Dan Savage: Always & Forever a Mixed Bag

Thanks to a recent interview he did with Playboy, as well as talk of him getting a sitcom from ABC, my old hero Dan Savage is on my mind.

When I was a baby sex-positive feminist with polyamorous inklings, Dan Savage was the breath of fresh air I was looking for. I had spent much of my adolescence reading advice columns and self-help. In contrast to the heteronormativity and primness that most advice columnists both believed in and promoted, he was brash and frank in a way that made his occasional tenderness and compassion seem far more meaningful. After listening to many years’ worth of his podcast and reading his column regularly for a long while, however, I found I could no longer in good conscience promote or endorse him or much of his work.

Where do we even start with Dan Savage? How about multiple instances of transphobic remarks, erasure of bisexuals and asexuals, fat-hatred, and probably lots of other things I’m not mentioning? Oh, and if you feel tempted to nitpick the examples from the Your Fave Is Problematic link, remember that just because a few could be explained away doesn’t mean that the more clear-cut ones become invalid.

He has yet to apologize for any of that but he has apologized for his endorsement of the war in Iraq and half-assedly acknowledged that his race-baiting on the passing of Prop 8 was ill-conceived, so we know he is capable of genuine regret. This is not a case of him ignoring all things from the past in favor of the present or being unable to show remorse or admit he is wrong.

Some might point out that the most egregious examples of his awfulness are from a while back. Though he may have stopped saying the very worst things that could be said, I find it hard to believe that is because he has become a better and more enlightened person. It is because people have been doggedly and patiently trying to get through to him, and, when he resisted their efforts, continued to bring attention to his problematic statements in louder and brasher fashion until he was forced to listen.

That he makes a frankly whiny show of not saying those things anymore is evidence in favor of that view. I stopped listening to the Savage Lovecast because I grew exhausted of hearing his cries of “Oh, I want to say a thing but then the *gasp* dreaded biseckshualz and trans advocates will be mad at me. Oh noes, I cannot say the [cruel] thing I was thinking of saying!” Not “I have learned that this is problematic/harmful/hurtful/non-inclusive”, but a tantrum about how he’s “not allowed” to be as nakedly horrible as he used to be.

It is childish and tiresome, not to mention disingenuous, that he goes on and on about how he really wants to say bigoted things but stops short of actually saying them. More important, doing so negates any possibility that he has sincerely and genuinely grown. To me, that says that is like any other person with bigoted opinions: He has realized that he will lose out on potential profit and hurt his reputation by saying awful things, so he has stopped being as open about his unsavory feelings. Accordingly, it is incredibly likely that he would still say those things if it weren’t for the people he knows will tirelessly call him on it.

This all would be less disturbing had he not become the de facto advocate for queer folks in America. Queer folks are allowed to be as flawed as non-queer folks can be, but it becomes a problem if the queer person in question becomes a voice for others. While the headlines and his bylines and bios might say otherwise, he is not an “LGBT” advocate. He seems to advocate unequivocally for gay cis male (and possibly cis lesbian) rights. Everyone else he seems to regard as not-actually-oppressed annoyances in his quest for acceptance of the specific type of person that he is and achievement of exclusively the rights he personally finds to be important.

As a fat genderqueer DFAB bisexual person of color, I cannot abide a voice like his being taken as the authority on all things queer. He has made his hatred for various aspects of my identity as well as those of other queers abundantly clear. Why should I be happy that he is getting a sitcom? Why should I excuse his bile because having a gay male advocate is presumably better than having nothing? Scraps may seem like a feast during a famine, but I prefer a longer-term mentality, one where visible advocates own up to their power and influence as well as listen to those they purportedly represent.

Dan Savage: Always & Forever a Mixed Bag

25 thoughts on “Dan Savage: Always & Forever a Mixed Bag

  1. 1

    Your level of honesty and self-awareness in your writing is always impressive to me. I have had a very similar journey about my feelings with Mr. Savage as well, and reading your experience is incredibly validating.

  2. xyz

    This is very much how I feel about him as well. I’ll always be grateful for the fact that I could read his columns in The Stranger on the east side of WA, in a deeply homophobic environment. He was the only writer I knew of who was giving practical advice for gay and lesbian acceptance at the time. When my friends started coming out to me in high school, his work was my only guide as to how to not be a jerk to them and to give them meaningful support in my conservative town. That was so important. That and his insistence that female pleasure was not an optional part of hetero sex. It helped convince me to stop faking orgasms!

    But then… Iraq… and then I realized how his writing had misled me on the issues of bisexuality and transgenderism among other things. And much later, when I still had an eating disorder, his words about how people need to stay fit and attractive for their partners were one of the influences that made it so hard for me to accept weight gain as part of my recovery.

    Mixed bag indeed. I wish he could listen and grow enough to stay a hero of mine, but, it seems that’s not on the table at the moment.

