I gotta say, I don't get the joke, Savage. The joke—that Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna is transgender—is a culture-jamming brainfuck foisted on the world by Savage years ago. It's probably the longest-running inside joke about a local elected official around here, even though, in the history of jokes, it has a pretty glaring flaw: It ain't that funny. Yes, it can be funny to call a person the thing they hate, assuming McKenna hates transgender people. But that's it?
"I just don't quite understand—I've heard Dan make this joke many times over the years, I don't know what the basis is," said Josh Friedes when I called him yesterday. He's the executive director of Equal Rights Washington, he ran the campaign to get Ref-71 passed, and he knows a lot more about this stuff than I do. "It's terrible to make stereotypes about people based on their appearance, and it's also very problematic when we assume that because a person looks a certain way or has certain characteristics they are gay or transgender. That's exactly what we are fighting against."
A bunch of other bloggers have weighed in—with outrage and outrage and outrage—as have commenters on Slog. You're not wrong, guys. Transgender people are exposed to crazy levels of physical violence simply because of how they appear. Less than a month ago in Turkey, a transgender woman was stabbed 17 times and had her throat slit in her apartment. Six months ago, a transgender woman was stabbed to death in broad daylight in Washington, DC, just one month after a transgender woman was stabbed to death in her Hollywood apartment. In November 2008, a transgender woman was shot and killed at a house party in Syracuse, NY. In July 2008, a transgender woman was beaten to death with a fire extinguisher in Greeley, Colorado. And so on: "A report by Transgender Europe estimated that nearly 200 trangender people have been murdered between January 2008 and June 2009."
"I think Savage has done incredible things for the LBGT [lesbian, bi, gay, and transgender] community," Friedes said. "I think he's spoken truth to power. I think he's held LGBT organizations accountable when others have not. There's no question he has an incredible following and can rally the forces. But I think every human being I have met has blind spots, and this may be his."
Maaaaybe. But for all the heat he's getting on this one joke, he sure has written a lot over the years in support of trans people (three recent examples: here, here, here). A lot of commenters are focused on whether Savage is transphobic. I know the guy. He's not transphobic. There's no way his intent was ever to attack transgender people. He's just obsessed with cracking open the stupidity of labels, preconceived notions, etc. Here is a guy who began his career by saying: I'm gonna have straight people ask me for advice and call me a faggot, and I'm going to give them the best advice I can. (Every letter to Savage Love began, "Hey faggot.") People used to be outraged over it, thinking that gave license to use faggot to people who genuinely hate faggots.
For Savage to call the most powerful Republican in the state transgender—when he doesn't think being transgender is a bad thing, just like he doesn't think being a faggot is a bad thing—is a joke on the person who thinks being transgender is a bad thing. Like many Republicans and most Tea Partiers. (Tea Partiers shouted "Nigger!" and "Faggot!" at congressmen just this week.) Savage fucking around with labels jams the machine for stupid scumbags for whom those labels do mean something and mean something bad. Calling McKenna transgender is like a Rorschach test.
Problem is, of course, the whole reason transgender men and women face so much violence is simply because they appear to be transgender. And Savage's very, very dry joke—coupled with the fact that it's not really funny (seriously, what's the funny part?)—obscures the legitimate, not-a-joke reasons that McKenna sucks. Think of the hundreds of thousands of people in Washington State who don't have health care and how McKenna is doing all he can to keep them from getting it, people whose taxes pay for McKenna's health care.
"In a society where understanding of LGBT people is uneven, people have to pay a huge amount of attention to how things may be perceived by people who are not yet supportive of LGBT civil rights," Friedes said. "I think Dan's comments give license to people making fun of transgender people."
Given what transgender people are up against out there, I'm with Friedes on this one.