Law & Ethics

 “I’m a He, Not a Question Mark” Hook

Published: Oct, 2013. Verde, Vol. 15.1

About: The ethical challenge in writing a hook about a trans student’s gender identity evolution was to figure out how to get the reader inside this person’s head without making assumptions and to switch gender pronouns in a way the mirrored accurately the source’s gender identity transformation.


Editor’s Note: This story switches from using female pronouns to male pronouns for the main subject. The change is intentional.

Cameron was the girl with the unshaved legs and the close-cropped hair, the one who wore basketball shorts and played sports, who elicited the question: Is that a boy or a girl?

For much of her life, Cameron, now a Palo Alto High School student whose name has been changed for purposes of this story, struggled to answer this question, fending off unwelcome interrogation about her gender and her own feelings of ambivalence. At the heart of her conflict lay a division which arose between her inner self and her body. The majority of Cameron’s life has been one long passage, a search for acceptance, not only from others, but from herself.

She was adopted at two and brought to Palo Alto, never knowing her biological parents. In her new home, she was raised by a loving family with two older brothers who gave her boyish hand-me-downs to wear, complementing the dark hair she kept trimmed short. Cameron liked the look, a remnant from her days in the orphanage. Besides, short hair was easier for her to manage.

“People knew me as a tomboy, and someone who just met me would usually call me a ‘he,’ but my friends would correct them,” Cameron says. “I would always sigh to myself because I wanted to be known as a ‘he.’ I had this voice in the back of my head whispering ‘he’ whenever someone would call me a ‘she.’”

Then came middle school, a turbulent period. It was in the forced intimacy of the girl’s locker room that her path came to a crossroads.

“It was like my whole life came down this decision, where I had to decide whether I wanted to change in the girl’s bathroom or not,” Cameron says. “Was I a boy or a girl? I wasn’t really sure, so I didn’t change [for P.E.].”

Cameron always felt like her body was a nuisance, an incessant reminder that despite all her attempts to alter her appearance, she was still a girl, at least physically; wearing boy’s clothes and binding her breasts could not change that. The very act of undressing in front of others would be exposing the feminine body which she sought desperately to ignore.

“It felt wrong,” Cameron says. “It was a new school and I didn’t want people to see me and ask questions. I didn’t want people to know [I was a girl].”

Cameron started with her sixth grade counselor, but was hesitant to reveal her confusions about  her gender identity until a month of board games and small talk had passed. Finally, she confessed that she felt uncomfortable changing in the girl’s locker room. From then on, Cameron began meeting with an Adolescent Counseling Services counselor, who helped her deal with the complicated issues regarding her gender and to form a long-term plan of action. The meetings allowed Cameron to become aware of the underlying intuitions she had always felt about her gender and enabled her to ultimately embrace the masculine pronoun she always identified with: He.

He. His. Him. The words felt natural, authentic and genuine, at last providing the tangible sense of recognition that had evaded Cameron for years. Now, having fully accepted his male identity, he faced the arduous process of reshaping the way others perceived his gender in light of his physical sex being female.

“I was finding out who I was and people were finding out what my new identity was,” says Cameron, who says  that many of his peers did not comprehend the seriousness of his desire to change his physical appearance to match his gender.

“People would say, ‘So you want to be a guy?’ And they just don’t get that I am. To me, it’s like a slap in the face,” Cameron says. “Sometimes I wish nobody knew. But people do know, so I just have to deal with it. I just wish people knew to call me a guy.”

His parents thought it was a phase, a product of teenage angst  and confusion, an attempt at self-expression which would fade away, like acne or hormones or any other unsavory aspect of adolescence.

Soon, their denial gave way to a belief that they were at fault.

“My parents thought they messed up and caused me to be transgender,” Cameron says, referring to the short hair and boy’s clothing.  “But I think I was this way from the start.”

Even though he has officially changed his gender, Cameron still feels in transition.

“It’s hard to accept the fact that I’m transgender,” Cameron says. “I feel I like shouldn’t have to say it. I’ll be thinking I’m a guy and then something will happen and I’ll remember that I’m transgender, it’s like a reality check.”

“Cannabis Controversy” Hook

Published: Nov., 2013. Verde, Vol. 15.2

About: While writing a story on medical marijuana, I witnessed a mother commit a felony act by selling medical marijuana to her daughter’s friend, a minor. I made them anonymous (but told one editor their identities, in accordance with SPLC guidelines) and got their consent before publishing.


Emma enters her daughter’s room holding two sandwich bags, each bearing five grams of marijuana in dime-sized green buds. She hands one bag to her daughter, Liz, a former Palo Alto high school student whose name has been changed along with others in this story to protect her identity. The other goes to Liz’s friend Pete.

“This is strong stuff, so you guys need to be conservative,” Emma says.

Pete considers his share skeptically and asks for a little more. Emma gives him a sharp look, putting one finger over her lips.

“The neighbors,” she whispers. “Besides, you gave me $60 and this is what you’re getting.”

Liz rolls her eyes, and Pete sniffs a handful of his marijuana before placing it in his backpack.

“Careful,” Emma says. “Your mom isn’t going to smell it on you, or anything?”

Peter shakes his head and walks outside.

Emma takes a pinch of marijuana out of Liz’s bag, placing it on the table. After a moment’s hesitation, she puts another pinch down.

“Thanks Mom,” Liz says, “That’s all you need,” Emma says, and exits the room, taking Liz’s bag.

Liz places the marijuana in her pipe and lights up, breathing in deeply and exhaling a stream of smoke.

Though she is still a minor, Liz relies on marijuana for holistic medication, which helps her combat stress, depression and a sleeping disorder. In the past, Liz often bought off the street illegally. Since then, her mother convinced a doctor to provide her with a medical card for stress and sleep deprivation. With it, Emma is able to illegally supply her daughter with legally bought marijuana.

She is also able to fuel the habit of Pete, an underage marijuana user.

In the two bags of weed lies the dilemma inherent to medical marijuana: How can marijuana be channeled to people like Liz, who have genuine health problems, without being open to abuse from those like Pete, who use  it purely for recreation?

 Sext and the Student

Published: May, 2014. Verde, Vol. 15.5

About: I assigned writers to investigate our school’s underground sexting culture, which led to multiple ethical issues, such as that all student sources had engaged in sexting and were therefore anonymous. I helped shape the story so that it contained both credible evidence/expert opinion in addition to the student sources.

Sext1 Sext2


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