Last week, ESPN’s Grantland ran a remarkable story titled “Dr. V’s Magical Putter,” a journalistic odyssey that began with curiosity about a supposedly revolutionary golf club, and ended by focusing on the chaotic life of its inventor, a woman named Essay Anne Vanderbilt. The reporter, Caleb Hannan, discovered that Vanderbilt was transgender, and he revealed his knowledge of this fact to Vanderbilt. Shortly after, Vanderbilt committed suicide. Bob speaks with ESPN.com writer and transgender activist, Christina Kahrl, to understand the errors in “Dr. V’s Magical Putter.”
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BOB GARFIELD: Last week, ESPN's sports website Grantland ran a remarkable story titled, “Dr. V’s Magical Putter,” a journalistic odyssey that began with curiosity about a supposedly revolutionary golf club and ended by focusing on the chaotic life of its inventor, a woman named Essay Anne Vanderbilt. Reporter Caleb Hannan was first bemused by the eccentric inventor whose MIT and Wharton pedigree, she said, landed her a top-secret job developing stealth technology for the Pentagon. Her golf innovations drew heavily on her expertise on inertia, momentum and other forces of physics.
But, in time, Hannan discovered Dr. V was a liar, selling putters on the basis of an invented history. Not only was her resume fraudulent, he could find no record of her existence before the early aughts. When he discovered that Essay Vanderbilt was born a man named Stephen Krol, as Hannan described the moment, “A chill ran down my spine.” That turn of phrase, suggesting shock or perhaps even revulsion, was just one element of the story that incited rage in the transgender community, and beyond, because three months before the article was published, Dr. V, who had never wanted to be publicly identified as transgender, committed suicide. Hannan was accused by many of unethically outing her and, by some, of being culpable in her death.
Another ESPN.com writer, Christina Kahrl, herself a transgender activist, responded to the Grantland piece on Grantland, with an essay titled, “What Grantland Got Wrong: Understanding the Serious Errors in Dr. V’s Magical Putter.’” Christina, welcome to On the Media.
CHRISTINA KAHRL: Glad to be here, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: The stakes are not low here. As you point out in your essay, the suicide rate in the trans-community is stratospheric. When someone writes of “chills going up his spine,” at the discovery of sexual transition, does that suggests some sort of freak show?
CHRISTINA KAHRL: Let me stop you right there and also say that the more appropriate term would be “gender transition” because sex and sexuality really don’t have anything to do with it. The problem here, I think, is trans people already have to deal with the challenge of being “othered” because their experience is so different and alien from what people consider normal, and, as editors, letting them refer to it in those terms really kind of contributed to the fact that this is somehow weird and something that needs to be sensationalized. And that’s not something you should do.
BOB GARFIELD: Christina, this matter not so simple. By the time Hannan unearthed Dr. V’s gender history, he had long since uncovered a fraud. She was selling putters based on a series of lies. She’d taken money from investors. Hannan hadn’t meant to do an investigative piece, but she took him down a rabbit hole. Is a con woman, in mid con, entitled to journalistic privacy?
CHRISTINA KAHRL: Absolutely, and this is one of the problems, this idea that, oh, she’s misled us on these other things, so her gender needs to be bundled with those. And that was a mistake because you shouldn’t put those together. Whether she’s on the up and up or not, she still deserves that basic courtesy, that basic respect. If you come across something, you don’t out them. That’s not your responsibility. If anything, you talk to the person. You can tell them that, I found this out and I am not going to out you, provide reassurance on this score. That would have been common courtesy, from my perspective, and was something that he could have done but did not.
BOB GARFIELD: I’m wondering when gender identity can be germane to a story such as this. For example, if I had been reading about this case and the huckster in question just had a total blank history before 2003, and that was brought up by the reporter, and the reporter found the explanation for that, and that was a change in gender identity and a new name, and so forth, isn’t that information I kind of need to have as a reporter? And if there’s no mention of chills and weirdness, as Caleb Hannan used, is that not germane?
CHRISTINA KAHRL: If it’s a story about a golf club and it’s a story about her ability to design and create this golf club, if her credentials are the key element here, you know, all of that stuff revolves around is she who she says she is, in terms of a working professional delivering this putter? That’s the only context in which this matters. If you want to talk about the golf club story, then execute that. Don’t talk about the gender whatsoever. But if you’re going to go there, then you’re not talking about a sports story anymore, you’re talking about transgender people and the problem of suicide. And that’s a story worth talking. Grantland may not be the pla – place to have had it. Again, how people talk about trans people and suicide isn’t necessarily something that hits the mainstream media ever, in the first place.
BOB GARFIELD: Dr. V lived, as they say, in deep stealth, but by putting herself forward in such a public way, she was dishonest and got caught and, therefore, exposed herself to scrutiny. The word “self-destructive” comes to mind.
CHRISTINA KAHRL: Whether you transition or not, you don’t get the right to then, you know, make up a past that you clearly don’t have. I can’t sit there and make a claim that I was a particle physicist or won like the Nobel Prize. Nobody gets a free pass there. I mean, I don’t know why she made all of that up except to sell her golf clubs.
BOB GARFIELD: This story did not happen in isolation. I gather you frequently find yourself wincing at coverage involving transgender people. This is Katie Couric and transgender model Carmen Carrera.
KATIE COURIC: Your, your – your private parts are different now, aren’t they?
CARMEN CARRERA: Shhhh, shhh. I don’t want to talk about it because it’s, it’s – it’s really personal.
BOB GARFIELD: Do, do you see a lot of that kind of morbid gaping fascination?
CHRISTINA KAHRL: Basic monkey curiosity is native to the species of human beings. You know, you don’t get to ask somebody about the state of their genitalia. I wouldn’t ask that question of anybody else, so why would I even go there with this person? If you use a little bit of common sense, you’re not gonna get in – yourself in trouble here. But you have to allow that a lot of people just don’t know many trans people. Unlike the gay and lesbian communities, where a lot of people can say like, oh well, I have a cousin or have somebody in my office or something like that, and then they can find it relatable, because it’s like, well, that’s just my coworker, and so, what’s the big deal. Well, there are not as many trans people out there, in the first place, because we are such a small segment of society and, again, the way in which the media does play a role, in terms of sensationalizing it, does create this set of phony expectations about what kind of people we are.
BOB GARFIELD: We’re speaking on Thursday. I have spent the last five and a half days completely absorbed in the Dr. V story, in the original, in the apologies, in your essay, in hundreds of tweets on the subject. I have done all sorts of preparation [LAUGHS] to speak to you and the larger issue. And when I originally greeted you, I called you “he.” I heard your voice and a switch was thrown in my brain, and it makes me wonder, are you fighting an uphill battle here?
CHRISTINA KAHRL: I admit, my voice is one of my tells, but then I’m openly trans, and I don’t mind that people know my past, in part, because I was already a public figure before I transitioned. It wasn’t like I was gonna be able to hide the fact that I was transitioned. But each one of us who is trans has to essentially navigate his or her own levels of comfort with themselves and how much they have control over it and what can they do about it. We each have our own solutions for the challenges we confront.
But that said, considering where we are today, even in the light of this tragedy, even in the light of so many other frustrations that we see, whether it's other public figures getting outed or, you know, that Kouric interview and like, you know, confronting the issue of what do you talk about with trans people, uphill battle or no, we are making so much progress. I think we’ve come so far.
BOB GARFIELD: Christina, thank you very much.
CHRISTINA KAHRL: Well, thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Christina Kahrl is a writer and editor covering Major League baseball for ESPN.com and a board member of GLAAD.