Some stories are harder to tell than others.
For Cary Aspinwall of the Tulsa World, Exhibit A is the tale of a fearless 16-year-old named Katie Hill, an openly transgender teen from Bixby, Oklahoma. The audience is a group of politically conservative, evangelical Christian, gay-marriage-banning Oklahomans.
Aspinwall knew she had a tough crowd to please. She also knew the risks that came with publishing such a controversial piece.
"It always weighed very heavily on me that she's a 16-year-old girl, and to open her up to that kind of scrutiny was a big responsibility, and I always took that very seriously," Aspinwall says.
But Katie's powerful narrative was too important to keep hidden. Although Katie and her mother, Jazzlyn, worried about people egging their house, Aspinwall assured them that she didn't want to victimize her. "I know it's scary putting your lives in the paper, but I promise we will do your story justice," Aspinwall says she told the family.
The result? Pieces so riveting that they garnered a Freedom Forum/ASNE Award for Distinguished Writing on Diversity, and a shockingly positive response from the audience.
Cary Aspinwall(Handout Photo)
"The 'Becoming Katie' series painted a vivid portrait of a remarkable young woman. Transgender issues are still largely misunderstood, and Cary Aspinwall's compelling writing surely opened eyes―and hearts," says Ken Paulson, president of the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center. Paulson, finishing up his term as president of the American Society of News Editors, presented Aspinwall's award at ASNE's convention in early April.
Says Joe Worley, the World's executive editor, "I thought it was great journalism. It's a very interesting story that most papers would not necessarily want to get into."
Aspinwall, 32, stumbled upon the saga while working on another assignment about adults who were bullied as kids. One interviewee, Toby Jenkins, executive director of the advocacy group Oklahomans for Equality, told her, "I just have to tell you this other story that will break your heart."
When Aspinwall began writing the pieces, she wasn't sure what they would look like. "My editors were always supportive," she says, "but they were cautious about wanting to do it for news value and to make sure the story had a point and a purpose, and wasn't just for morbid curiosity or something."
The facts were these: Luke Hill was a healthy boy who grew up feeling like a girl trapped inside a boy's body. His mother prepared herself for the day her son would tell her he was gay. But at age 14, Luke came to his mom with a different word: transgender.
On that day, with the help of hormones and a mother's love, Katie Rain Hill was born.
Lifestyle changes and bullying were not easy for a teen to handle alone. But Jazzlyn worked with her child to give her the life she wanted. Her unwavering support was the key to transforming her depressed, suicidal son into her happy, thriving daughter. Seeing this, Aspinwall realized that this was a story about a mother-daughter relationship.
"We thought, if nothing else, the parents would be reading this thinking 'God, what would I do if this was my kid?' " says Aspinwall, a Colorado native who grew up all over the Southwest before settling in Tulsa.
The challenge for Aspinwall, a graduate of Oklahoma State University, was familiarizing readers with a foreign concept. Few people really know what it means to be transgender. If you want people to accept it, first you have to help them understand it.
"If you report well and write it well, and are as fair and honest as possible, people are smart enough to make up their own mind," Aspinwall says. "And they are entitled to have their own opinion."
But what would readers of the Tulsa World (circulation 105,000 weekdays, 137,000 Sunday) think?
The first part of Katie's story, focusing on her early life and her dramatic transition, was published on Saturday, May 7, 2011. Part two, on her current life, appeared the following day―Mother's Day. Both ran on the front page.
"I hoped [readers] would keep an open mind, but I never know what to expect," Aspinwall says. "Sunday A1 makes me incredibly nervous. I just know when you put something there, it's going to get a reaction, and I knew this one was going to get a reaction."
Anticipating an uproar, Aspinwall requested that for this story, the comment section on the World's Web site be frozen until the release of part two. This frustrated some readers, but it was important to Aspinwall that people read the whole story before reacting. "I wanted them to keep in mind that it was a 16-year-old girl they were commenting on," she says. "People always need at least a day to think these things through."
Day two brought hate mail, angry comments and religious literature.
One agitated reader "cannot believe that a female is born inside a male body. Male is male and female is female." Another calls it "a waste of time and ink as the vast majority of Oklahomans will not change, nor should they be made to feel bad if they don't want to change."
"Because Oklahoma is very traditional, we did take some flak for running it on Mother's Day," Aspinwall says. "There were people who thought that was offensive, which I don't agree with, because it was a story about a mom and her daughter."
But all that was to be expected with a piece like this. What surprised her was the overwhelming amount of positive reaction and the unexpectedly large group of supporters cheering on young Katie Hill.
Some readers formed an alliance against the intolerant few, calling out specific users for their close-mindedness in the story's comment forum. Many stuck up for Katie and the Tulsa World, commending her bravery and expressing their gratitude for the story.
"I am so proud of you for your strength despite where you live and how you had to grow up," one woman wrote. "You go girl," wrote another.
Among those who defended Katie was Katie herself. She decided to play an active role in the online debate, and, boy, did that silence the crowd.
"I did this article to give information, to let people know not to be afraid. In fact, negative comments help me, they help people become stronger, it may crash on their feelings and bring them down. But you know what? It's from pain that spawns courage and nobility," Katie wrote. "..without hate, and bias opinions I would not be who I am. This story would not have made front page, and the transgender community would not be succeeding in their fight."
In Aspinwall's eyes, they had hit a home run.
Sure, there was some negativity, but there always is. More important, it got people talking.
"I made them think about something," Aspinwall says. "They are free to agree or disagree, or like it or not like it, but if they are reading and talking about it with us, than that is better than no response."
Aspinwall says the feedback that "hit home" came from people who stopped her on the street saying they never thought they would comprehend the idea of transgender, but after reading the story, they get it.
"Knowing we can take risks and show people parts of the community they may not otherwise see or know about, we can help create understanding," says the Tulsa World reporter, who came back to the city she loves after a stint at the Arizona Republic.
Since the story's release, mothers of transgender children contacted Aspinwall to get in touch with Jazzlyn. Katie speaks out because she knows she has the opportunity to help others like herself, and the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender & Questioning) community has expressed its appreciation for bringing an unspoken issue to the forefront.
Stay tuned for a follow-up this May. Aspinwall plans to catch up with Katie at her high school graduation and move the story forward.