My Television Debut

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On October 25, 2002 I was interviewed on television news in connection with the brutal slaying of a local transsexual girl. This is my account of that experience. I write this not to make a point, but simply to document the event, and to let you know how it came about and what it was like, in case you are curious.

On October 3, 2002, a beautiful 17 year old transsexual girl named Gwen Araujo was beaten and murdered by three twenty-something-year old men at a party in Newark, California. Newark is a small bedroom/shopping community in the sprawling megapolis that constitutes the eastern side of the San Francisco Bay. Newark is just north of Silicon Valley and San Jose, where I live in the South Bay.

Presumably we will learn more details about the crime when the trial gets underway. But apparently what went down was this. Gwen was well acquainted with the men who would come to murder her, and perhaps was lured to the party that evening with this purpose in mind. Gwen had been presenting as a female full time for three years, and was well known in the local community and especially among the local youth. Many knew of her transgendered status, but the murderers may not have known or been certain of it. At the party, the girlfriend of one of the murderers went to the bathroom with Gwen, and verified that Gwen's private anatomy was male. The girlfriend announced the fact to her boyfriend, and the men went to the bathroom and beat Gwen severely. Then they dragged her to the garage, put a rope around her neck, and strangled her until she was dead. They loaded Gwen's body into a vehicle and drove some 150 miles away, and buried her innocent body deep in the woods.

The crime was whispered about throughout the local youth community. After three weeks one of the perpetrators confessed to the police, and led them to the body. The three men were quickly arrested. Incredibly, no other arrests were made amongst the other party-goers or youths who had heard about the crime, for complicity or otherwise.

Perhaps due to the beauty of victim (or more to the point, availability of publishable photos of a very beautiful victim), or because of the gruesome details surrounding the crime, or perhaps just because of the youth and innocence of the victim, the story received a great deal of coverage in the local press. It even made the national news. As usual, the media got the transgender aspects of the story all wrong, constantly referring to the victim by her male name and with male pronouns, mixing sex and gender issues, and calling her a cross-dresser rather than a transsexual. In reaction the transgendered community bombarded the media with letters and calls of protest and education.

Our local newspaper in the South Bay is the San Jose Mercury News. It is a well respected, award-winning publication, particularly acclaimed for its business section covering the high tech industry which of course is centered here in Silicon Valley. Local transgender organizations such as Transgender Silicon Valley and Transgender San Francisco found the ignorance and insensitivity of the Mercury to be particularly egregious, as they had been "educated" about these issues time and again when transgender stories (usually tragedies, regrettably) were covered by the paper in the past. I wrote my share of indignant letters, too. But then it occurred to me that a positive approach might be more effective. I recalled that the Mercury runs a guest column entitled "My View" which might cover any subject matter a reader might care to address. I thought I might take advantage of this vehicle to offer some education on transgender issues not just to the newspaper, but to the paper's readership as well.

I pondered what might be an effective approach in such an article. I was initially tempted to trot out a list to definitions of transgender terms, or to summarize key transgender concerns, or to focus on one or two particularly sensitive issues. But then I remembered (from where? I know not..) a rule of journalism that the best way to catch the readers' interest is with a personal story. I decided to share the story of my own transgender journey, as best as I could in 660 words. (You do know that I'm a transsexual woman myself, don't you?) I hoped that this would put a face on "transgender" that people could to relate to. ..a face of someone who is still alive, for a change. It's easy to hate an abstract concept; it's hard to hate a person you have met.

I composed about 1,500 words on the topic, edited it down to about 1,000, and dispatched it via e-mail to the Mercury News. I expected that would be the last I heard of it. Much to my surprise, the next day my cell phone rang and Jim Braly, the commentary editor at the Merc, was on the line. It seems Jim's editor had given him my story and said he thought there might be something there they could use. Jim had a couple of concerns he wanted to talk to me about. First was, did I realize what I would be getting myself into, outing myself this way? I assured him that I had thought long and hard about it, and decided that the potential educational benefit outweighed any problems it might cause me. Besides, I was pretty well out an about already anyway. He also had some questions about some of the transgender terms and issues, and some ideas about editing the story. I was impressed that Jim seemed genuinely interested in my story and in the transgender community, and concerned about getting it as right as could be. Also I was happily surprised that he worked with me on the edits, as my letters to the editor are always hacked beyond recognition without any involvement of me the author. Jim finally got the story well focused and down to a size that would fit the column. It ran on Wednesday October 23, covering the lower third of the editorial page of the San Jose Mercury News. You can read the text of it here on my web site if you like. They even ran a small head shot of me, the same picture that is at the top of this article, but as a 1" x 1" black and white postage stamp.

