When Bullying is Okay

For years, the column Savage Love was the only reason I picked up free entertainment/alternative newspapers.  Dan Savage’s sexually frank but otherwise “Ann Landers” style advice to the love and lust lorn is always entertaining. Savage is gay, but advises all, though naturally he is not too happy with folks opposed to gay rights.

Opposition to gay rights is often seen as supporting or encouraging homophobia, and the effects of that can be particularly hard on youth, sometimes leading to suicide. In 2010, Savage created the It Gets Better Project, to deliver, and encourage others to deliver, messages of hope and encouragement for LGBT youth. There are now hundred of videos from celebrities, groups and organizations, and ordinary folks. The site encourages visitors to take the following pledge:

Everyone deserves to be respected for who they are. I pledge to spread this message to my friends, family and neighbors. I’ll speak up against hate and intolerance whenever I see it, at school and at work. I’ll provide hope for lesbian, gay, bi, trans and other bullied teens by letting them know that “It Gets Better.” 

This inspirational project is something Savage should be very proud of.


Back in 2003, the US Supreme court struck down the sodomy law in Texas (Lawrence v. Texas). The law had been upheld in 1986, but times and interpretation of the US Constitution had changed. Specifically, the court agreed in a 6-3 decision that the 14th amendment permitted sodomy. Tthis was essentially the same decision Canada made in 1967 when Trudeau proclaimed “There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.” The decision was widely and rightly seen as a victory for gay rights.

The decision was not unanimous- there were three dissenting opinions, and many spoke out against it, including senator Rick Santorum. Santorum stated in an interview with Associated Press that the constitutional interpretation was incorrect, and claimed that sodomy was one of a number of sexual behaviours that undermine the traditional family and thus society at large. He noted this in the context of answering a question on how to prevent sexual abuse by priests, and went on to explain his belief that a right to privacy does not prevent the government from regulating sexual acts. Ignoring the context, which in any event does not change the meaning, Santorum’s homophobic remarks were criticized, particularly by Savage, writing an opinion piece in the New York Times.

So far, so good – public disagreement is a vital part of democracy. Then things got a little weird. Savage has a history of trying to create new words, or new meanings for existing words, to describe sexual activities. Apparently a reader of Savage’s column suggested Savage find a new meaning for Santorum. Savage encouraged readers to make suggestions, claiming “there’s no better way to memorialize the Santorum scandal than by attaching his name to a sex act that would make his big, white teeth fall out of his big, empty head.” The meaning eventually selected for the noun santorum was: the frothy mixture of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the byproduct of anal sex.

Savage went on to create a website specifically to popularize the term. Thanks to Savage’s popularity and number of followers, the site is consistently the top search result for santorum, on multiple search engines. In 2010, Savage offered to remove the site, in exchange for a donation of five million dollars to a same-sex marriage advocacy group. When asked about the effect of the smear campaign on Santorum’s children, Savage was unsympathetic, and stated “The only people who come at me wringing their hands about Santorum’s children are idiot lefties who don’t get how serious the right is about destroying us.”

A few months ago, Santorum asked Google to modify the search results to make Savage’s site less prominent in the results. Google did not cooperate, claiming neutrality in search results, although their record on search result neutrality is spotty.

People who don’t want an opinion expressed often resort to censorship, and if they cannot get an authority to stop the expression of the opinion, they will try to drown it out. That appears to be the case here – Savage is trying to drown out Santorum, so that he cannot be heard online, and the mob is on Savage’s side. I don’t agree with Santorum’s remarks or beliefs, but I don’t think they put homosexuals in imminent danger. And I don’t think they justify a mob supported personal attack. Savage has been frank about attempting to humiliate Santorum, which seems like bullying to me. Santorum, for his part, appears to have endured years of this smear campaign with dignity, and without personal attacks on Savage.

I can appreciate that Savage and other supporters of gay rights are concerned about the anti-gay positions of the religious and conservative right. But whatever happened to “everyone deserves to be respected for who they are. …  I’ll speak up against hate and intolerance whenever I see it … .”  These words lose their meaning if they only apply to select groups. It should be better.

One thought on “When Bullying is Okay”

  1. From Savage Love, Jan 11, 2012.

    “I’ve been a loyal reader for half my life. Today, a friend and I got into a debate about you. My friend says your campaign to redefine “santorum” flies in the face of your anti-bullying “It Gets Better” campaign. Would you please address this issue?

    “Google Problems

    The response? Basically, the end justifies the means, we are on the side of the righteous, and so on….


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