Tabloids Forcibly Outed Lilly Wachowski

Lilly Wachowski came out as trans after the press threatened her, stealing a pivotal moment in her life.

03.09.16 7:53 PM ET

I’m not celebrating the fact that Lilly Wachowski came out as transgender. I’m celebrating the fact that Lilly Wachowski is still alive.

In a statement to the Windy City Times, The Matrix co-director revealed that reporters had been hounding her agent for the last year, threatening to publish stories about the “Andy Wachowski gender transition.” Then, after a Daily Mail journalist showed up on her doorstep, Lilly decided to pre-empt the tabloids by reaching out to her hometown LGBT paper instead.

“So yeah, I’m transgender,” she acknowledged. “And yeah, I’ve transitioned.”

For LGBT advocates, Matrix fans, and those of us who recognize that Jupiter Ascending was the best film of 2015, it was hard not to feel at least a twinge of excitement. Lilly’s older sister and creative partner Lana Wachowski has already come out as transgender in the late 2000s, after enduring years of tabloid rumors herself.

If anything, the story was thrilling because it was improbable. The odds of the directing duo becoming the Wachowski Sisters were astronomically low. Less than 0.3 percent of the U.S. population is transgender, and etiological explanations for being transgender are unclear. For LGBT pop culture aficionados, Lilly’s coming out was the equivalent of winning the Powerball.

But Lilly didn’t feel like she was winning anything.

“I just wanted—needed some time to get my head right, to feel comfortable,” she wrote of her desire to stay out of the public eye. “But apparently I don't get to decide this.”

The tabloids that pestered her into coming out were doing so with blatant disregard for her life. Lilly’s statement made reference to “the dangers of outing trans people,” citing the specific case of Lucy Meadows, a transgender schoolteacher who committed suicide after the Daily Mail’s Richard Littlejohn published a column claiming that she was in the “wrong job.”

Michael Singleton, the coroner who determined that Meadows had died of carbon monoxide poisoning, specifically called out the Daily Mail’s “sensationalist and salacious” reporting when he delivered the suicide verdict.

“And to you the press, I say shame, shame on all of you,” the coroner said.

The British tabloid has apparently still not learned its lesson. As Lilly Wachowski wrote in her statement, “And now here they were, at my front door, almost as if to say: ‘There’s another one! Let’s drag 'em out in the open so we can all have a look!’”

But as Lilly herself acknowledged, she is “one of the lucky ones.” She is wealthy, white, and supported by her family. Her risk of being murdered is much lower than it would be if she were a transgender woman of color.

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In today’s environment of social and legal discrimination, however, 41 percent of transgender people attempt suicide and this number surely includes wealthy white women. It also includes wealthy white women who were outed by the press.

In 2014, for example, golf inventor Essay Anne Vanderbilt committed suicide while writer Caleb Hannan was working on an article scrutinizing her putter. During the course of his research, Hannan discovered that Vanderbilt was transgender and outed her to an investor. Not long after their interaction, Vanderbilt was found dead by her own hand on her bedroom floor.

In a staggering display of disrespect, Grantland published the piece, in which Hannan refers to the late Vanderbilt as “a troubled man who had invented a new life for himself.”

Grantland founding editor Bill Simmons stopped short of issuing a categorical apology, claiming instead that the outlet had only “made one massive mistake,” namely that “someone familiar with the transgender community should have read Caleb’s final draft.” But a transgender expert giving the piece a once-over ex post facto wouldn’t have brought Vanderbilt back from the dead.

Perhaps it’s understandable now why Lilly has “largely avoided the press,” as she wrote in her statement. But even after we’ve witnessed transgender women commit suicide after bad interactions with the press, some unscrupulous reporters still care more about the sensationalist appeal of a forced outing than they do about its consequences.

We saw it last year with the tabloid harassment of Caitlyn Jenner in the months before her interview with Diane Sawyer. As I warned at the time, “Outing transgender people before they’re ready to come out can have deleterious consequences for their health, their careers, and their relationships—yes, even for celebrities.”

With luck and love, Lilly Wachowski is going to be just fine. She is under no obligation to become a spokeswoman but she nonetheless used her statement to draw attention to anti-transgender bathroom bills and to the plight of those less privileged than her.

And although she did not come out under ideal circumstances, she does so at a time when she and her sister will be celebrated as LGBT heroes. Lilly has promised to “be an example of the potentiality of another world,” and we’ll all be the better for it.

But it shouldn’t have happened like this. It doesn’t matter how much Matrix money Lilly Wachowski has in the bank nor is it important that her sister had already come out as transgender. Every reporter who called her agent was making an implicit decision to value a story over a human life.

I am, of course, happy for Lilly Wachowski. But my happiness is tempered by a deep understanding that we could have lost her had she reacted differently to the media harassment. Much like Neo, we have dodged a bullet—a phrase that, for a tragically high number of transgender people, is no metaphor.

So I’ll join the revelry in a moment. For now, the best way to celebrate Lilly would be to work toward a world where women like her are not forced out of the closet for public consumption. That would be “another world” indeed.