Face painted in the pride rainbow

EDITOR’S NOTE: This week, in honor of Pride Month, we feature three posts about transgender issues. Today, 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 transgender teenager who was thriving loses her confidence during COVID isolation because she fears being defined by the sound of her voice. Finally, 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.

On the day in late April that I call Lane DeGregory in Florida, The Tampa Bay Times, where she has worked as a reporter since 2000, had just released an update to its style book. The update, DeGregory says, covers what pronouns to use when and what gender-neutral terms to use instead of gendered language such as “actress” and “meter maid.” (The answers are “actor” and “meter reader.”)

DeGregory didn’t have any of this guidance in 2002, when she wrote “The Making of Maddie,” a profile of Madalynn Shepley, a transgender woman. The story follows Shepley as she attempts to update her driver’s license to make her official identification consistent with her self-identification.

“It’s been 19 years since I wrote that story,” DeGregory tells me. “We’re finally putting this stuff in the style book, today.”

Back then, the newspaper (then the St. Petersburg Times) had a daily feature section. “I was always scanning the news stories asking, who are the people who are being affected by this or the people who are behind this?” she says.

In this case, the story of Maddie came to her. DeGregory’s best friend covered city hall for the newspaper and had reported on a revision to the St. Petersburg human rights ordinance that would include gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. “It felt very woke, for 2002,” DeGregory says. But the city council voted down the clause that extended protection to transgendered people. “We didn’t really know what ‘transgendered’ meant, but we were appalled that the council would just eliminate protecting a whole group of people.”

Finding the right character to tell the story

Some narrative journalists audition 10 or more people before selecting one to profile. DeGregory says she seldom has the time or resources for that. “Sometimes I do two or three, but I think Maddie was the first one (I talked to).” She found Shepley by calling a transgender rights advocate who had spoken at the city council meeting. She asked to be connected to someone affected by the ordinance, and was introduced to Shepley.

“I look for is someone who is going to let me in. Maddie was really open,” DeGregory says. “I try to explain that I’m not just here to interview you. I want to hang out with you, be in your world for a while, talk to your family and your friends. In response, Maddie said, ‘I want to explain. No one has given me a voice.’”

In 2007, DeGregory wrote several other articles on transgender issues. Most were about Susan Stanton, a city manager in Largo, Florida, who became nationally known when she was fired from her job as she was transitioning. In another story that DeGregory wrote that same year, a gay man looks back at his marriage to a transgender woman, and a love that transcended gender. “I like a character with a little flaw now and then, and he didn’t mind showing his warts,” she says.

In 2009, DeGregory won the Pulitzer Prize in feature writing for her story “The Girl in the Window,” which is described on the Pulitzer website as a “richly detailed story of a neglected little girl, found in a roach-infested room, unable to talk or feed herself, who was adopted by a new family committed to her nurturing.” She has also won dozens of other national journalism awards.

Today, journalists can consult transgender style guides and other resources to make sure their stories about transgender people are accurate and respectful. In writing about Maddie, DeGregory had to rely on Maddie’s retelling of her own story, on a clinical psychologist who had worked with more than 200 transgender patients, and on her own intuition. At the time, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) — the official mental health handbook used by health care providers — still included “gender identity disorder.” With the fifth edition, published in 2013, the DSM says “gender non-conformity is not in itself a mental disorder.” It lists “gender dysphoria” for the identity-related issues that some transgender people experience.

“The Making of Maddie” is intimate, emotional and suspenseful. To me, a cisgender woman, it seems both aware and advanced for 2002. It suggests to me that writing meaningfully about transgender people is largely a matter of empathy. And DeGregory is a master of that.

I spoke with DeGregory about how she dove so deeply into a contemporary issue that the stories work still resonate nearly two decades later. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity, and is followed by an annotation of her her profile of “The Making of Maddie.”

How do you know whom to profile? Are you looking for a sympathetic character? For example, in this story, why did you profile Maddie instead of the man who was mean to her at the DMV?
My late-night indulgence is true crime shows. I am drawn to the underdog and to people whose emotions get the best of them in some ways. I’ll spend a week under the bridge writing about the sex offenders who are living down there in tents. I’ll go talk to the murderer in his cell. I interviewed a lady who killed her sister and then lived in the house with her for six weeks, her body all rotted out. I just want to know those stories. Part of it is just wanting to know how people tick, wanting to show readers another side of whatever the news headline is.

I rely a lot on my editors. They trust me, but it’s helpful when they say, “Don’t go there.” There was more about the DMV guy in (Maddie’s story) that my editor cut.

