When you’re a writer, you want something you create to have a long life, to be something that readers will remember and revisit for years to come. If such was Caleb Hannan’s wish, it’s been granted, because his essay on “Dr. V and the magical putter” figures to be a permanent exhibit of what not to do, and how not to treat a fellow human being.
Hannan’s job might have seemed fairly straightforward. There’s a cool new tool with a padded sales pitch — does it really work? He could dig into its virtues on the golf course and look at the validity of Essay Anne Vanderbilt’s claims on behalf of her product, and as a matter of basic homework verify her claims of expertise in inventing it. And he did a good chunk of that checklist, effectively debunking her elaborate claims of expertise with an ease almost anyone in the electronic age has within his or her power. He struggled with the question of whether or not she’d actually designed a great putter; if you’re a golfer, that might have been what you wanted to know. It certainly would have been the extent of what you needed to know.
Unfortunately, that isn’t where Hannan stopped. Instead of fulfilling his mission in its entirety, he lurched into something that had nothing to do with his story, but that he was excited to share, repeatedly: Vanderbilt was a transsexual woman.
By any professional or ethical standard, that wasn’t merely irrelevant to the story, it wasn’t his information to share. Like gays or lesbians — or anyone else, for that matter — 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. Unfortunately, he indulged his discovery. The story’s problems include screw-ups you might expect for a writer or editors who aren’t familiar with this kind of subject matter — misgendering and ambiguous pronoun usage upon making his needless discovery of Vanderbilt’s past identity.
But we’re not here because Hannan and his editors blew a pronoun and that’s rude and we have some very thoughtful style guides from GLAAD and the Associated Press to recommend that deserve your perusal to avoid this kind of mistake in the future.
We’re here because Essay Anne Vanderbilt is dead.
And she’s dead because — however loath she was to admit it — she was a member of a community for whom tragedy and loss are as regular as the sunrise, a minority for whom suicide attempts outpace the national average almost 26 times over, perhaps as high as 41 percent of all trans people. And because one of her responses to the fear of being outed as a transsexual woman to some of the people in her life — when it wasn’t even clear the story was ever going to run — was to immediately start talking and thinking about attempting suicide. Again.
It was not Grantland’s job to out Essay Anne Vanderbilt, but it was done, carelessly. Not simply with the story’s posthumous publication; that kind of casual cruelty is weekly fare visited upon transgender murder victims in newspapers across the country. No, what Hannan apparently did was worse: Upon making the unavoidable discovery that Vanderbilt’s background didn’t stand up to scrutiny, he didn’t reassure her that her gender identity wasn’t germane to the broader problems he’d uncovered with her story. Rather, he provided this tidbit to one of the investors in her company in a gratuitous “gotcha” moment that reflects how little thought he’d given the matter. Maybe it was relevant for him to inform the investor that she wasn’t a physicist and probably didn’t work on the stealth bomber and probably also wasn’t a Vanderbilt cut from the same cloth as the original Commodore. But revealing her gender identity was ultimately as dangerous as it was thoughtless.
What should Grantland have done instead? It really should have simply stuck with debunking those claims to education and professional expertise relevant to the putter itself, dropped the element of her gender identity if she didn’t want that to be public information — as she very clearly did not — and left it at that. “That would have been responsible,” transgender activist Antonia Elle d’Orsay suggested when I asked for her thoughts on this road not taken. It’s certainly the path I would have chosen as a writer making this sort of accidental discovery, or would have insisted upon as an editor.
But because the site did go there, we have a problem, one that goes well beyond putters and overly contrived sales pitches. Because of this screw-up, we owe it to the ruin wrought in its wake to talk about the desperate lives that most transgender Americans lead and the adaptive strategies they have to come up with while trying to deal with the massive rates of under- and unemployment from which the trans community generally suffers. And we owe it to Essay Anne to understand how an attempt to escape those things became its own kind of trap, one Grantland had neither the right nor the responsibility to spring.
Let’s start off with acknowledging that, while I did not know her personally, apparently Essay Anne 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.
