What did Dan Savage do this time?

The columnist came to the defence of controversial journalist Jesse Singal this week, reminding the internet of his past transphobia

Dan Savage looks at the camera with an empathetic gaze, wrinkling his eyes in understanding as he soothes the viewer: “It gets better. However bad it is now, it gets better. But you have to tough this period out, and you have to live your life.” In the online video, Savage directs these words of comfort toward young queer people, a population that he has framed his entire post-2010 public persona around—particularly after he and his partner launched the It Gets Better campaign, dedicated to “uplifting and empowering LGBTQ youth.” 

But on Mar. 22, Savage instead directed his words of empowerment and comfort toward controversial journalist Jesse Singal. 

This week, Singal was accused of perpetuating anti-trans sentiment by LGBTQ2S+ rights organization GLAAD, which had placed the journalist on its list of persons known to espouse anti-LGBTQ2S+ hate through actions or rhetoric. This was due to Singal’s long history of targeting trans people through articles about detransitioning, trans youth and trans conversion therapy. Singal’s entry, and much of the list, has since been made inaccessible to the public; the website now claims that the list is in a beta format that was never supposed to be publicly released. 

Savage took to the Twittersphere to shield Singal from the accusations, declaring the journalist to be unilaterally un-transphobic. To back up this declaration, Savage linked to an article from the anti-woke Quillette that supposedly exonerates Singal of transphobia—in the uniquely unbiased and integral way that the reactionary publication is known for.  

In his short Twitter thread, Savage noted he was concerned that coming to the defence of Singal might renew the accusations of transphobia against him. Such a red flag may naturally make any inquisitive reader curious as to what is happening on a deeper level. So let’s dive in: Who are these strange actors moving so ungracefully on this stage, and what does it all mean? 

Who exactly is Dan Savage? 


The generations of queer people who don’t have any memory of a time before the internet probably aren’t terribly familiar with Mr. Savage. He became famous for his “Savage Love” column, originally appearing in Seattle’s The Stranger, through which he dispenses advice to readers who write in with their queer problems. It began in 1991 and continues today as a syndicated column, carried by various newspapers in North America as well as in some European and Asian countries, making Savage among the first well-known, mainstream LGBTQ2S+ advice columnists.

Beyond his column, Savage is also known for his It Gets Better initiative, which he began in 2010 with his partner, Terry Miller. The project attempts to address the high rates of suicide among LGBTQ2S+ youth by showing that queer people are capable of leading fulfilling lives. If you were an anxious, weird-looking teen around the time of the initiative’s launch, you might have had an older adult solemnly show you one of Savage’s videos.

Most importantly of all, Savage is known for coining the term “pegging.” Though, truth be told, I’m not entirely sure whether we should be grateful or irritated that he increased awareness around the joys of bottoming for your girl. On the one hand, it’s probably good for straight men to widen their sexual horizons. On the other, do we really want to give them more ways to be horny? 

Is Dan Savage really transphobic? 

Savage is a man with a rich history of vigorously arguing that he is not, in fact, transphobic. And there is an equally rich history of trans people accusing him of being transphobic—much of which began all the way back in the early 2000s, about the same time as the inception of “Savage Love.” 

Among other things, Savage’s column became notorious for his use of anti-trans slurs. The most infamous of the bunch is from 2003, entitled “Bad Tranny.” When a reader wrote in to speak of her shock at her husband’s desire to transition into a woman, Savage responded with what can only be described as some sort of delirious tirade in which his stream of consciousness rant is broken up by bursts of bracketed “selfish tranny!” and “stupid tranny!” It’s an odd, quite literary flair that we can nearly imagine Joyce delighting at reading. Be that as it may, it’s not at all appropriate—though I’d be lying if I said I’ve never directed an odd “stupid tranny” at myself while trying to motivate myself to complete a difficult task. 

There are other columns from the same era that contain similarly violent language and disregard for trans experiences. Jumping forward nearly a decade, to 2014, Savage pens an article quite ominously titled: “About That Hate Crime I Committed at University of Chicago.” In it, he describes an experience in which he was overheard by two trans women referring to a trans person with it/its pronouns, and was subsequently called out on social media for transphobia. Savage claims that this trans person did, in fact, intentionally use it/its pronouns. But the exoneration of this reveal is shrouded in about 2,600 words that jump between descriptions of every neutral interaction Savage has ever had with a trans person, invocations of a wild, frenzied trans activist mob out to guillotine him and his gratuitous use of the word “tranny.” Even if we believe that Savage was right in how he referred to this person, the way he describes trans people and transphobia in the article doesn’t seem to consider transphobia as a legitimate problem. 

This aligns with how he takes an interpersonal, unsystemic perspective of oppression. Instead of looking at how his words and perspectives fit into a system of institutionalized transphobia, Savage looks to his own relationships with trans people; he’s quite fond of conjuring up the times he’s worked with trans people and successfully avoided bullying them (to be fair, Savage should be proud of this—one of his examples is porn actor Buck Angel, who is uniquely and unilaterally obnoxious in his eagerness to show he’s “not like other trans people”). Since Savage has managed to work with individual trans people in his personal life, he can’t see himself as a transphobic individual. Thus, he becomes irate when trans people even dare to think of him as transphobic. The subtle dehumanizations—the slurs, the invocations of the “angry trans mob,” the aggression and hostility—simply don’t factor into his understanding of how oppression works. 

