Outrage

01.21.14

Bill Simmons Apologizes for Grantland’s Controversial Trans Outing

The site's editor-in-chief explains what went wrong with the Dr. V story.

Grantland editor-in-chief Bill Simmons broke his silence via an official apology yesterday following controversy surrounding the website's feature story "Dr. V's Magical Putter," written by contributor Caleb Hannan. Published last week on the ESPN-owned site, the piece profiling a state-of-the-art golf putter received strong criticism for publicly revealing the putter’s inventor Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt as a transwoman. Dr. V, as she was known to friends, committed suicide during the time Hannan was reporting the story. Simmons apologized for the editorial team's failure to consider the problems of publicly outing Dr. V, stating:
 
"We made one massive mistake. I have thought about it for nearly three solid days, and I’ve run out of ways to kick myself about it. How did it never occur to any of us? How? How could we ALL blow it? That mistake: Someone familiar with the transgender community should have read Caleb’s final draft. This never occurred to us. Nobody ever brought it up."
 
Dr. V, a self-proclaimed MIT-trained scientist, asked Hannan to focus his story on the newly-invented, "scientifically superior" putter, and not herself. While researching the story, Hannan discovered most of her credentials were false—a person by her name did not exist prior to 2000. He came to the conclusion that her prior non-existence was because Dr. V is transgender, and later leaked his revelation to one of the putter’s investors. In the following months, Dr. V committed suicide. Once the piece was published on Grantland, Hannan tweeted:

The piece was initially applauded for its strong reporting, but Twitter quickly flared up with accusations of Hannan's and Grantland’s lack of consideration for the repercussions of outing Dr. V, questioning Hannan’s code of ethics as a journalist and Grantland’s editorial integrity in pursuing the story after Dr. V’s passing:

Five days after running Hannan's piece, Grantland published another story, this one by Christina Kahlr, on the "serious errors" committed in reporting and publishing Dr. V's story. She writes:
 
“It was not Grantland’s job to out Essay Anne Vanderbilt, but it was done, carelessly. Not simply with the story’s posthumous publication; that kind of casual cruelty is weekly fare visited upon transgender murder victims in newspapers across the country. No, what Hannan apparently did was worse: Upon making the unavoidable discovery that Vanderbilt’s background didn’t stand up to scrutiny, he didn’t reassure her that her gender identity wasn’t germane to the broader problems he’d uncovered with her story. Rather, he provided this tidbit to one of the investors in her company in a gratuitous “gotcha” moment that reflects how little thought he’d given the matter. Maybe it was relevant for him to inform the investor that she wasn’t a physicist and probably didn’t work on the stealth bomber and probably also wasn’t a Vanderbilt cut from the same cloth as the original Commodore. But revealing her gender identity was ultimately as dangerous as it was thoughtless.”
 
Of course, this is not the first time the media’s coverage on trans subjects has received public scorn. Just last week Katie Couric invited Orange is the New Black star Laverne Cox and RuPaul's Drag Race contestant Carmen Carrera to her program and asked in detail about their transitions from male to female, despite their clear discomfort. Cox’s response to Couric, where she reminds her that focusing on transitioning objectifies trans people and ignores more important issues like higher rates of unemployment and violence within the trans community, was widely applauded and shared in social media. "Even if some thought my question was off base, I wanted to make sure my question and Carmen's answer stayed in the show as a teachable moment for me, as well as our viewers,” Couric responded in a follow-up segment.

The unfolding controversies surrounding Couric’s questioning, Hannan's reporting, Grantland’s editorial procedure—and most saddening, Dr. V's untimely death—can hopefully serve as a learning moment for anyone reporting on trans folk. In certain cases, maintaining a subject's right to respect and privacy outweighs journalistic curiosity.