Transphobia, Sloppy Reporting, or Both? The Life and Death of Dr. V

Hopper_BrooklynAn enormous controversy has blown up in the last few days over a story written by Caleb Hannan on a website called Grantland, titled Dr. V’s Magical Putter. The story claims to be a fact-finding hayride into the claims behind a “magical” golf putter and the personal life of its inventor, Essay Anne Vanderbilt (a/k/a “Dr. V.”). Ms. Vanderbilt was a transsexual woman, and of course once Mr. Hannan uncovered that fact, an article which is along the lines of one I would have written for the paper suddenly took a left turn at Albuquerque, and turned into a “poke and laugh at the tranny” piece. For example, from the story:

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.

“Are you trying to tell me that Essay Anne Vanderbilt was once a man?”

A chill “actually ran up (his) spine.” It makes me wonder what sort of person, deep down, Mr. Hannan is to be so titillated over the discovery that someone he is investigating might be a transsexual woman. They’re his words, I’m certain heavily reviewed and accepted, and they imply either a sexual frisson of being a repressed chaser, or else the sick thrill a blogging sociopath feels when he has an easy target in his sights.

The story is made all the more tragic by the clear desperation and breakdown of Ms. Vanderbilt as she is being harassed by Mr. Hannan, reported almost breathlessly in blow-by-blow exchanges. When we read that Ms. Vanderbilt took her life weeks after being harassed by Mr. Hannan, it’s a sad testimony to the transgender experience that we probably were not surprised at the outcome. Is Mr. Hannan responsible? Or did he merely contribute to the tragedy?

Being in the publishing business, I’ve written more than 500 published articles for actual money, and read 100 times that many. Mr. Hannan’s investigative piece had a chance to be a good article on the pseudoscience of golf fanatics and those who cater to them. In fact, I have had a piece published by the paper on that very subject. But Mr. Hannan’s article wasn’t that – it was character assassination with a science backdrop. Mr. Hannan doesn’t even have the God damned common decency to use the proper gender for pronouns, summing up his story with the following:

What began as a story about a brilliant woman with a new invention had turned into the tale of a troubled man who had invented a new life for himself. Yet the biggest question remained unanswered: Had Dr. V created a great golf club or merely a great story?

Mr. Hannan’s editor Bill Simmons published a pseudo-apology, throwing himself and his editorial staff on the sword in a somewhat disproportionate effort to try to absolve Mr. Hannan. He amusingly refers to the piece as “a well-written feature,” thus setting the stage for what follows. He makes one factual error which indicates he is scrambling to “circle the wagons.”

In the moment, we believed you couldn’t “out” someone who was already dead, especially if she was a public figure.

BZZZZT, sorry, the inventor of a golf club and owner of a tiny golf club company is not a “public figure.” A politician or political candidate is a public figure. Media stars are public figures. Here’s a clue, genius – a public figure is by definition someone who actively courts public attention via exposure through their artistic or critical work, by nature of their employment, or by public service. Ms. Vanderbilt was none of those.

The pseudo-apology is a somewhat rambling piece which I’ve seen before from editors. It’s the equivalent of an “oh shit, let’s write a wall of text to throw people off, and admit we let the writer down, but at the same time stick to our guns for our awesome fact-finding!” The problem is, the transphobia of Mr. Hannan cannot be apologized for by a third party. In fact, this part of his pseudo-apology really tells us what we need to know about Grantland.

To my infinite regret, we never asked anyone knowledgeable enough about transgender issues to help us either (a) improve the piece, or (b) realize that we shouldn’t run it. That’s our mistake — and really, my mistake, since it’s my site. So I want to apologize. I failed.

More importantly, I realized over the weekend that I didn’t know nearly enough about the transgender community – and neither does my staff.

Not sophisticated enough to know about gender policies for transgender persons? Never once thought to run it past a transgender person? There are something like 700,000 of us, and he couldn’t find a single person to ask? He seemingly wasn’t even aware that there was an “out” transsexual woman writing for Grantland? Huh?

The lesson here is to remember that what happened to Ms. Vanderbilt could happen to any transsexual woman. All it takes in today’s media is a hack blogger who hides behind the title “reporter,” an editorial staff asleep at the switch, and a website.

One thought on “Transphobia, Sloppy Reporting, or Both? The Life and Death of Dr. V

  1. elana

    I read the article about ms.vanderbilt,and honestly my first thought was….do i really have a chance ! I am transgender,and fortunately i have always “passed”,but i have already been let go from my job ,under very mysterious circumstances, my family basically has nothing to do with me,and i’m like “WOW ” i will continue on,and definately after reading that article…..keep a low profile !!!!!

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