THE BLOG
01/22/2014 10:08 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Dr. Vanderbilt: The Business of Outing and the Making of a Public Citizen

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I can start by writing that I am not trans. I am lucky enough to be described by a straight friend as not a "gay guy," with its attendant stigmas, but a "gay dude." That carries with it a certain amount of privilege.

I am, however, writing this as someone who has had and continues to have a vested stake in not being outed. Outside of the usual dance of being in and out of the closet among different populations or communities, becoming a porn actor meant becoming very easily recognizable to a certain subset of the Internet-using population as Dale Cooper, an amalgamation of explicit videos, screen captures, and tweets that some people find compelling enough for me to have made something of a living from doing so. I became a public figure. This blog post, by the way, is "SFW." I accepted what this meant: that my work was largely considered to be scandalous, considered by many to be titillating gossip, and by some to be downright immoral. That I would, from that point on, navigate between different types of knowledges, ignorances, and opinions from other people as it pertains to what I do with my body. That this decision, though made with financial considerations in mind, would have a continued bearing on my future financial, political, social, and interpersonal activities.

Outing seems to be a perpetual part of the news cycle, and recently it popped up again. I am writing this in response to an article in Grantland, a publication (owned by ESPN) dedicated to a seemingly more sophisticated coverage of sports than other, more popular sporting outfits. Like many other people on the Internet, I was aware of Grantland, but Caleb Hannan's article was the first piece I had ever read in it. For those who have not read it, I invite you to do so now, and finish the rest of this blog post after you have done so. As Marc Tracy at The New Republic put it so delicately, "spoilers follow." I would also advise that you read the letter from the editor of Grantland, Bill Simmons, and the response by Christina Kahrl, a transgender member of ESPN's staff, both of which were published five days later.

This blog post is also about the politics and ethics of outing as a business practice in publishing, and what it means to be a public versus a private citizen. I have also taken the license, as Hannan did in his piece, to make this blog post's primary focus its author and the importance of "the big story."

"Dr. V and the Magical Putter" begins with Hannan staying up late with a bout of insomnia, looking at a video of a curious golf club online, and ends with the writer claiming that he is writing a eulogy for the inventor of that golf club. That inventor was a woman who committed suicide just three months prior to the article's publication by taping a plastic bag around her head. An empty bottle of pills was found nearby. Her name was Essay Anne Vanderbilt, and she was known by her friends and referenced heavily in the article as "Dr. V." Dr. Vanderbilt was born in a male body and given the name Stephen Krol.

The troubling aspects of the article are many. One often-enough repeated was Dr. Vanderbilt's insistence that the story Hannan was writing be about her product, and not about her. These seemed to me and many others as red flags in terms of the ethical responsibility in this story's telling. He writes that "she insisted that [their] discussion and any subsequent article about her putter focus on the science and not the scientist." The reason she gave was that "my anonymity is my security as well as my livelihood."

This line of reasoning is understandable enough in the light of the very real difficulties transgender people can face with financial security, with their families, in their communities or in their homes, as Kahrl rightfully points out in her response. As such, Dr. Vanderbilt's insistence on this point throws up no alarms. While it is not the same situation, it shares similarities with the standard journalistic practice of trading concessions on a source's identity in exchange for privileged information. Hannan, however, takes these same points and writes them into a gripping narrative arc of deceit. His article reads like a thriller, and a compellingly told one, at that. Morally, I imagine that what Hannan felt like he was stumbling across was not a trans woman protective of her privacy and past but a con artist fabricating a myth to go with her magical putter. That both of these matters could have some truth to them does not seem to have phased the author. That, or Hannan felt that they were one and the same tale.

There are even darker instances, ones that should have given Hannan or his editors pause while pursuing (and certainly before publishing) this story. Instead, certain details about Dr. Vanderbilt's past and personality are presented with the intention of exculpating the author from any involvement with her death. He writes that "though she had insisted that she would only talk if the focus was on her putter and not herself, Dr. V willingly volunteered some background information," and of an attempted overdose and asphyxiation in 2008 "that occurred after Krol had decided to live as Dr. V." In discussing the way in which Vanderbilt communicated, he writes, "Once upon a time I had brushed off these grammatical quirks, but now they seemed like outward expressions of the inner chaos she struggled to contain." The message seems to be that Dr. Vanderbilt got what was coming to her. The article reads as though, despite how active Hannan was over his many months of doggedly tracking down Vanderbilt's past, he was some "normal" reporter performing normal journalistic duty on this "crazy" story, and he just happened to be the right journalist at the right time to be able to dish it.