  3. 4

    This comment is less about him personally than everyone else on the planet: I wonder if this may just be a side effect of just having *so much* of your mind out there. He creates more content than I could consume if I really wanted to and has been doing it for such a long time. I could imagine that most people, if they got their actual opinions out there in such quantity, would be able to be similarly offensive. I struggle to think of anyone who would likely be able to pass that test.

    1. 4.1

      I don’t buy this. Times have changed, lots of people who may have ended up writing like Savage actually started learning things, accepting the limits of their own experience, apologizing when blatantly wrong. He never got there.

      Struggle to think? Struggle not. I’m sure Heina and a half dozen other FtBloggers and hundreds of other people across the net could handle it.

    2. 4.2

      Well, I do not find him “offensive”, I find him to be frankly hateful. “Unsightly rolls of flesh” isn’t offensive, it’s an expression of loathing towards my actual being (i.e. my body). I also don’t have a problem with people saying problematic things, especially when they have such a large body of work out there, but I do have a problem with them persisting stating in the problematic statements and words year after year and making a scene about stopping saying the few things they do concede. That’s the problem here.

  4. 6

    Many of the links that you’ve posted here are guilty of quote-mining, context-stripping and straight-up misrepresentation. Take the “lots of other things” link, for example. The visual standout point in that wall of text is the tweet: “Good thing a woman isn’t moderating this debate. We need a man to keep Romney in line. #DenverDebate”

    As anyone who remembers the fuckawful moderation in that debate can attest, Savage is actively mocking the idea the blogger accuses him of supporting. Randomly clicking on another link in that one, “Answer to a trans man when he asked if Savage thought his relationship with another trans man was doomed “Yes.””

    Okay, let’s read that letter:

    My boyfriend and I are both trans men. Until me, he had only been with non-trans guys, that is, guys with erectable penises. I had been with other trans men, and women. I am used to cunts and like the ins and outs of them, the taste, the smell, and everything that comes with them. Especially ones enhanced with testosterone. I do not think my cunt is special in any regard, but he claims to smell a pungent funk. I have never had complaints from any other lovers. His distaste for my cunt means I never get oral, and barely ever get fucked by his hands and toys. I now wash before he touches me, but that doesn’t seem to help much either. Do you think we are doomed?

    Nothing’s Wrong With Natural Scents


    So let’s see … trans man writes sex-and-relationship advice columnist to ask “Do you think we are doomed?” Columnist grants succinct affirmative opinion that, yes, relationships in which 1) a lover expresses “distaste” for and actively shames their partner’s body and 2) refuses to satisfy their sexual needs are pretty much doomed. Columnist is transphobic.

    I’d have an easier time sorting the dumb from dishonest with creationists. This writer is, quite literally, throwing a pile of shit at the wall to see if something sticks, and I’m just not interested in wading through that pile of misrepresentations and broken links to see if anything did. This severely undermines whatever case they might have while largely dispensing with their credibility, and lowering yours for relying on them as a source.

    1. 6.1

      I agree that if I relied on that single link as a source, I’d lower my credibility. However, I did include many, many more links than just that as well as a disclaimer that Your Fave is Problematic is not 100% on it.

      Can you explain to me how Savage’s well-documented, repeated use of the t-slur as well as his hatred and disgust of fat bodies is “quote-mining”?

      1. “I agree that if I relied on that single link as a source, I’d lower my credibility. However, I did include many, many more links than just that as well as a disclaimer that Your Fave is Problematic is not 100% on it.”
        No. ANY time you link to a dishonest source to back up your point it lowers your credibility, disclaimer or no. There’s also a HUGE difference between “a few could be explained away” and “article includes straight-up lies.”

        “Can you explain to me how Savage’s well-documented, repeated use of the t-slur as well as his hatred and disgust of fat bodies is “quote-mining”?”
        I don’t think I implied either of those things–I certainly didn’t intend to. But I hammer my ideological opponents when they use bad sources, and I shouldn’t give my ideological allies a pass.

        And that’s all I meant, at least by that comment. You’re right to intuit that I don’t fully agree with some of your actual conclusions on this post, but I really was trying (perhaps unsuccessfully?) to limit my focus to just that criticism. That conversation is a larger and harder one that I was ready to have in the comments. I’ve started writing about it in a general way, if you’re interested, though there’s probably more to come.

        1. I was responding to this (emphasis mine):

          Many of the links that you’ve posted here are guilty of quote-mining, context-stripping and straight-up misrepresentation.

          So by “many of the links” that I’ve posted, you mean the one that I was careful to say isn’t the best? I guess I could have gone through all of the YFiP post and made my own that only included very very very very obvious and blatant and indisputable examples of Savage being an oppressive jerk, but I don’t think I’m necessarily qualified to decide whether his statements are oppressive or not when it comes to groups I’m not a part of or know much about.

          And yes, I saw your post in my incoming links. How is my posting YFiP’s link with a caveat so much different from you posting Chait’s link to the point where it damages my credibility? You claim that you posted a caveat; that’s enough for me to not consider you endorsing all or even most of his piece (which I found to be utterly repugnant, to put it mildly).

