About That Hate Crime I Committed at University of Chicago

June 7, 2014

By Dan Savage at The Stranger

Let’s play let’s pretend, shall we? (I realize we played let’s pretend earlier this week, Slog, but indulge me.)

Let’s pretend that I’m standing in line at Starbucks with a straight friend and we’re having an animated conversation. There are two trans activists standing in line behind us—let’s pretend they’re trans activists with a social media presence—and they overhear me tell my straight friend that I met a trans person earlier that same day at a seminar. “I got into an argument with it,” I say to my cishetfriend. “It was so full of shit. It insisted that I was in the wrong and you should’ve seen the look on its face when I tried to engage it in a conversation about the point it was making. Because, man, it had its head up its ass.”

In less time than it would take me to order tea the two trans activists behind me would be tweeting out quotes and launching an online petition condemning the hate speech they were overhearing me use in line at Starbucks. Because referring to a trans person as “it”—not he or she or zim or zer or them or their, but it, a thing, an object—is the worst thing you call a trans person after “tranny.” Some would argue that “it” is worse than “tranny” because “tranny” is sometimes used by trans people affectionately or ironically. (When I posted this picture of me in drag on Instagram, for example, Kate Bornstein, the trans activist, author, icon, and a “Savage Love” guest expert for nearly twenty years (!) wrote this in the comment thread: “Aw, see? You ARE a dear tranny!”) I’ve heard shock jocks and bigots and bashers dehumanize trans people by calling them “it,” but I have never in my life heard a trans person refer to another trans person as “it”—not in jest, not as a putdown, not once, not ever.

So “it” is an anti-trans slur and it’s arguably the worst anti-trans slur. Got it? Okay, hold that thought.

In the weeks before I was accused of committing an anti-trans hate crime at U of C and denounced as a transphobic bigot by a couple grandstanding (transtanding?) drama queens kings monarchs, I curated a five-night speakers series at the Pen World Voices Festival in New York City that featured a trans woman. (All the speakers were women except me—misandry!) I was one of four executive producers of an online video series profiling seven prominent LGBT Americans—including a trans woman. (Laverne Cox’s video isn’t up yet. But please go check out the amazing videos featuring Jason Collins, Jayne Lynch, and Tegan and Sara.) I invited M. Dru Levasseur, a trans activist, attorney, and cofounder of the Jim Collins Foundation, an organization that funds gender-confirming surgeries for trans people, to give advice to a woman dating a trans man in “Savage Love,” and I taped an episode of the “Savage Lovecast” with trans activist, writer, and porn star Buck Angel, who gives advice to a lesbian about loving her fiance through—and being open to marrying him after—his transition. I realize this comes off as defensive—but, hey, I’m defending myself here. Suffice it to say: If this how transphobes roll… the trans community could use more transphobes like me.

Okay, so here’s what went down at U of C: I was invited to speak at the Institute of Politics (IOP) by visiting fellow Ana Marie Cox, Dowager Wonkette, columnist for the Guardian, talking head on MSNBC, and one of the stars of Twitter. IOP seminars are off-the-record affairs. Participants—speakers included—agree not to write, blog, or tweet about what is discussed during these closed-door sessions. The IOP wants high-profile political and media figures to speak openly and candidly with its students and this confidentiality agreement is designed to facilitate honest discussions—sometimes brutally honest discussions. Before the seminar began Cox told me that some queer students were upset that I had been invited to speak because, you see, I am an anti-trans bigot and my presence at U of C was potentially traumatizing to trans students. These students were coming to the seminar. (No queer students objected to Sen. Rick Santorum’s appearance at the IOP earlier in the same week.)

I’ve hesitated to write about the controversy over my remarks until now because I wanted to abide by the confidentiality agreement. But with ReasonNational Review, U of C’s student newspaper, the Drudge Report, and Glenn Beck all over it—and with two student participants having already violated the confidentiality agreement (they told organizers that the confidentiality agreement was voided when I “committed a hate crime”)—I suppose I’m no longer bound by it.

