[Content note: Transphobia, outing, suicide]
Imagine if a journalist wrote a tension-filled exposé that got “stranger by the second” as it uncovered a con artist. Now imagine if the final shocking twist was not that the subject had swindled an investor out of tens of thousands of dollars, or falsified her credentials. What if the real shocker was that this con artist was (gasp!) French?
In retrospect, it seemed obvious. The investigation repeatedly turned up evidence that foreshadowed this most bizarre of revelations. She ate rabbit kidneys, something almost unheard of amongst real Americans. She spoke with a “mutated accent.” She was constantly getting into trouble in British pubs. What’s more, she was damned seductive.
I imagine this journalist’s editors being pretty fucking pissed, if not downright incredulous. Was the writer trying to imply that French people are con artists? Why was his piece, ostensibly about fraud, dripping with French stereotypes? Clearly, this guy was a bigot with deep-seated problems with the French. After all, what does the subject’s being French have to do with anything?
At best, I imagine the editors demanding the piece by re-written to lose the bizarre Francophobia, lest the publication become a laughingstock. It would be equally likely that the journalist might be asked to take some time off to deal with his obvious issues. That is, if he wasn’t quietly shown the door for good.
Of course, last Wednesday, Grantland published an piece by Caleb Hannan that followed this exact formula. Except in Hannan’s case, the subject was trans, and the result has been several rounds of cis people wringing hands over the difficulties of telling the truth and being a bigot.
[If you're unfamiliar with the story, last Friday my friend Melissa McEwan at Shakesville wrote a summary that's getting a lot of traffic. The traffic is driven in part by the fact that it's a well-written piece. Liss was also, to my knowledge, the first cis person to write about the problematic nature of Hannan's piece, which might have been why cis folks actually picked up on it.]
In the aftermath of Hannan’s piece and the continued refusal of Hannan or Grantland to admit that they fucked up pretty badly, a lot of the focus has been on whether or not Hannan’s harassment drove Essay Anne Vanderbilt (the trans woman in question) to suicide.
That’s not the point of my criticism. I’m not here to give cis folks a primer on trans lives, and why outing a trans person is bad. A lot of the supposedly “moderate” voices (meaning people who think Hannan’s a pretty good guy who’s challenged by the difficulty cis people have grasping other folks’ humanity) seem to get that outing trans people might be a bit insensitive. Hell, Josh Levin (Slate’s executive editor) even made this point while somehow republishing the name Vanderbilt was assigned at birth.
I’m also not hear to debate why Vanderbilt committed suicide. (It could be the outing! It could also be the uncovering of her fraudulent enterprise! It could be both!) Hell, I’m not even here to dwell on the ethics of publishing a story that contains the details of a suicide for which the victim appeared to hold the author accountable.
I’m hear to put forth the radical proposal that the real problem is that Hannan is fascinated by the idea that some people are trans. What’s more, the problem is that the majority of cis people refuse to consider why this fetishization of trans* people is inappropriate.
When folks first alerted me to Hannan’s piece, I stopped reading when I got to his pronouncement that Vanderbilt had “been born a boy.” I was disgusted and appalled that the editors of a major website (part of an even larger media empire, no less) would decide to publish some bigotry.
In my mind, the suicide is simply the thing that made Hannan’s piece go viral. It was the extra violent topper to an already violent story. Lots and lots of cis people are heavily invested in missing the transphobia that surrounding Hannan’s writing prior to those last few paragraphs. Sure, self-harm is tragic. Sure, physical violence against trans people might occasionally garner attention in the media (notably, when the victim is white and middle class, as opposed to the majority of victims of anti-trans* violence).
As for having a problem with the rest of it, trans* people are apparently being oversensitive. After all, these sort of things are very, very, difficult for cis people.