Grantland’s Triple Bogey: How Grantland Botched More Than Trans Politics in the Dr. V Controversy
FOR THOSE OF you not familiar with the Grantland Dr. V controversy, here’s a brief recap:
Caleb Hannan, a journalist writing for the sports and pop culture website Grantland, starts researching an article about a new putter that supposedly will revolutionize the way we think about putters which has been designed by a physicist who knows basically nothing about golf and seems to be somewhat of a mad scientist character. The physicist, Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt, is extremely private and only agrees to an interview with the stipulation that the article be about the putter and the science behind it, not the scientist. Hannan moves forward with the interview. In the course of fact-checking the story, particularly in trying to verify academic and employment credentials for Dr. V he runs into some roadblocks. Namely, he can’t seem to find any evidence that Dr. V is credentialed in the way she claims to be. So Hannan digs a little deeper. Turns out, Dr. V is a transwoman who transitioned in 2003 and has taken steps to keep her pre-transition identity private—something that many trans people take great pains to do, for various reasons including personal safety, mental health, protection from job discrimination and termination, or simply because it’s no one’s business but their own.
As Hannan continues to dig, he outs Dr. V to an investor without her permission, even as she is actively trying to keep her personal history from being revealed. While Hannan outing Dr. V to an investor would be grounds enough for criticism, the story takes a tragic turn. Dr. V who, as we learn from Hannan’s article, has a history of mental illness and previous suicide attempts, kills herself before the article is published.
SOON AFTER PUBLICATION various parts of the Internet began criticizing Hannan, Grantland, and editor Bill Simmons for the decision to publish a piece which posthumously outs a transwoman who has recently committed suicide and publicize details of her life pre-transition despite her attempts to keep that information private. This is particularly maddening because Dr. V’s trans identity has no direct bearing on the core questions of the article—mainly, is this “miracle putter” for real? And, knowing that the inventor didn’t have the educational and employment history that we thought she did, does the science behind the putter hold up?
A few days after the Internet firestorm of criticism—some of it legitimate, some of it a bit of an overreaction from my perspective—Grantland editor Bill Simmons issued an apology and posted it alongside an editorial from Christina Kahrl, an ESPN.com writer and transwoman. Simmons’ apology is not perfect, but it’s not the worst we’ve seen for these sorts of missteps by any stretch of the imagination. And while Kahrl’s editorial raises some very important points about the stress and oppression that trans people, especially transwomen, face on a day to day basis it also plays into the narrative that being trans pretty much guarantees mental illness and suicidal ideations. This is not to downplay the overwhelming number of transpeople who do suffer from often serious, mental health issues as a result of transphobia, harassment, and the threat of being outed without their consent.
But we’ve heard all that before. After having read a number of responses to the original Grantland article and Simmons’ apology I want to put my two cents in regarding a couple of issues I think are being missed in the ensuing Internet-Comment wars. Based on my readings about the controversy, there has been too much focus on Dr. V’s trans identity and not enough focus on the intersecting issues in her story.
THE MOST PROMINENT issue in the responses to Hannan’s article is his outing of Dr. V, not only to an investor, but to the general public after her death. Let’s be clear: outing someone without their consent is not okay. Grantland made a huge mistake by doing so, but this is also something they explicitly apologize for (not that this fixes anything, but at least they acknowledged and owned it). But all of the outrage about Dr. V being outed is in regards to her identity as a transwoman. Nothing that I have read so far has said one word about Hannan’s revealing Dr. V’s mental health history and previous suicide attempts. Mental health is still a taboo subject in our society and is even more damaging for someone whose work is tied to their mental abilities and stability, i.e. people doing mostly mental labor such as physicists. Hannan repeatedly makes references to “mad scientists,” personality “quirks” such as signing emails with “ciao” and “cheerio and toodle pip,” and “inner chaos.” He does so while also chronicling a previous suicide attempt by Dr. V in 2008 and asking her to verify details about her past, which appear to include not only her falsified education claims, but also her trans status and mental health history.
Mental health concerns and being trans often go hand in hand—a nasty side-effect of living in a transphobic society—but sometimes trans people’s mental health issues have little to do with being trans. We have bad days. We get depressed. We struggle with bad break-ups and family trouble and unfulfilling jobs just like everyone else. And while I can’t fully separate these things from being a trans person that’s because my trans identity informs my life experiences, just like being white, queer, and college-educated inform my experiences, not because being trans is a mental health problem. But, just like many others, we also don’t want our mental health histories posted on the Internet without our consent, especially when mental health instability is often seen as cause for concern by employers and can severely damage claims to credibility and legitimacy—something Dr. V was already clearly struggling with. She didn’t need her suicide attempts added to those concerns.