Anyway, Cox moderated and we spoke with roughly fifty IOP students about social media, writing, activism, the “It Gets Better” campaign, the santorum neologism, and the differences, as I see them, between rightwing activism and leftwing activism. Shortly into the talk Cox asked me about the controversy around my use of the word “tranny” in “Savage Love,” a word I stopped using in 2011 (the same year, it seems, that trans activist Carman Carrera, who strongly objects to the use of the word, stopped using the word herself). I talked about why the word was problematic, why some object to its use, where I see double standards, and the LGBT community’s long history of reclaiming hate words. Most of the students at the seminar were surprised to learn that “queer” used to be considered a hate term. Queer Nation activists in the early 1990s successfully reclaimed the word—hence queer studies programs, queer student groups, and the popularity of “LGBTQ”—but some older gays and lesbians vehemently object to the use of the word “queer.” I also spoke about “tranny” in the specific context of “Savage Love.” Faggot, dyke, queer, sissy, tranny, breeder—all these words appeared in “Savage Love” from the start. With the exception of “tranny,” all still do. I stopped using “tranny” in “Savage Love” and on the podcast after young trans activists began objecting to its use. (Somehow no one seems to give a shit that lesbian gay elders object to the use of the word “queer.”)

Oh, and the name of the U of C LGBT student group that objected to my appearance on campus? Queers United In Power (QUIP). Anyway

If I had scolded my readers for using “faggot” and then allowed readers to toss “tranny” around, that would’ve been hypocritical. But in the column, which got its start in the early 1990s when Queer Nation was out there agitating in favor of reclaiming hate terms, readers were invited to address me as faggot. For nearly a decade every letter to “Savage Love” began with the salutation “Hey, Faggot.”Some readers used the term affectionately, some used it hatefully, demonstrating that intent, not a particular string of letters, makes a word hateful. (Here’s an email that came in yesterday: “Dan, you fucking fag! Here I am, at work, quietly listening to the American Savage audiobook when you read about the death of your mother. My throat blocks, my eyes swell with tears. AT WORK. It is a beautiful story. I just should have listened to it at home. P.S. What can I do as a straight male to help your cause?” OMG a straight guy who loves my work just called me a fag—I suppose that’s a hate crime.)

I never suggested that the trans community ought to reclaim “tranny.” I wasn’t giving orders to the trans community. Just sharing a little queer history with IOP students in a confidential, off-the-record conversation.

During this part of the talk a student interrupted and asked me to stop using “the t-slur.” (I guess it’s not the t-word anymore. I missed the memo.) My use of it—even while talking about why I don’t use the word anymore, even while speaking of the queer community’s history of reclaiming hate words, even as I used other hate words—was potentially traumatizing. I stated that I didn’t see a difference between saying “tranny” in this context and saying “t-slur.” Were I to say “t-slur” instead of “tranny,” everyone in the room would auto-translate “t-slur” to “tranny” in their own heads. Was there really much difference between me saying it and me forcing everyone in the room to say it quietly to themselves? That would be patronizing, infantilizing, and condescending. Cox gamely jumped in and offered that she had used “tranny” in the past but that she now recognizes its harm and has stopped using it. The student who objected interrupted: as neither Cox nor I were trans, “tranny” was not our word to use—not even in the context of a college seminar, not even when talking about why we don’t use the word anymore. I asked the student who objected if it was okay for me to use the words “dyke” and “sissy.” After a moment’s thought the student said I could use those words—permission granted—and that struck me a funny because I am not a lesbian nor am I particularly effeminate. (And, really, this is college now? Professors, fellows, and guest lecturers need to clear their vocabulary with first-year students?) By the not-your-word-to-use standard, I shouldn’t be able to use dyke or sissy either—or breeder, for that matter, as that’s a hate term for straight people. (Or maybe it’s an acknowledgment of their utility? Anyway…)

This student became so incensed by our refusal to say “How high?” when this student said “Jump!” that this student stormed out of the seminar. In tears. As one does when one doesn’t get one’s way. In college.

Okay, gang, remember our let’s pretend game at the top of the post? What’s one of the worst things you can call a trans person? What’s arguably worse than the “t-slur” itself? It. After the student who challenged, interrupted, and yelled at me and Cox stormed out of the room, a friend of this student informed Cox, who had used a standard pronoun to refer to this person after this person left the room (while Cox observed, with great sensitivity and tact, that some feel very strongly about this issue), that this person’s preferred pronoun was “it.”

And… scene.

Ridiculous… fucking… scene.

The trans person who had been scolding me about the use of a potentially traumatizing anti-trans slur has chosen an anti-trans slur as its pronoun preference. And if other trans people—maybe in line at a Starbucks—were to overhear me using its preferred pronoun when talking about it, those other trans people could potentially be traumatized and I would be accused of hate speech. That’s really all you need to know about this whole mess. Sorry it took me two thousand words to get there.