As I was about to leave work the next day, my cell phone rang, and again it was Jim Braly. Jim said that a reporter from ABC-7 news was trying to contact me. The Mercury has a policy forbidding them to give out contact information, but he gave me the reporter's number in case I would like to call back.

Of course I would call back! Television! I had never been on TV before, not even in a crowd shot or background. How exciting! I contemplated what it might mean and how it might go as I sat in commute traffic on my short drive home. Where would I be interviewed? What should I wear? And frankly, no one had ever wanted to put me on TV when I lived as a man. Now they wanted me, as a woman, albeit a transwoman. This felt very affirming of my femme identity.

When I got home I immediately returned the call. Stacey Hendler's answering machine picked up. What a let-down! I left a message and began to go about my business. Within 5 minutes the phone rang, and of course it was Stacey returning my call. She said she was doing a piece related to Gwen's murder and she would like to interview me if I was willing. She had read my editorial in the Mecury News, and thought that it would fit into her story well if I just repeated some of the points I had made in the article. I said I would be happy to be interviewed. Stacey said she needed to get it in the can tonight in order to make air the next evening, so could she see me tonight? Could she come to my house? When would I be available. I said I had just gotten home from work and was free all evening, and she was welcome at my house any time. Great! she said. Is it all right if I'm there in about 20 minutes? Okay I said, and that was that.

Oh my, 20 minutes! Barely enough time to freshen my mascara and lipstick. Forget about thinking of a change of clothes! Fortunately I had dressed fairly nicely that day, in an ivory Anne Taylor jacket over a blue cotton tank, with a long psychedelic-patterned rayon skirt. So I thought I would be alright. My hair was a little goofy with some little clips on the sides, but it would to. I didn't dare start fussing with it!

I was actually somewhat grateful that Stacey did not leave me any time for fuss and worry. Before I knew it, the ABC-7 News at Eleven van was parked beside my house and Stacey and her cameraman were walking through my front door. Stacey was a compact, pretty woman, brimming with self-confidence and poise. She was smartly dressed in a black blazer and slacks. Her short black hair was in a easily cared-for bob, and her make-up was sharp and obviously on-air ready. She greeted me warmly, thanked me for letting her interview me, and complimented me on my house. "Where should we set-up?" she asked, looking around. "We could use this living room, here at the dining table or there on the couch. What would you prefer?" I preferred the couch. I perched on the edge of a cushion, and Stacey asked the camera man to drag over one of the dining room chairs for her to use. She sat down on the chair and began chatting with me.. interviewing me I suppose, but it came across as just a comfortable chat. As we talked, the camera man set up a bright light and fiddled with his camera. We talked for about 30 minutes there on the couch in my living room. I never really did know when the camera was rolling and when it wasn't. Somewhat to my surprise, Stacey just continued a normal conversation with me. She never asked me restate something, or suggested any changes, or went back over any ground we had covered. When the filming stopped, I was still half-expecting the real interview to begin.

This is Stacey Hendler.

Stacey's very first question was to ask me what it had felt like growing up knowing I should have been a girl. This was a nice way to put me off balance (although I'm certain that was not her intent), since my editorial clearly stated that I did NOT grow up thinking I was a girl; I only came to that belief recently! I quickly realized that Stacey's job was NOT to understand my particulars, it was just to get the story. That was fine. My job was to get my story and my points of interest across if and when I could. I explained to Stacey that I grew up fairly normally, and she was fine with that, and explored things from there.

Besides that editorial and my various letters to the editor, I had done quite a bit of writing about transgender issues over the last year. A lot of it is on my web site, and Transgender Forum has kindly published some of my essays. I have also engaged in a lot of sometimes spirited (read "flaming") discussions on various on-line boards. As I was being interviewed by Stacey Hendler, I was struck by how different that was from any of my writing experience. One of the things I love about writing is that I can take time to compose and organize my thoughts, and review them, and edit them until I feel that they are as good as I can make them. Then I unleash them on the world. But this television stuff was certainly different! Here it was just 20 minutes after I first spoke with Ms. Hendler, and I was already being filmed. I had no time to think about answers, I just had to respond. If I said something idiotic, it was there on tape and I could only hope they would edit it out. My my, but I would depend on Stacey's good will and skill to make me look good on air! Oh, how easy it would be to make me look like a buffoon if the interviewer was hostile. Suddenly I had some sympathy for those buffoons I see caught by 60 Minutes' camera every week! I was glad of all that previous thinking, debating, and writing I had done, because I felt I was able to string together fairly sensible answers to Stacey's questions on the fly.

