The Case for Optimism

Published in: January-February 2016 issue.

DAN SAVAGE has been a fixture of LGBT culture and politics for over two decades—as journalist, author, media pundit, and founder of the sex advice column “Savage Love,” which is syndicated in several dozen U.S. newspapers. His media work includes recurring appearances on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, The Colbert Report, CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360, and various gigs on MSNBC, among many others.

dan-savage         Savage’s most recent project to gain worldwide renown was the “It Gets Better” campaign, which targets LGBT youths who face bullying or isolation and may be at risk of suicide. The campaign generated a vast number of videos affirming gay lives, many from celebrities and many more that went viral. His more recent books include The Commitment: Love, Sex, Marriage, and My Family (2005) and a collection of essays titled American Savage: Insights, Slights, and Flights on Faith, Sex, Love, and Politics (2014).

         Something readers may not know is that Savage was part of a satirical theater group in Seattle starting in the ’90s. His interest in guerilla theater has made several appearances since, notably: his contest to redefine the word “santorum” in a way befitting the “man on dog” former senator; closely covering the Bruce Bauer campaign and even trying to give the candidate the flu; and his annual Hump Pornography festival, which features short video clips from contestants.

         Born and raised in Seattle, where he still resides, Savage married his partner Terry Miller in Canada in 2005 and in Washington in 2012, one of the first gay couples to do so in that state. He and Miller have an adopted son named D.J., who’s the title character in Savage’s 2000 memoir The Kid.

         This interview was conducted by telephone in early November.


Suzanne Stroh: Talk about American politics today and how it effects the LBGT community.

Dan Savage: We won a big victory in the Supreme Court last June. Some people regard that as evidence that everything is, of its own accord, going to fall our way. That kind of complacency is something we can’t risk. We’re closer by a long shot than we used to be, but we don’t have full civil equality yet. As we’ve seen with voting rights and with abortion, rights secured in our nation aren’t always safe. They have to be protected, and if we are complacent, rights we’ve won can be undermined and stolen from us. There’s no ability to be complacent in U.S. culture. Canada got the French and Australia the convicts. We got stuck with the Puritans.


SS: I was in the audience in New York when you were on a panel with Michelangelo Signorile, which I really enjoyed. Interestingly, Michelangelo was the pessimist and you were the optimist. Is there anything in American politics today that you’re optimistic about?

DS: As I’ve argued for 25 years—and I think recent events over the last ten years bear this out—the fight for LGBT rights involved two simultaneous styles of warfare. There was a First-World-War-style trench warfare going with lines dug in and we didn’t move much. A lot of mustard gas in the air, vicious anti-gay bigotry slung around. Going on simultaneously, though, was a kind of Vietnam-style guerrilla war, where we were so far behind the line, working at the cultural level—gay and lesbian, bi and trans people being open, being out in our communities and our families and our workplaces, which in turn was reflected in the media. You had increasing, more well-rounded portrayals of LGBT people in films and sitcoms and an LGBT presence in the mainstream media—out human beings on TV. That was undermining the lines on the haters’ side.


SS: What was the most successful strategy for our side?

DS: Hit them with everything. I think that’s the lesson of the marriage equality fight. There was a lot of debate in the movement over the best strategy, winning it through legislatures or through the courts or ballot initiatives. And what we saw, I think, all across the country, was that we didn’t have to pick; just push on all fronts.


SS: Can you name the biggest failed strategy?

DS: Well, this is slightly personal, but back in the day, thirty years ago, when I was coming out, or twenty years ago, when straight people would say to us “What do you do in bed?” we were supposed to react with indignation and say, “Oh, my gosh, we read, and we watch television and sometimes we make love. What do you do in bed?” And just get really huffy about how insulting that question was. When I started “Savage Love,” my feeling was that we should answer that question honestly until they’re sick of hearing it. That we should tell them exactly what we do in bed, because until they understood what made us different, they couldn’t comprehend what was exactly the same. And so I think that those questions about difference are ones that we should answer, and answer until they are begging us to shut up about it.