As an adaptive strategy to cope with being transgender, stealth is something of an unhappy legacy of an earlier age. It was often the recommended goal for trans folks from the ’60s well into the ’90s from a psychiatric community that was doing little better than winging it, and that poorly served a (now) older generation of the generally white trans women who could afford psychiatric help. So, at the same time the outbreak of AIDS was killing off so many of the nascent trans community’s much-needed leaders — including some of those who instigated the Stonewall riots and launched the LGBT rights movement in this country — another segment was being screwed by professional advice to cut themselves off from their families, their jobs, and their hometowns to begin life anew as someone else in their new gender. In stealth. Without the support network they’d spent their lives with. As if being trans weren’t hard enough, therapy’s best solution was to tell you to isolate yourself.
Which is nuts, but let’s be generous and accept that psychiatric care for trans folks was and remains a developing field, where the science is still trailing the authenticity of the lives that trans folks of every stripe are forced to lead. As a Z-list public figure as a columnist at Baseball Prospectus when I came out 11 years ago, I dispensed with the entire notion of stealth as ludicrous — I wanted to keep my career, family, and friends, and I felt (and still feel) no stigma as a result of the benefit of being born trans. If this is the hand I’ve been dealt, my job is to cope and make it work. I’m trans — so what? I certainly wasn’t going to detach myself from a past I had enjoyed as best I could, so figuring out how to integrate my past as Chris with my future as Christina was the centerpiece of my adaptive strategy.
But that’s the thing: When you’re trans, you learn that while there’s no one right way to transition into your new life, there are also plenty of wrong ways. One of the difficulties that Essay Anne had imposed on herself is that, while trying to live a life in total stealth, she was also a hostage to the impossible and implausible collection of lies she’d created to promote her invention, inevitably risking discovery in an era when a cursory investigation can invalidate claims about something like a doctorate.
Which does not get Grantland off the hook for blundering into outing her. A responsibility to the truth should have limited itself to what was relevant. If it had, would that have generated a happy ending? No, so let’s not kid ourselves. Shredding Vanderbilt’s claims of expertise by publication alone almost certainly wouldn’t have left her in good shape with her investors or consumers. She risked that by conjuring up an apparently bogus set of credentials to reinforce her claims for her putter, claims that were unavoidably part of the story because she’d made them in the first place. There’s no getting around that.
Hers is not the only story without a guaranteed happy ending where trans folks are concerned. For as much progress as seems to have been made, it has been a mixed bag of gains and setbacks. In sports, Bobbi Lancaster should get a shot to join the LPGA tour in 2014, but MMA fighter Fallon Fox has to compete in front of some of the most ferociously hateful audiences in any sport. In entertainment, we can revel in Laverne Cox’s breakthrough performance on Orange Is the New Black, but we also have to sit through watching Jared Leto make an unsympathetic ass of himself while taking bows for his caricature of a trans woman in Dallas Buyers Club.
But as high-profile as trans people within the sports and entertainment industries might be, most trans folks are coping with much more desperate real-world concerns. While some of you are fidgeting over the Affordable Care Act’s benefits, in 45 of 50 states trans folks have to deal with the fact that the law doesn’t explicitly cover their health care needs, forcing us to pursue legal remedies. We can be happy that CeCe McDonald, a trans woman whose only crime was defending herself from a bigot’s assault, was released from prison last week after 19 months in jail; at the same time we have to live with knowing that Islan Nettles was beaten to death for being trans in New York City — in front of a police station, in front of multiple witnesses — and there has not been and may never be any justice done in her name. They’re just the names that achieved mainstream recognition, but behind CeCe and Islan are thousands of trans people ill served by our public institutions, by our public servants, and by more than a few of our fellow Americans.
Which leaves me deeply frustrated. First off because, even though we’re separated by layers of company hierarchy, if I had known this story was in the pipeline, my first instinct is that I’d want to help Bill Simmons and his team get the job done right. Even if I really would rather be talking about baseball — my day job, my dream job, my job-job as part of ESPN.com’s editorial and writing team for MLB — if I can help my colleagues and simultaneously make sure that the trans people who come up in their coverage get a fair shake, I welcome that opportunity.
But I’m also angry because of the more fundamental problem that this story perpetuates. 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. I may not have made you care about people like CeCe McDonald or Islan Nettles or even Essay Anne Vanderbilt here, but better to fail in the attempt than to reinforce ignorance and contempt bred through the thoughtless trivialization of their lives and challenges.