'Google outed me'

In light of news that a high-profile outing resulted in one transgender woman's suicide, Violet Blue re-examines Google's outing of transgender users with its ongoing Google Plus privacy failures.
Written by Violet Blue, Contributor

If you haven't heard about it by now, last Wednesday, ESPN's Grantland website published an article called Dr. V’s Magical Putter by Caleb Hannan. It was supposed to be a profile about a golf club, but instead its purpose - and dramatic climax - was to out the club's inventor as transgender.


The inventor’s name was Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt. She had agreed to be the subject of the story reluctantly, and only if Hannan wrote about "the science, not the scientist."

As Hannan investigated Vanderbilt, he found out that her academic background didn't add up, and he also learned that she was transgender.

Upon learning this, Hannan told her he was going to break the agreement not to write about her personal life and reveal her transgender status without her consent. He then outed her as transgender to her investors and colleagues, and went forward with an article that was intended to out her online, and to the world.

After being outed to her colleagues, and before the article was published, Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt killed herself.

It reminded me about another transgender woman who was recently outed without her consent - by Google Plus.

A woman was using her old (male) name at work, and when her Android phone updated to KitKat - with Google+ integrating chat and SMS into "hangouts" - this is what happened when she texted a coworker:

Google's response was that her outing was "user error" - Google blamed her, the user for not understanding the new, confusing integration.

ESPN Grantland editor Bill Simmons issued a 2,700-word statement where he lamented twice for failing his writer Hannan, but never once expressed concern for failing Ms. Vanderbilt.

One could argue that ESPN may not have caused Ms. Vanderbilt's suicide, but its actions in outing her have been acknowledged by ESPN itself and the general public as having played an active, key role in her death.

(Grantland founder Bill Simmons has since posted a letter to his readers apologizing for outing her saying, "I don’t think [Hannan] understood the moral consequences of that decision, and frankly, neither did anyone working for Grantland."

Vanderbilt did not want to be out. She wanted to blend in. And though some have been quick to point out that her world would have crumbled had she not been outed as trans, but simply found out as having made up her credentials - those people aren't familiar with the world of sports entrepreneurialism.

Vanderbilt would have merely joined the ranks of sports entrepreneurs who got caught changing their background. Michael Vick, Kevin Hart, Tim Johnson, Nick Saban, Miguel Tijada, Manti Te'o, Rosie Ruiz and George O'Leary are just a few.

And like the people in that list, Vanderbilt would have been busted but if her product or performance was great on its own merit, she would have recovered.

Instead, she was outed as a transgender woman to someone she works with, and before she was to be outed to the world, rather than go through this hell all over again, she took her own life.

Since the release of the latest mobile software Android 4.4, codenamed KitKat, the instant messaging app Hangouts has become the default text-messaging app on phones and tablets running with the newly installed operating system.

But Sorenson wasn't the only transgender person made unsafe by Google+ in Google's ruthless objective to use Android for reorganizing peoples' lives to suit Google's bottom line.

Four days later on January 7, transgender Android user Zoe posted to Google Product Forums > Hangouts that she now needed to change her name and gender display. She did not receive a response.

The same day (and While Ms. Sorensen was waiting fretfully for her employer's HR person to return to work) Android user Nora posted "Legal name instead of actual desired/registered name shows up in Hangout History" to Google Product Forums > Google Chat:

I'm transgender... this account was registered using my preferred name, Nora, but when I look at hangout histories, certain locations on my android phone, and a few other places, I see my legal name popping up instead.

I don't remember actually giving this detail to Google, nor can I find anywhere within the settings where anything other than "Nora" is listed... I don't know how many other people can see me listed as such, but it's really kind of unpleasant and outing, and a bit triggering really...

The issue with identity and Google+ Hangouts overwriting people's Gmail and SMS contacts has been trans-unfriendly since its rollout. One woman worried about the privacy of her transgender sister's identity wrote in Google's Forums (Gmail),

My sister is transgendered and has yet to legally switch to female, and because of this has yet to change her name on her Google+ since she has professional contacts on her page.

(...) Now that I have used the video chat option on Hangouts, everything is reverting back to her old name.

She did not receive a response.

After Google called Erika Sorensen's outing "user error" writer Lexi Cannes commented on the matter January 8, saying "Google is facing increased complaints that they are dismissive of privacy errors triggered by upgrades and other changes. Transgender issues with Google began the day Google+ was launched."

In my eyes, finding this distraught post from a Google+ user one month after Plus launched brought Cannes' comments and Ms. Vanderbilt's suicide full circle:

I am FTM transgender, and outside of this channel (which is meant to be detached from my personal, real-life acquaintances) I have not come out yet.

[the way FTM people are treated when they come out] sickens me and has pushed me farther and farther into the closet to the point where I fear I will not be able to get out before I end up killing myself out of stress.

When I opened up my youtube page today, I was greeted by my birth name, the one that people know and call me by in my outside life, attached to the google+ connection bar just under my profile picture.

(...) I frantically searched through the google+ page and the youtube settings and found no option to remove connections. Eventually, I was forced to delete my entire google+ account, hoping that would at least remove my legal name from my home page... But it DIDN'T.

My youtube home page still displays that information loud and clear, even though I DE-ACTIVATED MY ACCOUNT.

This does not make me feel safe. I feel like my personal privacy as a human being has been stolen from me. So please, if anyone can tell me how to permanently remove google+ and facebook connections from the new page, it would mean so much to me.

I want to be a part of a safe community.

This, Ms. Vanderbilt might have said. What he said.

On some level, I want to imagine that Google will fix this.

I don't want to think that controlling our own identities doesn't matter to Google; or it's as if to Google we are the faulty parts of its machine. Or we are Google Plus with a body vaguely attached. Or to Google, the problems are our own faults, and any calls for respect or privacy in a painful world are just annoying to Google, which has better things to do, like terrify us with the privacy nightmare of Google Glass and making bulk data consolidators' jobs of cataloging our personally identifying information easier.

Commenting on Dr. V’s Magical Putter, writer Max Potter was quoted on Nieman Storyboard saying,

I think that piece is emblematic of so much of what I think is wrong with what’s happening in journalism today. We’ve got journalism and journalists struggling more than ever before to make a name and a living, and thereby more and more pressure on landing an amazing story.

We’ve got less and less staff and experience, fewer and fewer “adults” around, more and more talented kids desperate to make a name and very little mentoring. And, seems to me, we still have this (white) male dominated journalism elite, with their myopic, pseudo-macho ideas of what truth and the pursuit of it means.

And … this is what we get.

If this is what we get, then Google's little Plus project is a loaded gun pointed right at anyone whose privacy is what keeps them alive.

ZDNet has emailed Google for comment and will update this article if it responds.

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