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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

After Dr. V: Transgender Is No Con

Francesca Bessey |
January 26, 2014 | 4:03 p.m. PST

Senior Opinion Editor

Dr. V's status as a trans woman was never Hannan's to disclose. (Francesca Bessey, Neon Tommy)
Dr. V's status as a trans woman was never Hannan's to disclose. (Francesca Bessey, Neon Tommy)
In memory of those lives lost in grappling with a world that does not grant them the freedom to be who they are.

Essay Anne Vanderbilt, the woman mythologized in a niche sports market for creating a “scientifically superior” golf club, was catapulted to a sick sort of fame last week, after she was posthumously outed as transgender in a feature that was supposed to be about golf.

Writer Caleb Hannan and his superiors at Grantland won similar infamy, now known largely on the internet as the insensitive d-bags who were ignorant enough to publish the piece in the first place. The fact that Vanderbilt, or “Dr. V” as she is referred to by Hannan, committed suicide in the midst of the reporting process made the article, which I read for the first time last weekend, particularly difficult to stomach.

There’s been a lot of talk about how Grantland’s mistake was largely ignorance, how they didn’t know enough about transgender persons to know how to be sensitive to the one whose story they stumbled upon. But there was another error committed here, and a grievous one. This was the decision that Dr. V’s status as a trans woman was Hannan’s to disclose, and that her wishes on the subject literally did not matter.

That was not just ignorance. That was, fundamentally, a failure to recognize that Dr. V’s trans identity was something that encompassed her entire person, that the protection of her identity and the protection of her person were one and the same, and that her transition was not a “con” as Hannan’s article seems to suggest. This failure ultimately relates back to a widely-held societal belief, rooted in discourses on how convincingly trans folks “play” their chosen gender, that the identity of a trans person is merely an image put forth, a performance to be debated, critiqued and even ridiculed in the public domain.

SEE ALSO: Dr. V: When Sports Narratives Go Wrong

When we come across an identity that is typically considered taboo, we often make the mistake of assuming we have the right to every last detail of the story behind it, whether the person wishes to share that story or not. I experienced this personally when I chose to come out publicly as a rape victim last spring. I shared my story for a very specific reason—to highlight the problem of sexual violence on college campuses and the pathetic lack of attention it receives from college administrators and society at large—and, as such, the account I gave of the incident itself was spare. But this did not stop reporters from bombarding me with requests for a moment-by-moment breakdown of my assault.

The answer was always: you don’t need to know. Rape is not a spectacle.

Neither is being trans. And Grantland made their first mistake when they determined Dr. V’s transition story was a matter of public interest.

Grantland editor Bill Simmons’ accurately stated that the website’s decision not to solicit any input from the trans community about whether or not to run the piece (and out Dr. V in the process) was an “indefensible mistake,” but what his 2,700-word apology fails to touch upon is the transphobic reasoning behind this error.

It’s kind of a given as a journalist that when you come across an issue you don’t know that much about, you research it. You consult experts about it. You do this to ensure the accuracy of your reporting and the credibility of your publication. From a journalist’s perspective, then, the first thing Hannan—or any of the “somewhere between 13 and 15” Grantland higher-ups who reviewed the piece—should have done once Dr. V’s gender identity became a focal point of the story was to Google “transgender.”

And the decision on whether or not to consult the trans community? Should have been a no-brainer.

But for Simmons and the other folks over at Grantland, the input of trans persons was never worth the trouble. What they thought they knew was enough.

SEE ALSO: Against Me!: 'Transgender Dysphoria Blues' Album Review

What they thought they knew was that trans is a performance and not an identity. That “Essay Anne Vanderbilt” was a means to an end, a fabrication better-suited to market a golf club than her “real” self. Hannan never bothered to make a distinction between Dr. V’s gender and her false credentials: to him, they were both lies.

But as anyone with an ounce of trans awareness will tell you, and as Christina Kahrl elucidates in the guest op-ed she published in Grantland Monday, a person’s gender identity is not some casual detail about their life you get to “expose.” As Kahrl states,

…trans folk get to determine for themselves what they’re willing to divulge about their sexuality and gender identity. As in, it’s not your business unless or until the person tells you it is, and if it’s not germane to your story, you can safely forgo using it.

Some would counter that the media has the right to air anything that would garner readership. That if they can find a way to learn about it, there’s no reason not to publish it.

But such a stance inherently implies that everyone is entitled to the most intimate details of everyone else’s lives, including the lives of those who hold this stance in the first place. It transforms confidentiality into a brutish predatory experiment, in which our privacy only goes as far as our own ability to protect it, and justifies all sorts of bizarre and horrible scenarios, from divulging the location of persons under witness protection to government surveillance of your sex life.

When we make the assertion that personal information is a free-for-all, we simultaneously deny that a right to privacy exists. And those whose privacy becomes unprotected as a result of this assertion include ourselves.

And that is why, while I find it both gross and unproductive that the backlash to Hannan’s piece included threats to release his own personal information at a time when he was also receiving threats of death, I understand such vitriol as a knee-jerk reaction to Grantland’s decision that the confidentiality of Dr. V’s greatest personal struggle—a struggle which encompassed a widely misunderstood identity transformation, depression, and ultimately, suicide—simply wasn’t important.

If the public has the right to Dr. V’s personal information, particularly a public that historically has been so hostile to people who are trans, it follows that people who might be hostile to Hannan should also have a right to his.

Neither of these conclusions is pleasant, and neither is true.  

But because we tend to look at trans people as facades rather than the people they actually are, one becomes true without the other. The decision to out a trans person, with all the negative consequences it brings, becomes a decision to expose a fraud.

SEE ALSO: Parents In Uproar Over Bill Regarding Transgender Students

We, to our great detriment, still live in a society where a trans identity is damning. And articles like Hannan’s that portray trans identities as a “con” only contribute to this perspective. But in the aftermath of such an article, society has done an interesting and heartening thing.

They’ve turned it into an opportunity. The incredible backlash, social media commentary and careful critiques of Grantland’s decision to run the piece have changed the face of trans awareness among journalists forever. No self-respecting publication will ever make this mistake again.

But this needn’t have been an opportunity someone had to die for. Just the same, a news outlet shouldn’t have to treat a person’s transition like the next Watergate for us to recognize there’s no scandal in seeking to be comfortable with yourself, nor taking the appropriate precautions to ensure such comfort is possible.

Caleb Hannan’s article was proof enough that we need to start taking stock in our everyday lives of the challenges trans people go through, and how these challenges are real—not just a consequence of an alter ego they’ve created for themselves in the interest of a con or a performance. Because transitioning is not a spectacle. Where Simmons’ apology really lost me in his when he said:

But even now, it’s hard for me to accept that Dr. V’s transgender status wasn’t part of this story. Caleb couldn’t find out anything about her pre-2001 background for a very specific reason. Let’s say we omitted that reason or wrote around it, then that reason emerged after we posted the piece. What then?

Grantland knew all along that Dr. V’s “mysterious” past and her gender identity were intrinsically linked. So did Dr. V; this is why she emphasized from day one that Hannan’s feature was to be about “the science and not the scientist,” and perhaps why she felt the need to fabricate credentials in the first place. Above all, she sought to ensure her identity was safe and she deserved—and needed—to have that desire respected. It wasn’t. And this is because nobody at Grantland treated her story with enough care to realize that it wasn’t a story at all; it was her life, and life is much too precious to be a writing exercise.


Reach Senior Opinion Editor Francesca Bessey here; follow her here.



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