Monday, January 20, 2014

inverting outing: the politics of reporting the suicide of a transgender scam artist / #JusticeForDrV

My take on trans folk is they're people just like cis folk: some are great, some are awful, and most are great or awful depending on the circumstances of your interaction with them.

But I'm fascinated by the way trans folk fit the identitarian model, something I first noticed when I saw an article about trans-inclusive feminism: do trans women and cis women share the same social identity? The logic of identitarianism usually says you are what society thinks you are, but trans folk want to be seen the way they see themselves and reject the identity they were born into.

The controversy over Caleb Hannan's Dr. V’s Magical Putter (twitter tag: #JusticeForDrV) brings out a second contradiction: The traditional goal for identitarians is to be proud of their identity, but some trans people do not want to be known as trans. So identitarians are outraged that Hannan said anything about Essay Anne Vanderbilt having been Stephen Krol, even though Hannan refers to Dr. V. as female throughout the article.

Some people who insist Hannan should not have mentioned that Dr. V was trans have used an analogy that seems especially unfortunate: they cite news outlets that conceal the identity of rape victims because of the shame attached. Do they think it's shameful to be transgender?

So far as I know, Dr. V did not try to hide the fact that she was trans. She tried to hide the fact that she was a scam artist who invented her credentials. Scammers know a good lie makes people think a product is better than it is. Hannan wrote: scientists have actually studied how using “professional” gear affects amateurs’ performance. In 2011, researchers at the University of Virginia laid out a putting mat, a ball, and a putter, and invited 41 undergraduates to take part in an experiment. The students were asked to do two things: Take 10 test putts and then try to draw the hole to scale. Half were told nothing about the putter’s origins. The rest were told it once belonged to a PGA Tour player. You already know what happened next. The students who thought they were using a pro’s club sank more putts and drew the hole larger than the control group. The social scientists running the experiment must have known that what they were witnessing was pure superstition. How else to describe the process by which years of practice and skill can be transmitted from an expert to an amateur through the simple transfer of an object? But because they’re academics, they use a different term — positive contagion. It’s like the placebo effect for sports.
Nothing I've seen suggests Dr. V was worried about being exposed as trans. It is possible she was worried about being known by her previous name, because at least one person who knew her as Stephen Krol called her a "con man", but that has nothing to do with gender. That has to do with being someone who profits from lies.

Like claiming to be an aeronautical physicist from MIT when you're not.

A journalist has to say more than "This person lied. Trust me." If Dr. V had not lied about the parts of her life that had nothing to do with being trans, the article could have been written without mentioning she was trans. But to prove Essay Anne Vanderbilt was not who she claimed, Hannan had to say who Stephen Krol was.

That said, there is a line in the article that made me wonder if Hannan was transphobic or naive. When he was given the first hint that Dr. V had been male, he says, "Cliché or not, a chill actually ran up my spine." Does Hannan have something against trans folk? Or did he mean he was surprised to learn that the story had another dimension? We don't know from the text. But we do know that if he had not been given that hint, he never would have been able to prove that Essay Anne Vanderbilt had scammed investors and customers alike.

Update: The Dr. V Story: A Letter From the Editor