After about a half hour, Stacey decided they had enough in the can, and she cut filming. She had a couple of more requests for me, though. Did I have any photographs of myself as a child, or before transition, or with my family that she might use? Why certainly, let me see what I can find! I ran off do dig up some pictures for her, not for moment realizing that I could--and indeed might want to--refuse her request. As a result, you can see a still photo of me in guy mode in the television broadcast.

"What would you be doing right now if we weren't here?" Stacey asked me. "We'd like to get a shot of you doing something, to make for a more interesting visual."

"Uh, sitting on the couch with my feet up watching TV?" I stammered, and Stacey repeated it almost in unison. She gets that a lot.

"How about cooking or something like that?" she suggested.

"I could do that," I said. "Or, how about playing the piano?" I pointed at an electronic keyboard I keep handy on the dining room table for just such emergencies.

"Okay," Stacey said, "Let's try the piano."

I sat down at the keyboard and began to play a few simple arpeggios. I had a cute little song I had just written, I thank the goddess I'm a woman today, which I thought I would sing for the camera. But I had been sickly for the last few weeks, and hadn't touched the keyboard. My goodness, I had forgotten how my own simple song went! As my television interview opens, there is a shot of me playing the piano, and I have the spaciest look on my face. It looks as if I am so very concerned about poor Gwen's fate--but actually, I am simply trying hard to remember my song! I wound up remembering it, sort of, but in the wrong key! Something felt wrong about it, but I sang it for Stacey anyway. In the final cut they used two shots of me at the piano, but just tinkling the ivories, not singing--and I thank the goddess for that!

That was that, pretty much. Stacey thanked me again and disappeared with her camera man out of my life. Except that I got a quick phone call from her than evening. "Sorry to bother you, but I had one question I forgot to ask you. What was your name before, and do you mind if I use it in the piece?" Reluctantly, I told her, now realizing vaguely that I could simply deny her this information if I so chose. However I gave it to her, along with permission to use it if she thought she needed to. But I asked her to refrain if it wasn't really necessary. I wonder, did I give Stacey my name and my guy-mode picture because I was afraid I might not be on television if I withheld them? I'd like to think not. I'd like to think that I did it because I believed they could materially help make the story more appealing to the public (which I think they did), and hence do a better job of educating the public about transgender issues. I put a lot of trust in Stacey Hendler to do right by me and by our community. I believe she did not let us down.

I spent the evening and some of the next day and evening e-mailing and phoning everybody I knew to let them know I was going to be on television. I didn't do this because I was anxious for them to watch, but only because I knew that if I didn't, afterward they would all say, "Why didn't you tell me?" Yeah, right, that's why I did it.

I phone my mother in Carson City, Nevada and told her about it. My mother, please understand, has not been supportive of my transition. She still loves me, but she is concerned because this is not what Jesus wants for me, you see. But I decided this was too big of a deal to not share with her--even though I thought she would not be able to view the broadcast, being that it was a local news thing. It turns out they get the local Bay Area news in Carson City, and she did get to watch it. Anyway, she was predictably not very excited when I told her I was going to be interviewed on the news. Fumbling for words, I said something like, "Well I thought I would mention it in case any of your California friends happen to call you up and ask, 'Was that your daughter I saw on the news last night?'"

My Mom said, "Well, it's not exactly like we've told all our friends and relatives about you."

I said, "Why not? You should be proud of how well I'm doing."

"No," my mother told me, "I am not proud of you." This hurt me to hear it so explicitly put.

To wrap up the "Mom" part of the story--and I promise not to come back to it!--my mother's comments upon seeing the broadcast were simply that it was a sad thing and I needed to be vigilant for my safety. In regards to seeing me particularly, all she had to say was that it reminded her of Halloween seeing me looking like that.

Now, on to the broadcast! My commentary is in italics.

The segment was 3 minutes long, and I was on screen for 1 minute 10 seconds. If somebody can help me do a compression, I would put the actual video on line, but my file is currently 117 megabytes!

ABC-7 News at Eleven opened that evening with the Russians freeing the hostages from the Chechen rebels in that theatre. This was followed by coverage of Gwen Araujo's funeral, which had been held that afternoon. Then Dan Ashley threw to Stacey Hendler with this intro:

"..this terrible tragedy is for many an opportunity, a chance to create awareness, and perhaps genuine understanding of a lifestyle that many people simply don't understand. ABC-7's Stacey Hendler is live in Newark tonight. Stacey."

"Lifestyle"! Yuck! Bad word! But let's not overreact to every little wrong, as long as long as the piece is positive on balance..

Stacey Hendler was on site in front of the now vacant church, shivering in the cold and dark. She introduced her piece:

"Well Dan the fact that this church behind me was filled with hundreds of people many of whom didn't even know Eddie Araujo shows the tremendous concern not only of a senseless murder but also for a community that feels hatred and bigotry on a regular basis. Tonight I talk with two people who can relate to this young Newark teenager's life in a unique way."

