Is It OK for a Journalist to Reveal the Birth Gender of a Trans Person?
Grantland columnist Caleb Hannan outed the creator of a new golf putter who happened to be transgender. That revelation led her to commit suicide, and is yet another example of people being unwilling to respect the privacy of the trans community.
Here begins a mysterious tale, a remarkable turn of events filled with superstition and dark discoveries, quirks and confusion, lies and past lives. Yeah, that's the X-Files theme tune you can hear. At the center of the plot lives a mysterious character, the mad scientist known only as Dr. V, owner of a magical putter, genius-yet-difficult mind and decidedly questionable past. As we delve deeper into this exotic tale, we shall discover, well... how can I put it? Discrepancies. Things that cannot be explained. Revelations. This story, you see, is very, very strange. And then it becomes stranger still. And then, the deeper we delve, the stranger it becomes...
If you would like to read that story you could head over to Grantland.com and check out Caleb Hannan's 8,000-or-so word essay on his oh-so fascinating investigations into the mysterious Dr V. Or if, like me, you'd rather spend that time getting drunk, or fucking, or watching Breaking Bad, you could get all the facts simply by reading my next three sentences. A transgender woman known as Dr. V invented a new type of golf club and lied about her academic qualifications. A journalist called Caleb Hannan threated to publish details about these professional lies and also out her as transgender against her will. A few days later she killed herself.
Don't hate Caleb. He has, up until now, been totally outdone by his older brother, Freddie Jones. Freddie and his pals Daphne, Velma, and Scooby have solved various mysterious over the years—while Caleb remained in the background, silently pining for glory. You can totally see why he would jump at the chance to make a name for himself with the "Mysterious Case of Dr. V's Magical Putter." Sadly, subtlety is not Caleb's strong point (nor mine, truth told) and he insists on telling his readers, at every opportunity, how very strange his story is. He kinda reminds me of that time my grandma tried a spliff. "Everything is so strange!" Whatever his literary pretentions, the effect is less Sherlock Holmes and more Tales from the Crypt. We need to cut out a great deal of bullshit to get to the bottom of it all. Let's start at the beginning.
Caleb, for unexplained and mysterious reasons, simply can't sleep, and is up watching videos on YouTube. The clock has struck midnight; the witching hour, you might say. Who knows what might happen? He finds out that someone has invented a new type of golf club. As a journalist, curious Caleb wants to know more. It turns out the woman behind this new putter, Dr V, hates media attention. She replies to his email using fancy language and a few words he doesn't know. "No harm in that," says Caleb. She's clearly just one of those mad scientists. If anything, it's to be expected. Dr. V makes clear from the start that she will only talk to Caleb if the focus is "on the science and not the scientist." "That's reasonable," says Caleb. Still, this Dr. V does strange shit like signing off emails with 'ciao' and using acronyms Caleb has never heard. So he decides to dig deeper and discover the secrets that have, up until now, remained shrouded in mystery. Cue spooky Scooby Doo music.
Caleb speaks to one of Dr. V's colleagues, McCord. He agrees to introduce Caleb to Dr. V, but reminds him that the focus must be on the science and not the scientist. Even though McCord himself is irresistibly intrigued by her.
"It wasn't just the science behind Dr. V's putter that intrigued McCord. It was the scientist, too. For starters, she was a woman in the male-dominated golf industry. She also cut a striking figure, standing 6-foot-3 with a shock of red hair. What's more, she was a Vanderbilt, some link in the long line descending from Cornelius, the original Commodore."
I know, right? It's like an episode of Eerie, Indiana. She's tall! And that hair! Red! When have you ever met someone like that?!
Caleb then writes some mildly interesting stuff—nothing as exhilarating as meeting a tall woman with red hair, mind—about how if you tell people they are playing with superior equipment they actually play better. Regardless of the actual equipment. He also tries the putter and thinks it's kinda groovy. It all seems like valid stuff to be thinking about if you're writing an article on golf putters. But then Caleb finds some of Dr. V's business decisions confusing and decides to ask her about her personal life. Because that's logical. And has everything to do with golf putters. Dr. V reacts badly and reminds him to focus "on the benefits of the science for the golfer, not the scientist." What a weirdo!
Caleb keeps digging. Just what is Dr. V hiding? What mystery does she hold? It certainly looks like she's lied about her resume. She's clearly the first person in America to do this so Caleb decides to make it the main focus of his investigation. He also finds someone else who's been digging up information on her.
"He was clearly trying to tell me something, which is why he began emphasizing certain words. Every time he said 'she' or 'her," I could practically see him making air quotes. Finally it hit me. Cliché or not, a chill actually ran up my spine."
"Are you trying to tell me that Essay Anne Vanderbilt was once a man?"
A-ha, the Scooby Doo moment! Take off that mask "Dr. V"! The spine-tingling truth is revealed!
