I’ve been watching the latest unjustified assault on gay activist and writer Dan Savage, and it’s gotten me thinking more and more about a troubling theory I came up with last year, watching the “gays in the military” group OutServe-SLDN implode. I worry that we’re witnessing the beginning of the end of gay history. And I’m not entirely convinced that it’s something to celebrate.
I’ve written before about the history of the abbreviation “LGBT” (an acronym, btw, is something you can pronounce, like OSHA), and how at one point we were homosexuals; then gay; then gay and lesbian; then gay, lesbian and bisexual (or GLB); and sometimes GLB got transposed to LGB; then we became GLBT, and more recently, LGBT; and then LGBTQ (which can either mean queer or questioning); LGBTI (meaning intersex — this abbreviation is often used by non-American groups); and so on.
I worry sometimes, and increasingly, whether the contuing expansion of our community, or at least our nomenclature, isn’t coming at the expense of the letters that are already there. To use a crude example, if you’re going to have a three-way, or a permanent triad, you’d better make sure that A&B are paying enough attention to each other before you start welcoming C, D and F.
While the entire story has never been made public, we know that the nation’s premier anti-“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” group OutServe-SLDN basically went bankrupt. And while people can argue over the extent to which poor management played a role in the organization’s budget morass, I think the fact that we won (at least the gay part of the battle over the military ban), played a huge role in OutServe-SLDN’s demise. The organization was the canary in the coalmine of what gay life will be in America after we’re free and equal. And that America will (one hopes) have far less need for civil rights group than it does today, even if OutServe-SLDN’s end came before its time.
Which takes me back to Dan Savage.
Dan is one of America’s premier gay and LGBT rights activists and advocates, and among other things, is the creator of the widely-acclaimed “It Gets Better” project. I met Dan, virtually, back in the year 2000 when he offered to help us on our StopDrLaura.com campaign against anti-gay “Dr.” Laura Schlessinger. Since that time, Dan has been a bottomless well of support for countless gay advocacy projects I’ve worked on. Dan is also probably the best LGBT spokesman on television today.
But, a few years back, a vocal element in the transgender community decided that Dan Savage was public enemy number one, and they set out to destroy him and his work. They’ve been harassing and haranguing him ever since, culminating in the most recent brouhaha surrounding Dan’s appearance at an off-the-record student discussion series at the University of Chicago. During the talk, Dan discussed, among other things, the recent controversy over the use of the word “tranny,” and his theories on appropriating, reclaiming, slur words in order to empower ourselves. (Some, but not all, trans people have objected to the word “tranny,” even when used by allies in a positive way.) Because Dan used the word “tranny” in discussing the controversy over the word “tranny,” a University of Chicago student named Hex, and who goes by the pronoun “it,” launched a campaign to censure Dan and the university, because, the student claims, Dan’s use of the word “tranny” was in fact Dan “threatening” the student to the point that Hex had to run out the room in tears. According to witnesses, the claims are simply untrue.
While the notion that any of this matters might in isolation be questionable, this latest collective panic attack against Dan is part of a larger years-long campaign by some, but not all, in the trans community to destroy him. The animosity towards Dan is part of a (often younger) group of vocal activists on the left who subscribe to “critical theory.” They believe, among other things, that fighting for marriage equality is wrong (that’s one of the reasons an LGBT activist glitterbombed Dan a few years back, because he’s been a lead advocate of gay marriage), and that men, white men, and especially gay white men have done little to nothing to advance civil rights and equality — and in fact, those men have been the major force holding back other minority communities. (Harvey Milk, Peter Tatchell, Cleve Jones, Frank Kameny, Chad Griffin, Victor Fehrenbach, Wayne Besen (who photographed “ex-gay” Jon Paulk in a bar), Matt Foreman (former head of the Task Force), Barney Frank, Richard Isay (who helped end anti-gay discrimination at and by the American Psychological Association), Larry Kramer, Randy Shilts, Vito Russo, Tony Kushner, Troy Perry (famous gay religious leader), Gene Robinson (another), Mike Signorile, Harry Hay (who founded the Mattachine Society), all the other gays in the military boys from the early 90s and today, all the guys who created ACT UP, and so many more might disagree).
Of course, gay history, LGBT history, has not been exclusively the domain of gay white men. But since Dan’s critics suggest that those men in particular are the source of all evil, it’s important to remind ourselves of a history already forgotten. A good example of someone who isn’t white, and who took a huge risk by going public for our community at a time when being pro-us wasn’t nearly so cool, is African-American gay drag queen RuPaul. It’s still not easy being a gay African-American man who dresses as a woman, but that’s exactly what RuPaul did in 1989 when he appeared in the B-52’s music video for the hit song “Love Shack.” (RuPaul is the woman in white, to the right.) That took guts that most of us still don’t have today.
RuPaul is also roundly reviled by the same people who discount Dan’s contributions to the community.
It is in this context that the ongoing attacks on Dan have been taking place. They are happening, in large part, because Dan is a gay man. And with every attack on Dan, another thread is removed from the sometimes-tenuous quilt that is holding the LGBT community together.
I’d written years ago about my concerns that we’d never had an open discussion about what makes lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people (and intersex people, and asexuals, and many others) all one community. It’s a question I’d been asked a lot privately by friends and colleagues, gay and straight, but one that people didn’t feel safe asking publicly. And because I think unanswered questions sow the seeds of future discord, I asked, and in response got the same kind of response that Dan gets on a regular basis.