Why is he defending someone’s transphobia on Twitter?

On a micro level, Savage is probably identifying with Jesse Singal, recalling his own history with accusations of transphobia, and likely afraid that people are soon going to be advocating for his deplatforming, too. On a macro level, this is part of a larger conversation about how the media engages with and enables transphobia, especially during a time when trans people are more visible than ever (in a bad way). 

The impetus for this iteration of the Singal-versus-trans-people conversation arose when the public became aware of Substack Pro. Substack is a blogging platform that generally works as a direct line between creators and consumers via newsletter subscriptions. On Mar. 12, Substack publicly spoke of their Pro model, within which they provide advance payments to certain writers to encourage them to utilize the platform. Soon enough, people became aware that some of their Pro writers included those who had perpetuated anti-trans hate. This led to a campaign for Substack to drop anti-trans writers from their platform—including Singal. 

All of this is happening at a time when trans people are being targeted more vehemently than ever before. More anti-trans bills have been submitted to the American government in 2021 than ever in history—this as the Senate debates whether or not we deserve to be legally protected from discrimination. Republicans are moving full-force on “the trans issue” in attempts to woo voters and distract from other issues, like Trump’s attempted insurrection. 

Who even is this Singal character? 

If you’re unfamiliar with Jesse Singal and his bag of tricks, we congratulate you, and advise that you scroll through this section really, really quickly. Singal is emblematic of a specific class of liberal, respectable, “reasonable” transphobes. They don’t associate themselves with outright hate and prejudice. They avoid working with far-right publications like Rebel News and Breitbart. They profess deep empathy towards trans people in public ways, and stray from misgendering or other subtle forms of violence. They’re not hateful—they’re “just asking questions,” they’re “just concerned for the children and women.” 

These figures can be more dangerous than those that are forthright in their disgust and hate, because a reasonable onlooker is less likely to disregard them. Mainstream media has embraced Singal and his singular obsession with trans people with open arms. His story on the danger of letting children transition was slapped onto the cover of The Atlantic. He also wrote a piece for New York magazine defending anti-trans conversion therapists

As other writers have noted, Singal is a dangerous writer because he presents his stories as though they’re nuanced while excluding everything and everyone—particularly trans people—who do not fit his narrative. Trans writer Julia Serano has documented at length Singal’s habit of reaching out to trans people for stories, then ignoring them when they don’t fit the narrative he’s trying to swing: “Singal has used similar tactics [of publicly smearing and personally targeting] on other writers, most of whom are trans women, but honestly, he is quick to go after anyone who he feels threatens his sense of ‘truth,’ trans or otherwise.” 

Because of their eagerness to write in a one-sided way about us, writers like Singal are prioritized as the purportedly unbiased speakers for the “trans issue,” and provided with platforms from which to speak of their “concerns”—platforms that actual trans people are excluded from, as we’re thought to be much too biased to discuss issues that concern us. 

Does the Transgender Mafia control the Twittersphere? 

Beneath this entire controversy, there’s a unifying assumption that there’s some ongoing war between two parties on the battlefield of “culture.” On one side, there are endangered rational thinkers like Singal and Savage, and on the other, there’s a fuming mob of radical trans activists, thirsting for blood and ready to send someone to the gallows faster than you can say “transphobe!” Within this assumption, the radical trans activists are the one that control the constraints of the battlefield; we’re the nefarious monarchy, and figures like Savage and Singal are Robespierre and Danton. 

You only have to look at a writer like Singal to know that this assumption is complete baloney. The topic du jour is the so-called “transgender issue”—that is, whether or not transness is someone dangerous, nefarious or deranged—and everyone can’t wait to chime in. It’s extremely rare that anyone faces real consequences for transphobia—more likely, they’re asked to speak some more on their opinion, like Jesse Singal or Jordan Peterson or Abigail Shrier. Just because some trans people are outspoken on the internet about the oppression we face doesn’t mean we hold actual power. 

It’s this kind of a bad faith perspective that thinks of Singal, Shrier and Peterson as cancelled intellectuals solely because there are a few trans people in their Twitter replies saying meanie things to them. Realities like her being invited by the actual American government to speak as an expert on “the trans issue” are ignored under the weight of her mean Twitter replies.

It’s been quite some time since Dan Savage’s last controversy, when he was reprimanded by trans people for repeatedly using the “T” slur during a 2014 event at the University of Chicago. Perhaps he was craving the limelight again. Everyone knows that the easiest (and laziest) way to make a resurgence in the public eye is to publicly side with transphobia. It’s a rote act at this point: Side with transphobia under the guise of “asking questions” or “opening discussions,” receive backlash, use the backlash to paint yourself as an endangered thinker, then notify your agent to expect calls for podcast guest spots. It’s only a matter of time before Savage announces a Substack newsletter.

Nour Abi-Nakhoul is a Montreal-based writer and incoming editor-in-chief of Maisonneuve Magazine. Her debut novel, Supplication, is out on Penguin Random Houses Strange Light imprint in May 2024. She speaks English and some French.

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