Dan Savage doesn’t often crop up in my day to day conversation – I prefer to talk about things I actually care about – but when he does, it’s never positive. Discussing him with members in my queer community means discussing his biphobia, or talking with my polyamorous friends about his problematic concepts regarding those types of relationships, which are never fun conversations. They’re mostly depressing conversations, as it is disheartening that such a large figurehead for the queer community has these poisonous opinions that people pick up on and run with (a list of such poisonous opinions can be found here). So when I heard that Dan Savage used the t-slur, yet again, this was old news.
However, this time, it was different. Why? Because on Thursday, May 22, Savage’s target was a 17-year-old University of Chicago student. More specifically, my sibling.
My sibling, who is a minor, and whose name will not be used in this article, attended Savage’s lecture at its college (to be clear, my sibling uses it/its/itself pronouns), and a ways into the presentation, Savage (and moderator Ana Marie Cox) used the t-slur.
Coming from a household full of activists, I can only describe the feeling that swelled in me when I heard what happened next as pride, because my sibling stood up for itself and asked Savage to not use the slur in the context of this presentation, since it was not his word to reclaim.
What followed that request – which was a polite, “Please don’t use that word in a safe space, it makes me, a trans student, uncomfortable,” request, and not even toeing the edge of being hostile or threatening – was a litany of slurs Savage hurled at my sibling. He outright listed a bunch of slurs, sarcastically asking my sibling for permission to use each one. Among the words he asked if he had the right to use was the word “d*ke,” and my sibling said he did not, as he did not identify as a lesbian woman, and asked if he had the right to use the word “s**sy,” and my sibling said that was a word he could reclaim, because “s**sy” was used to target gay men, or effeminate men who were assumed to be gay.
A physics junior at the University of Chicago who was present at the event asked me to not use his name. For sake of simplicity, we will call him David. David said:
[Dan Savage] made the choice to have people address him with the f-slur on his blog, which since he is a gay man, is his prerogative. He talked about other slurs that were being reclaimed as well, and in this said the t-slur. A trans student in the audience raised its hand [and] said that the use of the slur distresses it. [Name redacted] asked that, in this room, could the speakers not use the actual slur and instead say ‘the t-slur.’ Dan and Ana both refused, and each continued their talk, using the slur.
Let’s talk a bit about reclaiming words. It is a common belief in activist circles that you can only reclaim slurs if they affect you. If you’re not black, you cannot reclaim the n-word; if you’re not a gay man, you cannot reclaim the f-word; if you’re not a woman, you cannot reclaim the b-word; and if you are not a trans woman, you cannot reclaim the t-word.
People like to say words are harmless. People like to say that words are just words, get over it! But let’s really talk about words for a second. Words create reality. They construct our societal norms, our legislation, our media. Language is, inarguably, a very powerful weapon. And words, especially words that have been systematically used in the past to dehumanise and hurt a marginalised group, whether you like to admit it or not, those words hold power, and harm. No one is “giving” those words power. No one is “letting” those words hurt them because of some supposed “thin skin.” Those words are harmful. And hiding behind “free speech” doesn’t change that. (To clarify: you have the right to say what you like, and people have the right to get angry at you for it; free speech goes both ways, as people who consistently say hateful things seem to forget. People are allowed to spew homophobic propaganda on a daily basis under free speech, that doesn’t mean you or I agree with it. It’s no different when you run your mouth and say transphobic things.)
Following this harassment of being singled out in the crowd and hurled slurs at, Cox took over. She told my sibling that she “[felt] sexuality is a lot deeper than gender because you can’t tell a person’s sexuality from just looking at them.” (These quotation marks do not symbolise an exact quote from Cox, but a quote from my sibling, paraphrasing what it had been told in the crowd that Thursday.) My sibling told me on the phone that it tried to explain to Cox you cannot tell someone’s gender just by looking either, and it was at this point Cox said, “Publically, you can,” and then proceeded to misgender my sibling. My sibling became upset and tried to explain to Cox that you couldn’t tell its gender and Cox said, “I don’t really care.”
My sibling replied, “Yeah, I can tell,” and it was then, emotionally stressed out and in tears, my sibling left the auditorium. Not because it didn’t “get its way.” Not because it was “throwing a tantrum,” or whatever ludicrous reason Savage and his friends would like to spin this into. But because it had been singled out, harassed, multiple insults lobbed at it, and finally, misgendered massively by Cox after politely asking its safety to be considered.
When students were not responded to positively after lodging a complaint with the Institute of Politics (the organisation who had sponsored the event), they turned to other measures.
Sara Rubenstein, a University of Chicago gender and sexuality studies sophomore, started a change.org petition and over 1900 students signed it, asking that safe spaces for students be paramount.
This, in turn, sparked Savage to write an article, asking that my sibling personally apologise to him. In this article, he also attacks my sibling’s usage of the pronoun set “it/its/itself” as transphobic. Let’s pretend, even if he is correct, and this makes my sibling a transphobe. Just because someone else is a transphobe, it doesn’t make you less so? Deflecting the criticism you’ve been receiving and turning it elsewhere – “I’m not a transphobe, you are!” – is kindergarten rhetoric. You both could be transphobes. You both could not be transphobes. The both of you are not dependent variables that change when the other is or isn’t something. You are two independent people, and Dan Savage, your history very much marks you as a transphobe.
But about that accusation. My sibling is very much aware of the stigma surrounding that pronoun, and it is not the first person to use that pronoun, and it won’t be the last person, either.