If I can make people slow down enough to actually try to understand what it’s like to walk a mile in someone’s shoes, then I feel I’ve maybe done a service in illuminating a piece of the world or someone in the shadows.

Your stories, including this one, are told with such empathy for your sources. It’s one thing to feel that in person. But how do you show readers what it feels like to be someone else?
When I started this story, I didn’t know what the frame was going to be. I spent maybe a week or two with Maddie and we had lots of long talks on the phone at night. I had a scene when I watched her put her makeup on one morning. I had a scene of her going to church. My editor was very smart about asking, what’s really at stake here?

She wasn’t about to get reassignment surgery. She wasn’t about to get fired from her job. She wasn’t about to enter a relationship or reconnect with her kids. The thing she really wanted was to change her picture on her driver’s license, so it could match who she is now. When it came time to write the story, my editor suggested I just frame it around that day at the driver’s license office.

I’ve always liked to whittle a big, unwieldy issue down into a little moment, but also have it be something universal that everybody can relate to it. How many people can relate to feeling like they’re in the wrong body? Not very many of us. But we can relate to losing 40 pounds and wanting a new driver’s license photo. Or to getting divorced and wanting your name back. If you can find one of those moments, you can frame around that.

I would ask whoever I was writing about, whether it’s about the battle for transgender rights or any other issue:  What’s at stake? Maybe it’s, “I want to go to the prom in my tuxedo and bring my girlfriend with me.” Or, “I just want to play soccer.” Then find that moment you can wrap the whole issue and this human story around. It doesn’t have to be anything big. It could be as simple as
“Is anybody going to call me ‘sir’ when I go to the grocery store?” Small victories.

The annotation: Storyboard’s questions are in red; DeGregory’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.

(Note: This article was first published in the St. Petersburg Times on November 17, 2002)

 

The Making of Maddie

St. Petersburg Times/Tampa Bay Times

by Lane DeGregory

 

On a warm, sunny Thursday, just after lunch, Madalynn A. Shepley steers her wood-paneled van into the parking lot of the Clearwater driver’s license office. She stops in an end space. Cuts the engine. Then she tips down the rear-view mirror to check her face. You’ve said (in your podcast, Write Lane) that you like to start your articles using just pronouns, introducing the person’s name later. Was this article written before you started doing that, or did you consciously start off with a name in the first sentence? That’s a shift I made later in my career. I think it’s easier for someone to relate if you don’t name the person right away. It depends on whether you want them to be a character or an everyman. I wanted this to be about Maddie. This moment is about a name on a driver’s license, so I started with a name and ended the section with another name.

 

She wants everything to be perfect for this picture. So she fluffs her brown bangs, pulls a compact from her purse, pats shimmery powder across her chin.

“They might ask me to remove my makeup in here,” she says. “So they can have a true representation of this person who is supposed to be me.”

Maddie is 38. Her shoulder-length hair is feathered in front. Her brown eyes crinkle when she laughs. She has broad shoulders, big biceps, slim hips. She’s 5 feet 5, 175 pounds. She’s wearing a soft red T-shirt and new red capri pants with white flowers.

“I’m even wearing Lady in Red perfume today,” she says, laughing. “I bought it to celebrate.

Oh, I’ve been looking forward to this day for a long time.”

She pulls out her wallet and finds her driver’s license. The photo shows a 37-year-old man with short brown hair, brown brows and serious brown eyes. A thick, dark moustache blankets his upper lip.

The name on the license says: Andrew Shepley.

Maddie has come to change that photo — and that name.

“They could give me a hard time in here today,” she says. I admire how suspenseful this story is. How do you create that suspense in a nonfiction story that has to follow real events? I’m always thinking about that when I’m writing my stories. Somewhere up top, before the jump, I want to ask the question or set out what’s at stake. With this quote, you know something bad can happen. Most of my stories run: scene, background, scene, background…. By the end of that first scene, I want to leave people hanging so they have to read the background to find out what happens next.

Doctor’s orders

Maddie shares a Clearwater condo with her friend Nickie and a gray tabby cat named Booger. She repairs roller coasters and other rides at a Tampa amusement park she’d rather not name. She plays softball on Tuesdays, goes to a Metropolitan Community Church on Wednesday nights, listens to Styx and Rush, and makes a mean pot roast.

She was born a boy.

