Paul Farhi (c) 2014, The Washington Post.
Writer Caleb Hannan was watching an infomercial touting a “magical” golf putter late one night last year and got curious. A “magical” putter? Who came up with such an idea?
Seven months later, Hannan found the answer — and walked straight into an Internet firestorm.
His 7,700-word piece, published last week in Grantland, the ESPN-owned sports and pop-culture digital magazine, revealed that the putter’s inventor was a mysterious figure named Essay Anne Vanderbilt, a.k.a. Dr. V., and described how Dr. V. had misrepresented her credentials as a physicist. Toward the end of his story, Hannan also revealed something else: Dr. V. was a transgender woman — and she had committed suicide in the course of his reporting on her.
The article, at first warmly received by Grantland’s readers, has since elicited widespread criticism, some of it from transsexual advocates who say it violated a cardinal rule: Outing a transsexual is not only a violation of privacy but also dangerous.
Rich Ferraro, vice president of communications at the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Discrimination, said, “It is GLAAD’s position that it is never appropriate to disclose the fact that someone is transgender without his or her explicit permission. We live in a culture that marginalizes transgender people, subjecting them to poverty, discrimination and violence — and outing them places them in actual physical danger. A person should be allowed to make his or her own decision about facing the consequences of being an out transgender person. Transgender people are simply living their lives like everyone else — and they deserve the same respect and privacy accorded other people.”
Nick Adams, GLAAD’s associate director of communications, wrote on the organization’s website that a 2011 survey found transgender people had rates of attempted suicide more than 30 times higher than the general population.
Grantland’s editor in chief, Bill Simmons, said the negative reaction to the story began to build over the weekend and turned into “an onslaught that kept coming and coming,” as he put it in a column on Monday. Hannan, 31, received anonymous death threats, and his personal information has been posted online.
ESPN has apologized for the story, which remains on its site with an editor’s note attached. And so has Grantland. “I am apologizing on our behalf right now,” Simmons wrote. “My condolences to Dr. V’s friends and family for any pain our mistakes may have caused.”
In addition to Simmons’ lengthy apology, the website included a companion piece by ESPN.com sportswriter Christina Kahrl, who is a transsexual and a member of GLAAD’s board.
“By any professional or ethical standard, [Vanderbilt’s gender identity] wasn’t merely irrelevant to the story, it wasn’t [Hannan’s] information to share,” Kahrl wrote. “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.”
Noting that Vanderbilt had made a previous suicide attempt, Kahrl suggested that Hannan and Grantland helped nudge Vanderbilt toward her death: “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.”
Kahrl wrote that Grantland should have skipped the revelation about Vanderbilt’s gender identity and “stuck with debunking those claims to education and professional expertise relevant to the putter itself. . . . [R]evealing her gender identity was ultimately as dangerous as it was thoughtless.”
GLAAD’s Adams noted another issue: Grantland’s use of male pronouns to refer to Vanderbilt once Hannan discovered that Vanderbilt was transgender. News organizations wrestled with this issue when Army Pvt. Chelsea Manning — formerly known as Bradley and convicted of disclosing classified government data — declared that she was seeking gender reassignment and wanted to be referred to by the female pronoun. GLAAD advises media organizations to use the pronoun an individual prefers.
Simmons said he and his staff were concerned that not publishing the story could have looked like a cover-up. “We worried about NOT running the piece when Caleb’s reporting had become so intertwined with the last year of Dr. V’s life. Didn’t we have a responsibility to run it?” he wrote.
Simmons said that “multiple lawyers” read the story before publication, as did more than a dozen editors and staffers at Grantland and the editor of ESPN.com. All urged publication. But he acknowledged that it was “an indefensible mistake” that the publication didn’t seek input from anyone in the transgender community.
“In the moment, we believed you couldn’t ‘out’ someone who was already dead, especially if she was a public figure,” he said. “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?”
Simmons denied that Grantland hounded or harassed Vanderbilt or used the knowledge of her gender identity to force greater cooperation. However, Hannan did out Vanderbilt to one of her investors, a disclosure Grantland says it regrets.
“To be clear, Caleb only interacted with [Vanderbilt] a handful of times,” he said. “He never, at any time, threatened to out her on Grantland. He was reporting a story and verifying discrepancy issues with her background. That’s it. Just finding out facts and asking questions. This is what reporters do. . . . There was no hounding. There was no badgering. It just didn’t happen that way.”