If you are not a social media junkie, and don’t read newspapers, then you may not have heard the story of Grantland, Caleb Hannan and Dr.V.. A quick Google should put that right, because it has been all over my feeds. Hopefully what follows will be understandable regardless.
I have to admit that when the story first broke I shrugged. A trans woman is hounded by a journalist. She kills herself. It’s a common enough story. Could easily have happened to me. Had I not had Kevin around I might well have killed myself when I got publicly outed. It has that effect on you. I reckon to see at least one story like that a year. I’m not angry about such things any more; I’m burned out on it.
I am, however, becoming increasingly angry about the number of (mainly cis white) journalists who are writing anguished pieces making out that this was all a just a lapse of judgment by the journalist and magazine in question. That is, in my view, whitewashing what happened.
Obviously there is an issue that if you, as a journalist, are investigating someone, and that person then kills herself, it is perhaps not wise to run with a piece about how awful this person was, and how she has now upset you as well. Clearly that is an issue of journalistic ethics, and would apply in many cases, not just where trans people are concerned.
However, stories like this do still happen. Generally if the subject of the investigation is guilty of some heinous crime, the story still gets run. Often the journalist concerned gets celebrated for helping rid the world of a dangerous villain. My impression is that Grantland and Caleb Hannan believed that they were running this kind of story, and that they were acting highly ethically in exposing Dr.V.
Let me illustrate the point by showing how this story might have been treated, had different types of people been involved.
Someone invents a new miracle golf putter – Yawn, happens every week. Is the putter any good, that’s what I’m asking, otherwise no story.
Person who invented new miracle golf putter has lied about college background and qualifications – Dude, so what? Everyone does it, right? How else are you supposed to get on in life?
Person who invented new miracle golf putter is a good-looking woman – Ha! Bet it doesn’t really work. Let’s look into this and see if we can take her down.
Person who invented new miracle golf putter is a good-looking woman who has lied about college background and qualifications – See, told you! I knew she was a fraud. Let’s get her! Anyone got any topless photos of the bitch?
Person who invented new miracle golf putter is a trans woman – Whoa, man! I can’t believe that I thought that dude was hot. Good job I didn’t tell anyone. We gotta take him down before he cons anyone else. Hold the front page!
You see, what lies at the heart of this story is not the questionable ethics of hounding people who may or may not be behaving dishonestly (as Jane Fae has pointed out, we only have Hannan’s word that Dr.V. lied about her background, she could just have been trying to keep it secret). No, what this is all about is the poisonous idea that a trans woman is a “deceiver”, someone who is lying about who they “really” are with a view to luring innocent people into perverted sexual relationships. We know people have this view. Every year a couple hundred of trans get murdered because straight men think that looking like a sexually desirable woman while being trans is a crime deserving of capital punishment.
So please, when you are reporting on this story, don’t just focus on the journalistic ethics of writing about vulnerable people. Instead try to look at the underlying reasons why those people are vulnerable in the first place, and why anyone might think that exposing them is providing a public service. Otherwise you are not solving the problem, you are just brushing it under the carpet.