About a year ago, she moved to Florida and started taking hormones and calling herself Maddie. She had laser surgery to remove her moustache. She softened her voice and let her hair grow. She learned to walk in heels and appreciate salad and change her van’s oil without chipping a nail.

She wants, more than anything, to blend in. To be just another woman out buying groceries, pumping gas. But sometimes, strangers stare.

She wants to become a woman so badly — needs to, really — that she gave up her wife, her four children and her house. She got fired from a job as an RV mechanic when she started coming to work as a woman. She lost almost all her friends. Her dad and her two brothers won’t talk to her. Her mom keeps calling her Andrew.

She often feels alone.

But she’s not.

An estimated one in 30,000 people is transgendered. Transgendered people have the mind of one gender, the body of another. They are divided evenly between men who want to be women and women who want to be men. They have existed throughout the ages, in virtually every culture around the world.

It’s a psychological disability. It’s included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, along with depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

Transgendered people are born that way. There is no cure.

Doctors who treat transgendered patients usually prescribe hormone therapy, counseling and trying to live in the correct “brain gender.” The way science and medicine look at transgender people has changed since 2002. How much did you know about transgender issues when you started this story? I barely had heard the term before. Back then, there were organizations for gay and lesbian people, but none that specifically included transgender people. I read a lot about being transgender before I went to meet Maddie. I did my homework, as if I were going to write a research paper for college. I read scientific journal articles. I looked it up in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. I read the history and references in literature. I talked to Kathleen Farrell, the therapist who worked with Maddie. So I had a framework of what people were talking about.

But society doesn’t always accept that. Many people don’t want to see a man wearing makeup and women’s clothing. They worry: Where will these people go to the bathroom? What if one of them wanted to live in my neighborhood?

About the time Andrew Shepley moved to Florida to become Maddie, the St. Petersburg City Council was revisiting its human rights ordinance. The law protects people from discrimination in employment, public accommodations and housing. Someone had asked the council to include lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered people in it.

Council members told the lesbians, gays and bisexuals: We’ll protect you.

They told the transgendered people: But not you. Wait! Here’s a news hook, 22 paragraphs in. Why did you put this information all the way down here? We had covered this story in the news pages throughout the weeks before. I wasn’t trying to peg it on that as the reason to do the story. I really wanted this to be about Maddie.

“You are sending a message that transgendered people don’t count,” activist Jessica Archer told council members.

Maddie has never felt like she counted. Long before she worried about the picture on her driver’s license, she knew she wasn’t meant to be a man.

Everyman

To almost everyone except himself, Andrew Shepley seemed like a regular guy.

He was born outside Chicago, the oldest son of a carnival owner. He grew up riding bikes, playing baseball and cheering the Cubs with his brothers. It’s so difficult to decide how to refer to a transgender person in the past, when they presented as another gender. How did you make that decision here? It must have been especially difficult because, at the time, there was no style guide to refer to. In the present tense, she’s Maddie. And in the past tense, when he was Andrew, I use male pronouns. In the articles about Susan Stanton, for example, I didn’t feel like it was disingenuous to call her Steve when I’m doing the background of the life she lived as that person. I think now I would ask, “How would you like me to refer to you?”

Even then, he said, he knew.

One afternoon, while his brothers were playing catch in the back yard, he went inside, into his mom’s closet. He fished through her laundry basket and pulled out one of her slips. He still remembers how sweet it smelled, how soft the fabric felt against his skin.

He draped the slip around his small shoulders. Then he pulled on a pair of her pantyhose.

“Oh, I was in heaven,” he says. “I knew this was who I was meant to be.”

He was 7 years old.

His mom caught him and told him never to do it again.

If only it were that easy.

Andrew didn’t want anyone to think he was a freak. So he watched other boys and tried to imitate their mannerisms. He learned to swagger in work boots, to talk tough and swear. He lifted weights and built up his biceps. He learned to fix car engines and carnival rides.

He was a good actor, he said. But he couldn’t convince himself.

Sometimes, when his family planned to go out, he would pretend he was sick so he could stay home. So he could try on his mom’s stockings, put on her makeup, spritz her flowery perfume on his wrists.

When he was a teenager and other boys started bragging about the girls they’d been with, he would lie and tell stories, too. But he didn’t date. Didn’t go to his prom. Never had sex – with anyone. Some people assume that transgendered people are homosexual. But sex has almost nothing to do with it.

The problem is how they see themselves. I don’t like this sentence. It shouldn’t be their problem. If I could go back, I would say, “They know they were supposed to be another gender,” or something like that, and not make it into a problem.

