Essay Anne Vanderbilt, scientist and aerospace designer of the Yar Golf putter, was found dead in her home in Gilbert. Cause of death: Suicide.
Vanderbilt’s revolutionary club, dubbed the Oracle GXI, was said to change the nature of the game entirely.
But when Caleb Hannan wrote an article about Vanderbilt’s innovation, a different lead caught his eye.
Despite’s Vanderbilt’s pleas to focus the story on “the science, not the scientist,” Hannan’s story quickly evolved into an investigation of her past life as a man and her transformation into a woman. He claimed it was the strangest story he’s ever worked on.
The Gilbert designer’s former girlfriend and business partner, Gerri Jordan, who found Vanderbilt’s body, blamed Hannan’s prying investigation and questionable ethics into her personal life for accelerating the decision to take her life. She would have eventually gone through with it, claimed Jordan, but the article triggered the timing.
Hannan’s supporters criticize Vanderbilt for her dishonesty about her life and credentials; the journalist’s decision to out those lies was his obligation. Vanderbilt claimed to have degrees from MIT and Pennsylvania State as a physicist, as well as experience on projects for the military — credentials which could not be corroborated. Detractors point out that his decision to reveal her as a transgender woman was insensitive, cruel and needless in the context of the story.
His Twitter, in particular, is rife with comments calling him out on transphobia and tactless observations.
Whatever the case, the language Hannan chose to use in his article dehumanizes Vanderbilt, demoting her to a caricature. Public relations is about cultivating healthy and thriving relationship with others, understanding their backgrounds and empathizing with them. The transgender community faces marginalization and degradation on a daily basis. His article failed to minimize harm to his subject and to a stigmatized population.
Should Hannan have been more tactful in his approach to investigating Vanderbilt’s background? What does the content of his article suggest for readers’ understanding of the transgender community? Do you think he should have avoided the matter? Should the article have appeared at all?