Op-ed: The Deadly Effects of Outing

When Grantland's Caleb Hannan outed transgender scientist Essay Anne Vanderbilt, his reporting dehumanized her. She eventually committed suicide.

BY Parker Marie Molloy

January 24 2014 6:00 AM ET

Last week sports outlet Grantland published a story titled “Dr. V’s Magical Putter.” The piece, a lengthy bit of investigative journalism by Caleb Hannan, describes the rise and fall of “Dr. V,” a somewhat reclusive transgender inventor who took her own life late last year.

Since it was published, I’ve spoken to Caleb Hannan on the phone twice, though he declined to provide any quotes or a statement for this piece on the record.

The Story
Hannan’s stated goal was to uncover the history of the Oracle GX1 putter, a “scientifically superior” club with big-name supporters like professional golf announcer Gary McCord. In doing so, he reached out to Essay Anne Vanderbilt, the physicist behind the club’s revolutionary design. Vanderbilt’s résumé included a number of impressive professional feats — including work on “top-secret government projects” — though Hannan's reporting ultimately called many of these into question.

Vanderbilt agreed to participate in Hannan’s reporting under the condition that Hannan make his piece “about the science and not the scientist.” Hannan agreed, though he would ultimately abandon that stipulation in a series of ethically questionable decisions that ceased only with the death of his reclusive subject.

Hannan began his research innocently enough. He explored the physics involved in the club’s design, he personally tested the putter, and he spoke with those familiar with the backstory on the club’s rise to popularity. But then he did the one thing he had promised to avoid: He dug into Vanderbilt’s personal background.

Interested in including some aspects of Vanderbilt’s résumé in his piece, Hannan began contacting past employers, struggling to verify certain accomplishments she listed. His efforts to vet line items on Vanderbilt's résumé proved futile. But this alone was a violation of the agreement the reporter had made with Vanderbilt to focus on the science, not the scientist.

Hannan went on to describe his frustration with Vanderbilt’s insistence on personal privacy in his eventual article. “Finally, I asked if she could help me confirm a few facts about her past life,” Hannan writes. “When I heard back, the patient woman I had spoken to on the phone had been replaced by an angry, mocking scientist. She wrote: ‘As I clearly stated at the onset of your unsolicited probing, your focus must be on the benefits of the science for the golfer, not the scientist. However, at this juncture, you are in reversal of your word.’”

In asking for information unrelated to the putter’s design, Hannan violated the agreement he'd made with the club’s inventor. But he responded to Vanderbilt's frustration with an equally obtuse — and unsubstantiated — justification. 

“Dr. V’s initial requests for privacy had seemed reasonable,” Hannan writes. “Now, however, they felt like an attempt to stop me from writing about her or the company she’d founded.” Hannan appears oblivious to the fact that he had agreed to those “reasonable” requests for privacy and that his subsequent actions were in direct contradiction to that agreement.

To keep his word, Hannan had three options:

    1) Write the piece and omit details of the inventor’s résumé.
    2) Write the piece, using whatever verifiable details the inventor was willing to corroborate.
    3) Don’t write the piece.

Instead, he continued digging into Vanderbilt’s background, reaching out to her past employers, family, and acquaintances, eventually finding information that sensationalized his work.

In one of the most criticized passages from the piece, while describing a conversation with a former colleague of Vanderbilt’s, Hannan writes, “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?’”

Armed with knowledge of Vanderbilt’s past, Hannan's article implies that he attempted to coerce Vanderbilt into cooperating with his story's new angle — one that was now almost entirely about her as a human being and not necessarily about the club at all. Essentially, Hannan was demanding that Vanderbilt fill in the blanks about the résumé, or he would share his suspicions with the world — including that she's transgender.

While Hannan grappled with an increasingly contentious Vanderbilt over email, he also approached Phil Kinney, one of Vanderbilt’s investors. Hannan went out of his way to share Vanderbilt’s trans status with Kinney, lumping this "revelation" with the fact that her résumé didn’t seem to match what she had told the world.

