Gay writer Dan Savage has long been one of the most visible and outspoken voices on LGBTQ+ issues and sexuality. He’s considered an expert by most. So when he tweeted the other day in defense of former New York magazine journalist and alleged transphobe Jesse Singal, people saw it as a unofficial spokesperson for the LGBTQ+ community defending Singal against “trans twitter extremists.”
“I want to say, ‘I challenge anyone to listen to this interview @jessesingal did with youth-gender clinician Dr. Erica Anderson and tell me he’s transphobic,’” Savage tweeted on Monday, “but I know people will continue to insist he’s transphobic. But he isn’t.”
But Savage isn’t trans, and neither is Singal, and neither man is a cis expert on trans issues or on what is or isn’t transphobic.
This all started on Monday, when Singal was added to GLAAD’s “accountability project,” which according to GLAAD, is a “resource for journalists and the general public which documents anti-LGBTQ words and actions from politicians, commentators, organization heads, journalists, and other public figures who are often quoted in mainstream media about LGBTQ issues.”
So far, it sounds like Singal is a perfect candidate for the list. While he is cisgender, Singal is considered one of the leading voices in journalism on trans issues, especially by fellow cis people. When the person writing about an issue that scares you looks like you, you’re more likely to listen to him.
However, instead of using his platform on trans issues to talk about the 44 trans people who were murdered last year, or the over 80 anti-trans bills in state legislatures, or the high rates of poverty, suicidal ideation, and violent crime victimization that trans people face, he focuses all his trans writing on people who aren’t trans.
Singal couches his infamous 2018 Atlantic article in language that makes you think the story is about trans people, when in fact it’s about gender nonconforming people and others who had thought they were trans.
In the much-derided piece, Singal spoke to numerous individuals who detransitioned and highlighted children who initially described themselves as trans but later desisted and stopped experiencing gender dysphoria. Instead of highlighting how these people are not trans, he stirred up the different groups into a confusing and misleading piece that transphobes now quote. This is how them. described Singal’s article: “Much like Singal’s previous work on the same subject for New York Magazine and The Cut, his Atlantic report is ultimately a skeptical take on the very concept of gender-affirming care for trans youth, invoking ‘social contagion’ theories of transness and questioning the ethics of clinicians who prescribe puberty blockers and/or hormones to teenage patients.”
By conflating these groups, and conflating types of treatment for trans people, he’s fueling fires that the GOP is using to oppress trans people. He’s not carrying a torch, he just provided the firewood.
Imagine a cis, straight journalist who regularly wrote, spoke, and tweeted about LGBTQ+ issues, but only ever talked about “ex-gays” and people who went through a phase or experimented one time. Now imagine this journalist was considered a leading voice in LGBTQ+ issues and was hired by huge outlets to speak on LGBTQ+ issues. That’s Jesse Singal.
He’s a huckster flashing a shiny detransition penny at us in one hand while holding thousands of trans people who aren’t able to get life-saving health care behind his back. He’s trying to get the public to focus on the wrong issues.
To have a platform like his and be trusted on trans issues and then to wave a flag distracting from real trans issues and discredit any trans person who disagrees with you, is transphobic behavior. And he knows this.
If Singal was writing about trans issues that affect the majority, or even 10 percent of trans people, he still wouldn’t be an expert on transphobia. But the problem is, Singal thinks he’s not just smarter than the average trans person, he thinks he’s smarter than trans people who have not only been living as trans people for decades, but are veterans of trans studies, issues, journalism, and activism.
Why do white cis gay men (and white cis lesbians like Katie Herzog) think that they get to be the experts on what is and what isn’t transphobic?
I’m reminded of a scene in Cheryl Dunye’s seminal lesbian film The Watermelon Woman. While researching a Black actress from the early days of Hollywood, Dunye’s fictionalized version of herself goes to Swathmore University to speak to a cultural critic about roles for Black actors at the time.
“The ‘mammy’ figure is a great favorite of mine,” this white expert (played by real cultural critic Camille Paglia, who is playing an exaggerated version of herself) tells Dunye, who is Black. “I am really distressed with a lot of the tone of recent African-American scholarship.” She continues, “The watermelon seems to be another image misinterpreted by a lot of Black commentary.”
This is how I feel when Singal, Savage, and other cis gay journalists like Glenn Greenwald and Josh Barro say that they’re not transphobic or expressing transphobia and explain why not to the trans people who are telling them they are.
If Singal, Savage, or any other cis person wants to be an expert on what is or isn’t transphobia, they should just become trans for a little while. After all, they could always just detransition.
Mey Rude is a staff writer for The Advocate and Out.