WORD POLICE

Trans Activist Demands Apology From University For Allowing Dan Savage To Say “Tranny,” Making School “Unsafe”

Dan SavageOpinionated author and occasional media critic Dan Savage is not the first gay activist to be labeled “transphobic” for his use of the word “tranny,” but he is certainly the first to be labeled such for using the word “tranny” in an actual discussion about the current policing of the word “tranny.”

That’s right. Dan Savage visited the University of Chicago Institute of Politics this week, where according to The Chicago Maroon, he “began discussing his personal history as a gay man” and had used the word “tranny” in “an anecdote about reclaiming words.”

A freshman “member of the LGBTQ community” who asks only to be identified as Hex says Savage’s use of the word “tranny” made it feel “unsafe,” and that one of “the most hurtful parts” of the conversation was when IOP fellow and Guardian columnist Ana Marie Cox, participating in the discussion, echoed the word. “I used to make jokes about trannies,” said Cox, according to Hex. (“It” is Hex’s chosen pronoun.)

Students recall that Hex interrupted the conversation from the audience to demand that the term “T-slur” replace the word “tranny” in the ensuing discussion, claiming that their use of the word was “to threaten me and make me feel uncomfortable in that space.” A dialogue between the three created “a tense atmosphere” and Hex reportedly left the room crying.

IOP Executive Director Steve Edwards offered the following recollection to add some context to the situation:

“Fundamentally what the conversation was about was language. One argument is that language and certain terms can be so hurtful that no matter the context, no matter the person using them, they should not be invoked, period. The other argument was that language can be reappropriated—hurtful language can be re-appropriated by groups that are directly affected by the language—and used to empower and that there’s a tradition of that.”

Citing the experience as “dehumanizing,” Hex immediately began circulating a petition to force the University of Chicago to apologize to it and “prohibit the use of transphobic slurs” at future events. The petition garnered over 1,700 signatures.

In response to the petition, the IOP released the following statement, pointing out that it “cannot remain true to our mission and be in the business of filtering guests or policing their statements“:

The IOP has not endorsed the viewpoints or statements of any of the more than 250 guests we already have brought to campus from across the political spectrum. By definition, views will be expressed on occasion with which some will strongly disagree or even find deeply offensive. But we cannot remain true to our mission and be in the business of filtering guests or policing their statements to ensure they will always meet with broad agreement and approval and will not offend.

Last week at a Fellows seminar, a guest used language that provoked a spirited debate. The speaker was discussing how hurtful words can be re-purposed and used to empower; at no point did he direct any slurs at anyone. We acknowledge that some students found the discussion personally offensive and applaud them for strongly challenging the speaker, which was absolutely appropriate. To exclude or sanction him would not have been.

Maroon columnist Anastasia Golovashkina also investigated the claims and offered the following opinion in a column titled “A Less Savage Perspective“:

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.

….

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, in 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.

The petition page seems to have only favorable remarks published.