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Why Outing Can Be Deadly

February 20, 2014

By Arielle P. Schwartz, Holley Law Fellow, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force

Fascinated by a golf club created by Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt, writer Caleb Hannan started looking into the science and the scientist behind it. On Jan. 15, he published (posthumously) Dr. V’s Magical Putter, a personal reflection of his seven-month investigation, in the online sports blog Grantland. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force took interest in Hannan’s piece because following Dr. Vanderbilt’s story, a transgender woman committed suicide last October.

According to Hannan, Vanderbilt agreed to focus on the benefits of the golf club in his writing and not on her, stating “my anonymity is my security as well as my livelihood.” In an effort to confirm Vanderbilt’s credentials as “legitimate,” Hannan discovered that Vanderbilt, the scientist behind the “scientifically superior” golf club, was also a transgender woman. What Hannan did next was reveal Vanderbilt’s gender identity to the main investor in her company—shifting the focus of his story from golf to the private life of an already fragile individual. The Washington Post has since stated, “outing a transgender person is not only a violation of privacy but also dangerous.”

Whether or not Vanderbilt was an MIT aeronautical physicist or a Wharton graduate, the golf club worked and Vanderbilt engineered it. According to the article, the last time Hannan heard from Vanderbilt was when she warned him that he was “about to commit a hate crime.”

Grantland writer Christina Kahrl published a poignant follow-up essay recognizing the irrelevance of Vanderbilt’s gender identity, the inexcusable indulgence of Hannan’s discovery, and his careless misgendering and ambiguous pronoun usage. She wrote:

[Vanderbilt] was a member of a community for whom tragedy and loss are as regular as the sunrise, a minority for whom suicide attempts outpace the national average almost 26 times over, perhaps as high as 41 percent of all trans people. And because one of her responses to the fear of being outed as a transsexual woman to some of the people in her life — when it wasn’t even clear the story was ever going to run — was to immediately start talking and thinking about attempting suicide. Again.

Did Hannan’s investigation lead to Vanderbilt’s suicide? We do not know for sure. We do know that outing—the act of exposing an individual’s sexual orientation and/or gender identity— has been linked to suicide. Marcus Wayman committed suicide after a police officer threatened to tell his family that he was gay. Thereafter, a federal court held in Sterling v. Borough of Minersville, that the Constitution of the United States clearly protects a person’s sexual orientation from forced disclosure. In 2010, Tyler Clementi committed suicide after classmates outed him on the internet.

The act of outing someone is detrimental because it is a violation of their privacy. Often people who are outed feel blindsided and forced to reveal a deeply personal part of their identity without their consent and under someone else’s terms. Coming out is a process and can be a difficult time for someone because of discrimination, homophobia, or potential marginalization from their families and community at large. People must choose for themselves how and when to come out.

Something as simple as changing your name can reveal insurmountable consequences and threatening challenges. How bad is it to out someone? Bad enough for the Social Security Administration to end its policy of outing transgender employees to employers in 2011.

If you or anyone you know has been outed and is experiencing suicidal thoughts and tendencies, know that there are resources available to talk about suicide and suicide prevention. The Trevor Project is a national organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning young people. Befrienders Worldwide is a network of 169 emotional support centers in 29 countries who encourage one another in providing essential support to people in crisis. Learn more about how to raise awareness for suicide prevention here.

Vanderbilt’s conclusion: “Nobody knows my life but me…You don’t know what the truth is.”

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