The way Hannan recounted this exchange, Vanderbilt’s trans status was just as fraudulent as her claims to have participated in top-secret government projects. To Hannan — to the reader — they’re intended to be one in the same. Vanderbilt was, in his mind, a fake on all fronts.

“I’m pretty dang gullible, I guess,” Kinney told Hannan upon hearing the news that “the woman he thought was an aerospace engineer had once been a man, and a mechanic.”

Hannan was urged not to out Vanderbilt. “The last time I heard from Dr. V she warned me that I was about to commit a hate crime,” Hannan writes in reference to his intentions to print the stories of her past. He was then offered a deal: Vanderbilt would meet Hannan at her attorney’s office, where she would offer proof of her degrees from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Pennsylvania in exchange for his signature on a nondisclosure agreement that would protect her from Hannan’s imminent outing.

“The ‘deal’ was one I could not accept,” Hannan writes, seemingly surprised by Vanderbilt’s frustration. Time and again, she had asked for him to leave her personal life out of his story. Time and again, he refused (after initially agreeing, that is).

“People had been hurt by Dr. V’s lies,” the piece reads, in an odd attempt to justify the fact that he intended to tear her life open. In speaking with Hannan, he refused to answer my question: Did he consider Vanderbilt’s gender identity to be one of those “lies” that had “hurt” people?

Vanderbilt committed suicide after again pleading with Hannan to keep her personal life out of print.

Then Hannan published his story, which concluded by characterizing it as a eulogy. "Writing a eulogy for a person who by all accounts despised you is an odd experience," he wrote. The final sentence is a quote from Vanderbilt herself: "'Nobody knows my life but me,' she said. 'You don’t know what the truth is.'"


The Ethical Dilemma
It’s important to separate the ethically ambiguous areas from the ethically wrong. In his piece, Hannan uncovered a lot of inconsistencies in Vanderbilt’s official backstory. Had she really worked on top-secret projects? Was she really a physicist with impressive degrees? Those are fair questions in a profile piece. But if this was to be about “the science and not the scientist,” it’s hard to see how Vanderbilt’s potentially falsified résumé fits in. Whether the putter was created by a world-renowned physicist or an auto mechanic, the science remains the same. So, while tempting to report on this information, Hannan should have understood that he agreed it would be off limits. Still, most wouldn’t fault him for doing this sort of investigative work.

On the other hand, we have the clear-cut ethical issues. Disclosing Vanderbilt’s trans status to an investor, framing it as its own type of fraud, was wrong. Full stop. By doing that, Hannan was no longer simply reporting on the situation, but instead he was participating in the story. The same goes for wielding the knowledge of her trans status while simultaneously pressuring her into cooperation with the story's focus on the résumé.

And after all this, after the subject of Hannan’s reporting committed suicide, not only did Hannan and his editors seem to consider it right to include the information Vanderbilt died to protect, but they framed it as a eulogy.

In my eulogy, I certainly hope no one deems it appropriate to call me a “man” or references a name that I’ve legally abandoned. I’m reminded of Brandon Teena’s misnamed, misgendered headstone. Twenty years later, and trans people are still brutalized in death as they were in life.

The Response
I was extremely disappointed to see so many respected journalists initially praise Hannan’s piece, calling it “bizarre” and “strange.” The New York Times’ David Carr, for example, excitedly promoted the long read on his Twitter account, which made him the subject of some criticism and led to his own sort of apology.

Grantland's editor-in-chief, Bill Simmons, posted a letter apologizing for the story this week. He noted that the story was at first a huge hit. "People loved it. People were enthralled by it. People shared it. People tweeted it and retweeted it. A steady stream of respected writers and journalists passed along their praise." Days later, the backlash began. "We read every incarnation of that piece through a certain lens — just like many readers did from Wednesday morning to Friday afternoon. Once a few people nudged us and said, Hey, read it this way instead, you transphobic dumbasses, that lens looked totally different. Suddenly, a line like 'a chill ran down my spine' — which I had always interpreted as 'Jesus, this story is getting stranger?' (Caleb’s intent, by the way) — now read like, 'Ew, gross, she used to be a man?'"

