Defensive, Dishonest, and Insufficient

[Content Note: Transphobia; cissexism; privilege; harassment; self-harm.]

Last Friday, I wrote about Caleb Hannan's Grantland article, "Dr. V's Magical Putter," in which the writer outed a trans woman after promising to "focus on the science and not the scientist," then abandoning that promise once he discovered she was trans. The woman, Essay Anne Vanderbilt, aka Dr. V, took her own life during the course of reporting the story, and her suicide became part of that story.

I was hardly alone in criticizing the story, its writer, and the editors who chose to publish it. Jessica Luther has put together a timeline which includes many other reactions. Even that is not an exhaustive accounting of the public criticism of the decision to write and publish this story. Which is not a knock on Jess, but an observation about the vastness of the criticism.

Finally, yesterday afternoon, Grantland editor Bill Simmons responded: "The Dr. V Story: A Letter From the Editor." And though that title suggests his account might be about Dr. V, it is not. It is about him. And his writer. And his staff. It is about them and for them. And it is clearly a conversation he means to have with and for his cis readership.

The 2,700-word piece is ostensibly an admittance of failure and an attempt at accountability. But it is deflective, lingering on the failures of their editorial process rather than meaningfully exploring their failure of decency, centering their perspective rather than centering Dr. V, which ultimately makes the piece wholly insufficient—and extends the very indecency for which Simmons is asserting to be apologizing.

If there's a single observation that can encapsulate what's wrong with Simmons' piece, perhaps it is this: Twice—twice—he says he regrets that Grantland's editorial team failed the writer, Caleb Hannan. "For us, 31-year-old Caleb Hannan had (and has) a chance to be one of those writers. That's why it hurts so much that we failed him." and "As for Caleb, I continue to be disappointed that we failed him." In 2,700 words, Simmons find space to say twice that he is upset by having failed his writer, but cannot find space to express even once his regret at having failed Dr. V.

* * *

Simmons says he wants to do better, so I will extend him the good faith of taking him at his word, and note some additional problems with the piece. This, too, however, is hardly a comprehensive critique, and I hope he will listen in good faith to his many critics, especially trans people who will tease out nuance that I cannot.
Another reason we created Grantland: to find young writers we liked, bring them into the fold, make them better, maybe even see if we could become the place they remembered someday when someone asked them, "So what was your big break?" That matters to us. Just about every writer we have is under 40 years old. Many of them are under 30. I am our third-oldest writer, as crazy as that sounds. For us, 31-year-old Caleb Hannan had (and has) a chance to be one of those writers. That's why it hurts so much that we failed him.
Here, Simmons is positioning youth as an explanation for transphobia. That's not an age thing; it's a privilege thing. By suggesting that it's youth, or inexperience, that can be blamed for a cavernous insensitivity to trans people, Simmons erases trans youth.

How many stories about trans kids, some so young that their parents were navigating their child's gender expression with nursery school administrators, have been published in mainstream media in the last year alone? Those children do not have the luxury of claiming their youth makes them ignorant of trans issues: They're already experiencing the harm of systemic oppression before they're old enough to articulate it.

That matters. It matters that Simmons' perspective is so intractably cis-centric that he imagines it's okay to cite his writer's age as part of the explanation for this failure of sensitivity.
To be clear, Caleb only interacted with her a handful of times. He never, at any time, threatened to out her on Grantland. He was reporting a story and verifying discrepancy issues with her background. That's it. Just finding out facts and asking questions. This is what reporters do. She had been selling a "magical" putter by touting credentials that didn't exist. 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'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.
(Emphasis original.) And clearly, still no one working for Grantland understands the moral consequences of outing Dr. V to one of her investors—because, if anyone did, then Simmons would not be claiming without a trace of irony that Hannan did not "hound" nor "badger" Dr. V. Outing a trans woman is a hostile, harmful act. Would that Hannan only hounded and badgered Dr. V, but, in fact, he exposed her in a way that left her vulnerable to potential violence, for which trans women are disproportionately at risk. A fact of which Dr. V was surely not ignorant.

Simmons seems to imagine that merely because Hannan wasn't all up in Dr. V's grill, personally interrogating her, that he hadn't hounded or badgered her. But the issue is not the quantity of their interactions, but the quality. And Hannan's intense interest in her trans status, no less his willingness to casually out Dr. V to other people, may quite understandably have felt extremely threatening and unsafe for Dr. V.

Eliding Dr. V's perspective of her interactions with Hannan, which included cutting off communication with him and informing him he was about to commit a hate crime, is both cruel and unethical. Dr. V didn't invoke a hate crime because Hannan was going to publicly question her professional credentials; it was because he was going to disclose that she was trans, without her consent.
When anyone criticizes the Dr. V feature for lacking empathy in the final few paragraphs, they're right. Had we pushed Caleb to include a deeper perspective about his own feelings, and his own fears of culpability, that would have softened those criticisms. Then again, Caleb had spent the piece presenting himself as a curious reporter, nothing more. Had he shoehorned his own perspective/feelings/emotions into the ending, it could have been perceived as unnecessarily contrived. And that's not a good outcome, either.
In the middle of a piece supposedly about being accountable for harm, worrying about "softening criticisms" is perhaps not the best way to communicate you give a shit about the harm done to Dr. V, as opposed to the perceived harm done to you.

Further, I can't speak for anyone else, obviously, but, for my part, I hardly think that an exploration of Hannan's feelings would have improved the piece, given that he flippantly categorized it as "the strangest story I've ever worked on." That doesn't suggest a hidden sensitivity about Dr. V and her story, and it is deeply problematic that Simmons is unwilling to be honest about the fact that his writer's public communications in no way suggested any kind of conflict about the story.
But even now, it's hard for me to accept that Dr. V's transgender status wasn't part of this story. 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?
Then maybe you would be writing a story about how shitty it was that other people outed Dr. V, because her gender identity was irrelevant to a story about a golf club she invented.
Like everyone else involved with this story, I spent my weekend alternating between feeling miserable, hating myself and wondering what we could have done differently.
Perspective: This is how Simmons felt after a weekend of criticism which exposed failures in his editorial process. And still he imagines that Dr. V did not feel hounded or badgered, when facing publication of an article that would expose her trans identity.
You need to make it more clear within the piece that Caleb never, at any point, threatened to out her as he was doing his reporting.
This is a deflection masquerading as accountability. No, greater clarity was not the issue. The issue is the failure to understand that Hannan never twirling his mustache and cackling about his plans to expose Dr. V does not mean that she did not feel the threat of being outed, sheerly by virtue of Hannan's preoccupation with her being trans, which is evident throughout his article, from the "chill" that runs down his spine when he uncovers this fact, to the entire structure of the piece, that frames him as a detective uncovering a salacious secret.

His approach may have been received as threatening, even if he never threatened to out her. And he did out her! He did the very thing that she feared, so it makes no difference if he explicitly threatened it. Except to justify this shitty story. For which Simmons is apologizing. Except for when he's totally defending it.
We're never taking the Dr. V piece down from Grantland partly because we want people to learn from our experience.
Cis people. They want cis people to learn from their experiences. Never mind that the story is deeply triggering for trans people. Again with the centering of the cis perspective, at the expense of being sensitive to trans people's needs.

And what of Dr. V's family and friends? What is their position on the story remaining online forever? Does it even matter? Were they asked? Perhaps it's just another in this long series of failures of "sophistication."

After all, as Simmons notes twice in the piece, John Wooden once said, "If you're not making mistakes, you're not doing anything."


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