Freelance journalist Caleb Hannan’s Grantland feature on the reclusive inventor of a golf club, which I wrote about earlier this week, caused a dam to break online; the inventor he researched against her will, Essay Anne Vanderbilt, was a trans woman who had—allegedly—lied about her educational credentials. Despite a pledge on Hannan’s part to write only about the science of her golf club, Dr. V found herself threatened with exposure of her trans status, a history she had worked tirelessly to suppress. She killed herself three months before Hannan’s article about her went to press.
It is impossible to overstate the impact that Hannan’s Dr. V story has had on many trans women. Not a single one I knew was untouched or unmoved by it; some blocked it out entirely for fear of what exposure to its radiation might do to the precious reserves of courage they work so hard to cultivate, others mourned, others took long and unforgiving looks in the mirror; each of us seemed to be grimly musing, “there but for the grace of God go I.” As a crowd, we stood behind a thousand screens, and watched in horror, anger, and not a little justified rage.
And I initially wondered why. How was it that this had worked so mercilessly upon my thoughts as I travelled several hundred miles by train and plane visiting loved ones, writing and reading, surrounded by countless distractions, that Dr. V stayed at the forefront of my mind?
So many cold news stories about yet another murdered trans woman give us the easy escape of tropes, and vague recitatives about another lost life that see the newsprint putting her in her grave a second time. We know the drill there, we take the coldest of comfort in the generalised writing, and go on praying that next time it won’t be our number that comes up.
But Hannan’s prose left us with nowhere to hide. It lingered over Dr. V’s life and slowly picked it apart, each pluck meeting with a twinge of pain as I read, unable to look away.
Mistakes Unto Death
That is what Bill Simmons’ apology in Grantland misses. The best that can be said for Simmons’ piece is that it is a comprehensive and fulsome portrait of how groups can sleepwalk into prejudicial behaviour; it is a thoroughgoing object lesson in the ways that institutionalised prejudice works in the modern world and how the unconscious dehumanisation of those we poorly understand can have such profoundly deleterious consequences.
But it is a clinical piece that focuses less on Dr. V herself than on exculpating the piece’s author, and tries to mimic Hannan’s distancing manoeuvres without appearing to do so. Crucially, it fails to grasp why it is that reporting on Dr. V’s trans history was entirely immaterial to any story about her educational credentials, purported fraud, or her Yar Oracle putter.
It hones in on what Simmons identifies as a few crucial “mistakes”—such a small word for so terrible an affair: (1) none of the fifteen people who read Hannan’s piece and edited it asked for input from an actual trans person, (2) Hannan should never have outed Dr. V to one of her investors, and (3) the prejudicial language calling Dr. V a “troubled man” and talking about the “chill” her trans status gave the author. But in drilling down to such specifics and self-flagellating over his failure to change these things, Simmons seems to be pirouetting away from the larger questions that still trouble this piece, and in his efforts to apologise to Hannan for letting him down he still elides his responsibility to the late Dr. V.
Time and again, he avers that he and his staff were not “sophisticated” or knowledgeable enough to have handled this sensitively, and that is indeed true. But it nevertheless inspires more than a little incredulity to suggest that it never occurred to anyone—not least because Dr. V had a history of suicide—that this story might have terrible consequences.
Simmons, while accepting editorial responsibility for those mistakes, nevertheless affirms Hannan’s view that:
“Just about everything she had told Caleb, at every point of his reporting process, turned out not to be true. There was no hounding. There was no badgering. It just didn’t happen that way…Caleb never, at any point, threatened to out her as he was doing his reporting.”
