Vaginal Discourse

[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.

No.

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.

  • http://www.poetsgraves.co.uk/behn.htm aphra_behn

    Thank you for this, Kate.

  • lupinella12

    Thank you.

  • Amadi

    Perfectly stated, Kate. Thank you.

  • S.I. Rosenbaum

    BAM. This is brilliant.

  • SL

    I am commenting as a largely ignorant cis-male who is trying to wrap my mind around the entire issue an understand it better, so please be gentle with me. I am aware that my lack of understanding of the issue is potentially offensive and hope it is understood that I ask this not to offend but to ask for help in my own edification.

    You wrote:
    “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.”

    Could you please explain what part of the piece’s quote is obvious bigotry? Is it the insensitivity of suggesting that the physical gender being male meant “born a boy”? If so, what is the appropriate way to phrase this? More and more I realize that so very many people who misstep do so not out of intent but because they don’t understand the correct way to express themselves. I am not arguing this was the “excuse” of the original piece’s author but from my perspective it gets very complicated very quickly. I grew up around adults who had trouble understanding whether “black”, “negro”, “colored”, or “African American” was the appropriate way to refer to someone and I feel my situation now is similiar and my kids aren’t old enough to be able to help me understand these things yet (thankfully they are growing up in a world slightly more aware of prejudices than I did and I have hope their generation gets it right where mine has not). That said; I’m just an average farmer from West Texas, not a professional journalist.

    • katekari

      I am a cis woman, so I’m not the best person to be answering this, but I have heard other trans* people indicate that the appropriate phrasing would be “was identified as a boy at birth” or “was assigned as male at birth” or similar. This avoids imposing an incorrect gender identity on the individual being referred to.

      I encourage you to seek more information on this question from trans* people in places where they are explicitly offering education on these issues. I’m confident that a bit of research on your part would yield a number of articles, blog posts, or what-have-you, where trans* people are writing about the kinds of issues you are asking about.

      I will also point out that your phrase “the physical gender being male” is not appropriate, and if you seek out the educational places I mentioned above, you will see why that is.

  • premie

    Ok, lets go with your hypothetical. The reporter investigates a male inventor who is marketing a product through infomercials. As the reporter digs deeper, he discovers that the inventors credentials are all fraudulent. Spurred on by this discovery, he finds out – shock – the inventor is not really a member of the larger than life Vanderbilt family of famous wealthy capitalists. The inventor had created a entire fake identity and was actually a mechanic from France!
    This is news. It is part of the story.

  • http://www.acuntofonesown.org eastsidekate

    premie You don’t seem very invested in getting it. In your hypothetic is the central deception that Vanderbilt is from France? Not the US, not Germany, but France?

    Also, you seem to be implying that Vanderbilt’s transsexuality is deception. Whooooooooops!

    Hannan’s entire story was centered around Vanderbilt’s transsexuality. Without outing her, he didn’t have a story. Don’t believe me? Check out this yawner of a story– Hannan’s piece without the big reveal.

    • SL

      I think people are (perhaps subconscious intentionally) missing the point so I just wanted to repeat what you said, “Without outing her, there’s no (front page worthy) story”. It’s just a deceitful (about credentials) golf club inventor who deserves to be outed (about the made up credentials alone, mind you) but not to have their life destroyed.

      There’s another issue with this story that gives further proof of that. As someone who took a lot of editing and writing classes before deciding against pursuing journalism as a career, it’s a bit galling to read a piece where so much of the story is, essentially, “here’s what I went through doing JOURNALISM, pat me on the back for being so wonderful and exposing all of the exposy bits that needed exposing”. What he as a writer did to secure the information is possibly worthy of mention in an investigative journalism piece if it was extremely arduous, non-conventional, people were difficult to deal with, or it’s just a good yarn but that wasn’t really the way it was used here (as I read it).

      So then the question is… why is the author of the story such a major part of the story? Because it’s just not a (good, front-page worthy) story. As a lazy writer, you do things like that because you don’t have enough material, it’s just not interesting enough, or you really, really just want to be praised for doing your job.