Afterthoughts and Aftershocks: Why a Dozen Different Editors Failed Dr V

If you are a trans person contemplating suicide, please visit here for information on how to find help. I’m not going to tell you it gets better; but I will assure you that your survival is important and meaningful. Please consider alternatives.

James Joyce once exclaimed that trying to cross Dublin without passing a pub would be an excellent puzzle.

Here’s a much easier one: see how long it takes to get through Bill Simmons’s reflections on Dr V before you pass by the word ‘sorry’.

Sorry, as an expressive term of direct remorse, happens only once. To Caleb Hannan, the author of the piece that initiated all of this posthumous reconsideration, whose research and writing most likely contributed to some extent in Dr V taking her own life, as I analyzed in my previous post on this now much assessed tragedy.

Apology.  Such does appear frequently, as well as explicit acknowledgement of grievous failures. A jargon of cynicism could retort that such an apology arose as an afterthought to the aftershocks of anger that, through repetition and magnitude, managed to shake the mansion on the hill. Apologies. And apologetics.

Bill Simmons, as grand marshal of Grantland, produced a lengthy litany of retrospections that won’t lead to any resurrections; but their honest, if narrow, calculations and admissions make for the beginnings of some real epistemic character. Once again, I’m not linking Simmons’s statement: they’ve already been on the astronomic height of far too many page hits over this debacle and post-hoc workshopping of the subject matter — a dead transgeder woman. His regretful acknowledgements, however, have much to be considered … certainly more than just taking a legalistic mulligan.

So let this result be noted: Simmons apologised, more or less. And this apology has, so far, been well received by the establishment. Alyssa Rosenberg, cited in the preceding link, has already enjoyed thousands of reads and will for now become the definitive response for its critique as well as confidence in closure. In my opinion, even ten years ago, such an admission — and apology — would not have been offered. Let’s take some heart in that.

However, trans people, or many of us, have been less happy with the ramifications of Simmons’s apologetics — that is, if anyone were to ask us. Probably, our reasons for continued unease with the official fact finding statement will pass by unnoticed, unfactored. We’ve scarcely been involved in the discussion at all, particularly at the crucial moments when less editing and more empathy might have preempted the earthquake.

I am not a journalist, and have no pretense to being one. I wrote my original piece, with obvious self-awareness, as a trans woman academic, all-too knowing as to how our voices vanish or are disregarded, even at those moments our broad community comes under intense scrutiny. As an academic, I loathe false credibility claims and shoddy research. And as a trans woman, I recognise exactly how Dr V’s gender had been deliberately whacked on as the detonator.

I could have warned you — any of us who persist within the systematic perpetuation of transmisogyny could have.  That Dr V’s gender had been forcefully foregrouded as the pinnacle of lies has been most upsetting, in my opinion, to trans people who must fend off accusations constantly that our very selfhood is a curiosity farce. Yes, it’s about pronouns, but it’s also about an entirely entrenched attitude. Mr Simmons, substituting weird for gross, or whatever cut paste redos you might consider, does not provide a cognitive makeover in terms of shitty attitudes towards trans women.

The original article was rife with the rhetoric of invalidation, very gleefully delivered, to denigrate and humiliate a trans woman; respectable journalism must eschew this bigotry. We’ve seen it far too many times. We’re telling you that this is a systemic prejudice that perpetuates negative opinions of trans people. We’re saying that it’s callous and profoundly harmful, beyond just the putting green or publishing stats.

So I am beseeching journalists — quoting a dear friend of mine and chosen sister who works in your profession: immense violence and dehumanization are constantly perpetrated against trans people in the media. It’s your responsibility to work against that.

Yes, we in the trans community can take some dram of optimism in appreciating how many people outside of our circles stood up, alongside with us, to condemn the crassly apathetic disaster of the original article. Clearly, the days in which we can be cast off as a fringe cabal of moaners is coming to an end. There is, increasingly, a more universal demand for responsible reporting that the demographic elite have to heed. Hannan’s article never really mentions transgender, but Simmons’s apology does nearly 15 times. That demonstrates an aftershock.

Somehow, I found myself a peripheral participant in this debate; and I am thankful for this chance. Who am I? No one. A barely employed academic. My contracts to teach vanished quickly after my transition. My articles? A minor blogger among millions. I am extremely easy to ignore. I’m trans. My community retweeted my initial post into twitter circulation. A few prominent cis journalists, rightly recognizing that trans points of view had to be included in the viral dialogue to come, made the effort to link mine — and other trans women’s — articles. This was crucial. If we’d been involved in the conversation early, so much disaster may have been forestalled. Maybe. But, at least this time, we trans women had a small chance to speak back, some of us. And some of you listened and accounted for what we had to say. Thank you.