One day, while Andrew was helping his dad set up a church carnival, he met a girl. The preacher’s daughter. She was sweet and cute and had blond hair. Andrew was 20. She was 16. She was his first female friend. Maybe, he thought, this was love. You are so empathetic in your articles. I feel like I’m seeing the world through the subject’s eyes. Do you ever struggle to see your source’s point of view? When reporting for emotion, you need to ask not just what they are doing, but what they are thinking, what they are worrying or praying about, what keeps them up at night. As a younger reporter, I wanted to show I understood. Now I say, “I don’t understand. Help me.” I am willing to let them take me somewhere. Here, I asked why she got married if she knew all along. I was thinking, “How could you do this to her (the wife)?” but I asked in a non-combative way. Her answer was illustrative. She said, “I really didn’t know what it meant to love somebody.” I’m glad I asked.

Maybe he wasn’t so weird after all.

So Andrew married her. They had a daughter, then three sons. Andrew worked as a truck driver, an auto mechanic and on carnivals. During his 20-year marriage, he was never with another woman.

Except Maddie.

Inside out

“There are things, like getting married, that society says we’re supposed to do,” says Kathleen Farrell. She is a St. Petersburg therapist who holds a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Cincinnati. Since 1985, she has worked with more than 200 transgendered patients around the Tampa Bay area. She and Maddie meet monthly.

Most transgendered people desperately want to fit in, Farrell says, so they get married and have kids. Many transgendered men try to appear more masculine by joining the military, learning to hunt or ride motorcycles, taking jobs in construction or auto repair.

But they can’t change what’s inside.

Andrew’s wife knew he liked to wear women’s clothes. He often wore her underwear under his Lee jeans. Sometimes, he slept in her pale blue nightgown.

His wife usually tolerated it. “As long as I kept it in the bedroom,” Maddie says.

But over the years, Andrew’s obsession grew. He was feeling more and more like he had to be a woman. He started fussing at his wife, yelling at his kids.

“Andrew basically became a jerk,” says his daughter, Stacey, 18. “We didn’t know why Dad was so unhappy. We never saw him wearing Mom’s clothes.” The reaction of the spouses, or, in this case, the family, across all the stories you wrote about transgender people back then are so different from each other. In the later stories, you detail the hurt and blame within marriages. It changes the way the person you are writing about comes across, with Maddie maybe seeming less flawed because her family is less critical in the article of how she handled her transition. I have to share the other side. I hesitated to reach out to the women who were hurt by their husbands, and opening that wound again. But I also felt like their perspective was really important to understand and to acknowledge. By the time I got to Maddie, she and her ex-wife and her kids had come to an understanding, which wasn’t the case with the subjects of the other stories. Susan (Stanton) got politically and publicly messed with at a point where it should have been her own private journey. The media outed her before she was ready. I felt that all I could do is offer her a chance to tell her own story.

Andrew prayed for answers, asked God for help. He didn’t want to do anything wrong. So he read the Bible, searching for scripture that said you shouldn’t change your gender. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus . . . he couldn’t find anything. He couldn’t take it any longer.

So on a cold Chicago morning, just after Thanksgiving, he called his children into the living room. Stacey and the boys, ages 10, 12 and 14.

“I’m sorry,” Andrew told his kids. “I’m going to Florida. I’m going to start living my life as a woman.”

 Turning heads

Maddie’s greatest fear is that she’ll be “made.” In the transgendered world, this means that someone notices you’re not a biological woman. Some stranger stares or, worse, snickers.

Maddie has been taking three pills twice a day to suppress her testosterone and add estrogen. The medication costs $150 a month. Insurance won’t pay for it.

It won’t pay for sex-change operations, either. So she has been working overtime, trying to save $15,000 for the procedure.

She wants to get laser treatments on her cheeks and chin so she can stop shaving. She wants breast implants so she can stop wearing foam forms. She could get her Adam’s apple shaved so it wouldn’t stick out, her vocal cords altered to make her voice higher and have a couple of ribs removed to make her waist smaller.

But even after all that, she knows she still might get made.

“I have to face that,” she says. “I try to be content with the best face I can present.”

Right now, she says, she needs a new driver’s license more than any medical procedure. She needs identification that looks like her, that has her new name, so she can cash a check, get a library card, rent a movie. Without giving herself away.

A well-groomed woman

After waiting almost 40 minutes, Maddie makes it to the front of the line at the driver’s license office. A middle-aged clerk wearing bifocals is sitting behind the counter. “Can I help you?” she asks.