At the time, I was concerned that a lack of discussion about what makes us a community would ensure that in many parts of the community, we would never be seen as one community. And while the issue then was whether gays, lesbians and bisexuals fully accepted trans people as members of the same community, it never occured to me that lesbians, bisexuals and trans people might all have issues with the other elements of the community as well.
I think we are at a crossroads. While critical theory advocates have been around for decades, they’ve recently been empowered by (at least) two things: the Internet; and activists like Dan Savage. Dan came out to his family in 1980, and was out at college as an openly-gay political activist in 1983, during the beginning of the AIDS crisis when it was a scary time to be openly-gay in southern Illinois, and most of America. Many of Dan’s most vocal critics weren’t even zygotes by the time he was busy publicly talking about, advocating for, and defending our community in an era when it was far less safe to be openly gay (or openly anything) than it is today. In a very real way, Dan Savage, and others like him, took a risk, came out, and helped create a world in which his critics are finally safe to publicly loathe him. Now who’s privileged?
I’m Dan Savage’s age (well, okay, maybe I’m a few months older). I just found out last night that we were at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign together in the early 80s. But while Dan was busy coming out, I was planning my suicide. I knew I was gay from day one, and “knew” that by the time I reached 30, if I wasn’t married, everyone would figure out that I was gay, my boss would fire me, and my family would disown me. So I decided, at the age of 17, that the “safest” thing to do was simply kill myself by the time I reached the age of 30, maybe 35, since by then people would figure out my secret.
Yes, those white gay males have no concept of what it’s like to be oppressed. (Other than all their friends dying in the 1980s and 1990s.)
One of the first successful openly-gay people I’d ever heard of was Andrew Sullivan. I read about him in a NYT story, shortly after coming out to friends (but I was still too scared to go into a gay bar). I wrote Andrew a letter at the New Republic, and six months later he wrote me back and invited me for coffee. I’d never met anyone gay who had an “important” job, who was publicly openly-gay, and successful, and popular/famous/loved (some people weren’t as upset with Andrew back then ;-) I was around 29 years of age, right before the time that 17 year old boy had “known” his life would end, and here was this cute young skinny kid with the adorable accent who had the world in his hand, and nobody gave a damn that he was queer.
There were a number of other critically influential gay people in my life, all white males, who are the reason I’m here today, and have been so good at doing the advocacy that I do. There was my friend Paul Clark from Billings, Montana, who died from complications related to AIDS in 1991 (or was it 92?). There was my friend Michael, who worked for Senator Kennedy, and who didn’t care that I was still working for a Republican Senator. I wanted to work on gay rights, Michael trusted me (though he had no reason to), and he put me to work. Nearly every night I’d leave my job in that other office, go over to Senator Kennedy’s committee, and work until midnight on ENDA, DADT, writing hearing testimony, researching anti-gay hate groups, penning op eds and more. Michael taught me that anything in politics is possible. It was the most amazing time of my life, and I gained experience that I’ve used every day since in the work I do on gay rights, and all my progressive advocacy.
The reason I’m here today is because of a lot of gay white men who were there for me when I needed them (not to mention a number of gay white men I never met, but who were there for all of us, like Harvey Milk). I’ve had a pretty good life of pro-gay successes, helping gay sailor Timothy McVeigh beat AOL and the military; galvanizing the community around Matthew Shepard’s attack and death; successfully taking on Dr. Laura and Mary Cheney and Jeff Gannon and Ford Motor Company and Microsoft; and working with Joe Sudbay on AMERICAblog and doing our part in getting DADT repealed and marriage equality revealed. All of that, and so much more, happened because a number of gay white men, some still living and some long dead, were there for me when I needed them most.
Dan Savage is one of those men.
So I take it personally when a fringe group of vocal activists make it their mission to malign all gay men, and destroy in particular one of our (and arguably their) most effective civil rights advocates, Dan Savage. I worry that not only are those activists wrong, and not only are they harming the battle for our civil rights, but I fear that they’re risking the nascent sense of community that necessarily must be built and reinforced if one wants to successfully add new letters to the abbreviation, and truly forge ahead as one big, happy, effective family. What does it say when today’s young activists are more upset about Dan Savage speaking at the University of Chicago than Rick Santorum, who appeared only days before Dan, and who has compared being gay to having sex with a dog? (In contrast to his critics’ silence, Dan challenged Rich Santorum’s anti-gay hate, and won.)
Which takes us back to OutServe-SLDN.
Everybody knows our larger civil rights battle isn’t over (and may never be over — after all, the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964, and full equality is still not a certainty for anyone covered under that law, while Roe v. Wade was the “end” of the oppression of women all the way back in 1972 — how’d that work out for them?). At the same time, the never-ending gay marriage victories, like this weekend’s rather stunning and surprising news from Wisconsin, is making a growing segment of our community feel like our days are numbered, and in a good way.
If we don’t figure out how to continue the mission, if we don’t foster the relationship between Ls, Gs, Bs and Ts; between younger members of the community and their elders; between our brethren of different races and genders and sexual orientations and gender identities — if we don’t stop being, and making people, afraid to ask questions and talk about the things we might not understand and might not even agree on — I fear that, sometime soon, a good and important chunk of our community is going to take its big pink ball and go home. And while the Dan-haters would probably call that a celebration, asks the folks at OutServe-SLDN how watching their community dissipate before their eyes worked out for them.
You can, and should, read Dan’s knockout-punch response to the most recent controversy, “About That Hate Crime I Committed at University of Chicago.” It’s a brilliant must-read.
UPDATE: I’ve just written about another issues, related to this one. It seems the victims aren’t only gay men.