There is a glass-half-full way to look at the conflagration sparked last week by the sports-culture website Grantland publishing a feature about a duplicitous golf club shiller in which the threat of being outed as transgender preceded her suicide: At least there was outrage.
It’s small comfort for many transgender people, no doubt, who are so cruelly persecuted in general and so badly cared for by the nation’s medical and psychiatric professions in particular. But at the core of Grantland editor-in-chief Bill Simmons’ Chris Christie-style, this-really-hurts-me-why-me self-flagellation over how he and his editors and lawyers missed the tone-deaf nature of Caleb Hannan’s piece on Essay Anne Vanderbilt and her ridiculous “magic” golf putter, lay this:
The piece had been up for 56 solid hours before the backlash began. The narrative shifted abruptly, and by Friday night, early high-profile supporters were backtracking from their initial praise. Caleb started getting death threats. People came after us on social media.
Only in the last few years, once mainstream America came to understand and shrug at homosexuality and had the bandwidth to grapple with a new societal injustice, did transgender issues finally begin to get some oxygen in the culture. And already, the vox populi was able to recognize when someone had mishandled it in such a way as to be screamingly offensive.
Think about that: It might have taken more than a day — and given that it’s a very long story ostensibly about a golf putter, Simmons shouldn’t be so surprised it didn’t happen instantaneously — before the chatter reached Simmons’ ears. But when it did it took the form of a very clear rebuke of a new, officially ratified conventional wisdom that transgender people have an absolute right to privacy even when they are being exposed as professional frauds.
That may seem like a very specific lesson, but it has myriad implications. In the course of his reporting on a legitimate story, Hannan had discovered that the con artist was transgender. She begged him to promise not to tell anyone, but he chose to regard this as yet another part of her con and disclosed her status to one of her investors. Then she killed herself and he wrote in the most insensitive way imaginable about this wild journalistic ride he had taken because, he implied, of his own intrepid, indefatigable talents.
The thing is, not very long ago that’s where it would have ended. There might have been an angry letter or statement from a trans group and, perhaps, a GLBT watchdog group doing its begrudging diligence in representing the “T” part of the acronym. But the vast majority of people wouldn’t have understood why Hannan and Simmons’ sins were so egregious and dehumanizing, and the two of them would have gone on believing the initial praise for the work.
That’s not the world we live in anymore. We live in a world where 18 states ban discrimination based on gender expression and where it is a protected class in the federal hate crimes statutes, where a transgender character played by a transgender actress on “Orange Is The New Black” is easily the most sympathetic, where Annette Bening and Warren Beatty are proud of their transgender son, where a self-described “transgender queer” in Iowa was elected homecoming queen last October.
Better yet, we live in a world where televangeist Pat Robertson — he of the gays-brought-on-9/11-and-Katrina theory — said this last summer:
I think there are men who are in a woman’s body. … It’s very rare. But it’s true — or women that are in men’s bodies — and that they want a sex change. That is a very permanent thing, believe me, when you have certain body parts amputated and when you have shot up with various kinds of hormones. It’s a radical procedure. I don’t think there’s any sin associated with that. I don’t condemn somebody for doing that.
Consider how different that is than what I found in 2010 when I dissected the suicide of a Los Angeles Times sportswriter, Christine Daniels, who blogged in 2007 for the paper about her transition from her original male identity as Mike Penner. (Daniels transitioned back to Penner in 2008 and killed himself in 2009.) Shortly after Penner’s initial transition to Daniels, she attended a David Beckham press conference. Paul Oberjuerge, a writer for the San Bernardino County Sun, took that opportunity to blog about her appearance:
She looks like a guy in a dress, pretty much. Except anyone paying any attention isn’t going to be fooled — as some people are by veteran transvestites. Maybe this is cruel, but there were women in that room who were born women in body, as well as soul. And the difference between them and Christine was, in my mind, fairly stark. It seemed almost as we’re all going along with someone’s dress-up role-playing.
The remark badly hurt Daniels, confidants told me for my L.A. Weekly piece. But did it spark any widespread outrage? Not really. The original blog post remains online now, more than six years later, and has garnered just 21 comments. To my knowledge, nobody ever apologized or tried to explain what they were thinking in publishing it. If there was any soul-searching at all, it was never done publicly.
The Grantland incident will live on as an important marker for the journey of transgender people to public acceptance and respect. The reason they are so poorly treated — and thus, suffer such high unemployment and suicide rate — is because they are so badly misunderstood. Even many “mainstream” gays and lesbians have long shown hostility to the plight of trans people and insisted their fight isn’t the same. That, too, is now out of vogue, as both sex columnist Dan Savage and prominent gay rights blogger John Aravosis have discovered.
Yes, Vanderbilt is dead. It’s unknowable whether Hannan’s actions were directly responsible for her suicide, but whether they were or not, they were the actions of one misguided journalist. Many others now have the wisdom of those unfortunate decisions, and the incentive of a potentially vicious backlash, to encourage them to be more circumspect and inquisitive.
And the reactions Grantland received show something important — that in theory, if not in actuality, America is getting it. There will be many more tests of this in coming years, starting very likely with a referendum this year in California seeking to repeal a state law guaranteeing public school students the right to use bathrooms and locker rooms and to participate in the sex-segregated activities that correspond with their expressed genders instead of their school records.
But, as painful as it may be, there is a metamorphosis in progress. Take heart, trans people. You’re closer than you think.