It’s a very dangerous endeavor, as my old friend Dan Savage just found out. In talking about the evolution of his sex advice column in an off-the-record seminar at the University of Chicago, Dan referred to many terms he has used in the past, including the word “tranny” which he stopped using in 2011:
I talked about why the word was problematic, why some object to its use, where I see double standards, and the LGBT community’s long history of reclaiming hate words.
This was a hate crime, apparently:
During this part of the talk a student interrupted and asked me to stop using “the t-slur.” (I guess it’s not the t-word anymore. I missed the memo.) My use of it—even while talking about why I don’t use the word anymore, even while speaking of the queer community’s history of reclaiming hate words, even as I used other hate words—was potentially traumatizing.
I stated that I didn’t see a difference between saying “tranny” in this context and saying “t-slur.” Were I to say “t-slur” instead of “tranny,” everyone in the room would auto-translate “t-slur” to “tranny” in their own heads. Was there really much difference between me saying it and me forcing everyone in the room to say it quietly to themselves? … I asked the student who objected if it was okay for me to use the words “dyke” and “sissy.” After a moment’s thought the student said I could use those words—permission granted—and that struck me a funny because I am not a lesbian nor am I particularly effeminate.
This student became so incensed by our refusal to say “How high?” when this student said “Jump!” that this student stormed out of the seminar. In tears. As one does when one doesn’t get one’s way. In college.
Yes, this occurred at the University of Chicago! Now, I’m not interested in defending Dan, because he can defend himself. And John Aravosis is right that there’s a potent and destructive strain in the LGBT world that aims more hate at someone like Dan Savage than at Rick Santorum (tell me about it). What I am interested in is condemning this pathetic excuse for a student. This plea in a university to be free of hearing things that might hurt, offend, traumatize or upset you is an attack on the very idea of education itself. And don’t get me started about “trigger warnings.” So many things worth thinking about, grappling with, and chewing over can be offensive at first or second blush. That’s what a real education is about: offending your pre-existing feelings and prejudices with reason and argument and sometimes provocation. Education is not and never should be about making you more comfortable and more safe within your current worldview. It should not be about accusing someone with whom you might disagree of a hate crime.
And the idea that trans people or gay people are those signing up for this mindless crap is particularly distressing.
Policing language is something no gay person should ever countenance – if only because our language and our speech, as tiny minorities, could be the first to be policed in that brave new world. And what does it say about someone’s self-esteem that they run crying out of a seminar because they cannot handle a simple fricking word (and that they do that, while preferring to be referred to as “it”!). I know life as a member of a sexual minority is not exactly an easy one. But what happened to self-empowerment? Whatever happened to the proud, fearless trans people fighting back against the cops at Stonewall? Whatever happened to the great tradition of flouting all sorts of public norms and parading down main street in full Pride regalia? Or the tradition of bawdy outrage perfected by generations of drag queens, gay satirists, cultural provocateurs, and performance artists whose goals often include the salutary impact of – precisely – offense?
All of this is to be buried in a ghastly, quivering, defensive crouch of affirming claptrap, with trans people whining to teacher that someone said a naughty word, and incapable of taking in even a completely benign discussion without collapsing into trauma and tears. There is only one word for this and it is pathetic. I’m all in favor of avoiding words that some people find distressing if at all possible. It can get in the way of an argument, or simple manners. But I am more in favor of free, bold and fearless speech and argument, in which every t and l and g and b can give as good as they get, and in which this sad and pathetic recourse to fathomless victimology is called out for the disgrace it is. It is entirely self-defeating. No one else can give you the self-respect you may want. No one else’s words have any more power over you than you decide to give to them.
When you think of the courage so many trans people have demonstrated over the decades and centuries, when you think of all the brilliant, funny and sharp ways in which trans people have described their world and ours over the years, this craven emotional blackmail and language monitoring is particularly tough to take. It is not some kind of high-point for gay maturity and tolerance. It’s a sad and tawdry failure to live up to the heroes and heroines – and standards – of the past.