LAST week, Caleb Hannan from ESPN’s Grantland website wrote an article about trans* people that should never have been published. There was a shocker locally as well, but more about that later.
Focusing initially on a new putter that was designed by a Dr Essay Anne Vanderbilt, Hannan’s article quickly changed from providing analysis on a new golf club that golfing superstars such as Aaron Baddeley and Gary McCord have supported, through to publicly and ruthlessly outing the putter’s inventor as a “transgender woman”.
Needless to say, the unprofessional manner that Hannan in which acted throughout the production of this article filled my professional identity with a truck load of disgust.
This feeling was only further compounded upon learning that after begging Hannan not to “out” her, that Dr Vanderbilt killed herself near her home in Arizona late last year.
Now with more twists than the sheets of Tiger Woods’ bedroom, Hannan claimed within his story that Vanderbilt’s academic credentials, which were reportedly from MIT and the University of Pennsylvania were false, and that instead of being a former engineer who had worked on America’s stealth bomber projects, that she was instead a mechanic who’d been bankrupted with debts of over $800,000 in the mid-2000s.
Needless to say, the fact that Vanderbilt reportedly committed suicide a short time after Hannan advised her that he was going to be writing a feature-length essay conflating her history as both a trans-person and an alleged criminal has caused quite a stir within parts of the transgender community.
Now to be blunt, as a journalist I have no problems whatsoever with Hannan pursuing Vanderbilt for what appears to be criminal activities. Just like every other demographic in the world, the transgender community has its fair share of con artists and other criminals that deserve to be held accountable for their actions. In that regard, Hannan did what any other journalist should do, which is to pursue the story as far as they possibly can.
That said however, I also believe that Hannan needs to be rapped repeatedly over the knuckles with a 9-iron for producing his article in the unprofessional manner that he did.
You see throughout my career, I’ve always gone to painstaking lengths to ensure that the stories that I produce are as clear and accurate as possible. That means that I only state what I know that I can honestly prove, while I don’t stereotype people purely because it fits the narrative that I’d personally like to write about.
While maintaining that impregnable level of honesty mightn’t be the quickest or easiest way to make friends in the media industry today, at the very least it allows me to sleep at night.
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.
“I cannot confirm or deny anything on that,” he said, sounding once again like a risk manager. “But let me ask you a question. How far have you looked into her background?”
Now call me a humble rural reporter if you want, but I fail to see how the addition of that paragraph (amongst others) adds any level of journalistic value to this particular story.
Utilised as a dramatic lead-in to a glee-filled and grammatically flawed flaying of Vanderbilt’s former life, there is a chillingly voyeuristic undertone to both this paragraph and all of the others within Hannan’s article that focus unnervingly on the transgender element of Vanderbilt’s life.
Furthermore, the outpouring of anger from both the journalists who are rushing to support Hannan and the transgender community and their allies could cause some major headaches for Grantland’s parent companies ESPN and The Walt Disney Company, if this controversy continues to spread.
Featuring some of the most progressive, respected and recognised LGBTI corporate diversity policies within the US, both of these companies have a lot to loose in terms of reputation, if the comments that Hannan made and the structure of his article are allowed to remain as they currently are.
As senior ESPN management, producers and presenters have recently stated via various mediums and corporate programs, both Disney and ESPN have invested a lot of time and money in ensuring diversity within their corporate culture over recent years. Needless to say, that money could all be wasted if they decline to address this issue promptly.
That said however, I can’t help but feel that the problems within Hannan’s article are due more to inexperience and a lack of understanding of the gay and transgender communities as a whole, rather than that of actual malice.
If you look across most newsrooms and journalism schools across the USA, there’s often very few, if any, opportunities for some reporters (especially freelancers) to learn how to respectfully and professionally cover transgender related stories.
That’s even with organisations such as Associated Press, the US-based National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association and Poynter amongst others providing some extraordinary resources to that effect. Furthermore, with even experienced Australian media professionals utilising similar punchlines towards LGBTI people in general, it is obvious that this isn’t a localised problem.
And locally, there is this little charmer:
Elizabeth Farrelly’s column at the Sydney Morning Herald last week that stated that the influence of gay and gender diverse Australians has had a role in the violence that has been gripping Kings Cross in Sydney recently, for example.
Once, years ago, I had a boyfriend who creeped me out by wearing my perfume. When he started to show interest in trying some of my clothes, I dumped him.
This was soon followed by:
But while the boyfriend did not last, attempts to redefine gender – in particular the meaning and purpose of maleness – just keep on popping up.
I recall this each time I walk the hood, which crawls these days with that latest male fashion: the baby-face boy-beard. At first glance you’d think that Tasmanian Devil disease has hit town, horribly disfiguring otherwise pretty faces.
Then you see it’s voluntary. What to make of this coy, ultra-conscious face-fungus? Does the Beard look to resurrect maleness? Reconfigure it? Or repudiate it? And how, if at all, does it bear on the current spate of young male violence, the terrible ”coward’s punch”?
But even the nostalgia is not simple. The New Beard, while explicitly heterosexual, is also painstakingly ironic. So its accessories, far from reinforcing masculinity, deftly defy it.
Now since Farrelly’s column was published I’ve been asked by a lot of people (including my good friend and colleague Amanda Meade) as to why I’ve publicly stated that I feel that her article was rather transphobic and homophobic in nature, which is a claim that Farrelly denies.
Accused of homophobia, transphobia, youth-phobia, idiocy and bad writing, thought I’d get myself tested. :) pic.twitter.com/KlODoaaxtp
— Elizabeth Farrelly (@emfarrelly) January 16, 2014
— Ben Cubby (@bencubby) January 16, 2014
Needless to say, with the NSW Police Superintendent for LGBTI Affairs Tony Crandell recently stating that official crime statistics show that gender diverse people are three to four times more likely to be the victims of violence within the Kings Cross precinct than any other demographic of society, it makes me sad to think that people such as Farrelly can utilise such punchlines in the manner that they do, without taking into consideration the professional context and impact of their words.
And that’s what it essentially boils down to in both Hannan’s and Farrelly’s stories when you really think about it. Namely, the stereotypical nature of their respective perspectives overwhelming their ability to justify some of the various allegations that they’ve made within their stories. That’s a concept that each and every journalist needs to understand in the modern world.
Needless to say, it’s the people who take that in mind when producing stories that more often than not find the stories that are most worth telling.
Language matters – as does relevance. If you dig into someone’s gender or sexual identity, or which sex organ(s) they have, surely it should be relevant to the story at hand. A gal that was once a bloke made a mean golf putter. Or did a human being make the putter?