Hannan is a sports writer who was writing a story about the design of a golf putter. Not my cup of tea, but OK, there are interesting physics and ergonomic issues there. Unfortunately, his story got side-tracked from the relevant and interesting and into the destructively personal by his bigotry.
The designer of the golf club was a Dr V. It was clear from their communications that Dr V was rather pretentious and committed to maintaining her privacy, insisting that any story be about the product not the developer, but she was also extremely helpful, making a custom club for Hannan and giving him help in using it. The club is apparently very good*, so it’s quality wasn’t misrepresented…but Hannan does some background work and discovers that Dr V had lied about her qualifications.
That’s legitimate for a journalist to do. A story about a mysterious designer who isn’t everything she claims to be, but has designed some great sports equipment? Sure. That’s a reasonable story.
But, sad to say, the story he wrote is centered rather differently, and reveals a great deal about Hannan’s biases and preconceptions. In an interview with another source, he learns something he considers horrible.
He was clearly trying to tell me something, which is why he began emphasizing certain words. Every time he said “she” or “her” I could practically see him making air quotes. Finally it hit me. Cliché or not, a chill actually ran up my spine.
“Are you trying to tell me that Essay Anne Vanderbilt was once a man?”
It took a moment for him to respond.
A couple of guys making air quotes about personal pronouns, and a “chill” running down his spine at the discovery that Dr V was a trans woman? I wonder if Caleb Hannan has figured out yet why Dr V was so insistent on keeping her self out of the story. Could it be because that’s how so many people react to her identity?
But no, Hannan just discovered that he now had a great hook for his story.
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.
Hannan told Dr V what he was going to publish. She was rightfully furious. If the science behind this putter was bogus, that would be reason for her to be angry at being exposed, but I’d support Hannan’s decision to publish it — using false credentials is news. But instead what was going to be a key point in this story was the unwilling outing of a trans woman, and especially given Hannan’s attitude that this was something “weird”, that should have been off-limits. Yes, tell me if someone is faking a degree from MIT. But a trans woman is not faking being a woman; she’s also not doing that for personal profit, but is instead entering a life of peril and contempt, as Hannan’s reaction shows.
Before the story was published, Dr V, Essay Anne Vanderbilt, committed suicide.
Caleb Hannan went ahead and published the story, complete with personal information about the woman, using masculine pronouns, referring to her by her previous name, and with the appalling gall of closing the story by calling it a “eulogy”. You would think having your subject kill herself over what you were doing would make you rethink; maybe go back and remove the sensationalism out of respect for the dead, and maybe recognize the magnitude of your bigotry and realize that you were letting that all hang out in the story, too. But no; he just went ahead and outed a dead trans woman against her will, and his editors also didn’t see a problem with printing it.
Oh, I know what’s wrong with Caleb Hannan. He doesn’t have a speck of conscience or empathy.
Melissa McEwan has an excellent summary of the unconscionable Mr Hannan’s actions. It was just a “strange” story to him, but it was Dr V’s life.
Here’s another good piece on this story: Dr. V Is Dead, Caleb Hannan Is Celebrated: Why We Can’t Accept Lazy, Transmisogynistic Journalism. A bit at the beginning really captures the depth of Hannan’s thinking.
A few hours later, when Wire editor Bill Wasik suggested on Twitter that Hannan’s investigation of Dr. V’s work and life contributed to her death, he replied “ouch.”
“Ouch.” A woman driven to suicide by Hannan’s article, and he says, “ouch.”
*The quality of the club is complicated. He raves about it at first, but then later says that maybe it was psychological — he thought it was great when he thought the designer was a physicist, but now it’s just gathering dust in his garage. He doesn’t consider the other side of the psychology: that maybe he’s avoiding using it since discovering that the designer was trans, and he clearly finds that creepy.