Savage Defense

Dan SavageI was once a Savage Love reader, sure. I’ve known the definition of GGG pretty much since Dan Savage invented it, although I never realized until tonight that he came up with it and all of his acronyms just to save type space. Which makes sense, and is something that may fade away as newspapers trudge toward extinction. Almost a decade ago I read Skipping Towards Gommorah, and if there were big problems on the bigotry front, I missed them. And I laughed when Savage invented a new definition for “santorum” so much, I worked it into one of my novels-in-progress.

However, there came a day—I have no idea when—that I read his column and flinched. In giving some answer to a reader’s question he was too harsh, used a dose too strong of mockery, enacted an assumption that led inextricably to a position that I couldn’t abide. Like snowflakes at the leading edge of a cloud these added up over time, and eventually I stopped reading his column, and didn’t bother to spend time reading whatever was his next book. Even though at one point I picked up both The Syracuse City Paper and Bitch Magazine, by the time I’d moved to the nation’s capitol, I’d stopped noticing Dan Savage for the most part. Santorum got him on my radar screen, but I was wary of his weaknesses, namely, in feeling free to mock whole groups of people just to make a point or, with the McKenna incident, fueling people’s bigotry for short-term gain. And then there is the unaccountability, but I’ll get to that later.

So he came to the little liberal arts college that could last night, to a packed audience of students, a few faculty, and fewer townies, myself included. My partner has been doing an analysis of the It Gets Better videos, so she was there as well, despite Savage’s refusal by silence of her request for an interview. We sat near the back, and the room got hot with so many people crammed into the chairs and lining the aisles. Someone near me mentioned that it was warm from all the hot air Savage was spewing.

He used a question and answer format, saying he never prepares notes for these college speaking engagements because he’s “a lazy motherfucker,” but I think there are other reasons for sticking to the form. It basically allows Savage never to have to encapsulate his commentary in a context, never provide an overarching thesis or a framework upon which the logic of his off-the-cuff remarks can be accurately measured. It’s a perfect set up for the disingenuous.

Early on was a question from a male student about what apparently has gone wrong with his dating life, asking if after a series of one-night stands and women who have said he’d messed with their self-esteem, if he was actually “doing it wrong.” Dan reflected.

“Look, you can’t put your dick in someone’s self-esteem,” he said, “but if you’re walking around campus and women are giving you dirty looks instead of passing your number around to their friends, you’re doing it wrong.”

There were a lot of laughs throughout the evening, and clearly the college students here have a lot of questions about their sexuality that are not getting communicated or supported very well, so on that front it was good to clear the air a little. But a lot of Savage’s answers left something to be desired.

To the question of how to handle racism among queers: wait for the racist queers who move to the cities from conservative small towns to become more mature and stop being so openly racist. (I am not making this up.) Oh, and tell them that racism isn’t tolerated.

To the question of why people think he’s transphobic: people take 12- and 15-year-old statements out of context. And plus, he’s grown since then. (He made  no apology for past statements, although he apologized in his own column after a fellow Stranger writer called him out, but characterizing his statements as all a decade old or older is disingenuous, given that the McKenna debacle happened just last year.)

One card from the pile: “As a trans man on campus, how do I find a date out here?”

“I love that people call me transphobic, but then I get questions like this,” he said, as if the two were mutually exclusive. “Move to San Francisco,” said Savage, giving the answer.

He was defensive like that a lot. “I usually get called biphobic a lot, too,” he said, which after writing in his column that bisexual men don’t exist, is somewhat understandable. “But I know bisexual men exist. I know Eric. He’s right in my phone. Maybe I should call him right now.”

Yes, he went there. Savage drove directly to that 6th grade place of, “But my best friend is <<insert oppressed group here>>.” If that’s not beneath college-level intellectual engagement, I don’t know what is. After his threat to Phone A Friend, he went on to be blatantly biphobic: “Look, a lot of gay men, and I was one myself when I was a teenager, called themselves bisexual.” He explained that in trying to fit in with his male friends, bisexual was a label he used, and when he hears a 17-year-old describe himself as bisexual, he tends to think the kid just needs to get a few more years on him and he’ll call himself gay.

Sigh. That was kind of how the evening went.