What I find most interesting is his informer's refusal to confirm that Dr. V is trans. "I cannot confirm or deny anything on that... But let me ask you a question. How far have you looked into her background?" I didn't realize people spoke like that outside of Hitchcock movies, but then I'm only just discovering what an incredibly strange world we live in. There's something more than a little absurd about this asshole telling Caleb, "There's something you should know" before adding "but it's too terrible for me to confirm," like it's some unspeakable truth. You know, that transgender people exist. He could have just said, "It's not really my place to say, but I think Dr. V could be trans. That might explain why you're having trouble finding her records." But why put it like that when you could be make a big fucking deal out of it instead?
But back to our magical tale. Strangely, Caleb's other interviewees don't seem to care that Dr. V is trans. As he puts it, "the more I talked to people in the world of club design, the more I came to understand that many believed the physics behind the Oracle putter were solid, even if the 'scientist' was not." Maybe they were, um, focusing on the science and not the scientist? Maybe they saw she had value beyond her gender? As Caleb also writes, "Champions Tour player David Frost had once received an hour-long putting lesson from Dr. V... the information Dr. V had imparted to him was so valuable, Frost told me, that he wasn't even willing to share it."
That's what really pisses me off about his shitty Grantland article, and the editors and journalists who defend it. There are so many talented people out there, with so much to contribute to society—be they musical or medical skills, or some boring old shit about golf clubs—who are terrified of succeeding, for fear the media will harass them simply for being transgender. More and more young trans people are living their lives openly, but Dr V grew up in an era when there simply wasn't a positive way for a transgender person to appear in the news. It was always shit. And, as Caleb has quite spectacularly demonstrated, things haven't moved on that much. Look at schoolteacher Lucy Meadows, who killed herself following months of unwanted press intrusion in the UK. Or Dr. Kate Stone, who was outed by British newspapers after she nearly died in a stag attack. A stag attack! What the fuck has that got to do with being transgender? Sorry for all the British references, I'm an English rose you see. And we actually have laws in the UK that make it illegal to out a trans person without their consent or reference someone's transgender status unless it is genuinely relevant to the news story. It rarely is, but British newspapers still regularly invade people's freedom to privacy.
American journalists have their own code of conduct, but Caleb doesn't waste too much time worrying about that. He's got more important matters to deal with. As everyone knows, when you find out that someone is transgender and wishes to keep that information private, you go tell everyone. He doesn't quite get the response he wants though. "Maybe the most surprising thing about my conversation with Kinney was how calmly he took the news that the woman he thought was an aerospace engineer had once been a man, and a mechanic." I can just see the confusion on Caleb's face, the disappointment when he realizes that Kinney just isn't that bothered. I picture him running around shouting, "Kinney look, it's a transgender person! She exists! Be shocked with me!" He seems to totally miss the irony when he writes, "Kinney said he was worried that the putter's excellence would be lost in the strange tale of Dr. V."
After this, Caleb contacts Dr. V and tells her he's going to publish his discoveries. She reacts badly. She shouts. She threatens legal action. It seems, as she's been saying all along, that she'd rather her private life remained private. Caleb can't accept that though! Things have changed. He didn't know she "used to be a man" when he first agreed to respect her privacy, did he? A few days later Dr. V emails Caleb warning him he's about to commit a hate crime. And, a few days after that, she kills herself.
Caleb goes ahead and publishes his story on Grantland. He tells us "everything he knows," which is definitely not the same thing as "everything that's relevant." He refers to Dr V as "he" and publishes her old name. He discusses her life before she transitioned to female. He tells us she was married. And that she'd tried to kill herself once before, a few years previously. Never mind that she was clearly vulnerable, it was all just another fantastic twist in the plot for Caleb. "What began as a story about a brilliant woman with a new invention had turned into the tale of a troubled man who had invented a new life for himself." And never mind that faking her scientific credentials had nothing to do with being transgender. Caleb, who has been found guilty of sloppy journalism before, was simply recycling a media narrative that casts trans people as liars and fakes. Many trans people have been killed because of this idea and it's also the reason their killers expect to be let off the hook. Look up "trans panic defense." That's when you kill someone because you happened to find them attractive and felt tricked when they told you they were trans. Yeah, it's a thing.
I tried to contact Caleb last night but he didn't respond to my tweets or my emails. He chatted to a journalist buddy of mine yesterday, but it was strictly off the record. On Twitter he says he is "overwhelmed" by the negative responses he's had—just check out the thousands of angry tweets using the hashtag #JusticeForDrV. Many people are calling him a murderer. I don't think we can simplify suicide like that though. There could be any number of reasons Dr. V killed herself and there are lots of unanswered questions. What the hell, for example, has someone's genital status got to do with their ability to design a golf club? But that doesn't change the fact that, like many transgender people, Dr. V was clearly vulnerable, and she didn't deserve to be outed against her will. I could give you some stats that show transgender people are way more likely to experience discrimination, mental health issues, and a desire to kill themselves, or you can just take my word for it. Maybe Caleb will write about these issues one day. For now though he doesn't want to talk to reporters. He values his privacy. Mysteriously, strangely, oddly, he just wants to be left alone.