Dr. V, Caleb Hannan, and Grantland
Hi — thank you for opening this and reading more about this horrible set of events. As it involves the life and experiences of a trans woman, which I am not, I ask that you read the voices of trans women writing about Dr. V before reading mine. (Or just their voices, if you have limited time.) They are very often written about, and not listened to, and it’s important to change that. Thanks.
Also, as the situation involves a reporter posthumously outing his subject as trans after her suicide, please consider this post and all of the links herein to have content warnings for suicide, transmisogyny, transphobia, and outing.
- The Tragedy of Dr .V by Kat Haché
- “Nobody knows my life but me”: An elegy for Dr. V by Katherine Cross
- What Grantland Got Wrong by Christina Kahrl (this is one of Grantland’s two official responses to the outcry after the Dr. V piece; Christina is a trans woman employed by ESPN, which owns Grantland)
- Prejudice Is Not An “Ethics Lapse” by Cheryl Morgan
- Strange story? No: just a writer who hasn’t grown up yet and Lies, damned lies, and absence of evidence by janefae
- Dead Trans Women in the Print Guillotine by aoifeschatology
I’m adding new pieces as I find them, but please feel encouraged to send them to me to accelerate: @handler on Twitter, michael/at\grendel/dot\net via email, or contact via Tumblr. Thanks. -mh
Dear Caleb Hannan & the editors of Grantland:
I’m not a habitual reader of Grantland, because I’m not much into the work-a-day issues and discussions of the sports world. I do love long-form journalism about specific people, and culture, and pop culture issues, and the works that I’ve read on Grantland have been satisfying enough that I kept on wondering why I wasn’t making it part of my regular reading rounds. The other week, I stumbled across Chuck Klosterman’s article about Royce White and mental health, and I shared it with my SO, and she shared it with her family, and we had a deep and connecting discussion about it which I am still appreciating.
Despite my lack of regular connection to Grantland, I am compelled to write in to you about Caleb Hannan’s article about Dr. V, which I read today, mostly in openmouthed disgust, and with increasing horror as it built to its conclusion.
There’s no question that the design, origin, and performance of a new golf club of mysterious provenance, from outside the historical establishment of equipment design, is a compelling and interesting story on many levels. There’s no question that the behavior and history of an erratic and inconsistent inventor, whose claimed superlative credentials persistently cannot be verified, is also compelling and relevant to the narrative.
There’s also no question that the way that Dr. V’s existence as a trans woman was researched, outed, and used in the narrative of the story was monstrous, stereotypical, transphobic, hurtful, and wrong.
Caleb outed Dr. V as trans. Outing people is wrong, full stop. (The only possible exception is if the person holds a position of power and is using it to mistreat and oppress the population of which they are a member, e.g. secretly queer homophobic politicians, and even then, opinions are often divided on this topic. Regardless: it doesn’t apply here.)
Caleb builds his outing of Dr. V as a trans woman into a narrative peak in the story, as if it’s something incredible or horrible or notably relevant, which it is not. He reinforces this by saying “a chill actually ran up my spine,” easily read as reinforcing that this was shocking news. (That he “ironically” calls this out as an explicit cliche doesn’t help, at all.)
Caleb writes about Dr. V’s existence as a trans woman in the narrative of her apparently unverifiable claims about her work history and education, tarring her gender by association as another potential lie or deception or inconsistency amongst many. Any number of human beings of all gender histories have engaged in exaggeration or deception about their education, work, or accomplishments; why is her purported behavior tied to her gender in this story?
Caleb writes that she was “born a boy” and uses male pronouns and her birth name for her when writing about her early life, without any knowledge that this would be what she wished, or an explicit disclaimer that he has no idea what her desires would be.
Caleb’s article treats the fact that Dr. V was a trans woman as the linchpin in his narrative of her apparent deceptions and inconsistencies. Even in the section about the silent investor, he continues by inserting a parenthetical aside where he reveals outing her to Phil Kinney, contrasting Mr. Kinney’s description of her appearance and clothes with the (implied horrifying/misleading) “truth” about her.
