Saturday, February 18, 2006

Dan Savage, Part Dos

What I remember about Dan Savage at General Assembly was just as Rev. Thom and Peregrinato describe it: a pathetic combination of celebrity worship and hipper-than-thouness and snark and sincerity -- and for some people, real harm.

I don't remember many of his specific comments, as I was lurking in the back and, I think, walking in and out trying to find some friends I was meeting.

I find Savage's columns to be hilariously funny, crass, occasionally shocking (not so much him, but the stuff people write in about), and I admire his persona.
I distinctly dislike the way he talks about his partner's and his adoption of a baby boy, but to be honest, I haven't done a thorough exegesis of Dan Savage and his work. To me, he's entertainment. I do realize, as Sean Parker Dennison points out in the comments to the previous post, that people may take Savage all too seriously. If he's making obnoxious and dismissive comments about bisexuality and trangendered identity, I'm not surprised, but I am not amused. It seems wildly inconsistent for him, and angry and ugly. I wasn't aware of it, or if I read some columns that featured this attitude I was probably pissed off and did nothing about it.

What happened at GA that became the real brouhaha, was that during the Q&A following his loudly cheered lecture (one of those typical UU-Are-So-Superior GA moments), a young lesbian went to the mic to ask a question.

Now, I'm remembering this from a few years back, so I'm not making any promises that this is 100% accurate reporting.

What I remember is that this youth said she lived in rural West Virginia and was gay, and couldn't be out, and was miserable. Dan advised leaving. She insisted that she had no support to leave. Dan said, "Listen, gay kids leave home and strike out on their own every day. You're 19. Get a job, move into a city somewhere. You can do this. You can have your life."
He was, at first, sympathetic, but it was obvious that he expected the Q&A to be just that: Q&A, not therapy.

At this point I saw that the girl was not going to sit down, and that no one was moderating this debacle. She pressed on, tearier with each inquiry. "But I don't have a car!" she moaned. The crowd began to stir, smelling blood.

Dan's voice became more strained and brusque. He was frustrated, and obviously wanted this questioner to go somewhere appropriate to work out these fears and questions. In my opinion, had every right to expect that he would not be expected to solve her predicament during a Q & A session. The crowd became distinctly edgy, but no one had the sense to get up, quietly inform the young woman that there were more appropriate settings for her to seek help, and to lead her away from the microphone and more public exposure.

Dan Savage had no idea how to gracefully back out of the situation and in his typical manner, pushed back at the now weeping young woman with more directives. She was crying, he was wretched, the crowd was livid, and as the girl dashed outside to cry, I went out the back and around to the side hallway to see if she was okay.
(see? I'm not such a bad person, ya'll!)

She cried and another woman and I talked with her and said, "You have so many huge things going on, and he's just a sex columnist. It was really brave of you to put your struggle out there like that, but you know, he didn't have the resources or the sensitivity or the position to help you. There are many more people with real resources available and the time to help you figure out some next steps, if that's what you want and need."
As it turned out, this kid was not nearly as alone in the world as she appeared to be when she stood, a tiny vulnerable presence, at the microphone. I think (and hope) she's going to be okay. I still can't imagine why she stood there exposing more and more of herself to a man who clearly has no credentials or call to really help her while supposedly sensitive and caring UUs watched without doing anything. This is one of our kids. If a speaker is responding insensitively to her and she's crying, howzabout jumping up and leading her to her seat with a comment like, "This obviously isn't going well, Dan. Let's take the next question."

The next day people were wearing signs that said, "SAVAGED BY SAVAGE? CALL THE CHAPLAINS AT 123-456-789."

