By Violet Baron
When Dan Savage came to speak at Haverford for what he calls “Savage Love Live” last Friday, many students were eager to hear the widely read gay sex columnist answer their own questions in his snarky, confident drawl.
“My boyfriend is trying to convince me to have anal- should I do it?” wrote someone who identified herself as a “hetero female Haverford student.”
“Well, clearly when it comes to questions of anal sex, I have a bias,” Savage said slowly, savoring his response and the audience’s rush of laughter. He went on to describe his love of butt plugs (“I have one in now… that’s the thing about butt plugs, you can set it and forget it,”) and said earnestly that any boyfriend who desires anal stimulation for his lover should first try it out himself.
This high-spirited encouragement of sexual exploration and relationships based on mutual satisfaction is a hallmark of Savage’s advice columns and podcasts, and one of the reasons why many praise Savage as a role model.
Others see problems in Savage’s treatment of sensitive issues, and want to bring his more controversial sound bites into the conversation.
“Dan Savage is a big member of the LGBT community, he’s a great leader… but on the negative side he’s not inclusive at all to the LGBTQ spectrum,” said Shewit Zerai, a first year Ford who sat with other protesters outside Marshall Auditorium as Savage’s audience filed in.
“While he might help a certain group of upper-class white gay men, he actively harms a lot of other communities, and he’s really bi-phobic, trans*-phobic, ableist, racist, classist, sexist, and perpetuates rape culture and victim blames,” offered Anna Gonzales, a sophomore at Swarthmore and an active member of the Swarthmore Queer Union. Several Swat students came to join the protest, wearing specially made t-shirts bearing the slogan “It Gets Bitter Project.”
So when Rhett and Serena Pierce, two Bryn Mawr students, came across an ad for the Haverford event online, they agreed that something needed to be organized. “We had no idea it was going to get this big,” said Rhett in an interview before the event.
By Bi-Co standards, the protest was certainly big: 56 students RSVP’d as “going” on the Facebook group for the protest, and more than a dozen visibly participated in the protest. Aside from the group who held signs and engaged students outside of Marshall and at the back during the event, students were encouraged to protest by attending as audience members, writing down any problematic statements and submitting questions for Savage to read and respond to the audience.
Pierce, the primary organizer of the protest, explained their reasoning: “I feel like the Bi-Co enforces a certain way to be queer… And I feel like this is just a really ugly example of what kind of queerness they endorse. It’s very middle-class, white, cisgender, gay male.” Pierce said they intended the protest to spark conversation in the Bi-College community about these issues.
Student responses to the protest were mixed.“I came into this with a lot of reservations,” said Kenzie Thorp, a Junior at Haverford. “I went to the Q&A [workshop] session as well, and asked him about his remarks on Trans* people. And I was…pleasantly shocked… there’s a lot of intentionality.” Thorp said. “I think it’s really unfair for us to expect public figures to be lifted up and be completely infallible… it’s unfortunate that some people are more invested in confrontation and dissent than dialogue and progress,” said Thorp, referring to the protesters.
Pierce themself mentioned this argument in their earlier interview, saying they’d received student criticism saying, “ ‘We’re supposed to be educated people,’ which kind of implies that, by being upset by something and by wanting to take action against that, we’re acting in an uncivilized or uneducated way.”
Robin Banerji, a junior at Haverford, referred to a question he had posed to Savage, on the classist implications he saw in the It Gets Better Project’s videos assuring Queer youth that they would eventually find a more welcome scene in college: “You’ll go to college, you’ll immerse yourself in a different community… and it’ll get better. But that’s not the reality. And I think that he didn’t answer my question. He attacked me.”
In an interesting twist, Savage talked about the protest during that week’s Savage Love podcast. In it he claims inaccurately that “Some kids from Bryn Mawr rolled in to stage a protest at my talk. And they were at the back of the room, holding up signs, calling me an asshole.” Savage goes on to describe a question he believes came from the protesters (in fact the same question that Banerji, a non-protesting student, claimed authorship of above).
Savage says he is not against protests within and among the Queer community: “That’s a feature of human life—disagreement, dissent, debate.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Serena Pierce, one of the organizers of the protest, with feminine pronouns. Their preferred gender identification is neutral.