It and its friend are young. And foolish. And playing games. I’m not going to spend the rest of the day unpacking this tempest in privilege pot—it’s far too nice outside—or the other idiocies it and its buddy injected into the conversation. (Its buddy told the room that “It Gets Better” Project “has done more harm than good.”) Queerty has a good rundown, links to the stories at the The Maroon, UC’s student paper, and a link to the online petition created after my appearance. There’s a really amazing, spot-on piece about my appearance at U of C by Ari Cohn at FIRE, John Aravosis has offers some great analysis at Americablog, and you can Google around if you want to see what conservative websites and writers have to say. (They’re having a field day—and while serious people are talking about this shocking anti-trans hate crime, conservatives are deflecting attention from that crime by talking up the antics of it, its buddy, and the maroons at QUIP.)

But I do want to quote one piece at The Maroon—which has written numerous pieces about my alleged “hate crime,” the demand by QUIP for an apology from the IOP (which the IOP, to its credit, refused to cough up) and QUIP’s demand that the IOP promise to “censor” all future IOP guests who might use “hate speech” (not gonna happen, says IOP)—all without bothering to contact me for my side of the story. (That’s not how we do journalism out here in the real world,Maroon. Please consult your faculty advisors. You do have faculty advisors, right?) This piece was written by Anastasia Golovashkina, another student who was at the seminar (and the “facts of [her] piece have been read and verified by five student attendees of the seminar,” the Maroon notes):

I am aware that, as a non-trans individual, I speak from a position of cisgender privilege. More than anything, I applaud students for speaking up for their principles. It is neither my place nor intention to dispute how Savage’s choice of language may have made some students feel, or to question the genuine hurt or distress they may have felt as a result of this experience. LGBTQ concerns—particularly those of trans individuals—remain heavily underrepresented at all levels of public discourse, and I applaud Queers United in Power (QUIP) for taking a leading role in championing these issues on our campus. But the nature of QUIP does not make its members immune to all criticism, particularly as recent events have led me to question the honesty and value of several of its members’ claims and intentions. Taken together, they suggest a troubling lack of integrity about the campaign they have carried out.

For one, it is disingenuous for the petition’s authors to allege (in some, though not all, of their conflicting, seemingly ever-changing statements), that students had been repeatedly interrupted by Savage and Cox at the seminar, or not given ample opportunity to voice their concerns. In the few instances when Cox and Savage did interrupt students, they did so only to request permission to finish their sentences—only because they had been interrupted by the students first. Near the end of the seminar, Cox even made a point to ask the petition’s only author still in attendance whether she felt like she had been heard. Her answer? “Yes.”

It has been even more disingenuous for the students to repeatedly modify their petition’s pre-“update” language without notifying signatories, and to delete an astonishing number of their own and others’ public comments about the incident on social media. Having actually attended the seminar and observed countless inconsistencies between their descriptions and reality, I am taken aback by how many of my peers would sign such a strongly worded petition on the basis of incrediblyminimal, misleading information….

I have never witnessed anywhere near this level of backlash about the IOP’s hosting of speakers like Rick Santorum, a former lawmaker who has actively used his power to disenfranchise and marginalize virtually all non-heterosexual, non-cisgender, non-male, non-white individuals. It baffles me to think that a longtime LGBTQ activist’s use of certain language, almost exclusively in a historical context, is somehow worse than a powerful politician’s dedicated actions to suppress the entire LGBTQ community, and his advocacy of said actions at our university.

For all these reasons and many more, I believe the approach these students are taking is unfortunate, questionable, and destructive.

Dishonest, disingenuous, inconsistent, misleading—these are not honest actors. And as I’ve written previously: “False accusations of engaging in hate speech are themselves a form hate speech—particularly in the hothouse environment of LGBT activism.” It and its compatriot and QUIP owe me, Ana Marie Cox, IOP, and all the students at U of C an apology.

I’m going to give the last word to a trans person—typical transphobic behavior on my part—and close with a tweet from Parker Marie Molloy. A writer, a columnist for the Advocate, and a trans woman, Molloy has written numerous pieces about the use of anti-trans slurs and peeled the bark off me in the past. After Molloy called out RuPaul’s Drag Race for what she perceived to be the use of transphobic slurs on that program, the producers dropped their long-running “You’ve Got SheMail” tagline and apologized for a “Female or Shemale” segment.

Molloy looked into what went down at UC and tweeted this out this last week:

From what I gather here, I’m on @fakedansavage side (seriously) http://illinoisreview.typepad.com/illinoisreview/2014/06/university-of-chicago-students-offended-by-gay-rights-activists-use-of-transphobic-slur.html