Skirting The Issues: Freak Show

Ellen Krug. Photo by Mike Hnida
Ellen Krug. Photo by Mike Hnida

I had started my annual so-it’s-Valentine’s Day-and-I’m-still-dateless article when a friend tipped me off to a developing story about a journalist outing a gender variant person who later committed suicide. I quickly investigated and then scrapped my Valentine’s Day piece for this one.

Read on and you’ll understand why.

Here are the details: on January 15, 2014, the sports and pop-culture blog Grantland posted an article entitled “Dr. V’s Magical Putter” by golf enthusiast and writer Caleb Hannan. The 8,000 word article is ostensibly about a super-duper golf putter with a revolutionary design. Hannan started out intending to simply write about how the putter came to into existence. Instead, he became far more interested in the putter’s 6’ 1” tall, red-headed inventor, Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt, whom he and others simply refer to as “Dr. V.”

In agreeing to speak with Hannan, Dr. V insisted that Hannan focus on the “science and not the scientist” behind the revolutionary putter. Hannan apparently agreed to this condition and, for part of his piece, he writes about personally testing out the putter and verifying its superb qualities with golf pros and mechanical engineers.

However, as Hannan assembled information for his story, he discovered glaring inconsistencies in Dr. V’s background. For example, Dr. V falsely claimed she attended MIT; she also made up having worked for the U.S. military.

Eventually, Hannan tracked down one of Dr. V’s prior employers, who implied that Dr. V was gender variant. Hannan then did more digging and discovered that Dr. V had been born male.

At that point, Hannan’s article quickly descends to the gutter. I can’t tell if Hannan’s transition to male pronouns in referring to Dr. V is the result of ignorance, carelessness, or prejudice. He sounds almost giddy as he provides painstaking detail about Dr. V’s (male) birth name and the fact that Dr. V had married twice and fathered at least two children. Unbelievably, Hannan goes so far as to provide the date, courthouse, and text of Dr. V’s name change petition in October 2003.

Reading that made me want to puke.

As if all of this wasn’t enough, Hannan throws in that Dr. V had previously been the subject of harassment claims. In titillating fashion, Hannan discloses a co-worker once complained that Dr. V had made “inappropriate comments about her breasts and genitalia.”

Crucially, Hannan also discovered that Dr. V had attempted suicide in 2008, post-transition. That too, was fair game—Hannan quoted from the note Dr. V left before her 2008 unsuccessful suicide.

As I read Hannan’s article, a phrase came to mind:

Freak show.

You know what I’m talking about—the image of the carnival barker standing outside a large tent, “Come one, come all, see the bearded lady!”

Inside the tent, the barker might have a few other freaks—two headed babies, the crocodile man. Can’t you just hear the “oohs” and “aahs?”

I get it that we humans are naturally curious about things unusual or odd. I also appreciate the journalistic bend to pursue a story wherever it may lead.

Still, when it comes to trans folk, an element of spectacle is often involved. For example, have you ever noticed how often the media will post “before” and “after” pictures of transgender people who go public?

Why is that? How are competing gender headshots relevant to a person’s decision to live authentically, as their true selves?

The most appalling aspect of Hannan’s seedy exposé is his knowledge that Dr. V had gone “stealth” (hidden from the world that she was transgender) and that she was prone to suicide. Had Hannan conducted just a modicum of research, he would have understood the staggering rate at which trans people kill themselves. It wouldn’t have been rocket science to conclude that Dr. V might try it again because of Hannan’s article.

In the end, despite Dr. V.’s threats/pleas/begging—she even referred to the impending article as a “hate crime”—Hannan told Dr. V he was going forward with printing he article.

Shortly after that, and before the article even ran, Dr. V was dead by her own hand.


I’ll let my journalist colleagues give Hannan his ethical due.

Instead, I’ll simply note that we now have one more human, someone else’s freak, to honor come this year’s Transgender Day of Remembrance.

How incredibly sad.

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