On November 9th, Dan Savage was the recipient of a "glitter bomb" stunt for the second time this month so far. He was continuing his MTV tour at University of California Irvine. One of the students involved in the stunt was grabbed by the police and arrested.
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."
Savage's use of the terms "tranny" and "shemale" are a minor part of the complaints being lodged against him, however, the use of those slurs is the most visible and most discussed part of them. Savage has claimed that he was transphobic 15 years ago but isn't anymore, however, if that is true than why would Dan choose to use those same derogatory slurs knowing how much anger it draws from the trans community and so soon on the heels of the first glitter stunt?
Was he being antagonistic or just oblivious?
Considering that he is being called transphobic so frequently that he now says he is "used to it," it's hard to understand how he can continue to see himself as a spokesperson for the LGBT community rather than solely a gay spokesperson. Especially when he apparently has begun bringing police to his events to protect him from the community he claims to represent.
It's worth noting that as far as I can tell activists from previous glitter stunts have not been arrested or faced charges, including those targeting Karl Rove, Michelle Bachman, and Newt Gingrich. It is not clear if Savage requested charges be pressed or if local police are pressing charges on their own initiative, but if he allows charges to be pressed on his behalf, it will be extremely disappointing if he is less capable of handling glitter-based criticism than the conservatives that had previously been the target of it.
After the first glitter stunt, many reported on the fact that it was being used to criticize a gay man, calling it a queer-on-queer glitter bombing. Unlike previous glitter bomb stunts, the message was clearly based on anti-trans actions rather than anti-gay ones. In this light, calling it a queer-on-queer would be akin to calling Michele Bachman a target of a white-on-white glitter bombing. The shared identities are besides the point, Bachman's glitter bombing was not about whiteness and Savage's glitter bombing was not about gayness.
There is still significance in the fact that gay and trans communities are supposed to be in coalition together and that infighting can damage that coalition. However, for those concerned about infighting, it is vitally important to see the whole picture and acknowledge Savage's anti-trans actions as unprovoked infighting that this is responding to.
As a movement, we have to be able to criticize our allies or else they are not really allies. That doesn't mean beating upon them like a punching bag as a way to vent our frustration with the world. That doesn't mean the good things they are doing don't count. It's not about who they are deep inside or their value as a human being. It just means that something they did was unacceptable and has to change.
It was hard not to notice all the cis (non-trans) people rushing to defend Savage's transphobic actions and argue that he should be free to continue them. In many cases, this was based on an appreciation of the good work he has done with only a minimal understanding of the complaints against him.
As our community has a conversation around this issue, I would suggest that those who consider themselves allies to trans people and feel the urge to aggressively defend Savage may benefit by prioritising listening to trans people's voices on the matter. And it goes without saying that no weight should be given to those who do not consider themselves allies to trans people and insist on telling trans people that their concerns are not valid.
Update: Dan Savage has responded via text message to Joe My God. He dismisses the criticism against him as "ridiculous" and notes that he was only mirroring the language a cis audience member was using and did mention that "some people have a problem with it."
It is disappointing that he continues offer excuses and be unwilling to listen to the concerns of the trans community. It was that unwillingness to listen that prompted activists to resort to these stunts to the community's attention. As I note in a comment below, if a white audience member used a racial slur, that would not be an excuse for him to nonchalantly use the slur after mentioning that "some people have a problem with it." It should not be an adequate excuse here, either.
Further Update: Dan Savage has posted a response and a copy of the transcript from the event. I would like to apologize because, as if often the case with eye witnesses, my source appears to have gotten some of the details wrong. Here is the actual transcript
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--
It's important to remember that the criticism about Dan Savage's behavior was not about his words that night but about his ongoing and recent behavior over an extended time period. I will write more regarding this response later today.