Why Dan Savage Deserved to get Glitterbombed…Twice

by: Lindsey Dietzler

Dan Savage is a sex advice columnist, often misrepresented as an activist, who happened to have a catchy idea that caught on at a time of national mourning for the queer community. Savage, using his already established fame, launched the It Gets Better Project in response to the rise in media reporting of LGBTQ youth suicides. But the ultimate success of the project is not a result of Savage’s hard work but the thoughtful, sometimes inspiring submissions of (privileged enough) contributors all over the world. To say that he is an activist is a gross exaggeration.As a transman and a well-rounded activist myself, having organized a wide variety of events ranging from flash mobs to conferences to teach ins to protests, I am personally offended anytime I hear someone refer to Dan Savage as a gay rights activist. And while I won’t deny that the It Gets Better Project has probably had a profound impact on some lives, it is not the result of Savage’s hard work but his fame. It promotes passivity — saying “just wait it out” instead of “you have to make it better.” Also, it excludes an often neglected and essential voice: that of youth who are forced out of their homes by their families. As for the trans part, well, that almost goes without saying.

So why exactly did Dan Savage deserve to join the ranks of Michelle Bachman, Karl Rove and Newt Gingrich in getting glitterbombed — not just once, but twice? While purportedly answering a student question about her boyfriend’s desire to watch porn featuring trans women at the University of California Irvine on Monday, “Savage suggested that her boyfriend was a freak, while freely using the terms ‘shemale’ and ‘freaky tranny porn,’” according to an articleposted on Bilerico.Savage, however, has a different version. In a statement released on his blog Tuesday, Savage said, “I did say ‘shemale.’ I read the question as-written, repeated the term in my response, and then used ‘transexual” in place of ‘shemale’ (‘transexual sex-worker,’ ‘transexual porn’), modeling the use of less offensive terms, before circling back to ‘shemale’ in order to unpack why some find it offensive.” He does not offer a transcription of this unpacking but goes on to claim he is “rabidly pro-trans.”

With no actual transcript of the event published on the internet as of yet and opposing accounts of the actual language used aside (I’ll even err to Savage’s account of the event), here are the reasons Dan Savage deserved to get glitterbomed, starting with his most recent offense:

1. If Dan Savage were as “rabidly pro-trans” as he claims to be, he would have not only addressed the transphobia in the original question, he would have used language concurrent with the transgender lexicon. In situations where transphobia is that abrasive, it is not enough to simply model “less offensive terms” because yes, Savage, your terms are still offensive and ignoring bigotry is the same as perpetuating it.

The term transsexual is an outdated, often misunderstood and pathologizing medical term that many trans folks find offensive or off-putting for it’s association with Gender Identity Disorder (GID). There are still some folks who identify as transsexual and I am in no way saying that they should not or do not have the right to identify however they see fit, but the appropriate language a trans ally would use in this context is transgender.

Furthermore, a “rabidly pro-trans” ally might have taken that question as an opportunity to address not only the problematic use of the word “shemale” but the problem of transphobia on the whole. Savage could have even offered a brief Trans 101 for folks in the audience who may know nothing about the community. Because as a “rabidly pro-trans” activist, you know Dan, that  the more educated people are about trans issues, the less likely they are to be transphobic.

2. In a misguided attempt to upset Rob McKenna and call him out on his bad LGBTQ policy, Savage claimed McKenna was transgender and criticized him for his “cruel disregard for his low-income transgendered brothers and sisters.” This stunt is problematic for a few reasons, the first being that Savage’s previous transphobic remarks makes his audience read being transgender as an insult in this context. Second, he refers to his “life saving sex-reassignment surgery that allowed Rob to become the man he is today.” This infers that Savage a) either knows or assumes that McKenna had any number of surgeries and has the right to out him as a transman and b) that surgery is necessary to become a man. Finally, Savage flaunts his privilege, prioritizing surgery as one of the most important needs of low-income trans folks when those needs are often access to food, shelter, employment and healthcare. For shame, Dan.

