Oct. 21st, 2010

tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)

Dan Savage is a bully. I say this not only because of his history of using his column as a platform from which to belittle fat women, women in general, bi men, trans women, trans men (not meant to be an exhaustive list), but also because of his most recent column where he berated an abuse survivor for the crime of being triggered. (Why doesn't he tell suicidal gay boys that they are being cruel and selfish and ought to think of someone else's feelings besides their own, rather than telling them not to kill themselves? Oh, well, guess women's lives or experiences aren't very real or important.) Most of all, though, I say it because of a segment Savage did on the "This American Life" radio show (episode 341), where he related a story about verbally abusing a student while teaching elementary school, as well as his own experiences as a parent later in his life. In apparent sincerity, Savage said:

"You can't hit 'em... and so sometimes I feel trapped, like the only way I can communicate my intense displeasure and also, to the kid, how far he's pushed it... is by sounding like I'm going to kill him, physically, like I'm going to take his neck in my hands and choke the life out of him."

"Kids are sociopaths until you beat it out of them... metaphorically beat it out of them."

"With the removal of violence from the parenting arsenal, we've had to ramp up the screaming and yelling and profanity. It soaks up the energy that might otherwise have gone into a clean, quick smack."

Who hasn't behaved like a jerk sometimes? No one's perfect. But I wouldn't be picking on Dan for his transgressions against peace, love and justice---I wouldn't even *know* about any of them---if he didn't choose for himself to assume, in a very public and intentional way, the persona of an aggressor, a screaming parent, a bully. In the story that Savage tells on this particular TAL episode, he tells a fourth-grade student of his, "Shut the fuck up, you little piece of shit," then lies about it to the school principal in front of the student; all, he says, to teach the kid the important lesson that adults are crazy and untrustworthy. If he actually meant anything he said, then Savage has about as much credibility to start an anti-intimidation campaign as the Portland Police Bureau does to start an anti-civilian-murdering campaign. And yet, people seem to take him seriously.

Savage's "It Gets Better" campaign is a wonderful way to help straight people believe in a just world. It's wonderful, really, for straight people to get to enjoy this fantasy about queer lives: Sure, maybe queer people suffer a little when they're young, but hey, a little suffering builds a kid's character. And once those kids leave home for college (everyone gets to leave home for college, right?) it's just the beginning of the ascent to a land of joy and bunnies, where gay people get accepted. As long as they're gender-normative and monogamous, but those are totally reasonable conditions, right? There's no need to actually work to mitigate the cultural factors that make everyday life hard for trans and queer people; why work when you can just send a few loving words, via the magic of the Internet, to some queer kid? And the best thing of all is that no one can criticize this particular political strategy, because if someone does, it clearly means they want to deprive kids of the one thing (a recording of a privileged adult talking about their life) that would surely stand between them and the most convenient weapon of self-destruction.

Let's be absolutely clear: "It Gets Better" is a political strategy. It is a strategy that renders the narratives of those queer folks whose lives do *not* get easier once they turn 18 invisible, and that de-emphasizes the role of political action in favor of passive waiting, of individual self-esteem.

The other fantasy that seems to be grabbing the coattails of "It Gets Better", though perhaps not part of the original campaign, is the idea that all bullying is basically the same. So, absolutely everyone can relate to the "It Gets Better" message; truly, it doesn't matter whether you're a member of a minority group or a member of a particular social class or, well, anything. There is simply nothing specific to the experience of queer people, trans people, queer people of color, or any other specific marginalized group, that isn't also shared by, for example, a rich white kid who's teased for wearing glasses.

"Bullying" is such an unfortunate term to choose here, because it attributes the crimes perpetrated by the instruments of a homophobic, misogynistic culture to the instruments themselves---you know, those wayward individuals who act as randomly as dust particles in the wind. The preferred story here, the one that "It Gets Better" helps people hang onto, is that if people would just be nicer, would respect each other more, listen to what their parents taught them (because all people have parents who teach them these things, of course), we wouldn't have such problems. There is no need to challenge fundamental values and certainly no social framework in place that supports individuals in their acts of violence against queer and gender-variant people.

Tyra Hunter wasn't killed by school bullies, but by a firefighter/emergency medical technician who refused to treat her after she experienced a car accident and he discovered that she had a penis. Though a civil lawsuit awarded her mother a bit under $2 million in damages (what is the value of a life?), the firefighter was never criminally punished for killing Hunter through negligence. In fact, he was promoted. The other firefighters on the scene, all of whom chose to joke about Hunter's body rather than save her life, as well as the doctors who provided only dilatory care once she was finally taken to an emergency room, were never punished either.

That says how much we really value queer lives. Saying that "it gets better" with no promise that the next time someone like Hunter gets murdered, there will actually be an indication that anyone valued her life, is worse than saying nothing.

