills. If Missouri passed its bills criminalizing trans health care for minors, would Chloe lose access to this treatment?
She didn’t know what would happen. But she knew she didn’t feel like talking about it, or thinking about the homework she’d have to do later that night.
The teenager yawned, placing her chin in her hands.
“Are you okay?” her mother asked. “What’s going on?”
“I honestly don’t know,” Chloe said.
‘You’re drifting away’This story is arranged in sections, almost like scenes from a movie. Was that always the intent, or was it introduced in editing? Did the order of the story change? The story was always going to be arranged in sections, but the sections and structure changed drastically as I re-wrote the draft. Initially, my draft began with a scene of Chloe getting ready for in-person school, back in early March 2020. One of my other sections included gym class, and I ended the story on a scene from a shopping trip to Urban Outfitters with Chloe and her mom. When we decided to refocus the story on Chloe’s voice, we basically scrapped most of the first-draft sections except for the second section and the speech therapy section. Lynda and I decided to start and end the piece on the day I shadowed Chloe in her virtual class, which ended up being a really natural structure for the story.
While Chloe finished up her virtual classes for the day, Bruce was getting ready to drive to Jefferson City for her first shot of the coronavirus vaccine.
Her mother had decided that Chloe needed to go back to school in person, even if it meant putting their family at risk.
“I feel like you’re drifting away,” Bruce told her.
She feared that the pressures around Chloe, and her reluctance to leave the apartment, were making it easier for her daughter to hide.
She worried that Chloe was no longer doing the voice therapy exercises that could help her feel more comfortable about it. She wondered if her daughter’s voice would ever sound the way she wanted it to. But she also wished there was a way for Chloe to find peace with her voice the way it was.
“What I try to say — and it has not gone over particularly well,” Bruce said, pausing. “My hope is that she will love herself through every step of the way. I understand her body does not match who she is. But I wish she could love herself through it all.”
Chloe had zoned out of her AP World History class as her teacher talked about how to write short-answer questions on the AP exam.
“Something to keep in mind, there are two weeks left in this term” until spring break, the teacher said. “I can help you, I can take late work all day long until the term closes. But if you’re sitting on a bunch of stuff, you might want to turn it in. Some is better than none.”
One by one, the students logged off.
The school day ended, and Chloe still hadn’t said a word. At the end, you return to the beginning and the idea of Chloe’s voice. Was this always your intended ending, or did it change during writing or editing? Before I start writing a story, I like to know both what my lede is and what my kicker is. I talked through this at length with Lynda, and she really encouraged me to end the story the same place it began: Chloe still hadn’t said a word. It was a simple story arc, and it made the writing so much easier to know where I was starting and where I was going. It wasn’t the most hopeful way to end the piece, leaving the reader in the same frustrating place Chloe was at the beginning. But it felt authentic.This is Chloe’s reality.
Trevor Pyle is a staff writer at the Skagit Valley Herald, a daily newspaper north of Seattle. A longtime Washington state resident, he has covered education, news and sports in his career.