Sex and gender journalists ask our sources to bare highly personal details that others find painful to discuss even in private. Our subjects are not compensated when they tell us their stories. Instead, comments sections around the Web compile the most heinous reactions to their private lives, written by the world’s foremost anonymous bigots. Our story fades from the news, but it continues to hover over their Google search results, possibly forever. Their friends are free to constantly rewrite their online personalities with a new Facebook status update, but our subjects’ life stories are crystalized at a moment in time — and in someone else’s words. The reporter who lent them a sympathetic ear has shifted her focus to the next piece.
I’ve been that reporter, the one encouraging a source to sign up for all of the above. Sometimes — when a stranger emails me to thank me for a years-old piece I wrote on sexual assault, or a bewildered colleague asks me for a primer on what “transgender” means — I get the sense that my work is contributing, however modestly, to a broader social shift. But I’ve also watched as my reporting has shaken the private lives of my subjects.