I have to ask if, in Simmons and his editorial staff’s admitted ignorance of transgender life, he was unaware of the fact that such a threat would be implicit in any suggestion that Dr. V’s past would be fair game for the feature? Whatever Hannan’s intent, was it not possible that his efforts aroused a sense of existential dread in Dr. V that led to her demise? Believe me, in a situation like this, we do not need to be told that our outing is irresistibly “necessary” to whichever cisgender person takes it upon themselves to do so. We know. It is a guiding nightmare of our lives. As Simmons himself later makes clear, he still believes, against all reason, that Dr. V’s trans status was essential to this story being told by Hannan; it is hardly a stretch to suggest the late inventor sensed that indefatigable urge to tell all.
The apology, comprehensive as it is, leaves one with the sickening feeling that Grantland only decided to publish the piece after Dr. V’s suicide came to light, which seems to confirm the fears of many—myself included—that there was something disgustingly exploitative to this whole affair (as to how amends can be made for this, I’ll return to that anon).
Let us draw the lens back from Simmons’ admitted “mistakes” and take in the big, terrible picture once more. I can think of no better way to frame that picture than to gesture at The New Republic’s (admittedly critical) article on the Grantland feature: it began with a spoiler warning. Unthinkingly, TNR’s Marc Tracy hit on exactly the problem here: Essay Anne Vanderbilt was always (and still is) akin to a fictional character in someone else’s story. The revelation that she is a trans woman remains, rather than a mere fact of her human distinction, a “spoiler,” a big reveal that shocks us and ought not be “ruined” for us lest Hannan’s tale be robbed of its narrative weight.
Indeed, Hannan’s feature was written like a good story, and it followed a predictable plot structure with colourful characterisation. The story sets up little details like Hannan’s observations about the depth of Dr. V’s voice which were clearly included as little clues—as if it were an Agatha Christie novel meant to reward the observant reader—building up to the big plot twist. This is not a mere matter of a poor choice of words hither and thither in an otherwise solid piece whose innocent intentions were misunderstood; it is a root and branch problem where every other word grew from the poisonous soil of the article’s final premise, to “expose” Dr. V and dwell on her in paragraph after paragraph.
There were a lot of ways this story could have been told, but Hannan chose this form, which received the imprimatur of “between 13 and 15 people,” including Simmons.
In Hannan’s original article I winced as I read this:
“He was clearly trying to tell me something, which is why he began emphasizing certain words. Every time he said “she” or “her” I could practically see him making air quotes. Finally it hit me. Cliché or not, a chill actually ran up my spine.”
The “chill” line was one that Simmons apologised for wholeheartedly, and with good reason. But of interest to me was that Hannan called it a “cliché,” it was as if he was aware of his own invocation of tropes, apologising with the wink and nod of a fiction author who cannot help but employ an overdone narrative device. This is the moment where Dr. V shifted from having the pretence of being human to being picked apart as a character in the story Hannan himself wanted to tell. Indeed, it is only that larger context that makes the “cliché” intelligible, the plot twist gripping. Simmons’ apology suggests that classic story arc would remain, if he could do it all over again.
The very structure of Hannan’s original feature lies at the heart of the problem that Simmons refused to address, and which he compounded by asserting, “it’s hard for me to accept that Dr. V’s transgender status wasn’t part of this story.”
He explains this by holding out his hands and saying, “Caleb couldn’t find out anything about her pre-2001 background for a very specific reason. Let’s say we omitted that reason or wrote around it, then that reason emerged after we posted the piece. What then?” This was where I began to raise my eyebrow, even as I tried to be as forgiving as possible with this apology. Hannan could simply have told his readers that Dr. V had changed her name, but that to protect her privacy he was not at liberty to reveal more than that since it was not germane to the story. No need to reveal what her old name was, much less her old gender. And if “that reason (i.e., her trans status) emerged” after publication, so what? I honestly fail to see what the problem would be for Simmons or Grantland. It was not salient to the putter, or even to any lies Dr. V had told about her education.
If someone unrelated to the publication had leaked Dr. V’s gender against her will, well, I would be yelling at them; I do not understand how Simmons sees himself as in any way compelled to reveal that part of Dr. V’s story.
