Two weeks ago, Southwestern University hosted its annual Brown Symposium in Georgetown, Texas
— wait, let me highlight why this is interesting:
Last week, the oldest university in Texas hosted a symposium on sex, specifically how we communicate about sex.
And with a little help at home, I was able to attend. “SexTalk: A Symposium with Benefits,” was the most-attended Brown Symposium in memory, and the one most attended by Southwestern students. As easy as it would be to snark about how topics like “Discoveries of Inter-relationships in the Circumpolar North” or “The Music of Olivier Messiaen” should have been equally crowd-pleasing, I prefer to reflect on why this event was such a remarkable draw, for students and visitors alike. And that list starts with Dan Savage.
For the two of you who don’t already know (and even that’s probably inflating my readership a bit), Dan Savage is the nationally syndicated columnist behind Savage Love, a bawdy verbal romp that debuted with Seattle’s weekly, The Stranger, over twenty years ago. From the beginning, the column has centered on hetero people writing in for sex and relationship advice from Dan Savage, who dispenses information and insults with a wink and a “fuck you” toward the stereotype of the sassy gay friend. Along the way, he has sprinkled in political, queer, and non-monogamous content: he coined the term “monogamish” to describe committed partnerships that include threesomes or other sanctioned dalliances and even leads Google searches with readers’ namesake for former senator and presidential candidate Rick Santorum.
Many members of the audience were already fans of the column (as well as the podcast, which one friend has described as the only podcast she could listen to due to its superior production values). You know someone has attained iconic status when it feels awkward to only say the person’s first or last name. “Dan” sounds like a person, “Savage” sounds like a witness in a newspaper article, but “Dan Savage” is an entity. If you already knew about Dan Savage coming in, there’s a good chance his Q&A with a nervous SU graduate would only have confirmed what you already believed, good or bad (and depending on how far back you’d been reading). He took the stage second, after a sexologist/Unitarian Universalist minister‘s presentation on reconciling faith and sexuality, and framed himself as a gay nobody who just happened to become a champion of healthy sex and decision-making for all people. Savage Love, as he describes it, is written in the tone of a group of buddies who are sitting around being drunk and honest with one other (adding that his increasingly frequent appearances as commentator in mainstream news outlets are far less casual).
After the strained opener, the audience was invited to ask questions. They mostly furthered earlier topics (griping about our decidedly sex-negative governor, Rick Perry, for example). Then for the penultimate question, Eli took the mic.
(I should explain here that I know Eli… sort of… in that way that the Internet and huddled interdependence can make it difficult for sex-positive activists to NOT vaguely know one another in this state. I believe we were briefly Facebook friends due to some Austin project that never quite took off. If memory serves — and it may not — Eli identifies as genderqueer, but will accept “trans man” if a label is absolutely necessary; to be safe, I’ll tell this story using Eli’s conveniently short name instead of pronouns.)
Eli was the first questioner to be nervous, but also the first to ask anything controversial. In a rambly, somewhat accusatory tone, Eli braved the room to ask Dan Savage about certain patterns of insensitivity. The points were familiar to anyone who’s already seen sex-positive folks roll their eyes over Dan Savage: transphobia, bi-erasure, and general prejudice against queer identities that are far removed from his own (for the record, Dan Savage is a white, married cismale, quasi-monogamous, and the toppy-er partner). Dan Savage had briefly touched on this reputation already, but Eli’s question was far from moot; Eli even cited an earlier crack about a young lesbian having a Justin Bieber poster on her wall as an example of his disregard for effeminate men.
Dan Savage’s response was more rambly than I would have expected, but still calm and respectful toward Eli. He welcomed the concern and reiterated that Savage Love has the tone of a drunk group of friends at the root of its coarseness and its slang, but also its honesty. (Personally, I think Dan Savage’s detractors might be less critical if this were stated in the column’s header, but I’m sure there would be other drawbacks.) He talked a little about how much things have changed for him and the column over its life, but without many specifics. He rambled about his love of effeminate men (such as his husband), which got a lot of laughs but sounded just a little like, “My best friend is black, so I can’t be racist.”
Now, from this point forward, I must apologize for having an even fuzzier memory than usual, but two separate phenomena were taking shape. Positive debate has been on my mind a lot (and it’s no secret I’m skeptical of confrontational structures and dependent upon a minimal amount of affirmation in my activism), so I chose to focus not on the discussion between Eli and Dan Savage, but on the audience’s reaction to it.
We were in a large auditorium, with several hundred people on the floor and plenty more up on a balcony I couldn’t see over. Eli stood in a side aisle, about three-quarters back from the stage; most of the audience had to turn around to see Eli and did so politely at first. When Eli began to speak again, though, much of the crowd bristled.
Eli pressed further, a little more steady this time, saying something about hostility and dismissal toward trans issues. I felt that Eli’s concerns were better stated, but that the audience was less interested; either the crowd of Dan Savage fans felt Eli had already been rebuffed by Dan Savage’s mere awesomeness, or maybe Eli’s point was hitting too close to home. By the time Eli’s two or three sentences were complete, only a handful of people were still looking directly at Eli, and this is where I bristled. The vast majority of the audience had faced forward, literally turning their backs on Eli: half were looking toward Dan Savage on stage (many incredulous, as if to say “Can you believe this person? Don’t they know who you are?” and others just kind of staring blankly), and the rest looked at their feet, their notebooks, anywhere but back at Eli.
