You may or may not already be familiar with Caleb Hannan’s article on Grantland this week, in which an investigation about the inventor of a new golf putter turns into the outing of a trans woman (who committed suicide before the article was published). It’s a deeply troubling article for many reasons — not least of which, as Rebecca Schoenkopf pointed out, is that the writer was given eight months to report on a putter.
What might have made for a worthy premise (creator of a possibly-revolutionary golf club appears to have falsified some of her professional credentials) is quickly abandoned once the reporter “discovers” that she is a trans woman, which becomes the new focus of his piece.
It is not possible for a journalist to ethically out someone. The case can sometimes be made for outing well-known, homophobic public figures, but that is far removed from the case at hand. It cannot, and should not, ever be done; this should be standard journalistic practice. Given that the writer knew his subject committed suicide during the reporting of this piece — it is impossible to know exactly how much the fear of being outed during Hannan’s reporting contributed to her death, but it cannot have helped — both he and his editor(s) ought to have realized that whatever value may have originally lain in his story was now outweighed by the outing and death of a private figure who never volunteered information about her personal life.
That is not, of course, what happened. There have been numerous responses to the piece in the last few days; we have collected some of the most thoughtful and impassioned ones here. Please feel free to include any you feel we may have excluded in the comments.
Further, he catalogs her deception about her educational and professional background alongside the revelation that she is trans, in a way that suggests her failure to reflexively disclose that she is trans as part of any introduction to a new person is a lie, just like so many others she told.
From Aoifeschatology — a longform piece from a trans woman:
A trans woman had been living stealth and succeeding in her unusual career as a design of speciality golf clubs. Pendulum putters, precise physics of pitch and trajectory, engineering the flight of a small white ball. Not my cup of tea, but whatever. She was good at what she did. A success.
A sport journalist decides to write a piece on her latest invention, but, in the course of researching her work, uncovers that she’s trans.
Two options: (1) politely recognize that you’re being a prying prat and realise that this has no relevance to your article; (2) be a completely soulless cretin by confronting her about it, threaten disclosure in print, and insinuate that she’s to blame for being deceitful.
From Maria Dahvana Headley, on how to handle hostile interview subjects thoughtfully:
As the piece goes on, and Hannan digs deeper into Dr. V, it becomes clear that much of Dr. V’s backstory is unclear, contradictory, and that some of it is actively untrue.
Does this have bearing on the golf club? No. The golf club remains the golf club. But as the piece progresses, Hannan’s own angle on the club devolves into a sense of personal betrayal, that this subject, who explicitly did not grant him permission to write about her, has lied to him about the facts of her life (facts which he seems to feel are his personal property.) The club he previously treasured becomes a club he now finds unmagical, and its inventor, he decides, is a con artist. (Which con, exactly? She invented a better golf club. People like it. It’s good. We’re not talking about theft, we’re talking about selling a product that people like. That she is part of the product’s legend – though clearly not much: Hannan himself states that she doesn’t appear on the videos regarding it, and that her image is not actually being used to sell it, is apparently enough of a betrayal for Hannan that he feels provoked to actively harass the club’s creator in the name of journalism. Never mind that also in the name of journalism, he’s earlier represented himself as a journalist writing about the club, not writing about the scientist who invented it.)
Some notes on the obvious from me, here:
1) Being transgender does not mean that you are “lying” about your gender.
2) Being transgender is not a con. It is not a lie meant to advance your social status. Suicide rates for transgender people are appalling- a 2010 study reported a 41% attempt rate! Transgender people have a hard damn time in the world, and regularly get killed, fired, beaten up, and generally fucked with for being transgender. Dr. V. is a woman who was born in a male body. Fuck it. This happens. So, the moment Hannan begins to sell the fact of Dr. V’s trans* status as part of the evidence that Dr. V. is a liar… well.
Hannan details Dr. V’s history of lawsuits, relationships and a suicide attempt. He describes outing her as trans to at least one investor without her consent, and without any acknowledgement of the fact that that’s what he was doing. And then, as the linchpin of the piece, he writes “What began as a story about a brilliant woman with a new invention had turned into a tale of a troubled man who had invented a new life for himself. Yet the biggest question remained unanswered: Had Dr. V created a great golf club or merely a great story?”
“A tale of a troubled man who had invented a new life for himself.”
A troubled man.
Just like that, Hannan did what so many people do: he called into question the reality of Dr. V’s gender as if her being trans was as suspect as her missing degrees, engaging in the deplorable and time-honored practice of depicting trans* people, and especially trans women, as duplicitous and deceitful.
From Gender Terror:
Media consistently tells trans* people that we are not worthy. We are jokes. Every where we turn, we are the butt of another joke, another murder, another shock piece. Our society is fascinated with us, for all the wrong reasons. We are seem as freaks, deceivers, liars. We are asked invasive questions about our bodies and our histories. We are exposed if we are stealth as some ‘great’ service to the world, though our outing often leads to us becoming homeless, assaulted, jobless, and so on. We are harmed more through this outing, than we ever are living in stealth.
For a very thoughtful and empathetic account from a reporter about how to deal with a subject’s death, I recommend Leonora LaPeter Anton’s self-investigative story about the suicide of Gretchen Molannen, a woman who suffered from persistent sexual arousal syndrome and killed herself days before Anton’s original piece went to print.
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.