“I need to update my driver’s license,” Maddie says.

The woman slides her glasses down her nose, peers over them. “Do you have an appointment?”

“No.”

“Well, is it for an address change?”

“Yes,” Maddie answers. “And for a name change.”

The woman behind the counter pushes up her glasses. She looks at Maddie through the lined lenses. “Do you have the court documents?”

“Yes,” Maddie says, unsnapping her purse. She pulls out two pieces of paper. The first is a copy of the order signed by a Brooksville judge legally approving her name change. She chose Maddie because it’s a combination of Mommy and Daddy. Because she feels like both to her kids.

The second paper is a letter from her therapist, Farrell. “To Whom it May Concern: Madalynn A. Shepley has been diagnosed with Gender Identity Disorder, which has been persistent since childhood. . . . Ms. Shepley presents as a well-dressed, well-groomed woman living full-time as a female since December 2001. To be consistent with this life change and for her on-going safety as well as her emotional well being, this letter supports the petition to the court for changing her legal name.”

The letter also says the sex designation on Maddie’s driver’s license should be changed to female. “To be consistent with her female gender and her legal name change.”

Maddie hands both papers to the woman behind the counter. The woman looks them over. Then looks Maddie over again. “This letter doesn’t say that the surgery has been performed,” the woman says, a little too loudly.

Maddie swallows. “It hasn’t,” she says. “Not yet.”

The woman behind the counter leans forward. “Well, we can’t change the gender marker until your doctor says you’ve been changed surgically.”

By now, everyone in line is listening. Other clerks are coming over.

“So you’re telling me,” Maddie says softly, “that until I have surgery, I’m going to be walking around with a driver’s license that has a female name and photo and a gender marker that says I’m a man?”

“Yes,” the driver’s license woman says. “That’s what I’m saying.”

Maddie steps back. But she doesn’t turn around. The folks behind her in line are all looking, all buzzing about her.

The woman behind the counter calls over her manager. She shows him Maddie’s papers. She points at Maddie.

The manager is Frank Head. He looks Maddie up and down. He speaks loudly, so everyone can hear: “Can I help you, SIR?” How did you decide whether or not to name this person? Do you have any regrets? I don’t regret naming him. He was proud to have been that guy. I think if he had pushed back when I asked his name, and thought about it even a minute, I might’ve just said, “the DMV manager.” But I wanted to say, “OK, you’re proud of doing this in public. And there are 200 other people in the lobby who see you doing this. And you’re a public official. Yeah. Own it.”

Some people in line laugh. Maddie squares her shoulders. Tips up her chin.

“You mean Ma’am,” she says.

“No, sir,” says the driver’s license official. “I don’t.”

Girls like us

Maddie often wonders whether this is all worth it.

She misses her kids. She’s seen them only once this past year. They call her Mom now. “Some of my friends think it’s strange. But I say, “Go ahead. Whatever makes you happy,’ ” Stacey says. “I know since this change, she’s not as uptight or as quick to fly off the handle.”

Maddie’s ex-wife has remarried. She wants her new husband to adopt the kids. “She thinks I’m a Jerry Springer show or something,” Maddie says.

Maddie misses her friends in Chicago, her brothers and parents. Some of the guys she works with know her secret and seem to be okay with it. But she doesn’t hang out with them after hours.

She’s lonely a lot.

She’s thought about going back to being Andrew.

She’s thought about killing herself. Most transgendered people do. Half die by the time they turn 30 – usually by their own hand. They don’t want to risk everything to be who they know they are.

But they can’t stand to keep looking in the mirror and not seeing themselves.

“It takes a really incredibly strong person to undertake this transformation,” Farrell says.

Seventeen years ago, Farrell started a support group for her patients. Starburst has more than 40 members, including Maddie. The girls, as they call themselves, get together once a month.

Sometimes they gather at a St. Petersburg church and invite laser surgeons or makeup artists to give presentations. Or they get together at an all-you-can-eat buffet and talk about the Winn-Dixie truck driver who got fired for wearing women’s clothing off the job. Or they rent a movie at Maddie’s condo and laugh about whether Patrick Swayze passes as a woman.

They talk about friendship and dating. Some want to meet a man so they can be in a “regular” relationship. Some are still attracted to women.

Maddie isn’t sure what she wants. She’s had a few dates, all with other transgendered men who present themselves as women. “Sort of like a lesbian relationship,” she says.

“But you know,” she says, “the longer I’m on this estrogen, the more I realize what’s so great about Brad Pitt.”