I think there’s a parallel in the movement now for trans equality. I think a lot of straight people have hang-ups about genitals and transpeople, and ignorance doesn’t get anybody over their hang-ups; only answers do. But a lot of trans people don’t want to stand around all day answering questions about their genitalia. You saw this in the famous Katie Couric interview with Laverne Cox and Carmen Carrera. Katie asked them about their genitals and they knocked that question down, saying it’s objectifying, that it’s obnoxious and rude. Which it is, and yet it was also a question with an answer we would ultimately benefit from. I don’t think every trans person should be obligated to answer it. But there are trans people who are happy to answer that question, such as Danny J, a trans activist and outstanding tweeter and porn star.


SS: Switching gears to your work in suicide prevention, what were your thoughts behind the “It Gets Better” campaign targeting LGBT youth?

DS: Let’s say a kid is bullied because of his race or her class or his faith. The parents are the same race or class or faith, so they’re living proof that it can be worked through; it can be survived. Kids who are bullied because of their race can go to their parents and open up and expect support as a matter of course. Their parents will share their coping strategies. For example, many African-Americans parents talk to their children about how to survive interactions with cops. But gay kids go home to parents who are not gay and who, in the worst-case scenario, may be the worst bullies in their lives. It Gets Better is about LGBT adults sharing their coping mechanisms, their strategies, with vulnerable young people.

It’s an area where the LGBT movement isn’t wholly honest. I think a lot of LGBT adults tend to forget that when you come out it’s not the end of all your troubles; it’s the beginning of new ones. When a gay kid tells me he’s going to come out, I always warn him that it’s likely to be a shit-show at first, and that all the bad stuff lands on you at once, falls on you like a piano. If your family freaks out, if your peers freak out, if the school you’re going to freaks out, all that happens the day you come out. And then the good stuff comes to you gradually. It accrues very slowly in the new relationships you’re going to form, in a more honest relationship with your family, in love, sex. All of that takes time to arrive, whereas the crisis arrives instantly. So don’t let that warp you or convince you that you did the wrong thing. Keep it in perspective.

And that’s what the It Gets Better project does. It allows LGBT adults to share that long view, that perspective, the coping mechanisms, how they made it better for themselves, what they did. One of the criticisms of the project is that it’s passive. It just tells LGBT kids to sit there and wait and things will naturally get better around them. I think that’s a dishonest criticism, because anybody who’s watched any of the videos sees that these are people talking about how it got better for them because of what they did, what they said to their parents, how they argued with their parents. The crappy town or school that they left and the better place they went to. The project is about actions people took, not about lightning bolts that people were struck by.


SS: Then there are the families we create for ourselves. What do you see as the new family frontiers, and what’s in store for LGBT folks in the future family?

DS: Will marriage equality change gay people, or will same-sex marriage change the institution of marriage itself? My money is on the latter. I don’t agree with the teeth-gnashing brigade who insist that marriage equality is destroying what’s unique about gay culture or gay sex. I don’t think marriage necessarily is the end of gay sexual adventuring. It certainly hasn’t been true in my life.

Twenty or thirty years ago, we were all sort of herded into one space to be sexual, and because marriage and children weren’t an option for us, it looked like none of us wanted those things, that we’re unified as a people who reject marriage, family, having children. Gay people who were more conservative were lumped in with those who were more sexually adventurous. What you’re going to see now is gay people wandering off and doing their own thing. A lot of gay people are choosing that lifestyle with marriage and children. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re choosing monogamy, the suburbs, and heteronormativity, but for some it does.

As it turned out, there were a lot of straight people out there who didn’t want to be compelled to choose marriage and children but felt forced to, and who have now wandered off in a different direction. There’s a movement afoot in Straightland around polyamorous relationships and “monogam-ish” relationships, which can create new family structures. But the argument that gay marriage is going to make us all monogamous suburbanites is horseshit.


SS: Let’s turn to some issues related to gay, queer, or LGBT identity. Some say we’re entering a “post-gay” era? If so, what would this mean for gay culture and identity?

