An inside look: What it's like to tell your story after sex reassignment surgery
The Toronto Star's Peter Edwards spoke frankly about the challenges of profiling Toronto (Don) Jail guard Andrea Roussel who had undergone sex reassignment surgery and stayed on the job. Here, Roussel herself speaks about what it was like for her to be the subject of the Star's story and offers some suggestions for journalists when covering issues of a sensitive and personal nature.
As told to Romayne Smith Fullerton
It felt odd to be the subject of this story because I didn't know how it would be received and I had some concerns about how it would affect my work place and my parents because it would be in a major paper. I also felt relief having my story told — like an additional weight had been lifted off my shoulders. Here in my work place, some people thought I had it very easy (transitioning), and only a few people knew how hard it was. Without my close friends it would have been much harder. The story showed that.
As much as my employers had issues, we worked together to work through that and it took commitment. And my transitioning became a success in the environment that I was in. I was tired of hearing bad stuff about the Toronto jail and here's a prime example of something positive in our job. The code of silence or the thin blue line or whatever you want to call it can be overcome and was and that was good for people to see. The Don is the Don but mine is probably the only good story that's come out of here in the last 15 years. The good stuff is never reported, but this was.
I may have been the first person to transition in my workplace and maybe in the country. There may be more to follow me and the truth is, there are some.
I didn't take time off — I stayed. I wanted to show people that we are people too. Also I couldn't afford time off. Some of us have to work.
I think Peter did the right thing from the beginning. He encouraged me to bring a friend to the interview. He also never addressed me using pronouns. I know he didn't want to offend and that was key: don't offend. Ask people how they want to be addressed or use their name. Because this story is of a sensitive nature, you have to have trust. And Peter suggested I bring my friend--that was his idea. To begin the interview, we talked about other things for a while, and I could tell that Peter was a very experienced interviewer, but by then I was like putty in his hands.
Peter also had the ability to put himself in my shoes and take my perspective, my view. And he could then see the pain, the suffering and the result. He showed as much emotion as I did and when I felt bad, he showed that on his own face — he felt bad. He also asked sometimes if I wanted to take a break, but I said no, I'm on a roll.
As a journalist, you can hurt the source of your story. But if you did that, you'd hurt the whole group that person is a part of, and then you alienate everyone. That's not what you want to do.
Peter wrote enough notes to write a book and we selected certain things. When I spoke to him, some of it was quite emotional and there are scars that will be there for a long time. They may never go. What Peter did was I gave him the information for a few weeks so he could work on the story. I asked him to hold it until I had the clearance from my employers to publish it. Once I got clearance, he showed me the article. I said I couldn't add or take away anything. He captured the picture: I had struggles; I overcame struggles and my employer came to my aid and that's why I'm still working at the Don.
Peter did a good job of taking some instances and giving them the proper context. And he could show how I persevered — because I did persevere and he showed my employers were supportive--which they were. The message was sent and received.
I got to develop a trust with him. While we were waiting to get the story published, he'd say it's not going to be easy. You can take as long as you need. He made me feel like I had more control even though it was really in his hands. I presume he felt that any changing of the story — like to shorten it — would have lost some of the strength of the message.
When the article was published, our regional directors came in and they were happy with the article and it made a positive impact on our ministry to the point where they have encouraged me to do as many speaking engagements as possible.
I have had people stop me on the street and say I read your story. People I used to work with in British Columbia read it and looked me up on Facebook and have written to me to say good for you.
Peter saw this before publishing the article and he said I would be busy afterwards. He was right but I don't mind because education never hurts anyone.
It's also my therapy — I enjoy putting a face to a story and I don't mind putting my face to this one.