It suggests that a critical lesson was not learned: as human beings, trans women are more than our trans status, which is not related to every facet of our lives, good or bad.
From Here to Justice
Even so, amidst all this talk about lessons learned and unlearned, we must remember this: a woman’s death ought never be anyone’s teachable moment; a grave is an unseemly place for a sober-minded seminar.
“Some things you can’t take back,” said a trans woman friend of mine, and she is quite correct; Dr. V is gone, and there is a hole in the lives of many people where she once dwelled as her cheerfully nerdy self. Even if Dr. V had lied about her education, many trans women—myself included—recognised her as our sister, someone like us, we who would be subject to the same misunderstandings and the same terrible fate. For many of us, as important as Simmons’ apology is, it may never be enough.
But as ever, we are left with the difficult question of where to go from here, and I think that Simmons’ lengthy apology constitutes a step in the right direction so long as we do not allow it to end the discussion. The reason it must go on is that collective response from so many trans women who, whatever flaws and failings she may have had, saw ourselves in Dr. V. We know that under different circumstances it could have been some other journalist picking apart our lives like so much carrion and holding them up to a scalding sun when its light was least flattering. The wider problem of the press’ vexatious relationship to transgender people remains.
If Grantland wants to be part of the solution here, there is more that Simmons and his staff could take heed of, and more they could do to try and make this right—to work at producing a just outcome rather than merely lamenting an unjust one.
Once more, a woman is dead. This fact was known to Grantland’s editors before publication and, as is strangely suggested in the apology posted by Simmons, the apparent catalyst for publication.
Profiting from someone’s suicide would be a malodorous thing to do in any event, but especially galling when suicide reaps an especially staggering number of trans women in particular every year. There can be no doubt that as this story circulated, and as the controversy around it drove people to Grantland to see what all the fuss was about, it swelled the ad revenues of Simmons’ site. What is ineluctable about all of this is that irrespective of whether or not Hannan was directly responsible for Dr. V’s suicide, and in spite of Simmons’ apology, Dr. V’s suicide was profitable to Grantland.
One frightening and woefully underexplored dimension of so called “new media” is the way that it excels, to new heights of perversion, the old notion that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Now, there’s no such thing as a bad pageview, and unlike the old fashioned glance at a newsagent’s arsenal of headlines, your gaze is now worth a few cents or dollars to whatever publication it falls on. Even if controversy is generated for the worst possible reasons, there is still money to be made from the swelling press of attention; it is not unlike the tabloid exploitation of years past, but much more immediate and unwitting, and with temptations that can seduce even the meanest freelance journalist.
If Simmons wants to make this right, he ought to disabuse himself of whatever material gain this sorry saga has brought to his website. Donate the money to an LGBT non-profit, particularly one that targets the most vulnerable sectors of the transgender community—or donate to a charity chosen by Dr. V’s partner, Gerri Jordan, that might best honour the wishes of the late inventor. Alternatively, as was suggested by Everett Maroon, some or all of the money could be used to fund a scholarship for aspiring transgender sports writers. In either event, we can ensure that whatever profit this tragedy generated for Grantland goes to a worthy cause that combats the passive ignorance that made this piece possible. In addition, this would go a long way to ensuring he lives up to his founding pledge to not “chase page views” with Grantland.
On the question of listening to trans women’s voices moving forward, ESPN reporter Christina Kahrl’s new feature on Grantland goes some way towards ameliorating the failure of journalism and redresses it by allowing a trans woman sports reporter to speak her truth to editorial power.
It shouldn’t have to be this way, all the same. It’s an ongoing tragedy that we have to be held on retainer simply to remind certain people that we are human. This was not the life I envisioned when I transitioned, to be quite sure. Kahrl says she’d rather write about baseball, and I would rather write about roleplaying games and Shakespeare.
Yet, here we are. Now, what do we do?
Edit: Minor spot edits were made to add links to the many other articles on this topic.