But never forget this, ever: trans people were not consulted in the construction of this article, and we would have had no participation in its epilogue were it not for these efforts to include us.

Simmons had to take note. He may well have left the driving range early. My response, and from those girls like me, must not have been what Simmons anticipated. You see, we’re utterly familiar with this: our absence and presumed abdication, a subliminal sense of our unimportance and a negligent prejudice as to the impacts on our lives. Yes, this is so. If you haven’t experienced it, I would suggest you calm any reactionary dismissals that may be forming on your lips.  The overall milieu of Simmons statement, for all of its laudable recommendations, suggests — “We meant this for golfers. Some trans people found it. They made a stink. Some big name writers picked up on it. Whoops. We’d best retool.” I have no doubt there is some legitimate soul-searching over at their estimable publication, but these afterthoughts only arose because we spoke so loudly against the epicentre of indifference. He apologised. But there’s still the matter that, in initial public opinion, the crowds roared and yelled for more: “approval kept pouring in”, Simmons remembers, and what a group hug they all must have shared in the boardroom.

But what of the substantive findings, rather than the prefatory mea culpa, apparently to sooth some of the esprit de corps that sank a few notches downward from all of the bad publicity? Yes, on this account, Simmons proffers his single sorry — to Caleb Hannan.

Let’s all have a moment of silence for Grantland’s slightly oxidised reputation.

I have no desire to prepare a lengthy rejoinder that breaks down the rhetoric of Simmons’s statement — the discursive snakes and ladders of Grantland‘s afterthoughts appear sincere, but still directed towards their goal objectives.

However, I have several enormous concerns, ones that I’ve heard repeated in the trans community; and so you might ask — why are we still upset? That we’re an anarchic mob of the perpetually dissatisfied, that we yowl when poked with sticks, which is a caged circus animal’s only defence mechanism? Or is that someone still isn’t taking the point?

And my point is simply this: according to Simmons’s own assessment, they had over a dozen professional, industry grade, top level editors review this piece. And. not. one. of. them.  NOT ONE — paused to say, “How might this be hurtful or damaging to the very community who will be linked and connected to the woman who took her own life as quite possibly a result of this article?” Becuase their privileged position becomes very apparent in the appalling lack of judgement in according Dr V any dignity, even if death, once they knew she was trans (and therefore had a story for sale). Not once, by Simmons’s confession, did they even consider the relevance of trans issues to this piece during its composition, nor for asking any input from trans women as to the article’s obnoxious uncertainty principles in portraying transgender people. This is gobsmacking oversight. As Simmons concedes, “This never occurred to us. Nobody ever brought it up.”

This. It. — He means us. Just say who you mean. Transgender women.

Later, ESPN has asked an in-house trans woman on their payroll to provide the commentary of rejoinder. I would recommend her suggestions, although I will not link since it’s featured on the Grantland site. (Seriously, don’t think they’re not aware of how an article on putters became a media maelstorm and we’re not even into February yet.) And yet, one wonders — why had she not been contacted  during the laborious editing phase in which no fewer than twelve editors had a read through, according to the released statement? Why did no one — not a single soul from an armada of editors and barristers — recommend “to solicit input from ANYONE in the trans community”, as Simmons confesses had been the case.

The basic answer: we almost never get consulted. We get dismissed, datafied, experimented on, footnoted, falsified, reified, represented, caricatured, compartmentalised, sermonised, exoticised, demonised, denigrated, impersonated, humiliated, remonstrated, labelled, blamed, shamed, dumped, dispersed, and disavowed. And sometimes death. While others win acting awards or research grants or book contracts doing those ministrations to our lived experiences. And we’re absolutely fed up with the yawning maw that chews on us for information and spits us out when the topic seems unpalatable to their privileged digestion. We are neither appetizers nor just deserts for the gluttony of enmity.