Let’s be clear. I know that ‘it’ pronouns makes people uncomfortable. And being perfectly honest, discomfort is sometimes the goal. How many transphobic cis people use 'it’ to dehumanize trans people? How many times have I heard someone jokingly say, “I can’t tell if it’s a boy or a girl?” So, yeah, when a cis person uses 'it’ pronouns for me, I’m definitely banking on them thinking back to any time they’ve ever done that, and if they haven’t, I’m hoping they think about how other cis people have done that.
For trans individuals who find “it/its/itself” triggering, my sibling offers an alternative set of pronouns which many trans people, like myself, use.
Regardless of someone’s reasoning behind their pronouns – whether for an "activist” reason or not – you use them. Why do you use them? Because trans people’s pronouns are not about your comfort. They are about the trans person’s identity and safety. As someone who claims to be a part of the LGBT activist movement, if you claim to be an “ally” to trans people, you do not get to decide whose pronouns are more “valid” and whose you will use, and whose you will not use. It is your duty to respect and use the correct pronouns even if it makes you “uncomfortable.”
I want to clarify that this article is not going to get side-tracked by the importance of pronouns or whether Savage is allowed or not allowed to use the t-slur. This article takes the position that the slur is not his to reclaim. But this article is not about words, or their usage of them. This article isn’t even about whether or not Dan Savage is a transphobe. There are countless articles and comprehensive lists (one of which was linked at the beginning of this article) that will show that over and over again.
This article is about a grown man, a key figure at the head of the LGBT right’s movement, the founder of the It Gets Better project – someone well acquainted with the numbers of LGBT youth anxiety, depression, and suicide, not to mention trans-specific statistics – bullying a minor on the Internet.
If that’s not hypocrisy, I’m not sure what is.
Let’s break away from Savage for a little bit because, honestly, he makes me sick to my stomach, and talk about Andrew Sullivan.
We’ll only talk about him for a paragraph or so, because he’s not worth my time, and I would just like to point out if calling a 17-year-old trans kid on the Internet a “pathetic excuse for a student,” is not bullying, I think you may be defining the word wrong, and surely there are better ways to suck up to your buddy.
My sibling is holed up in its living space, stressed out, and afraid to go outside because the backlash caused by this petition and Savage’s response to it, is so great. It has told me that it has turned off facebook notifications for the UChicago facebook page, and several other facebook pages associated with UChicago’s, because it consistently gets tagged by people using the slur, and saying hateful things. It has told me it fears that “half the student body hates me,” and it has lost more than few friends (as well as a few nights of sleep) over this debacle.
Despite our family’s personal situation, of which I have no intention of going into detail on, my sibling is powering through. Every day it accomplishes wonderful things just by being alive and existing, because of the homophobia and misgendering we’ve suffered at our own parent’s hands, not to mention our difficult financial situation right now. My sibling doesn’t need more stress in its life on top of the dysphoria, on top of the daily microaggressions, on top of educational worries, on top of everything else. The bottom line though, isn’t that you shouldn’t have to know someone’s personal life and story to care about them as a human being. Everyone has hardships, difficulties, and obstacles to get over. Being aware of that, you should treat other people the way you would like to be treated.
My sibling wrote a post on its facebook which read:
I sat through a school-sanctioned speaker and moderator bullying me out of a space, using dehumanizing language, and saying inconsiderate things about my gender identity. I dealt with the triggered dysphoria and panic, and then had to deal with loads of students, people who walk around this campus, telling me that I was misrepresenting the situation. That I was too sensitive. That I was weak for admitting that I felt unsafe. That I shouldn’t have spoken up. That my concerns, my feelings, my existence was ridiculous. I’ve dealt with knowing there are people on this campus who hold this view of me, and are out there walking around. I’ve dealt with the panic attacks as, in the course of our discussions, they have said incredibly rude and invasive things, have made me even more dyshporic, have made me have an even harder time than usual feeling like I deserve to get out of bed, like I deserve to be on this campus.
I have dealt with, not just this on this campus, but having spiteful articles written about me depicting me as a hysterical, attention-grabbing child. I have complete strangers saying hateful things about me. About my family. About my mind. About my mental health. About my gender identity. About my body. I have people I have never met saying that I am thin-skinned, that I haven’t experienced the real world, that I deserve to have awful things done to me, that I need to grow up, that I need to stop harming progress.
This has all happened in a couple of weeks, as a result of my refusing to accept anything less than safe-space from the IOP.
To my cis friends - this is primarily addressed to you. This is hard enough for me, as a trans person, to deal with. I absolutely understand that other trans people will have a hard time with it as well. But as cis people, you have the privilege of not being so personally affected. And if you have ever, ever, ever claimed to be an ally to trans people, I ask you to prove it.
My sibling doesn’t need grown men on the Internet to get their audiences to attack it and threaten its mental health and physical safety.
I am asking for not just an apology, but a promise. A promise that you do value young “T” lives as much as you value young “LGB” ones. Because, as an older sibling, I cannot and will not tolerate a world that tells my own flesh and blood that it is worthless because it is different. I refuse to. I need to believe the world we are living in is better than that; that people are better than this.
So, like my sibling, I am asking you to prove yourselves. Prove to me and my sibling and the thousands of other “T”s that you conveniently leave off your legislation when trying to “push progress” through city halls that you care about us and that you will protect us. Prove to me you are allies to your own cause, because the T is a part of the L, G, and B community, and it’s time you started treating us as such.