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June 3, 2014

A less Savage perspective

Two weeks ago, Institute of Politics  (IOP) fellow and The Guardian US Senior Political Columnist Ana Marie Cox hosted It Gets Better Project founder Dan Savage as a guest at one of her seminars. The 40-or-so student-only seminar tackled a variety of challenging topics, including the ways in which language can evolve and how the reappropriation of words like the F- and T-slurs can be a form of empowerment. Savage and Cox began by using both slurs in full, though Cox later proceeded to use “the T-slur” following a student’s interjection. Neither word was ever directed at a student or used with hurtful intentions. In the days that followed, three students (all of whom will, out of respect for their search engine–era privacy, remain unnamed) requested a formal apology from the IOP. The IOP declined, prompting the students to start a petition “demanding” that the IOP “publicly apologize for failing to stop the use of the transphobic slur” and, vaguely, “denounce and prohibit the use of slurs” at all IOP events.

I am aware that, as a non-trans individual, I speak from a position of cisgender privilege. More than anything, I applaud students for speaking up for their principles. It is neither my place nor intention to dispute how Savage’s choice of language may have made some students feel, or to question the genuine hurt or distress they may have felt as a result of this experience. LGBTQ concerns—particularly those of trans individuals—remain heavily underrepresented at all levels of public discourse, and I applaud Queers United in Power (QUIP) for taking a leading role in championing these issues on our campus. But the nature of QUIP does not make its members immune to all criticism, particularly as recent events have led me to question the honesty and value of several of its members’ claims and intentions. Taken together, they suggest a troubling lack of integrity about the campaign they have carried out.

For one, it is disingenuous for the petition’s authors to allege (in some, though not all, of their conflicting, seemingly ever-changing statements), that students had been repeatedly interrupted by Savage and Cox at the seminar, or not given ample opportunity to voice their concerns. In the few instances when Cox and Savage did interrupt students, they did so only to request permission to finish their sentences—only because they had been interrupted by the students first. Near the end of the seminar, Cox even made a point to ask the petition’s only author still in attendance whether she felt like she had been heard. Her answer? “Yes.”

It has been even more disingenuous for the students to repeatedly modify their petition’s pre-“update” language without notifying signatories, and to delete an astonishing number of their own and others’ public comments about the incident on social media. Having actually attended the seminar and observed countless inconsistencies between their descriptions and reality, I am taken aback by how many of my peers would sign such a strongly worded petition on the basis of incredibly minimal, misleading information. Even one of the petition’s own authors did not attend the seminar, opting to instead compile a litany of out-of-context quotes from Savage’s decade-old columns for a co-author to recite in their absence.

It’s true that Savage is a highly controversial figure among groups across all political spectrums. But the controversial aspects of Savage’s work in no way negate the hope and positivity he has brought to LGBTQ youth worldwide through the It Gets Better Project, or invalidate his right to express his uncensored opinion. In hosting Savage, the IOP facilitated one of the few public, widely-attended conversations about trans rights to happen on our campus. It was certainly the first such conversation I had ever heard about, let alone had the opportunity to take part in. From that seminar alone, I learned a world of information about trans issues and concerns. Had Savage not spoken at our school, our community would have been exposed to one fewer LGBTQ viewpoint—one fewer opportunity to encourage dialogue and awareness about gay, lesbian, bisexual, and especially (highly under-discussed) trans rights.

But when inviting someone like Savage to speak on our campus, we cannot invite only a censored Savage, or a do-not-use-these-words Savage. Though we can and should make suggestions and requests, it is ultimately Savage’s prerogative to decide what kind of language he will use. Even as the current version of the petition states, “No one ever claimed that Savage should have been ‘excluded,’” such claims carry little meaning—there is no way to exclude some of Savage’s language without completely excluding him.

I have never witnessed anywhere near this level of backlash about the IOP’s hosting of speakers like Rick Santorum, a former lawmaker who has actively used his power to disenfranchise and marginalize virtually all non-heterosexual, non-cisgender, non-male, non-white individuals. It baffles me to think that a longtime LGBTQ activist’s use of certain language, almost exclusively in a historical context, is somehow worse than a powerful politician’s dedicated actions to suppress the entire LGBTQ community, and his advocacy of said actions at our university.

For  all these reasons and many more, I believe the approach these students are taking is unfortunate, questionable, and destructive. It is akin to transforming important, under-discussed topics into minefields—mines that even LGBTQ allies will, and already are beginning to, fear setting off too much to even broach the subjects. If this is the sort of response speakers and attendees can expect at any kind of event about LGBTQ issues on our campus, even allies will be reluctant to participate. Indeed, such reluctance is already setting in. In the aftermath of the seminar, I have heard many of my peers express concern about being branded transphobic, and thus avoid discussing trans issues altogether. I share these concerns, and realize that I open myself to a great deal of criticism by discussing such issues in this piece.

Productive dialogue will always be inherently messy and imperfect. Particularly on issues where we’ve made far too little progress like trans rights, it is crucial to keep having these conversations—to keep inviting dialogue and disagreement, and in so doing, to promote progress and understanding.

The only understanding that censorship promotes is an understanding of topics to categorically avoid. But censorship and ignorance are not the answer. Dialogue is.

(Full disclosure: I am a fellows ambassador for Ana Marie Cox. However, I speak exclusively as a student attendee of the seminar and not as a representative of the Institute of Politics. For information about the IOP’s official stance, please see their Statement on Commitment to Diversity & Inclusion.)

The facts of this piece have been read and verified by five student attendees of the seminar, including Yangyang Cheng, Zainab Imam, and Kevin Wei.

Anastasia Golovashkina is a third-year in the College majoring in economics and public policy. Follow her @golovashkina.