"Eddie" not "Gwen". Error! But otherwise a nice start.

Cut to me playing some simple melancholy chords on the electric piano. Stacey's voice over:

"For Elaine Rose, playing the piano is therapy. It's helped her deal with a dramatic life-altering event: becoming a woman."

Well, I was a woman all along, I just started acting like one. But I do like the sound of it.

Cut to slightly blurry still shot of me in guy-mode. Clean-cut, short hair, nice smile, wearing a solid blue pullover sweater with a shirt collar showing.

"This is Elaine just a few years ago, when he was [boy name withheld by request!]"

Cut to close-in head shot of me being interviewed. Head bobs disturbingly, but thankfully that stops after a few seconds.

"I was being a very good man, and following the rules of how to be a good man, and doing everything I can to play that role to the hilt. But I was just very depressed, had a very cynical view of the world."

Cut to far shot showing all of me, lamp in the background, Stacey's shoulder in the foreground. Damn, I thought my Anne Taylor jacket was nice and tailored, but it looks kind of baggy here! Stacey's voice over:

"It was just about a year ago that Elaine figured out she was much happier living her life as a woman."

Yes, very well stated!

Back to close-in shot.

"When I live this way, I'm not fooling people into believing I'm a woman. I'm living the way I believe I actually am, and it doesn't matter what's down there [glances toward lap], that's not part of the equation."

"Equation" Jeez, nerd alert!

Cut to a cute young brunette girl striding proudly down a hallway. Stacey's voice over:

"Those were also the sentiments of 20 year old Christina Sans Rodriguez, who grew up as Christian, a boy.."

Stacey interviews the lovely Christina for a while. There is no way a casual viewer who was flipping channels would have clue that Christina was anything but all woman. Seeing me, probably something would strike them as unusual. This was a great visual demonstration of the power of starting hormones early, and why we need to support transsexuals as early as possible.

Christina's interview ends with some heart-felt comments about how closely she empathized with Gwen's horrible end. Back to Lannie:

"I've always very safe but now I'm going, 'Am I safe, or am I just lucky that I didn't run into the wrong group of boys?'"

"I'm going.." Very articulate, Lannie!

Cut to a long shot of me at the piano, then a close in shot of my hands on the keyboard, fingers shaking visibly. Stacey:

"Elaine feels a little less safe now, but she says it's an opportunity to help others understand."

My last sound-bite, looking extremely earnest:

"The only thing we can do is educate people so that [clears throat] there's not as many people who hate us and feel they need to react with violence against us."

Back to Stacey on location:

"And that's what many of these marches and vigils have been about, trying to educate people who may not understand and accept lifestyles different from their own. There are several such marches and vigils planned over the next couple of weeks. Reporting live in Newark, Stacey Hendler, ABC-7 News."

That's about it for my 15 minutes (1 minute 10 seconds, actually) of fame. I thought it was a well done piece, not perfect but nevertheless very positive for the transgender community. I was grateful that Stacey edited me down to a few choice sound bites that didn't make me look like a boob. I finally realized that it didn't matter much what I had said or wanted to get across. It was Stacey's story, and I was just raw material for her, much like the kidnapper cuts letters out of magazines to make up his ransom note. But Stacey had obviously listened to what I told her and learned from it, and she did incorporate messages that I wanted to get across into her story. I am grateful to her for her caring attitude.

I got three or four phone calls the next day from friends congratulating me. Also a few posts on some of the boards I participate in. They all told me they were proud of me and thought I did a great job and represented the transgender community well. I was glad to hear that they thought so, and I told everyone that it was Stacey Hendler's editing that made me look so good! Two of the women at work saw me and also complimented me.

I called up Stacey Hendler the next morning and thanked her for doing such a good job. She was happy to hear from me, and said I was the first person who commented on the story to her. I also related that I had received positive feedback from the transgender community, and she was glad to hear that.

The final coda to my television debut came several weeks later. I was at the Chanel cosmetics counter at Nordstrom, and a woman came up to me and said, "Didn't I see you on TV?" I was so surprised, and I told her indeed it was me. She gave me some sort of nice compliment, I forget what exactly. A few minutes later another lady did the same thing--but the first lady was standing right next to her, and it turned out they were sisters. So my fan club grows, sort of. One of the Chanel sales ladies had also seen me, and was saying some nice things to me about it. I thanked her and made a little joke. I had known this woman for several months, and she is well aware that I am a transwoman. So I joked, "I'm guess I'm happy that you saw me on television, except now you know my secret!"

"What secret?" she asked, looking me straight in the eye. "That you play the piano?" What a sweetheart--may the goddess bless her!

Lannie Rose

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