[Trigger warning for fat hatred, fat shaming, dehumanization, bullying, suicide, and child abuse.]
In September 2010, Dan Savage founded the It Gets Better Project in response to the recent suicides of gay youth who had been bullied. About founding this project, Savage wrote:
"I wish I could have talked to this kid for five minutes. I wish I could have told Billy that it gets better. I wish I could have told him that, however bad things were, however isolated and alone he was, it gets better."It's a great idea, to have adults who have lived as children in a homophobic society telling kids that life might not always be as difficult.
But does Dan Savage think the bullying of gay kids is the only type of bullying that counts?
I don't write this as anti-gay activist who, like those Peter LaBarbera types, claims that anti-bullying campaigns are secret Homosexual Indoctrination Programs.
I write this as a progressive who doesn't think that the oppression of gay youth is the only axis of oppression that warrants the public's deep concern and sympathy. I write this as a lesbian who finds it's profoundly hypocritical for the founder of a prominent anti-bullying campaign to perpetuate bullying against another class of kids (and adults) who are widely bullied, ridiculed, and mocked: fat people. (Note: Gay and fat are not mutually exclusive groups. Indeed, many fat gay, bisexual, lesbian, and transgender people are widely shamed within the gay community).
Item: Less than four months after he founded a campaign to address the bullying of gay youth, Dan Savage posted a Tim Minchin video entitled "Do Not Feed Donuts To Your Obese Children." Underneath the video he joked: "Yes, it's harsh, brutal even, very nearly bullying. But... um... you gotta admit that there's a
Sample lyric: "Boombalata kiddie-stuffer / Your kid's a fat, have you noticed that? / And you oughta be ashamed / For you have only got yourself to blame / Your 5-year-old princess in her size 14 tutu / Only eats pizza like that because you do." The lyrics also explicitly mock women with polycystic ovarian syndrome and exhort parents to abuse their children in an effort to make them thin: "Tell them they have to jog / Until their jogging shorts fit 'em / If they hesitate, ask firmly / If they still resist, hit 'em."
The best that Savage, our apparent arbiter of all that does and doesn't count as bullying, can do is call it "very nearly bullying"? Gee, ya think?
Now, discussing the ways that such a song perpetuates the false notion that fat people's lives basically consist of sitting on their beds all day long stuffing their faces with whole entire chocolate cakes or, say, Cinnabuns, is beyond the scope of this post. Others point out these false narratives better and more regularly than I do, but the Cliffs Notes version is that fat does not automatically equal lazy, unhealthy, and immoral and thin does not automatically equal hardworking, healthy, and moral.
Item: Back in October, I criticized a Box Turtle Bulletin (BTB) writer's use of an "edgy" rhetorical device that invisibilized the bullying of fat people in order to make a More Important Point about gay rights. In response to the criticism, the BTB writer said that he tries "not to worry about offending people" because he "hate[s]" the "increasingly popular notion that to offend someone is to do them harm."
The message there was clear. In fact, the message is clear in many spaces of the white, gay, male-dominated "LGBT" movement. To offend LGBT people, or a subset of the community anyway, is to do harm; to offend Others by playing the Oppression Olympics, not so much. (The Advocate's provocative "Gay Is The New Black" issue also comes to mind).
Take Dan Savage, employing a similar rhetorical device, one that I like to call, Performing "Social Justice" Satire While Standing on the Shoulders of Other Oppressed Groups. He jests, in a post entitled "Ban Fat Marriage":
"Iowa should ban fat marriage. There are, according to the state of Iowa, more than 1.4 million obese people living in Iowa. That's nearly 30% of the state's population, and those numbers just keep rising. The social costs of Iowa's obesity epidemic are pretty staggering—and those costs include including premature death and lower average life expectancies for Iowans.I get it. He's not seriously in favor of banning fat people from marrying (um, right? *looks around at others to see uncertain, hesitant nods*). His totally edgy point is, Well, why single out gay people when other groups also live unhealthy lifestyles?" Yet, a big problem with the device—one of many problems—is that, much how anti-gays present homosexuality as a lifestyle choice that people make that they should not make, he takes it as a given that being fat is a lifestyle choice that people make that they should not make. When...it's more complicated than that. (See eg, above links.) Savage's former fatness may have been attributable to "lifestyle" (i.e. disordered eating), but he's extrapolating his individual experience to an entire population, and generally being hostile to the concept of autonomous choice, which is a key element of any equality movement.
Since we know that obesity is "contagious"—someone with an obese spouse is 37% more likely to be or become obese—then we shouldn't permit the obese to marry. If an outright ban on fat marriage seems too draconian, then we shouldn't permit the obese to marry the non-obese. The odds that the skinny spouse will be ultimately be seduced into the risky obese lifestyle are simply too great and the potential health consequences too severe."
Now, I can already predict some reactions to this piece. I'm being the PC police. I just "don't get" satire. I'm too sensitive. I'm a femi-nazi. I'm probably a fatty fat fat man-hating lesbian who hates white dudes. Yes, yes, I know. I've heard it all before, even in "LGBT" spaces like BTB, where it's abhorrent that these battles even have to be fought.
For such folks, I'd like to emphasize. My overall point is that Savage is showing some big-time hypocrisy by perpetuating the bullying of fat people while decrying the bullying of gay kids. It is a hypocrisy that is perhaps grounded in a privileged worldview where (a) most gay people are primarily concerned with gay oppression; (b) there are no fat queer people; and (c) gay oppression is the Most Important Oppression Ever (or, as The Advocate called it, "The Last Great Civil Rights Struggle").
Back in January, a white gay man wrote a "Defense of the Gay White Male" at Jezebel that mostly displayed ignorance of the concept of white male privilege by addressing "arguments" supposedly made by those radical non-white-gay-male types of LGBT people. He asked, "Can a nontrans, white gay man ever truly leave the comforts of his own identity without having to make frequent and loud apologies for the crimes of his ilk?"
Like this man, Dan Savage is a thin, white, cis, not-poor, gay male, and to my knowledge able-bodied (I have not seen them write about being disabled, but that does not exclude the possibility). Accordingly, he has the relative privilege of his sexual orientation being his only major axis of oppression. If we understand this, we see that calling out the privilege of such people isn't about asking them to make "frequent and loud apologies" for anything. What we are asking is for them to understand that other members of our community—and of the general public—are oppressed based on other aspects of identity and that this oppression is just as real and legitimate as oppression based upon sexual orientation and gender identity.
I want equality as a woman and a lesbian. But do we have to obtain equality by Making Things Worse for other marginalized people?
[Related Reading: Hello, I Am Fat.]