Indeed, Simmons (editor of Grantland), in his letter, claims that Hannan was simply a writer in pursuit of a story: "Caleb had spent the piece presenting himself as a curious reporter, nothing more." Doing due diligence. Fact-checking. While research can unearth uncomfortable truths, Hannan's outing of Dr. Vanderbilt as transgender to one of her principal investors flies in the face of this interpretation. Was it gossip? Was he baiting the investor to get a response that would add drama to his story? Was he just so truly awed by Vanderbilt's transgender status that he felt compelled to say the "truth" of it when presented with an opportunity? On this point, Simmons acknowledges the fatal error: "Caleb's biggest mistake? Outing Dr. V to one of her investors while she was still alive. I don't think he understood the moral consequences of that decision, and frankly, neither did anyone working for Grantland." Given that, I cannot possibly imagine that, as Simmons himself states, "somewhere between 13 and 15 people read the piece in all." How is it that on a staff where many are (as Simmons also notes) at the hip, in-the-know age of not-yet-30, not one person brought up the politics of outing someone without explicit consent? That beggars belief, particularly for the staff of a sophisticated magazine. What seems far more likely, in a rapidly changing media climate where each click is an additional sales pitch to advertisers and data farmers, is that just as a culture of ignorance and unfamiliarity with the trans* community was complicit in no one quashing this story, that same culture was at work at whispering in every article reader's ear that outings are a particularly popular form of media. Perhaps those thoughts just went unvoiced, a collusion of the politically unsayable with the patently obvious.

Essay Anne Vanderbilt and Caleb Hannan were both involved in industries that held secrecy as their central tenet. Vanderbilt and her goal of turning a profit, as a trans woman entrepreneur, were heavily invested in keeping certain secrets -- about her past and the credentials she could have accumulated during that time, certainly, credentials that may or may not have been falsified but were apparently turned to monetary gain. Hannan's business was in bringing those secrets out into the open. The possibility of any dishonesty on the part of Vanderbilt in relation to her enterprise became so intricately bound up in the difference that makes the most difference, her sex. To Hannan and his story, and the editors of Grantland, apparently, her sex was not hers but his.

The article's narrative arc wraps itself around one major theme: the significance of storytelling, fact or fiction. Hannan, with no small amount of craft, begins with a "magical putter" and the mysterious woman behind it in the male-dominated world of professional golf, and he turns it into an intrigue. The majority of the article centers around Hannan's search for The Truth: "What began as a story about a brilliant woman with a new invention had turned into the 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?" Throughout the story he writes on Vanderbilt, who will never be able to speak for herself again, the author interweaves other stories: of pro-golfers who have made the livelihoods of small golf club manufacturers, and of the phenomenon of "positive contagion," when an amateur's performance is augmented by using gear they have heard professionals tell stories about. Whether or not Dr. Vanderbilt had created a great golf club, Hannan's business is storytelling, and it seems obvious that his interests lay in selling that story.

The inevitable telling of that story may have contributed greatly to Vanderbilt's decision to kill herself. Dr. Vanderbilt left no suicide note, so we may never know for certain. In light of all that Hannan knew, it is apparent that what should have driven this story was not storytelling itself but compassion. In the final exchange of words between the author and Vanderbilt, in which her business partner and girlfriend Gerri Jordan was present, the last words he heard on the phone were Jordan's: "Well, I guess you're just going to print what you're going to print. Try to lead a decent life. Have a good one."

Were they the last words? Simmons' response raises more questions than it answers. In it he takes full blame for the article and the process of review and approval that were complicit in its creation. He admits that when Vanderbilt stopped returning Hannan's calls, which led to a flat ending to an earlier draft of the story, it was "[our] decision: Sorry, Caleb, you need to keep reporting this one. It's not there." Hannan had spent months trying to find the story he wanted and was told there was not enough there. The response from his editors was to try harder, and so he did. There was "[one] last correspondence between Caleb and Dr. V in September, the one that included her threat and the 'hate crime' accusation." Comparing this statement with Hannan's account of the interaction confuses the reader, however. Simmons states there was one last correspondence, an exchange, between Vanderbilt and Hannan. Hannan writes only that he received "one final email" from Vanderbilt. There is no mention of a reply. Did he make a response to her threats of legal action? The quote from Vanderbilt implies very heavily that the documents in question, being "germane only to [her]," were some sort of medical record of hers. The "hate crime" bit points to such a document pertaining to her transgender status. When did Hannan attain this document, and what was it? "Not long" after Vanderbilt sent this email, she was dead.

