When a Journalist Threatens to Out a Trans Woman, Where Do the Ethics Lie?
Just like Caleb Hannan, I know that when you set out to write a story, it doesn’t always end up where you thought it would. Human beings are fascinating, complex creatures, and sometimes a simple story on, say, a miraculous golf club evolves into something else as you uncover more and more about its maker. It’s then that you reach a breaking point: stop to refocus the story, or follow it in a new direction? What if following it would require outing your subject as a transgender woman, potentially endangering her?
That’s just what Hannan did in his posthumous profile of Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt, a woman who, until shortly before publication of his article, was very much alive and healthy. She died only after Hannan began asking questions about her and her past, and threatened to expose her — then she committed suicide, leaving behind her wife and a raging debate about journalistic ethics, as well as a discussion about the risks inherent in being a transgender woman.
Journalists have long held that they have a duty of care to their sources, and they’re obligated to protect the people who provide them with information — sometimes at great cost, in a country where they may be pressured to out the people who helped them dig up critical information for investigative reports, exposes and more. But what about their subjects? Some might argue that the wellbeing of a subject is secondary to the value of a piece, and that hit pieces and harsh profiles of people who have committed crimes and other public harms are, overall, beneficial.
What if, however, the story is more complicated? Here’s what we know about Dr. Vanderbilt: she likely wasn’t a doctor at all, as she appears to have fabricated many if not all of her credentials. She lied to Hannan and others about her experience, education and employment history, and the reasons for that may have been complex. That, however, was separate from her desire to have her gender identity respected.
Hannan claims that he was simply following the rules when he started writing the story and wanted to verify details, and in a sense, he’s right. Like any journalist, he became intrigued when details began to mismatch, so he dug deeper, which is when Dr. V (as she was known) asked him to stop — and he didn’t. Again, not unusual for a profession where ferreting out information that people want to hide is the name of the game.
But what happens when that information is deeply personal? Outing Dr. V as a fake scientist because what turned out to be a rather excellent golf club was invented by someone who had more of a mechanic’s savant knowledge of physics than one backed by an Ivy League education would have been a perfectly reasonable, and not unusual, piece of journalism. It undoubtedly would have hurt her business and put pressure on her relationships, but Hannan would hardly have violated journalistic ethics there. However, some critics argue that he crossed a journalistic line by outing the details of her gender identity.
And not just by outing them, but by threatening to do so, making it clear that despite her requests to be respected, he’d choose to pursue the story at any cost — even if it turned out to be her life. Notably, he says: “The last time I heard from Dr. V she warned me that I was about to commit a hate crime.” That statement might have sounded hyperbolic to him, but he’s never been a trans woman facing a forcible and very public outing in a world that is very hostile to women: for her, the threat of being outed was obviously terrifying.
That threat was already being realized, as Hannan was calling her colleagues and friends for verifying details, and asking them how they felt about her past, effectively ensuring that everyone in her community knew she was a transgender woman.
Think it’s not a risk? In 2011, 45% of hate murders were committed against trans women, most of whom were women of color. Trans women face housing and employment discrimination as well as being marginalized by society, something made clear in Hannan’s conversations with people who knew her from her past who spoke scathingly about her gender identity. In making the decision to threaten a trans woman with the exposure of her birth name and the gender assigned at birth, he was presenting her with a very real and very frightening risk.
Journalism is entering a brave new world with respect to the trans community, with many more trans people, like myself, living openly, in addition to writing, speaking and talking about our experiences. Yet, for some members of the trans community, living in secrecy is necessary for safety, just as some members of the gay community prefer not to be outed. When a journalist stumbles upon information that could compromise a subject’s safety, does duty of care trump the story?
I’d say yes, it does.
Photo credit: Fevi in Pictures.