Rating: (4 out of 5) Saturday, 10/17/2009, 5:00 PM Feature presentation, $10 at Goethe Institut Inter Nationes
ON ITS SURFACE, Her Name Was Steven is the story of Susan Stanton’s gender transition. Look below the surface, however, and there’s something of an unintended indictment of modern journalism.
In 2007, Lorri Helfand, a reporter for the St. Petersburg Times, a daily newspaper revered for its high journalistic standards, got a tip that Largo, Fla., City Manger Steve Stanton would be making an announcement at some point in the near future, advising all that she would be transitioning to female. The timing of Stanton’s announcement was tied to family concerns affecting her wife and adolescent son. Whatever schedule the Stantons were hoping to follow, Helfand’s offer was simple: Her newspaper would be running a story about Stanton’s gender identity. She could cooperate, or not.
”I was definitely outed,” Stanton says in this CNN-produced documentary. Regardless of the role the Times played in Stanton’s public declaration that she would be transitioning, once the story was out, Stanton seems not to have shied away from the spotlight. Be that ego or naivete, it’s hard to tell.
For example, Stanton appears in a scene with her son, who has handed her a supportive card. She reads it and begins to cry. She gestures for the filming to end, but the cameras keep rolling till she’s left the room. Later, alone, Stanton admits in a “video diary” her fear that she has allowed her son to be used as an emotional prop in telling her story. She’s probably right. But who’s more at fault, Stanton or the CNN editor?
Those somewhat esoteric concerns aside, the CNN team does a professionally precise job of documenting Stanton’s identity, the reaction of the GLBT community to Stanton’s sudden — and brief — stature as a transgender spokesperson, and the effect of her transition on her family. The debate in Largo was captured to a large degree, including Equality Florida Executive Director Nadine Smith’s testimony before the city commission.
Obviously, Her Name Was Steven is intended for a mainstream audience in that Smith’s subsequent tackling and arrest by police at the commission meeting didn’t make it into this telling of the story. For a GLBT audience, that may seem a shortcoming, though it might serve as a distraction in telling Stanton’s story to a larger audience.
Polished and sharp, Her Name Was Steven will help bring one transgender woman’s story to a greater audience. Whether Stanton is the woman the community would’ve chosen is debatable. She may not speak for a community anymore, but Her Name doesn’t serve to make her a spokesperson — just a person.
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