Paige Williams at Harvard's Nieman Foundation for Journalism hit the nail on the head: "Did Grantland consider dropping the story altogether? It's something publications and writers -- particularly freelancers -- may be too dangerously disinclined to do."

I am not a journalist, though I consider myself a voracious consumer of journalism. I, like others alive during the rise of the Internet, have witnessed the degradation of printed media and the attendant decline in the "old journalism" as the numbers of places where people can be published become hard to count. There have been massive layoffs of editorial employees, the collapse of major publications, the impoverishment of writers, and an alarming decline in editorial standards. The price of what is now termed "content" is dropping. (I am writing this for free, obviously.)

In what is euphemistically called the "new media landscape," rules are apparently changing. What is apparent in this article is that a sports writer, with who knows what kind of experience or association with the transgender community, wrote a piece outing a private citizen, and that person took her life. What is perplexing and troubling is that in his letter, Simmons takes the time, twice, to explicitly call Vanderbilt a public citizen. The first: "we believed you couldn't 'out' someone who was already dead, especially if she was a public figure." The second: "[Hannan] reported a story about a public figure that slowly spun out of control." When did this slippage occur? Hannan takes pains in his piece to point out exactly the opposite: how incredibly difficult it was, his labors taking months, to find information on this oddly private individual. He states, "[A]s I would later discover, it's almost impossible to find a picture, let alone a moving image, of Dr. V on the Internet." Indeed, as Hannan's story unfolds, "It seemed as if there was no record of Dr. V's existence prior to the early 2000s." To someone as untrained as I but who is actively engaged in his own very public identity, it seems that these are the type of descriptors of an intensely private figure. When does a private citizen become public? Was it when Vanderbilt's company and product started to be successful? When Gary McCord, a tournament announcer for CBS, mentioned her name during the second round of the Wells Fargo Championship? In Grantland's eyes, it seems that this change occurs when someone starts writing an article for Grantland on them.

Had Hannan dropped the very private detail that Vanderbilt was transgender, which his editors apparently had some part in encouraging, he may still have written an excellent article that made Grantland's front page. Maybe Vanderbilt would still be making putters. Maybe she would have been exposed as something of a snake-oil saleswoman whose product just happened to work magic, and faced the consequences for any deceptions as they pertained to her enterprise. She may or many not have decided to kill herself. No one can know for sure.

When someone is writing a piece outing another as transgender, and, just as importantly, when someone who reviews that content sees it come across their desk, there are a variety of moral issues that must be considered, just as there would be when writing about any member of a population that faces discrimination and, say, appallingly high suicide rates. The damage done by this story being written far outweighed the potential import that the outing of Essay Anne Vanderbilt had to the story. The piece fails fundamentally, on a moral and ethical level, during its very execution. It is too easy, however, to read this as the story of one writer. It is the sign of a larger, collective failing of the standards of professionalism and ethics in journalism, and at Grantland in particular. In a publishing industry where the dominant ethos has become "pageviews or perish," the focus on the numbers game blinds us to some of the potential consequences of writing viral content no matter the stakes. Outing has become big, dangerous business.

Those stakes could be quite high, something I know personally. I can in no way say that I know what the experience of Dr. Vanderbilt may have been like, or that of any other in the trans* community. I do know the fear of being outed as a porn actor. I could lose my family and my day job. I took this risk knowingly, willfully. It was my choice. There is no doubt in my mind that some people reading this know the name printed on my birth certificate. They could very well write it in a comment at the end of this blog post. I certainly have details of my life, scattered in the some of the many dark and very public corners of the Internet, that could be assembled, with enough diligence, into a Google search that may result in the name I was given at birth. That is the name I operate my day-to-day business under and live the vast majority of my life as. Or someone may just visibly recognize me in both my persona and my person. As a porn actor, I rely on an assumption of general human decency, on a certain level of compassion, that the people who know me as both Dale Cooper and my true name are sufficiently good-natured, on friendly-enough terms, or uninterested enough in ever wanting to connect the two in a public forum. This problematic is one familiar to most online sex workers, I believe. I would not know, but I get the feeling from Hannan's article that it may have some similarities to the experience of some transgender people as well.