Last week a story broke on the Grantland blog and has been burning up the Twitterverse, listservs, Facebook and other social media outlets. It's a story that is a profound tragedy, with innocent and not-so-innocent victims, culturally reaching back to the '60s, and spotlighting an all-too-common profound ignorance still present in our society.
I suppose it's fitting that it began as a story about a "magical putter," a golf club of interest, I imagine, to the dwindling coterie of avid golfers in our country. A sports story written by a young and hungry sportswriter for a sports blog, a story pursued because, as Caleb Hannan wrote, "strange stories can find you at strange times."
This "strange story" was clearly a detective story, a mystery that had been perplexing golfers, with twists and turns that made for riveting reading even for those who care little about golf. I came on it, and read the entire 7,700-word story, only after the story blew up online and I was told it had a trans angle. I was also told that the language used on Twitter was fierce, calling for the head of the reporter. Within days a response by the editor, Bill Simmons, was posted, as well as a very thoughtful piece by my friend and colleague, Christina Kahrl. What was immediately clear to me upon concluding the story was that the writer and his editor should have contacted Christina before publication, and preferably as soon as the writer became aware of the protagonist's "secret." That it didn't work out in that manner is indicative of the profound ignorance of so many Americans about the transgender experience, even in 2014.
There are so many layers to this story for me. The first, which stood out starkly, was the tragedy of the life of the protagonist, Essay Anne Vanderbilt. She committed suicide in October, long before the story was published but following increasingly strained interactions with the writer. She had been suicidal before, and clearly had been struggling emotionally through much of her life. People don't concoct completely new histories, revising and re-revising, to cover themselves while trying to hide in plain sight, without serious underlying emotional fragility. She is representative, unfortunately, of many trans women who have transitioned gender in mid-life and have been so emotionally stressed that they've contemplated, attempted or actually committed suicide. The prevalence of serious suicide attempts among trans people has been reported at 41 percent; I can relate, as I'm one of the 41 percent.
When any life is lost, it is a tragedy. When it is lost because of unbearable social pressures, it is an unnecessary tragedy. Her story is, unfortunately, still way too common.
What struck me next was that I was reading a mystery in the mold of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City, a wonderful series about the LGBT community first set in San Francisco in the '70s and only now reaching its conclusion. That conclusion, The Days of Anna Madrigal, follows the protagonist, Anna Madrigal, at age 92 as she revisits her childhood abode. When the series was first developing, its twist, its "secret," was that Anna Madrigal, played by Olympia Dukakis in the television series, was a straight transsexual woman. In 1993 that provoked quite the comment and was seen as shocking and mysterious. After the arrival of Christine Jorgensen on the American scene in 1952, Americans, including my parents, upon whom it had a profound effect, had been re-introduced to transgender women by Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho in 1960. At the time that Anna Madrigal came out, the only other trans woman I recall in the media was the one played by Karen Black in Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.
Hannan's piece read just like a Maupin serial, a story about a woman living in such fear that she fabricated an entire history. Leaving the closet of her pre-transition male life, she created a new closet, with a narrative that clearly was flawed when she presented as a highly successful engineer and inventor. I'm amazed that her story didn't immediately raise eyebrows, as she was a middle-aged 6-foot-3 woman with a low-pitched voice, degrees from MIT and Penn, and a résumé of work on the stealth bomber and Bluetooth technology. Maybe we've progressed sufficiently that many are no longer aware of the profound sexism that infected the realm of science and technology back in the '70s and '80s. Few women received those degrees and worked on those projects. The ignorance evinced by the author and his editor tell me we still have a long way to go.
Hannan's experience with Vanderbilt was clearly fraught with difficulty, because as a reporter he pursued his leads in an attempt to unravel the mystery of the development of this super putter and came across an inventor who was clearly a fascinating character who was unwilling to be seen. An uncommon experience in today's social media society, it only encouraged Hannan to delve even more deeply. He uncovered a lawsuit filed by Vanderbilt in 2007 and had new contacts he could track down. Having been married to a journalist for 25 years, I know the thrill of the pursuit and the dogged efforts that go into uncovering the truth.
The tragedy here is that the underlying truth was one Vanderbilt clearly wanted kept hidden. Unfortunately for her, the truth of her gender history was obscured by the falseness of the rest of her history, an unraveling she might have expected, having entered the limelight as a famous inventor.
The LGBT community pounced on the writer and his editor, blaming them for causing her death, even though she had killed herself before the story had been published. There were complaints that she should never have been outed, even though her gender history was clearly pertinent to the mystery that was her life. It was implied that there was no compassion for her, a claim we have no way of evaluating. Causation was implied where there was only correlation, and the trans community lashed out at what it saw as a miscarriage of justice and vicious cyber bullying.
I see this as a tragedy in the classic Greek sense, with all involved being flawed characters in this play. Vanderbilt was a woman struggling with her gender history and what appear to be depression, anxiety and PTSD. She confabulated a historical narrative that put her at great risk as a public figure. I have no idea if she was receiving counseling during this period, when she most needed it. The Grantland team was profoundly ignorant about the trans experience and professionally pursued, as they saw their mission, a mystery to its conclusion, without calling in help when they got in over their heads. Would any other journalistic team have acted any differently? Sadly to say, even in 2014 America, probably not.
A marginalized and still-very-much-oppressed trans community and its gay allies lashed out, expressing their pain by over-determining the responsibilities of those just doing their jobs as they saw it, people who had little if any contact with the trans community. Maybe, when the pain fades and the dust settles, the outcry will have created a new media culture with a better understanding of who trans people really are.
The question that haunts me is how we, as trans persons, can become full and equal citizens as long as we keep our true selves from our friends and neighbors. How can we overcome the need to reinvent ourselves in a manner others might consider deceptive when those others create such pressures that some trans persons see no way out? How can we be free as long as we stay in the closet or create new closets?
My answer is that we simply must come out. The risks may be great, and the act of coming out may be fraught with peril, but as our gay allies have learned, the only way to acceptance and affirmation is to first accept and affirm yourself.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
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