Simmons notes that Hannan received death threats. As an active member of the online trans networks, I cannot say I saw any of this. But in the strongest possible terms do I insist that justice, not discussions of violence, must be the response to this terrible lack of journalistic ethics. I don’t believe that doxxing is an appropriate activity. Again, we trans women know better than many as to how much destruction doxxing can do to a person’s right to peace and well-being. Despicable types do that to us very frequently, doxxing, with the specific intention of making us unsafe and targetable. And that’s exactly what Caleb Hannan did to Dr V. After she asked him not to. As of today, I have yet to read a statement from Hannan; I reckon your man must really value his privacy. And if we want to stock about shouting mobs — I can personally assure you that there were all kinds of collective abuse hurled at us. (You didn’t notice all of the  horror show transphobia your article directly inspired.)  The ugly persistence of this violent prejudice became very apparent, especially in the suit and tie brigade-bigots. One loudmouth decried the “sniveling apology for that Dr. V tr*nny putter story”: a typically nasty reaction.

Emh .. I wonder where they get these awful notions about trans women? Will we have a little think on that one?

Those last three words in that horrendous quote above  –” tr*nny putter story” — will be, for far too many, the popularized summation of Dr V — her life, work, and memory. One article — and a woman’s entire life becomes reducible to a cheap ignominy, delivered as a slur.

Because innocent until proven trans.

Whatever fraudulent claims she made, I can make no comment (nor can Dr V — she killed herself) without all of the evidence. Likewise, I wouldn’t pass judgement on that Hannan was being sued for libel concurrent to his writing the article on Dr V. Slate provided an overview of differing perspectives, including mine, and many from those who report by profession. However, I insist that this discussion cannot only be in regards to the abstract premises of journalism and the theoretical exchanges within those who are members of “the craft”. How will you demonstrate from now that you understand how a transgender person might have felt after reading your take on “this particular topic”? As Josh Levin acknowledges rightly, “it’s clear there’s a cavernous empathy gap between mainstream writers and trans people.” This is a very, very troubling problem. And this problem must remain meaningfully addressed in the ensuing debate among the publishing elite as to the authority of portrayal in their presentations of the lives of trans individuals.

I grew up in a family of archly obsessive golfers: I know a thing or two about that sport’s idiosyncrasies. The superstitious gizmos that players employ to shave off an extra stroke was this story’s established premise, which was rebooted along the way since a purportedly ‘zanier’ gimmick could be primped up and exhibited — the identity of a transgender woman.

Yes, I can hope that this leads to a more prescient level of care in future efforts, not just at Grantland, but in the media’s unrelenting disdain for trans people in general. Yes, it is disdain; for too long, they have perceived themselves as irreproachable in how they countenance our lives as narrative devices. Crucially, we cannot have a serious conversation until a more nuanced level of awareness informs those with huge platforms that, time and time again, decide they have the opportunistic advantage in speaking on behalf of us — whether it’s Jared Leto or Grantland reporters — especially when sales, awards, and reader-counts are in the equation.

But for Dr V, it’s too late.

Simmons, either through lack of will or incapacity to understand, cannot acknowledge how the outing of Dr V contributed — to what degree, none of us can say for certainty — to her suicide. Outing cannot be seen as distinct from the article’s overarching narrative purpose: to objectify her status as trans and accentuate that mercilessly as her most fundamental falsehood.

Outing her is the inevitable teleology of this agenda, not a necessary or even coincidental plot condition.

And, so, such discounting by Simmons seems like a shamefully missed opportunity to understand the existential threat that trans women endure.

Reporting on someone and disclosing their gender identity is outing them. Simmons just cannot seem to grok that. Or the irrepairable harm from an article that ended a life. Kye Allums reminds us that there’s not a coincidence in this link between media and trans suicide. Your shockwave continues to emanate more widely in shaking all of us who are trans.

At the end of the day — as this debate devolves into the editorialist’s endnotes — Simmons still believes that her transgender status was essential to the story. Understanding why you believe this is essential will go a long way in stepping back from the detective porn written about Dr V and the eulogy Caleb Hannan so arrogantly took on the self-appointed role of offering. (For a more befitting elegy, please see Katherine Cross.) People’s lives are and always will be more important than your story; and this must be especially so when your topic concerns the lives of those who are incessantly vilified and invalidated as a daily predicament.

You have afterthoughts. We experience the aftershocks. And they’re deadly in strength. If you owe anyone an apology — and, yes, your efforts are worthwhile … Mr Simmons, perhaps you’d best begin there. You say you care about “the story” and you concede that you made “mistakes”. I, as a miniscule professor of literature, would like to offer this bit of advice as someone, like you, who works in letters: stories are not justification enough; and mistakes can’t be revised with the eloquence of redaction.