3. In June 2003, Savage posted the offensively distasteful Bad Tranny on his blog. In the space allowed here I cannot even scratch the surface of how horrific, inappropriate and misguided the advice he offers “Heartsore and Saddened” is (stay tuned for a future piece). This is a mother looking for some real advice about how to guide her son through his father’s transition in a transphobic society and instead of giving compassionate advice, offering up some positive reading by Kate Bornstein or defending a persons right to pursue happiness to become a better person and parent, he calls the father a “selfish tranny” and a “stupid tranny.” Great advice Dan, the trans community definitely needs to feel more shame, especially coming from the gay community.

Last month, Savage told The New Civil Rights Movement, “When I started writing Savage Love 20 years ago, and you can yank quotes 15, 18 years ago and flat them up today and say, ‘You know, that’s transphobic,’ I’d probably agree with you. 15 years ago I didn’t know as much as I know now — nor did anybody.”

If using offensive language, using transgender as an insult, and flat out disregarding the need for the freedom to express your gender is what Savage has come to know over the last several years, I am horrified to imagine where he started on trans issues 20 years ago. As one of the most famous “LGBT rights advocates” in the country, it is Savage’s responsibility (whether he likes it or not) to educate himself on the most pressing issues and up to date lexicon being used by the community. If he is not willing to take on that responsibility, he should step down and let someone else who is ready be the face of queer rights advocacy.

Lindsey Dietzler is a trans/queer rights activist and community organizer. He is a co-founder of Video Action League and founder of CAMP: A Queer Sports League. Dietzler received his Bachelor of Arts in Cultural Studies from Columbia College Chicago. He is currently working on organizing a new queer/philanthropic dance night in Logan Square. Dietzler enjoys dancing, riding his bike and snuggling with his cat.

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6 responses to “Why Dan Savage Deserved to get Glitterbombed…Twice

  1. I agree that Dan Savage has a lot to learn about Trans issues, and that he could have handled this better. I don’t think that glitterbombing was really the most productive way of responding, when there are higher priority activist issues that need our attention and energy. I also disagree with the idea that Dan is not an activist- he’s far from perfect, but he makes shit happen- not just “It Gets Better,” he’s also regularly asked readers to donate to worthy causes, protest crazy bullshit from homophobic politicians, encouraged straight readers to acknowledge their privilege during their weddings, done a ton to make GLTBTQI issues visible and more accepted in the mainstream, encouraged open, sex positive-dialogues about sexuality in a country that is terrified of doing so, and well, we all remember the Santorum thing, which is an impressive example of guerilla activism. I agree that there are many ways that he sucks. But I think it’s important not to throw the baby out with the bath water

    Also, if you look at his blog post he does includes a verbatim transcript of what was said.

    With love and respect,

    B.

  2. What a terrible waste of energy.

    As someone who has read his column and listened to his podcast for years, I can say with complete certainty that Dan Savage IS a trans ally and an asset to the LGBTQ community. For him to be targeted with the likes of Gingrich and Bachmann because of some muddy semantics is a total injustice.

    Fight your real goddamn enemy and let Dan (who, as B. points out above, absolutely IS an activist, whether he fits your narrow definition of one or not) alone to continue spreading his sex-positive and LGBT-positive messages in a clear and powerful way to a mainstream audience. You may not think that’s activism, but in the end, I’d be willing to bet influence has more reach yours ever will.)

    We all have our platforms—don’t dog Dan for using his and (99.99% of the time) using it powerfully well.

  3. Cry me a river. Seriously, you seem like you complain about life more than living it. Take a fucking chill pill and enjoy yourself for once

    • This column was right on. I do like Dan Savage, but he can’t pretend to speak for more than a small part of the queer population. He is a powerful ally to those who need only to live long enough to find happiness in college or financial independence. He could at least acknowledge this fact in a non-flippant manner. That would be a start.

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