Maddie and the other Starburst members dress like soccer moms, or ladies you might see at a bake sale. They wear sun dresses, short-sleeved sweaters and gold-rimmed glasses. They’re parents, grandparents and former military officers. One is a 68-year-old retired Navy commander who has been “playing dressup” since age 5.

Most waited until their children were grown, or until they retired, to start living as women.

Georgia is 60. She has been married four times. She did combat in the Congo. She has been shaving her body since 1978. She used to mail-order women’s clothes and have them delivered to her office at MacDill Air Force Base.

She celebrates small triumphs, like someone saying, “Excuse me, lady,” at the drugstore. And finding size 14 pumps on the Internet. And waking up and for a few minutes forgetting that she spent most of her life as a man.

The Starburst girls nod and smile. They understand. For many of them, these other “trannies” are their only friends. “Trannies” is in quotes here, so I’m guessing it wasn’t your word, but a word others used, maybe in that way of reclaiming a slur? I don’t think people use this word anymore. Oh, yes they do. Someone I know used it with me the other day. He was saying that it was just in the news that transgender kids can’t play on sports teams unless it’s their birth gender. He was arguing about how, “Those trannies shouldn’t be allowed to play high school or college sports, anyway.” I flipped my lid on him.

“Do you think if we had a choice, we would choose to give up our families and our jobs and our self-esteem so that strangers could laugh at us and stare?” Maddie asks.

“The only choice, for us, is when to stop living the lie.”

Face forward

Frank Head, the manager of the driver’s license office, tells Maddie to wait a minute. He walks to his office. Maddie stands at the counter, alone. Fluorescent lights glare above her. Behind her, dozens of people in the long line are whispering, smiling.

Maddie turns her back on them. She taps her red fingernails on the counter. She tries not to cry.

Head comes back, carrying a hardback book of Florida laws. He sets the thick book on the counter. Opens to Chapter 316. “Sir, please understand,” he says, again addressing Maddie as a man. “Physically, if you’re a male, sir, you have to have male on your driver’s license.”

Maddie blinks. She doesn’t move.

Head looks past her, to the long line of strangers. Raising his voice, he gives his rationale for this policy. “If they’re incarcerated, we’re not going to put a male in the women’s jail. If they get pulled over on the side of the road, do I want a female officer patting them down?”

Maddie stays silent. The manager has one more point.

“Still, anatomically,” he says over Maddie’s shoulder, “he’s a man until he has that surgery.”

Maddie clears her throat. She steps forward. She reaches onto the counter and closes the law book. She struggles to control her voice.

“Well, sir,” she says. “I still need to change my name on my driver’s license. And I need a new photo.”

The people in line stop whispering. Maddie twists her gold bracelets around her right wrist.

The manager looks again at her documents. Then he looks up. The place is packed.

“It will take at least two hours, SIR,” he says.

Maddie says, “I’ll wait.”

She squares her shoulders, steps back from the counter and turns to face the strangers. She walks past them slowly, her sandals clicking on the bare floor.

When she gets near the end of the line, a skinny teenage girl steps toward her and smiles.

“You’re very courageous,” the girl says.

Maddie stops and turns. She looks at the girl, who is about 17. She’s here with two friends, all wearing tank tops and drop-waisted jeans. They’re trying to get their driver’s licenses for the first time.

“What?” Maddie asks the girl.

“What you’re doing, I admire it,” the girl says.

Her friends nod. A few other folks in line do, too.

“And I admire how you handled that man. How you didn’t let him deny you.”

Maddie doesn’t know what to say. “Thanks,” she says, finally. “Thank you for saying something.”

The girl reaches out and squeezes Maddie’s arm.

“You’re welcome,” the girl says. “I think you’re a beautiful lady.” This is a quick-moving scene with a lot of information. How did you get it all down? We had to sit for two hours at the DMV. I used that time to observe and ask questions.

Two hours later, Maddie moves to the front of Line 3. She puts her papers on the counter, in front of another state official, and steps back while he stares her down. She waits while he types her information into the computer. Waits while he verifies her address, criminal record and driving history. Waits while he studies her paperwork, and prints out some more, and changes her address – and her name.

Finally, it’s time for her new photo.

Maddie steps in front of the camera. She fluffs her brown bangs. Everyone is watching.

“You can smile if you want to,” the man behind the camera tells Maddie.

She does.

***

Madeline Bodin is a freelance environmental and science journalist who is based in Vermont.

 

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