I said i’d stay away from forensic analysis of the Grantland story and, as far as the ethical analysis goes, i’ve pretty much done that.
But there’s another angle that maybe is not being adequately picked up: since its behind the growing “yes, but…” meme that is currently doing the rounds, even in relatively sympathetic circles, maybe it needs bringing out into the open.
The victim-blaming heart
Because, as the trans community knows all too well, there is almost always a “yes, but…” – a tiny sliver of victim-blaming at the heart of even the most positive of support. And in the hands of the non-supporters, the sceptics and the outright transphobes, that sliver, that doubt swiftly blossoms into nudges and winks and eventually outright accusations that, awful as the end was, didn’t she, didn’t he, yanno…didn’t she bring it all upon themself?
It goes like this. Vice contains an excellent deconstruction of the whole sorry saga by UK writer, Paris Lees.
The first few fesponses are sympathetic. Then comes one that is outrightly transphobic followed by one that starts well, but quickly turns sour: “anyone trans has my utmost sympathy but that is no excuse for lying about something like (easily verifiable) college degrees…i feel like this woman’s house of lies collapsed on her”.
You see? All lies. So somehow that lying, which some might call reinvention process, is reason enough to exonerate an unscrupulous journalist and simultaneously blame the victim for all that befell her.
Partial journalism: absence of evidence
But have these “lies” really been proven? Or have we read, simply, one version of the story by a journalist who, it has been reported, was in the editor’s chair at the Seattle Weekly when it published a piece subsequently been challenged, in court, for making inadequate background checks.
I mean: perish the thought that a series of statements comprehensively derided as lies might merely reflect journalistic omission. Because – pause a moment – a very large amount of a piece alleging lies is not actually demonstrating lie at all. Certainly not in the sense of a smoking gun – a photograph of some event previously denied by the principal actor.
No: it is demonstrating absence of positive evidence, which is another thing entirely. Worse, it is not just absence of evidence in an area notoriously rife with evidentiary difficulty: it is also a monocular view of events written up after the death of the individual best placed to deny or refute the view it projects.
Is that really how we wish to do journalism nowadays?
Let’s start with some of the evidence presented. There’s a lawsuit involving the town of Gilbert. Their lawyers found big holes in the education history of the person suing them. They “suspected” she might have had a different name once. But since she was unwilling to disclose it, the case ended there.
So: what evidence is that?
Some harsh notes on trans reality
It is, of course, absolutely consistent with trans reaction, which i hinted at in my last piece: the tale of a trans woman in trouble with her local council because their computer thought her previous identity was a separate person: and her unwilling to end the case with the simple act of outing herself because to do so would have been too humiliating, too embarrassing.
Oh…and then we have a nasty piece of public outing, handing out an old name, marital status, children. Fascinating. There’s an entire essay in there about the ethics of putting third parties on the spot in this way. Because, as is clear later on, the author hasn’t spoken to these people. They don’t want to speak to him, which maybe ought to tell him something.
Or rather, just one close relative – a brother-in-law Dr. V’s ex-brother-in-law, who, the writer concedes, hates the deceased – is happy to go on the record and deride her as a “con man”. Why? We never quite learn: although, again, my experience of high profile trans cases is that there is always someone there in the background, prepared to speak ill of the dead.
Otherwise, the family are mere ciphers, adjuncts to the bigger important story the author has to tell.
We have reports of harassment claims, some years back by co-workers of the story’s subject. Of course we do. Because trans women have never, ever been on the receiving end of abuse which, when they dare to complain, is suddenly formalised into allegations used to beat them down inside a largely unsympathetic court system!
This is salacious stuff and, if the outing of the individual concerned was an ethical step too far, this dredging up of long ago allegations was truly scraping the barrel.
Smoke – but no gun
Then what? An investor who worked with her gave evidence she was not exactly a brilliant businesswoman – which is much as you might expect from someone also a golf and physics geek. There are some astonishing claims: that the subject claimed to have worked as a $1,000 an hour consultant, to have been an original designer of bluetooth technology and to have done something exceedingly hush hush and military.
I’d be sceptical about that sort of thing as well. But then, that’s probably why it doesn’t much matter: the proof, as so many other commenters have got, and this author did not, was in the gadget. Whether it worked or not.
But, but, but…our intrepid investigator found old birth certificates, found none of the educational qualifications in the names stated which proves something. Doesn’t it?
Sadly, no. The difficulty of individual trans histories is they are all different, all patchy all confused and obscured by differing degrees of tearing up the past. Some go to great lengths to eradicate past history and are aided and abetted in their efforts by the state.
In the UK, for instance, there are legal protections against having one’s past revealed, while several key government systems treat pre-transition history as seriously as they deal with individuals in witness protection schemes.
Go looking and no matter how diligently you look, you won’t find the full story – not without either the full co-operation of the individual involved or the national security services.
An offer refused
And what last detail does the author tell us? Why: only that the subject offered to provide documentary evidence of her claimed degrees that he rejected out of hand. Why? Because – he says – the price to be paid was too high: a non-disclosure agreement about her past.
As a journalist myself i’d certainly look twice at such an offer, but no: not reject it so lightly, so easily, on the back, it appears, of one single phone call. I’d look for compromise.
But then, if evidence had been supplied, our intrepid reporter would not have had quite the story he hope to tell.
So there you have it. A dead woman is branded a liar: her death blamed in part on her lies.
And the evidence for those lies: a partial, possibly incomplete investigation by a journalist, published after her death, itself full of holes, and assertions about things he could not confirm.
That, in my book, should not be the end of the matter, but the beginning: and Dr V, the victim in all this, deserves far better.