Personally, I was sickened from the start. Hannan apologists cited a journalist’s responsibility to stay focused on the story. They echoed a belief that Vanderbilt’s history as a transgender person did in some way belong in this piece, calling it proof of further fraud. They stood by, uninterested in improving future reporting.

I don’t often call myself an activist, but in some capacities I am. I am a firm believer that less-than-stellar trans media representation contributes to society’s confused attitude toward people like us. Over the course of the past few days, I’ve reached out to dozens of journalists, working with them to help them understand what went wrong with this piece. Some were receptive, and others ignored me. Most disappointingly, I had a conversation with the publisher of an LGBT news site who was fervently defending Hannan’s article, seeing any criticism of it as nitpicky. I wasn’t able to sway him.

A “Teachable Moment”
When Katie Couric repeatedly asked trans guests on her talk show about their genitals, she issued a response calling it a “teachable moment.” When 16-year-old transgender girl Jewlyes Gutierrez was arrested for defending herself, a school administrator had said that he hoped the event would be a “teachable moment.” Here we are again.

ESPN released a statement over the weekend, hoping that this could be a situation we all learn from. For his part, Simmons said "We’re never taking the Dr. V piece down from Grantland partly because we want people to learn from our experience. We weren’t educated, we failed to ask the right questions, we made mistakes, and we’re going to learn from them."

For all this teaching, there doesn’t appear to be a lot of learning. Without fail, I can count on CNN to continue its policy of referring to trans people only by their legal names (despite the fact that it has no problem referring to cisgender people by pseudonyms. See: Lady Gaga, Perez Hilton, Guy Fieri). I can count on a female transgender murder victim to be called a “man wearing odd clothing.” I can rest assured that daytime talk show hosts will continue to ask intrusive, inappropriate questions of their trans guests. I know that we will continue to be portrayed as sex workers, murder victims, and murderers by television dramas.

People don’t want to learn. We’re just here for their amusement. Trans as science project, trans as circus freak, trans as human punch line — this is what we are considered. Trans as plot device, trans as twist ending, trans as morbid curiosity — we’re not deemed worthy of respect in life or in death. Trans as inherently fraudulent creature, trans as con artist, trans as fake — we’re not real.

We’re sitting by as someone who wasn’t much of a "public figure" was bullied by an overzealous reporter. We’re debating whether it was OK to treat this woman as a twist ending to what reads as the sequel to Chuck Palahniuk’s Invisible Monsters. We’re forced to watch as a human being was portrayed as a ticking time bomb of suicide.

Simmons says he's repeatedly been asked, "How could you guys run that?" And in his apology, he lists a number of mistakes the entire team of editors made.

One more needs to be made clear: Being transgender is not fraudulent. Lumping her transgender status in with other supposed lies frames her gender as being fraudulent.

Why are a writer’s benevolent intentions somehow magical, therefore absolving him him of all responsibility for the destruction left in his wake? I’m not accepting that anymore. No one should.

There will be no more “teachable moments,” because we need to step up and say that we’ve had enough. Trans people, cisgender people, gay people, straight people, bi people, pan people, asexual people, intersex people, left-handed people, right-handed people, binary and nonbinary people — we all need to remain vigilant. We need to call people out when they hurt us. We need to stop giving free passes to individuals who dehumanize us. We need to fight for recognition as human beings, no longer held to a litany of double standards.

We need your help. We are few in number, but I know we are loved. Deep down, I know it. We are sparse, but not alone. We need those who care about us as humans to educate themselves. We need you to stand up for us. We need you to lift the voices of the oppressed until the world is forced to treat us as equals.

Let’s start by calling for accountability. A person is dead. Whether Hannan or Grantland editors were in some way responsible for this will forever remain up for debate. The absolute least they can do would be to resign.

 

PARKER MARIE MOLLOY is the founder of Park That Car and works as a freelance writer. She has contributed writing to Rolling Stone, Salon, The Huffington Post, and Talking Points Memo as well as The Advocate. Follow her on Twitter @ParkerMolloy.

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