MY OTHER CONCERN, which also doesn’t seem to be getting any airtime in the Internet backlash, is the pervasive class bias in the article. When Hannan first starts looking into Dr. V’s background, his initial point of concern is her education credentials. She claims to have attended MIT and received an MBA from the Wharton School of Business at UPenn. Registrars at both schools have no record of an Essay Anne Vanderbilt attending, which as Hannan concedes doesn’t mean she didn’t attend those schools; just that she did not do so under that name. (Side note: why is a university registrar releasing information to journalists about whether or not students have been enrolled there? Does FERPA mean nothing anymore?). Hannan then tries to verify Dr. V’s employment history as a Department of Defense contractor working on stealth bombers (good luck) and at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (again, good luck). What Hannan does find is a sexual harassment suit filed against the town of Gilbert, AZ, by an Essay Vanderbilt who was working as a “vehicle service writer” at the time Dr. V claimed to have been working for the DOD in Washington. He also finds a bankruptcy filling in Dr. V’s name from that same year. Hannan becomes, rightfully, suspicious that perhaps Dr. V isn’t exactly who she says she is which leads to his discovery of her trans identity. Grantland then makes the wrong decision to include this information in the published story which lands us where we are today, but that’s not my point here.
The whole reason for Hannan fact checking Dr. V’s background is to try to verify that the science behind this “miracle putter” is sound and that the putter actually works. Numerous golf aficionados swear by the club and Hannan’s own game improves, but it’s so revolutionary it seems suspect. Perhaps the club’s value is simply the illusion that it’s a miracle putter. A sort of placebo effect or Oprah-bump for the golf world. A fair question and not an unimportant one, but also one tinged with unacknowledged classism.
After finding out that Dr. V probably wasn’t an elite, MIT-trained physicist and was more likely a working class person working on city vehicles, Hannan writes:
“When I was under the impression that Dr. V was a brilliant engineer, my putting improved dramatically. As soon as I learned she had simply been a struggling mechanic, the magic was lost.”
The implication being that someone without the elitist credentialing of an Ivy League degree and DOD contract work couldn’t possibly have invented a golf club that could radically change the game of golf. Yes, Dr. V appears to have lied about her educational and employment history. But if she had really gone to the University of Illinois instead of MIT, had a degree in art history and worked for a swanky art gallery as a curator would the effect of the deception have been the same? I doubt it, though I would be more inclined to believe that a mechanic could have invented a fancy new golf club than an art historian. A mechanic at least knows practical physics, even if she can’t do the math behind it. The difference here, of course, is class. It’s much harder for us to believe that working class people are capable of great achievements because they don’t have the “appropriate” training. They aren’t as smart as upper class people, because if they were they would have the fancy degrees and the job as a physicist because America is a meritocracy. Not quite.
Again, the class bias in Hannan’s piece has little to do with Dr. V being a transwoman, and yet her trans identity is not irrelevant here. According to the National Transgender Discrimination Surveyfrom the National Gay and Lesbian Taskforce and the National Center for Transgender Equality, trans people report much lower household incomes than the general population and are more likely to be unemployed or underemployed. And though many trans folks hold college and graduate degrees, transmen are more likely than transwomen to have completed college or grad school. Though the Survey does not track discrimination by employment sector, it is widely accepted that some sectors, such as STEM fields, are more hostile towards women, people of color, queers, and trans folks than others. A fact that was probably not lost on Dr. V as she tried to get Hannan to allow her private life to remain as private as possible.
SO WHAT DO we take away from all of this? I deeply appreciate that Grantland’s mis-handling of Dr. V’s trans identity by public outing her posthumously and to an investor while she was alive has received the attention that it has—and that the folks at Grantland seem genuinely apologetic and want to do better going forward, but it’s not enough.
Until we can look at trans people as whole people—not just as people who have changed gender—we will continue to do a disservice to the trans community. As someone who is part of the community, I know how important it is to have my trans identity valued and accepted by others. But it is equally important, and sometimes moreso, for people to see me as more than just a trans person. When we begin to see trans folks as people whose lives are affected by their gender, sexuality, class-position, educational opportunities, mental and physical health abilities and limitations, race, and other life experiences and work to correct injustices based on all of our intersecting identifications we will have finally made great strides towards justice and true equality…and a better short game.
Andrew J. Young is a PhD student in sociology at Temple University working on the intersection of gender, sexuality, and culture. He is actively involved in teaching and facilitating workshops on social justice issues relating to the intersectionality, trans and queer identities, and education. His work has been presented at area universities including Temple, University of the Sciences, and Drexel, the Philadelphia Trans-Health Conference, the Association for Humanist Sociology, and the Civic Education Project at Northwestern University. He can be reached by email at [email protected].