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Caleb Hannan's sensationalistic story in the sports blog Grantland entitled "Dr. V's Magical Putter" has raised serious journalistic questions about the representation of transgender people, and, more particularly, about the ethics of outing a person who has transitioned from one gender to another.
Hannan's story originated in his curiosity about a golf club that allegedly utilized the advanced scientific knowledge of its inventor, a tall, red-haired woman known as Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt. In the process of investigating the golf club and its inventor, Hannan discovered that "Dr. V" had lied about almost everything she told him. Not only had Dr. V not attended M.I.T. or the University of Pennsylvania as she claimed, but she also had not worked in the defense industry. Instead, Hannan discovered, Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt had worked as a mechanic, had been married to a woman, and "was born a boy."
When Hannan confronted Dr. V about his discoveries in an email, the inventor became angry, tried to get him to sign a nondisclosure agreement, and wrote him a note saying that "his deportment is reminiscent to schoolyard bullies." Not long after that, Hannan learned that Dr. V had committed suicide.
Some readers have praised Hannan for having exposed a con artist and told a compelling story, but others have severely criticized him for outing a trans woman and have even alleged that the reporter hounded Dr. V to death.
As Josh Levin observes in Slate, "Dr. V was a con artist and a trans woman. Hannan conflates those two facts, as if they both represent a form of deceit." He criticizes the story for its lack of empathy, its sensationalistic presentation of its subject's transition, and for its lack of curiosity about her suicide.
The frenzied reaction to the story in the blogosphere led Bill Simmons, Grantland's editor-in-chief, to reflect on how the story came to be published in "A Letter from the Editor," which apologizes for "one massive mistake."
That mistake, Simmons writes, is this: "Someone familiar with the transgender community should have read [Hannan's] final draft. This never occurred to us. Nobody ever brought it up. Had we asked someone, they probably would have told us the following things . . . ."
Simmons then details some of the things that a transgender reader might have noted, including the disproportionately high suicide rate in the transgender community; the ethics of outing; several pronoun errors in referring to Dr. V; the sensationalistic way in which Dr. V's birth gender is revlealed; and the failure to consider how Hannan's reporting may have affected Dr. V and her decision to take her life.
Simmons concludes his "Letter" by saying, "To my infinite regret, we never asked anyone knowledgeable enough about transgender issues to help us either (a) improve the piece, or (b) realize that we shouldn't run it. That's our mistake--and really, my mistake, since it's my site. So I want to apologize. I failed."
Grantland has also published a guest editorial entitled "What Grantland Got Wrong" by Christina Kahrl, a transgender sportswriter who covers baseball for ESPN.com and who serves on the board of GLAAD.
Kahrl states unequivocally that Hannan should not have outed Dr. V in the first place. But having gone there, she continues, he had a responsibility to inform readers about transgender issues, including "the desperate lives that most transgender Americans lead."
Kahrl points out that Dr. V. was "a transgender woman in deep stealth, a term that means she did not want to be identified as transgender publicly, and probably not on any level personally. Stealth is tough to maintain, and generally involves trading one closet for another: You may be acting on your sense of self to finally achieve happiness, but the specter of potential discovery is still with you. And if you wind up in the public eye for any reason, stealth might be that much more difficult to maintain."
Describing "stealth" as an unhappy legacy of an earlier age, when psychiatrists recommended that people in transition leave their hometowns to begin life anew as someone else in their new gender, Kahrl notes that the resultant isolation is often very damaging.
Kahrl concludes her editorial by noting that Hannan failed to seize an opportunity to educate his readers. "We're talking about a piece aimed at golf readers. So we're talking about a mostly white, mostly older, mostly male audience that wound up reading a story that reinforced several negative stereotypes about trans people. For an audience that doesn't usually know and may never know anyone who's trans and may get few opportunities to ever learn any differently, that's confirmation bias of the worst sort."
The controversy sparked by the story may, however, lead to the very kind of education that Kahrl says is so needed. Simmons, at any rate, seems determined to learn from his "massive mistake."
The video below features the "magical putter" invented by Essay Anne Vanderbilt.