I bought Dan Savage a drink because when I met him later that night, he looked shaken and greatly disturbed. Not because he hadn't known how to solve the problems of that one young lesbian, but because he understood that the UUs mostly had zero perspective on the situation and that many of us were expecting in him a kind of Gay Savior figure. Big mistake.
He perceived that the sudden transformation of a standard Q & A session into therapy seemed to be business-as-usual for this crowd, and that by failing to switch from entertainer/speaker mode to Dr. Phil Public Healer Mode, he was going down as a brute and an abuser among us. And, to interpret what I saw on his face, it grossed him out.
He was gracious enough not to say one critical word about the entire situation, nor has he, to my knowledge, written anything about his appearance among the Unitarian Universalists. And I, for one, appreciate it.

Dan Savage is Dan Savage. Offensive and insensitive at times, fodder for conversation and a foil off of which to clarify our own positions on important issues of sexual identity and social justice. To expect him to minister to our wounded children is naive and inhospitable; it's like inviting the Fab Five to GA and expecting them to be supportive and pastoral about our awful clothes, hair and make-up. Just because a public figure is liberal and hip and gay doesn't mean they're going to be sensitive, appropriate or share our commitments and theological understanding.

And because we have such a victim culture at General Assembly, we ought to make sure that every lecture and Q &A session has a moderator.


Blogger Peregrinato said...

Wonderful assessment, in my read. It neither demonizes nor lionizes Savage or the situation. I think what people sometimes forget is that he is a columnist, and not an expert; a rise in popularity or celebrity does not mean a rise in expertise. Generally, with Dan Savage or anyone in that category, I'd have to say, caveat emptor.

Blogger Rev. Sean said...

Clearly, I was responding to a different situation, though I do remember this as well. What I remember is someone stepping up to the mike and asking him essentially, "Did you really mean to say that bisexuals and transgender people don't exist?" His response was to describe that sexuality is all about behavior, so people are straight when they sleep with the opposite sex and gay when they sleep with the same sex.

He also said that their are no transgender people, just people who end up male or female--no room for anything outside or between the binary. (Kind of like saying there are no biracial people, just people who either "act black" or "act white.")

Again, my issue is not so much with Dan Savage or his opinions. My issue is that he was invited to espouse his opinions by the office that is supposed to be an advocate for people like me. I think he, at best, confused people on these issues. At worst, he may have convinced some that they did not need to take bisexual or transgender people very seriously.

Again, I realize this is my issue and off your point, but it at least explains why I responded as I did.

Blogger PeaceBang said...

Thanks for the "deep background," Sean.
Who are some of the writers or theorists on g/l/b/t issues you would recommend to us? Obviously Mr. Savage is not only limited, but ignorant in ways I wasn't aware of.
My library is actually woefully thin and dated in the sexuality section. Hope you'll make some recommendations.

Blogger PeaceBang said...

My friend Raven Caldera is a transsexual pagan. I consider him a pioneer in so many ways, and most of what I know about tran issues (not a lot, I'm sorry to say), I learned from him and his partner, Bella, also a transsexual. You can check out some of Raven's writings and other links at

Blogger Chalicechick said...

((He also said that their are no transgender people, just people who end up male or female--no room for anything outside or between the binary.)))

One out of a thousand only end up that way because at birth the doctor makes a decision and "digs a hole or builds a pole" as it is sometimes inelegantly put.

Yes, I'm sure most of y'all know this.

If you didn't, I'd recommend Natalie Angier's "Woman: An intimate geography."

Actually, Natalie Angier would be an asskicking GA speaker. (Not intended as an answer to the question directed at Sean.)


Blogger Rev. Sean said...

Ok, why do books about transgender issues have such bad titles? I hate to recommend them, but...

Dean Katula, ed.
The Phallus Palace
Alyson Books;
ISBN: 1555836542

Carol Queen and Lawrence Schimel, eds. PoMoSexuals: Challenging Assumptions about Gender and Sexuality. San Francisco: Cleis Press, 1997.
ISBN 1-57344-074-4

Richard Ekins and David King, eds., Blending Genders: Social Aspects of Cross-dressing and Sex-changing, Routledge, London, 1996.
ISBN 0-415-11552-3


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