Ok, so a few weeks ago, I blogged about the ways that marginalized communities attack each other in ways that are seriously counter productive.
Yesterday, this article about Dan Savage's glitterbombing showed up multiple times on my feed, with comments about how he "deserved it:"
According to my source at the event, Savage was in the middle of answering a question from a student who was wondering if her boyfriend was a freak because he watched porn featuring trans women. Savage suggested that her boyfriend was a freak, while freely using the terms "shemale" and "freaky tranny porn." That is when two individuals ran up and threw glitter on him yelling "Transphobe!"
Someone from the MTV tech crew muttered "Oh, not again!" Savage laughed it off and said that being gay he loves glitter.
Later, when another student was asking him about the incident, Savage answered, "I'm used to it."
I chose to reserve judgement until I heard his side of the story, simply because I didn't buy it. There were no direct quotes, no context, and it was clearly phrased in a way to make him look like a trans hatin' villain. I get that Dan Savage says stuff that's problematic for some folks. But reading the transcript of the talk, I don't think he's legitimately transphobic. Here's what was said, from his response:
DAN: [READING FROM CARD] My boyfriend is straight but he enjoys anal sex and he asks me to make love to him in his butt all the time. [ASIDE:] You have no one to blame but yourself. [READING FROM CARD] Also, he likes watching she-male porn. Could you tell me why he is acting like this? [ANSWER:] Um, I'm gunna go out on a limb here and say it's because he likes shemale porn and he enjoys anal stimulation. He's acting like this because he's a very freaky boy. If you're into him, and you're willing to go there for him, there are a lot of straight guys who are into transexual sex-workers, transexual porn, she-males for lack of a better term, although some people think that's very offensive—
I think in the context of the actual statement, it's clear that he's gently poking fun at the questioner rather than PC shaming them right off the bat, which honestly is probably a more effective tactic for relating to someone who doesn't get why these words are considered ooky and offensive in the first place. Maybe it's not the way I would have handled it personally, but as Dan said: It was at that moment—just as I was beginning to address the problem with the term "shemale"—that I was glitterbombed. Ironic, no?
If you actually read Dan's response and still think his response was unforgivably transphobic, then you're welcome to your opinion. At least you took the time to read and consider what was actually said, rather than responding to the "my friend who was there said he said blah blah" version with "OMG I CAN'T BELIEVE HE'S SO TRANSPHOBIC WTF!!!" There's an expression for this kind of behavior, and it's moral panic. I realize as a genderqueer person I'm expected to respond in horror to this incident, or suffer being labeled a transphobe, privileged, ignorant, etc. But honestly, I'd prefer to think for myself even if it puts me at risk of community alienation.
And here's the other problem with this tale: this glitter bomb didn't materialize out of thin air the second Savage said something that could be considered transphobic. Someone made a point of bringing a glitter bomb, and was looking for an excuse to use it. It would have been nice if Savage could have finished his response before the glamor terrorist attacked.
And admittedly, it's something I worry about as a blogger and sex educator who writes about a lot of touchy issues. Last weekend I taught a class on G-Spot orgasms. I am genderqueer, and there was another genderqueer person in the class, but the majority of folks there were cis. I gave a disclaimer at the beginning of the class saying "In this class, I am going to use what might be considered ciscentric language to describe the genitals belonging to people born with XX chromosomes, in the interest of clarity. I want to make it clear that is not intended to be transphobic in any way." I realize that for me describing a vagina as "female genitals" in a 15-person class is less of a hot button issue than Dan Savage repeating a derogatory term in front of a packed auditorium. However, if someone left that class and blogged that I taught my class in a "transphobic" way without contextualizing it, I'd be pretty upset. Talking about sensitive issues is complicated enough without dumping glitter and flinging accusations in the process.
So here's a few things to chew on:
1. Straight male fetishization/objectification of transwomen and the language that accompanies it is kind of gross and problematic in general.(It doesn't surprise me that the majority of transwomen I know are lesbian identified). You could argue that Dan has a responsibility to comment on how problematic this is, but again- he was glitter bombed right as he was touching on that. Moreover, I believe he was trying to contextualize her boyfriend's interests as non-heteronormative but still straight (which is what I think he meant by saying "freaky") when she asks why he's into these particular things.
2. Reclaimed language is a hot button issue. Not to make light of these discussions, but let's call these raging debates "Voldemort syndrome." For those of you who have read the Harry Potter books, you'll recall that it's a big fucking deal that HP will say Voldemort's name out loud, because he's associated with a lot of horrible, painful shit. Voldemort's name, in essence, is a trigger for people who have been oppressed by him in the past. Replace any derogatory slur for Voldemort, and you see where I'm getting at here. Voldemort killed HP's parents, but Harry is the only one who is not afraid to say his name out loud, and he is ultimately the only one who can defeat him.
Savage Love early adopters might remember that Dan Savage has been pushing people's buttons around reclaimed words for TWENTY YEARS now:
When I started writing this column in 1991, there was a debate raging in hellish homosexual circles about words like faggot. The idea was that if we used these words ourselves — Queer Nation, Dyke March, "Hey, Faggot" — straights couldn't use them as hate words anymore. I chose "Hey, Faggot" as my salutation in joking reference to this lively debate about reclaiming hate words.
Letters to his column opened with the salutation "Hey Faggot!" until 1999, at which point he retired it because "it feels strange to begin every column with a joke about a debate that ended years ago." Except the debate clearly isn't over, it's just that the new generation of debaters were probably still in diapers during the "Hey Faggot" era.
In his response to the glitter bombing, Dan links to an interesting discussion of the T-word on Mike Signorile's website. While the majority of the respondents reply that the word is unreclaimable, Kate Bornstein bucks the trend:
Until you add T to your name, please stop telling me and my people how to perform femininity or masculinity...Through their no doubt kind intentions, GL(noT)AAD acts like protective parents. They believe they have the right to speak for all transgender people. Their nonconsensual parenting reifies the notion that we are as weak and as defenseless as the tranny characters in the film.
Dan Savage and Kate Bornstein are the Harry Potters of the Gay and Trans movements, and they're going to take a lot of flack as a result. As a mainstream organization GLAAD has to take a hard stance against reclaimed speech in order to gain mainstream acceptance, whereas Kate B. has the freedom to be a radical- she always has always been. I used to be in a long term relationship with a transwoman who referred to herself as a "tranny," and I never felt like it was my place to say OMG STOP REFERRING TO YOURSELF WITH HATE SPEECH.
My point is that Dan Savage has never been afraid of discussing hate speech in a frank and open way that makes people seriously uncomfortable. I don't think that openly discussing and even reclaiming these words is tantamount to homophobia or transphobia. The pink triangle is pretty much gay passe these days, but it's useful to remember that it was the symbol that Nazis used to distinguish their gay prisoners. There is power in reclamation and remembrance.
Hate the shit out of Dan Savage all you want. I personally think that anyone who is good at what they do (and he has done a ton of important activism around gay rights and mainstream acceptance and awareness of gay issues, for all his flaws) is going to also face a fair amount of controversy. Hate what you hate, and leave the rest. But respond to the reality, and not the surrounding panic.