          1. By “many of the links” I mean that I had originally been going to say something about one of the others, too, but I edited it out and forgot to change the intro sentence. I tend to rewrite a lot when I’m trying to disagree with or criticize someone whose writing I usually admire, which leads to versioning conflicts. I apologize for the mistake.

            “How is my posting YFiP’s link with a caveat so much different from you posting Chait’s link to the point where it damages my credibility?”
            Your post gave me the impression of partially sourcing an argument to a problematic link. The impression I tried to convey in my blog was of having initially said, ‘Without agreeing with all of this I think people need to read it,’ and then having come around to a more critical view upon further reflection.

          2. “Without agreeing with all of this, I think people would benefit from reading it” was all I was intending to say. There are valid points in there, however you feel about some or even most of them, so yes, part of my argument comes from that blog. There is no mega list of Savage assholery alternative to the one from YFiP. I tried to post others to cover my bases. I don’t know what else I can do.

        2. If he said something bad, he said something bad. If some — but not all — of the bad things he said are taken out of context (where the context makes a difference) or are not his current positions, the rest still reflect poorly on him.

          I don’t see Heina suggesting, as some do (and not just about Dan Savage) that listening to or reading him, or quoting him favorably in any way on any topic, is setting back the cause of social justice activism. Heina didn’t even really get into the one area where I think the people who find Savage objectionable/hateful are almost entirely wrong. To say “some of the evidence doesn’t hold up” is nitpicking.

  5. 7

    Yes. It is especially annoying when he does end up agreeing but still has to frame the other side as winers. Recently he needed a trigger warning, but of course had to frame it as “I hate to use this word but…”

    Yes some stuff is quote mined, he’s better on some stuff, and he produces so much content that there is enevitably something to criticize. (I still listen and there is a lot of good surrounding the turds) But his attitude shows that he will continue to get stuff wrong and will be stubborn about listening and learning.

    He has a new segment where he invites other advice people on the podcast, but so far has only had people more conservative than himself. I am going to write him and suggest he invite “Sex for Smart People” (check them out!) or someone who is more progressive than himself.

    I think Dan is a victim of his success. He doesn’t get exposed to as wide of a range of people given his money and success. I have problems with his classist issues as well. But good luck getting him to recognize he is an insulated elite.

    1. 7.1

      The framing the other side as whiners thing is particularly galling because he’s not regulated. His podcast isn’t subject to the FCC, his column’s home newspaper is one he publishes, he’s protected by the First Amendment — if he wants to use slurs, no one can stop him. Doing so would arguably show less contempt for the slurred groups than what he actually does.

      Then again, as he keeps saying (and as people nonetheless continue to be surprised when he demonstrates), he’s conservative in every way a gay atheist can be.

  6. 8

    My views of Dan Savage did not follow the same trajectory. I started out with a very negative view of him, learning about his comments on bisexual and asexual people. But to the extent I tracked the issue, I found that he slowly learns his lessons, however begrudgingly, and only one issue at a time. Which isn’t really the best, but honestly people in general are so bad at public apologies that it’s better than average.

    At the end of this trajectory, I came to the same conclusion as you. Always a mixed bag. I don’t have to support him.

    1. 8.1

      Has he really learned anything, though? The way he complains about not getting to bigot all over the place is really horrible, IMO. He literally says “I want to say [horrid thing] but I won’t because the [insert group here] advocates/activists will be mad if I do!” It seems like all he’s learned is that he’ll be criticized, not that he ought not to be a jerk.

      1. xyz

        Yes – he acts so put-upon about having to change his language and often alludes to the offensive concepts he’s “not allowed to say, siiiiigh”. This became especially clear to me from his podcast. 🙁

  7. 9

    I do believe he’s apologized for the use of the tr-word. Like a lot of folks with privilege, of course, he then wants that first apology to be the end of the discussion, which is far more problematic. And a lot of what he hasn’t apologized for yet (such as the fat-hate) is still bad enough to judge him a ‘mixed bag’ at the end of the day.

    I can recognize him for having done some really great, groundbreaking work, while still having a lot of shit he never managed to get out of. And because of his groundbreaking work, there’s now a host of other writers and pundits out there who have as much good to say, and less shit to deal with, so I no longer need to read DS to get the good stuff.

  8. 10

    Coincidentally, the first page of the comic chapter I linked to on another post here has characters based on the staff of Savage’s newspaper, including the dude himself. Not very scathing, just used for yucks. He changed the names, called that paper “The Masher.”

    1. 10.1

      …and there is hecka truth all over in this place. I read his stuff every week for the time I was in college, but since then I’ve learned enough that he’s mad disgusting to me. I don’t think anyone has linked to Lindy West’s exchange with him on the topic, so here. Sadly, since it happened in his house, he got the last smarmy bullshittin’ word. Fortunately, while there’s a link to it, it’s not directly on the same page to poison thy eyeballs.

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