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How ESPN and Grantland Desperately Failed the Trans Community

No one was served by Grantland's article except themselves. Trans people were not helped by seeing yet another one of them portrayed as a demented lunatic trickster. Golfers were not served by learning the woman behind an effective tool in their sport was once a man.
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Every time I write about trans people, I follow my own Christine Daniels rules.

We first met Christine in 2007 when she penned a column, "Old Mike, New Christine," chronicling her very public transition from LA Times sports writer Mike Penner to LA Times sports writer Christine Daniels.

When Christine transitioned, she became a new person in so many ways, not the least of which was her new-found happiness. For the first time in her life, she felt like she was the person she was truly born to be. She was free.

Less than two years later Christine committed suicide, unable to shake the past -- in both her body and mind -- from her new identity. It was another sad chapter in an all-too-common theme for our culture's checkered history on trans issues, which includes the highest suicide rate of any demographic in the country. In case you're not aware, 41 percent of trans people attempt suicide; That's 25 times higher than the general population.

All of this was lost on the writer and editors of a badly conceived posthumous hit piece ESPN's Grantland chose to run last week about trans golf-club inventor Essay Anne Vanderbilt (called Dr. V throughout the article). The lengthy article used her trans identity to needlessly sensationalize the story. Dr. V committed suicide in the midst of the writer researching the story.

We cover sports. This isn't the White House, where the national public interest is at stake. This isn't the Pentagon drawing up plans to wage war. It's not an investment bank sinking the economy into a recession. This story is sports entertainment -- One person's quest to help people tap a little white ball into a hole in the ground.

As sportswriters, we sometimes lose sight of that, embroiled in our own self-importance. Sure, there are big implications to a lot of what we do. Steroids are damaging to people. I spend a lot of my time writing about the fight against homophobia and transphobia in sports, marks of an evolving society.

But for the most part, we sportswriters create the entertaining sideshow of sports. Jim Harbaugh's pants. Whether the Browns will employ a 3-4 or 4-3. Tiger Woods' ill-fated ride. All of this is of interest to the public -- but it is not of public interest.

The gender of a golf-club inventor is of prurient interest and no other.

Was this story worth potentially driving someone known to be mentally unstable -- with a history of suicide attempts -- to take her own life? The pursuit of the story -- let alone the publishing of it -- shows a willful disregard for humanity and the struggles so many misunderstood minorities face in public -- and in the mirror -- every day.

My three Christine Daniels rules are pretty basic and easy-to-follow. Grantland and the writer broke them all.

Rule #1: Don't "out" trans people. The same publication that outed Dr. V would never dream of outing a gay NFL player. Why? Because the folks involved don't see the need some trans people have to be identified by their transitioned gender and not "transgender." Daniels committed suicide because she could never shake her old gender. Fallon Fox lived life as a woman until she felt forced to come out publicly; And once she did come out, she faced a mountain of prejudice from people in mixed martial arts.

It's always up to the person whether they publicly declare their gender or sexual orientation.

It's never up to you.

Rule #2: Always refer to a trans person as their self-identified name and gender. Every time. Without exception.

Rule #3: Don't discuss their pre-transition life without their express consent. Don't show pre-transition photos and DO NOT mention their former name without their express approval.

Certainly there are pieces of history that warranted discussion with this story. Dr. V clearly did not have the professional history she claimed to the writer and potential customers. That's important for the writer to pursue, and he was right to share the information publicly. But if a trans person asks you to not discuss her very private personal life, do as she asks. Don't share that information with company investors and certainly do not share it with the public.

It's hard enough for trans people to be recognized by their true identity; They don't need you making it more difficult.

It's their life, not yours.

One of the many struggles trans people endure is putting their past behind them. When I started down the road of writing about trans athletes, I didn't understand why a trans woman wouldn't want to show me pre-trans photos or talk about her days as a college cornerback.

Christine's suicide hit home the message. No matter what Christine did physically and mentally, she would always see herself as a former man.

To be sure, there's a difference between putting your past behind you and claiming to work on the Stealth bomber, graduating from Harvard and being a Vanderbilt. The need to distance herself from her past doesn't excuse Dr. V for the apparent lies and deception she perpetrated on the writer and other people in the golf industry.

But Dr. V's deception doesn't excuse the writer and editors for mishandling the research, writing and execution of a story they should have buried months earlier.

Instead, the writer and editors knew it was a fantastical story and would draw page views, so they went with it.

No one was served by Grantland's article except themselves. Trans people were not helped by seeing yet another one of them portrayed as a demented lunatic trickster (hell, we're going to give Jared Leto an Oscar for doing the same thing). Golfers were not served by learning the woman behind an effective tool in their sport was once a man.

Yet with reckless abandon, Grantland and the writer chose to turn a woman's life upside down so they could get some page views and so the writer's name (which I will continue to avoid here) would get some pub.

It didn't have to be the case. The writer could have handled this so very differently. He could have stopped short of sharing with the world Dr. V's former name. There have been articles I've written about trans people where I shared their birth names, the most recent being the story of high school coach Stephen Alexander in rural Rhode Island. I did so with Stephen's blessing after many lengthy conversations about the subject. It was important to him and me to educate people with the article, and we felt in this particular case the use of his former name was important (and, given the on-camera interviews with family members and townfolk, unavoidable).

The article also could have addressed the issues facing trans people. It could have mentioned Christine Daniels. It could have shed light on the struggles some trans pro golfers -- like Lana Lawless -- have endured for the right to simply participate in the sport. At the very least, they could have run the story by ESPN baseball editor Christina Kahrl. They didn't do any of these things.

Most importantly, they could have refused to out Dr. V at all. That she was born a different gender was completely irrelevant to the story about a golf club. We hear all the time that sports journalists need to steer clear of the personal lives of people in sports; Yet when it came to a trans person, any respect for her private life was ignored for sensationalism.

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