Richard M. Juang, in his essay "Transgendering the Politics of Recognition" (in the anthology _Transgender Rights_, edited by Paisley Currah, Juang, and Shannon Price Minter) compared Hunter's death with that of Vincent Chin. Chin, a Chinese-American man, was murdered in 1982 in Michigan by two men who blamed Chin for "taking away American jobs". His killers were charged with manslaughter, fined $3,000, and released on probation (a decision defended by a judge who characterized the murderers as good people with responsible jobs). Juang compares Chin's case with Hunter not because there was any reason to think Chin had a queer identification, but rather, because both case illustrate---in Juang's words---"gross refusals of civil and human recognition".

The different amounts of punishment against Hunter's killers, and Chin's killers, as compared to the punishment that the killer of a straight, upper-class cis white man or of an attractive, young white girl would receive, show that bullying is not the same whether or not you're a member of a minority group. Or perhaps we can start saying "violence" instead of "bullying"? Good. To harm someone who's straight, who's white, preferably both, carries much greater social sanctions than harming someone whose life is seen as marginal, as subhuman. When the state backs those who do violence against queer people and people of color, that's when we have to start admitting that no, everyone's experience with bullying or other forms of violence is not the same.

The problem, as I hope you can see, is not confined safely within high schools. The fantasy that we're selling to kids---that escape from high school means escape from misogyny and homophobia---will never work. The problem is everyone.

It doesn't get better if you're a trans woman doing sex work because no other employer will hire you, and there are no anti-discrimination laws that say they have to hire you anyway, and you get arrested, placed in a men's prison, and raped.

It doesn't get better if you're a trans man who loses the right to see your kids, forever, because your ex-wife chose to invoke state-imposed gender regulations to render her marriage to you invalid and erase your parental rights in one fell swoop.

It doesn't get better if you can't get health care because it's legal to deny that care to trans people, and you die of a treatable illness or you kill yourself because you can't access medical transition.

When you go ahead and make your "it gets better" video despite knowing about all of these stories---all of these adults who *did* hang in there past adolescence and found that the world's designated enforcers of power structures were even more interested in using their own identities against them---you say "I don't think that these people's lives matter, because fully understanding their lives would require that I disrupt the comforting story I tell myself about *life getting better*."

All of these scenarios could improve, not for the people who have suffered through them already, but rather for the queer kids who are being born today and yesterday. It could get better if we take concrete action to dismantle homophobic, racist, and classist power structures. To be concrete, I mean things like lobbying for trans inclusion in health insurance plans (while access to private health insurance is a privilege, it would send a message that it's not okay to deny medical care to trans people just because we're trans)' like lobbying for universal health care, period; working to eliminate the state regulation of gender by eliminating gender designations from driver's licenses and passports; and working to decriminalize sex work. That's just a start, and if some of these ideas sound rather inspecific to improving queer and trans people's lot, that's because working to improve the lot of those who are disproportionately poor and disenfranchised is sometimes about taking steps to alleviate poverty and disenfranchisement, too.

Holding up the privileged, white, middle-class or upwardly-mobile gay male experience as "The LGBT Experience" does a service only to people who don't need a service; it renders everyone else invisible, while reassuring straight folks that really, everything's just fine. The solution, this strategy says to straight folks, is to coax queer kids to suck it up long enough to turn into happily assimilated members of society---not to hold those kids' tormenters accountable, whether those tormentors are some other high school kids or some candidates for Michigan secretary of state who make it their campaign issue to deny identification to trans people.

And holding up that experience as the one true queer experience only serves the people for whom it was never bad to begin with.

What I find even worse than the "It Gets Better" campaign itself is the campaign of silencing that seems to go along with it. Look: "It Gets Better" is pissing people off. It's pissing off many of the people who it purports to serve. Just in my group of friends, straight people seem to love it, and the more socially normative of a gay or lesbian person you are, the more you probably love it too. But maybe it might be worthwhile to listen to what the naysayers say about it---particular the naysayers who have their own stories of violence to share. Rather than silencing them with "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all" or "You can't criticize people if their intention is good" or "It's useful if it stops one teenager from committing suicide" (what about those who die as a result of apathy and complacency?), try listening. You're not doing anyone any favors by making it taboo to talk about queer lives that aren't all sunshine and ponies. The folks who are pissed off might just be angry because their lives aren't getting better---and Dan Savage is not only failing to help, but doing active harm to the politics of queer resistance.

In writing this, I am informed by the thoughts of more than one person who does not feel safe actually relating their experiences in a public forum. The anger is real, and we're getting told not to tell our stories because it interferes with the comfortable folks' comfort zones. So, seriously, please stop using "think of the children" as an excuse to indulge your fantasies. Kids are smart enough to know that "it gets better" is a fairy tale; if you're too busy to make the world a better place for them to grow up into, just a little bit, even if in some everyday ways, then maybe it's best to let the silence speak instead.


tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
Tim Chevalier

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