Internet firestorm over outing of transexual inventor and her suicide

Writer's decision to reveal subject as a transsexual is causing an internet firestorm and dividing opinion over the right to publish

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 22 January, 2014, 10:53pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 January, 2014, 10:53pm

Writer Caleb Hannan was watching an infomercial for a "magical" golf putter last year and got curious. A "magical" putter? Who came up with such an idea?

Seven months later, Hannan found the answer - and walked 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, or Dr V, and described how Dr V had misrepresented her credentials as a physicist. Towards 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.

Trans folk get to determine for themselves what they’re willing to divulge

Rich Ferraro, vice-president of communications at the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Discrimination (GLAAD), 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 marginalises transgender people, subjecting them to poverty, discrimination and violence - and outing them places them in actual physical danger."

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 apologised for the story, which remains on its site with an editor's note attached. And so has Grantland. "I am apologising 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 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.

"If it's not germane to your story, you can safely forgo using it."

Noting that Vanderbilt had made a previous suicide attempt, Kahrl suggested that Hannan and Grantland helped to nudge Vanderbilt towards her death.

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".

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.

"Multiple lawyers" read the story before publication, as did more than a dozen editors and staffers at Grantland and the editor of All urged publication. But Simmons acknowledged that it was "an indefensible mistake" that the publication did not seek input from anyone in the transgender community.