Recently, Grantland published a feature by Caleb Hannan about the “scientifically superior” Oracle GX1 putter and its reclusive inventor, Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt. During the course of his reporting, Hannan uncovered inconsistencies within Vanderbilt’s official backstory. Some of these were germane to the story, like the fact that the impressive work and education credentials touted by Vanderbilt appeared to be fabrications. The other discovery was irrelevant, invasive, and irresponsible for any media outlet to print without the expressed consent of the subject: Vanderbilt’s consciously-hidden history as a transgender woman. Hannan published both the germane and irrelevant information, framing these facts as part of a larger fraud. Prior to publishing, Vanderbilt committed suicide.
Being trans* is not a form of fraud or deception. In fact, calling a trans* person fraudulent couldn’t be further from the truth. I am a transgender woman, and I’d like to say: I am authentic, and I am human. My fraudulent years were the ones in which I was trying to suppress the person that I was — the years when I tried so very hard to just “be a guy.” That was fake, but now I’m free. I imagine that Vanderbilt sought that same sort of freedom.
I am an openly transgender woman. I embrace this fact, and I’ve made a conscious decision to share this detail about my personal history with the world. It was my choice, and mine alone, and it brought with it all of society’s misconceptions, institutionalized discrimination, and threats of physical harm. I felt it was important for me to step forward and try to confront some of these larger issues. The decision to come out as transgender was extremely personal.
While I never met Vanderbilt, I can relate to what she must have gone through, agonizing over whether it would be safe and healthy to be out as a transgender woman. On one hand, by being open about your past, you can speak freely about your experiences. On the other, significant challenges await those who are open about their trans* status. Both choices (to be openly transgender or to remain “stealth”) are equally valid.
What are some of the challenges associated with being "out," and how might that have impacted Vanderbilt’s decision to remain an extremely private person? For one, it’s physically, financially, and emotionally dangerous to be openly trans*. According to a report released by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, trans* people face significantly higher rates of assault, harassment, homelessness, and job loss. Trans* people are four times as likely than the general population to live in a state of extreme poverty. 90 percent of trans* individuals have reported being the subject of workplace harassment, and the unemployment rate for trans* people is nearly twice the national unemployment rate. Additionally, right around the time Hannan was reporting on Vanderbilt, the Arizona state legislature was considering a bill that would criminalize the use of public restrooms by trans* individuals.
According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, nearly 41 percent of all transgender people will attempt suicide at some point during their lives. Knowing this statistic, I find it extremely hard to deny anyone their right to minimize their own exposure to conditions that may lead to self-harm. If, as is the case for many stealth trans* folk, remaining anonymous to the world is what’s needed, then by all means, they should follow that course.
I can provide firsthand information on what it’s like being openly transgender. I watch this play out on a regular basis. I may meet someone, whether a co-worker or an acquaintance, and be treated with the same casual attitude with which I imagine they treat everyone. Should they find out that I’m transgender, however, conversations start to take odd turns. Suddenly, the topic of my genitals becomes fair game in their minds. Suddenly, they feel the right to ask what my “real name” is. Suddenly, pronouns start slipping, and I find myself called “he” by these people who had just been referring to me as “she” five minutes earlier. Suddenly, I’m no longer a human being, but rather a biological freak show.
Is that something you’d like? For every conversation to veer away from you as an individual and to instead focus on one singular part of your history? As a writer, as an author, as an activist, this is a choice that I have made for myself. I am willing to endure the awkward questions, the stares, the misgenderings, and the gawking. I do this in an effort to urge society to come to terms with the fact that trans* people are just like anyone else. I do this because I choose to. Essay Vanderbilt did not choose to put her transgender status front and center, and taking that from her is not journalism, but rather a betrayal of her right to privacy.
Trans* people want to be held to the same standards as everyone else; we want to be treated with dignity and humanity. My hope is that in the wake of this tragic story (an illustration of what happens to those whose right to privacy is denied) we can come to better understand the inner struggle that comes with being trans*. Until issues surrounding employment, housing, and medical discrimination come to an end, and until society begins to accept us for who we are, how can anyone mandate openness?