I’m not a trans woman, and in no way should what I write here be taken as an authoritative list of what’s wrong with this article, nor do I want to claim to be an authority about how one should write about trans women in order to treat them with respect.
But having read even a small number of narratives and writing by trans people, and by trans women in particular, the starting list here of glaring, flaming, eternally repeated and perpetually painful mistakes are both obvious and completely avoidable. Simple decency and compassion for other human beings gets you the rest of the way there to confirming that.
None of this invasive mock-detective work was necessary to tell a compelling and complete story. A narrative of “I couldn’t verify any of her work or education history, and she wouldn’t participate in any verification in a way I could accept” is just as good. A different name and assigned gender at birth is just another set of queries to run in a database, and come up with no results. But for whatever reason, Caleb fixated on Dr. V’s gender as a way to run this story to ground narratively, and in that way may very well have helped run her to ground, too.
Caleb: I don’t know what was in Dr. V’s mind; I only know her through your words, and I’m not sure how much I can trust them, both because of your clear biases and mistakes here, and because I’m not sure she trusted you enough to give you a full and accurate picture of herself. (Rightfully so, as it turns out.) So I can’t and won’t make a stark assertion that you are responsible for her suicide. But, given what you knew about the state of her mental health (apparently in advance), and what you easily could have understood about the risks of what you were engaging in… If I was in your shoes, I’d wonder daily about just how culpable I was in her death, and be haunted by the realization that I’d never know.
(That you started out today tweeting about how blocking people feels fantastic, after you’d started getting angry responses to this article, well… I will call it what it is: smug privileged assholery at its finest.)
Caleb, on the 12th of January you tweeted multiple times about how awful Bill Keller’s NYT op-ed about Lisa Adams was. (I agree emphatically, and wrote my own screed about it on Medium.) You called it "anti-human", and retweeted @popehat saying "Do you regard suffering human beings as abstractions?" This shows to me that you do know the perspective that many of us who are speaking to you about this share. I don’t know why you weren’t able to bring that same awareness to bear on your own writing, reporting, and direct interactions with Dr. V, and for her sake, I truly wish you had been able to.
Grantland editors: This is article is journalistic overreach and malpractice at its most basic level. I don’t know what the group of you knew, and when you knew it, but if you were aware of the extent of Caleb’s activities during his writing, you should have stopped him from hounding her to the extent he did. Barring that, it should not have been published in this form, with this narrative. There’s no sign, discussion, or apparent awareness that this may very well have been a situation where the activities of your reporter contributed to or caused the suicide of his subject. I’m horrified that you’d want it published under your masthead, with your names on it.
I know you’re not Buzzfeed or Gawker or a tabloid. It’s clear from your site and your activities in general that you all feel connected to the practice, history, ethics, and importance of journalism, and generally strive to be a good example of… whatever that is evolving into being, in the modern era. But you stepped very, very far across the line here, and that needs to be acknowledged and repaired, to the extent that it can be.
As a class, trans women are currently some of the most vulnerable human beings on the planet, and it’s up to everyone to work toward changing that, if you don’t want to be an monster (by action or inaction) during your brief life here. Outing someone or subjecting them to asymmetrical attention can lead to abuse and harassment, or loss of housing, physical safety, sanity, health, stability. These are not hypothetical concerns, and they are painfully experienced (and exceedingly well documented) by trans women, every day. The Internet can present copious examples to you instantly, if you take but a moment to look.
Journalism is needs to be about punching up, not punching down towards people who can least afford to respond, or be the target of it. Hounding Dr. V when she clearly wanted to be left alone, telling her story to the world in your words and perspective (when she’s dead and can’t respond — and daring to call it a “eulogy”!) and flaying her open on the page (for the “sin” of having lied about where she went to school and worked, while inventing and marketing a possibly curiously useful new golf club) is punching very very very very far down indeed.
I know we’re all human. You made a mistake; that’s inevitable for all of us. But this is a big one, a horrendously bad and unkind one. You published an article that got its perspective very very wrong, and treated its subject as less human than others, and clearly concerned and hurt her very badly.
Please, please, please, please, please listen to what is being said, reflect on this and understand, and try and make it right, both for Dr. V and for the future.
Thanks for reading.
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