Reading my question about why he uses terms like “guys with pies” and “chicks with dicks,” he responded that hey, he didn’t create those terms, and he knows transsexuals who use them, and who is this card writer to presume that trans people who decide not to get bottom surgery (which he called “beneath” surgery) are less than those who get phalloplasty and vaginoplasty?

Say what?

1. The question asked why he uses the terms, not why he created the terms. It’s the use of the epithets that is the problem, not their etymology. I don’t care if Buck Angel uses the phrase, “guys with pies,” because it’s his body to describe. I have a problem when a cisgender guy uses the phrase, especially as carelessly as Dan does.

2. Taking issue with Savage’s use of these phrases has no relationship to how I (or one) understand people’s choices around what methods to use to transition, or even whether to transition, for that matter. So it is dubious to say that in questioning Savage’s word choices, I’m denigrating transgender people who have opted out of or haven’t yet had bottom surgery. I’d be denigrating myself, you jackass.

3. Nice way to deflect all responsibility for the public forum that he enjoys.

There were a number of contradictory statements made, like the aforementioned small-town racists juxtaposed with Savage’s later comments about how evil Africans are in being homophobic. Let’s get up close and huggy with the generalizations, shall we? Again the Q&A format made Savage’s logic and politics difficult to articulate and criticize. And toward the end of the evening, I wondered:

If every time you show up for a talk people ask you about your own bigotry and bullying, You’re Doing It Wrong.

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12 Comments on “Savage Defense”

  1. Lissa
    April 28, 2011 at 11:00 am #

    Thanks for posting this, Ev. It was so ironic to hear Dan Savage say that his column is always about *the reader*, and never about *himself*, when all of his answers are based on his own limited experiences (in the sense that all of our experiences are limited) which he refuses to either question or be held accountable for. A perfect example of this was when he chose to defend his own words and actions with the statement, “Well, I reject the accusation that I’m transphobic…” as if his understanding of the world automatically has more weight than hundreds of trans and gender variant folks who are saying his words are perpetuating transphobia. Sigh.
    p.s. Sorry for ditching the anti-Dan team early- I’d had enough!

    • evmaroon
      April 28, 2011 at 11:07 am #

      Yes, his insistence on self-focus is a great way to ensure that he will see himself as always right. As long as he never attempts to investigate his own claims form outside his this frame. Because actual critique unravels his logic fairly quickly. He’s at the airport right now. I’m considering showing up with a pie.

  2. Kjerstin
    April 28, 2011 at 12:24 pm #

    Yeesh. Thanks for writing this up, Everett. Sorry you had to sit through it though. it doesn’t seem like he’s going to begin to take any self-critical steps any time soon.

    • evmaroon
      April 28, 2011 at 12:42 pm #

      I should say not, Kjerstin. Tonight my partner and her students present their findings on the rhetoric used in many of the It Gets Better videos. It will be an interesting reflection on last night’s talk.

  3. May 1, 2011 at 10:59 pm #

    I occasionally get into rather heated debates on the subject of Savage. I find much of what he says extremely problematic. Which I wouldn’t mind too much if he were just an advice columnist, even a prominent one. Advice columnists work from their own opinions and worldviews and I’m going to disagree with them from time to time. What I do object to is that he has become one of, if not the, most prominent spokesmen for gay rights and the gay community. Savage is effectively the face of the gay community, which means he’s speaking for me, which I do object to, strongly.

    • evmaroon
      May 2, 2011 at 11:13 am #

      I absolutely agree–if he were just sex advice columnist, it would be easy to dismiss his refusal to engage intellectually with his critics. But he’s put himself out there as a thought leader now, and damn it, we need better people in our movement than milquetoast sex advice columnists, especially when we’re talking about queer youth and suicide.

    • evmaroon
      May 12, 2011 at 6:30 pm #

      Ugh.

      • hurlburt
        May 13, 2011 at 1:40 pm #

        Yup. “How to not know when you’re doing it wrong…”

      • evmaroon
        May 13, 2011 at 2:13 pm #

        Answer: Check the mirror. If Dan Savage is looking back at you, you’re doing it wrong.
        Okay, that wasn’t a very principled response.

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