Dan Savage, too, got more articulate in his next response, especially regarding his treatment of trans issues. He assured the audience that over the more than two decades of the column, he has learned and grown with the help of critical readers. He also pointed out that he’s never relied solely on his own opinion and frequently brings in experts to check his work or even do it for him; sometimes they disagree with him, but he prints the full exchange anyway. He pointed out that he was tagging in Buck Angel and Kate Bornstein to comment on trans topics 15 years ago, long before anyone else had ever heard of them.
By this point, I think most of the audience members considered Dan Savage to have “won”, and there seemed to be more than a couple of smug smiles facing the front of the room. I detected that Eli and Eli’s allies (few in number, but easy to spot because they were still looking at Eli) were listening intently, and that some of their agitation had melted away. Unfortunately, everyone else was just waiting for the discomfort to pass like an argument over family dinner.
Dan Savage continued that, as an advice columnist, he must work with the questions he receives and that he sometimes eliminates relevant letters because they include language he knows will be too offensive. However, he emphasized, there are not always polite terms for sexual acts and identities that are bold and controversial to the mainstream. Using existing slang gives Dan Savage the freedom to talk to people where they live; as he eliminates slang from inclusion, he must sometimes also eliminate the perfectly reasonable discussions that could come from that slang. The direct consequence of this is that people who don’t know how to write about trans issues consciously enough to be included don’t get included at all, and fewer trans discussions take place than in the past.
In the end, Dan Savage and Eli agreed that Eli could write in and encourage others to do the same. Now this wasn’t a perfect answer, but it was a good answer, and Eli and Eli’s allies were both heard and attentive; maybe I’m being idealistic here, but it seemed like the exchange closed on a mutually respectful note. I felt some of Dan’s answers were a tiny bit derailing, but then I also wondered if Eli might be spoiling for a fight instead of a discussion. I felt like neither was as articulate as they could have been, but they were both being honest and human and, despite the tension in the room, respectful. Most of the audience missed this moment of subtle peace, particularly those who had already decided Dan Savage had “won” (which he hadn’t). That the conversation ended so well was, to me, a testament to their both wanting not to win, but to find a stronger path forward. Everyone who was still paying attention really seemed to come together during this final point; unfortunately, that portion comprised only a fraction of the total audience. It served as a demonstration of how much tone matters and a reminder of how few of us have the courage to sit through awkward, non-competitive conversations — even when they take us someplace better.
I love this kind of dialogue just for existing. I guess it’s fitting that in the time since the Symposium, I’ve been mulling over this piece, by a prominent advocate for marriage equality who managed to befriend Dan Cathy of hate-nugget fame. Like the discussion between Dan Savage and Eli at Southwestern, it is a bit unfocused and inkblotty, allowing readers to reinforce preconceived notions about the parties involved. But agree or disagree, I don’t see a lot of credit going to people who stand up before their allies and say, “Hey, maybe we need a new perspective.”
Now, I’m not a journalist (repeat after me: “Blogging is not journalism.”), but if I were, I would have followed up the Dan Savage/Eli story with research. I would have talked to Eli over the lunch break or in a subsequent interview to find out whether Eli was happy with the exchange. I would have reached out to Dan Savage for comment. I would have obtained a video of the discussion so I could parse out every word. Perhaps I would have looked for other examples of hero worship getting in the way of good discussion or activists whose messages and methods weren’t always in obvious accordance. But I’m just a part-time writer on a nearly quixotic search for better questions and better communication.
It invigorates me to see people discuss an issue beyond some ideological “victory”, but three quarters of the room at Southwestern had no interest in such matters. When I found not so much as a tweet about the exchange, I started wondering if there might be some conflict avoidance inherent in red-state progressivism. Since many of us (especially allies with little-to-no queer identity) band together in little bubbles, face-to-face activism is both rare and optional. It’s primarily online or in groups. We don’t have to change anyone’s minds, just sit safely at home, secure in the knowledge that we are right.
We tell one another boogeyman stories about how unsafe we are in this state, but we are given a lot of choices and we don’t choose what is difficult or unpopular nearly as often as we’d like to think. We tell ourselves it’s braver to leave what we know and go to liberal oases (Austin, Seattle, DC…) than to stay and live openly as peace-loving, radically inclusive, judgment-defeating neighbors and citizens. How many of us would call out a stranger for saying something offensive or untrue? How many of us leverage our privilege to challenge others where they live? I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with making choices to avoid conflict (I’ve made them myself), I just don’t want us to fool ourselves. Engaging the issues is not the same as engaging a person, and I suspect that’s a flaw in the system that everyone is happy to ignore. I want to out that this freedom to choose is a privilege, and that quietly choosing between pre-drawn sides reinforces not only the powers that be, but the structures that cycle that powers without transformation. Change still happens, but it is slow. Can we say we know for certain that participating in a movement is easier and more effective than engaging in dialogue with those who disagree with our worldview until we’ve actually tried? Can we say for sure that there even is a movement if we don’t all take such action?
When we approach any discussion looking for an automatic winner and loser, the question I have to ask is, “Why?” My theory: conflict avoidance so pervasive that we lose the ability to see dialogues at all, that we eventually only see debates. Better to be part of an unpopular throng than standing alone somewhere in the crossfire, I guess.