How Grantland Helped Push a Transgender Woman Over the Edge

January 23, 2014 By Guest Contributor

transgolfBy Julian Cabrera and Josh Steichmann

A week ago, Grantland, a sports and culture website run by Bill Simmons, published a story by Caleb Hannan about a purportedly revolutionary putter invented by Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt, but Hannan was more fascinated with unraveling Vanderbilt’s mysterious personal life than her clubs.

He dug into her background, which she claimed was MIT physics with a dollop of top secret government work, but Dr. V got cagey, then angry. She pleaded and threatened, but Hannan kept going.

“The deeper I looked, the stranger things got,” Hannan wrote. And after tantalizing hints and incredulous foreshadowing, Hannan outed Dr. V as a transgender woman.

The story got stranger, and darker. Hannan learned that Dr. V had attempted suicide before, and her correspondence grew even more erratic. A few weeks after she last emailed Hannan, telling him he was committing a hate crime, Dr. V killed herself. Hannan describes Dr. V’s brother-in-law giving a brusque and cruel report of her death, then blithely wonders what it means about himself.

The backlash started nearly immediately, with Grantland editor-in-chief Bill Simmons writing a broad apology. In it, he acknowledged that Grantland and Hannan had made grievous mistakes.

“Caleb’s biggest mistake? Outing Dr. V to one of her investors while she was still alive. I don’t think he understood the moral consequences of that decision, and frankly, neither did anyone working for Grantland,” wrote Simmons.

“I didn’t know nearly enough about the transgender community — and neither does my staff,” Simmons wrote. “That’s not an acceptable excuse; it’s just what happened…We’re never taking the Dr. V piece down from Grantland partly because we want people to learn from our experience.”

Christina Kahrl, a transgender woman and baseball writer, wrote a blistering guest piece on Hannan’s article and Grantland’s carelessness.

“By any professional or ethical standard … it wasn’t [Hannan’s] information to share,” Kahrl wrote. “[He] really should have simply stuck with debunking those claims to education and professional expertise relevant to the putter itself, [and] dropped the element of her gender identity if she didn’t want that to be public information — as she very clearly did not.”

Kahrl also pointed out that the piece, aimed towards “mostly white, mostly older, mostly male audience,” did nothing but “reinforce several negative stereotypes about trans people.” And more than that, Kahrl also gave important historical context — up until fairly recently, transgender people were advised to adopt “deep stealth,” and completely abandon their previous lives in order to transition to their authentic gender identity.

“Stealth is tough to maintain, and generally involves trading one closet for another: You may be acting on your sense of self to finally achieve happiness, but the specter of potential discovery is still with you. And if you wind up in the public eye for any reason, stealth might be that much more difficult to maintain,” wrote Kahrl.

A story originally meant to be about a discovery that could have changed the world of golf unfortunately devolved into blind, unthinking privilege, and may have cost a woman her life.

More reactions: Shakesville: Careless, Cruel and Unaccountable.

Rebecca Schoenkopf: That Grantland Trans* Story.

Cyd Zeigler: How Grantland Failed the Trans Community.

Alyssa Rosenberg: Ten Questions Grantland Should Answer About Dr. V and the Magic Putter.

Paris Lees: Is it OK for a Journalist to Reveal the Birth Gender of a Trans Person?

Josh Levin: Digging Too Deep.

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