DS: Post-gay is a twenty-year-old concept. Every time I meet someone who says they’re post-gay, I think they’re bullshitting. I think it’s more of a posture than an identity, an oppositional posture to some sort of illusory fantasy about there being a model of “the gay lifestyle.” There are two types of people who talk about this model: religious conservatives and queer activists who believe that their queerness now exists in opposition to a model of a gay style or lifestyle. Both are full of shit.

When I hear people say they “reject labels,” it’s usually people who are invested in their own closets. Queer people are a tiny minority of the population, even in our new hetero-flexible universe, and without those labels, without those spaces in which we label ourselves, we can’t find each other. Those labels have utility and they always will. People who are opposed to labels, who think they’re post-gay, are really informed by a kind of homophobia, frankly—a desire to live in a world where you don’t have to be necessarily aware of the presence or existence of queers, because the default assumption is that you’re straight, so you pull people out who identify as gay, lesbian, bi, or trans, and you’re left just with straight people, with the perception that everybody is the same.


SS: How do you label yourself?

DS: I think of myself as queer. Queer is my genus, and gay is my species. And I do think that’s how a lot of people use “queer.” Queer is the overarching all of us who aren’t them, all of us who aren’t straight. So to know someone’s queer is to know a broad thing but not the specific thing.


SS: I saw one abbreviation that contained something like twelve letters. I think it was lgbtqqip2saa. Some letters I can’t even guess.

DS: Lesbian, gay, bi, trans, queer, questioning, intersex, pansexual, two-spirit, asexual—and I don’t know what the other A is. What you left out was LF, which I’ve seen, which stands for Leather Fetish, and on and on and on. I think we should sing the alphabet song twice to get those Qs in there twice, and be done with it.


SS: What was the first label you ever gave yourself?

DS: Bisexual.


SS: And what was the first label anyone ever gave you?

DS: Faggot. No, the first label anyone ever gave me was Catholic, because my parents had me baptized as an infant. But the underlying label that always existed was heterosexual. Heterosexual is the default setting and the default perception until you self-identify as something else.


SS: Have you ever given a label to your own child?

DS: We had him baptized Catholic, though he’s been allowed to wear it much more lightly than my parents allowed me to wear it. That was the last time he was in church, I think—his baptism almost eighteen years ago.


SS: But young people write to you all the time. Do they want to be labeled?

DS: They want to understand themselves. A lot of them turn to the queer studies program in college, which is convincing young people that there’s some imperative and some hurry to label themselves, and that every desire, impulse, or attraction, may itself be a unique and independent identity. There’s this rush to create new terminology, this exploding taxonomy to try to label every sexual orientation. But I’m not sure that this finely-sliced identity is helpful to everyone. At some point I think we have to just be able to say, “You’re gay, you’re a lesbian, bi, or trans, or straight, or whatever and the certain types of people you’re attracted to are those types of people and that type of person. Is that sexual orientation or is that just you? Is that a community or is that just a preference?”

But I’m an old fart. I remember how annoyed the old farts were when Queer Nation and Act Up started using “faggot,” “dyke,” “queer,” and “sissy.” Older lesbians and gays were horrified, as many still are, particularly by the term “queer.” So now that I’ve reached old fart status, I’m a little—not horrified—just mystified by “demi-sexual,” “sapiens sexual,” “bigender,” “agender.” You can’t keep track. You need a spreadsheet.


SS: What about the whole phenomenon of queer celebrity? I’m thinking about Caitlyn Jenner. Does her very public transition make a difference for social change?

DS: Sometimes we get it backwards. Average, ordinary, unknown queer people coming out made it possible for queer celebrities to exist, not the other way around. But it does become a self-reinforcing dynamic. Now queer celebrities make the world safer for average, ordinary queer people to be out. But there weren’t out queer celebrities until average, ordinary queer people started coming out.

In much the same way, now you see out professional athletes, like Michael Sam. And the skier who just came out, Jason Collins, who I admire tremendously. I think he’s wonderful. And every time they come out, there’s always a lot of talk about shattering stereotypes, such as the one about gay men being bad at sports or effeminate. But it was really the hairdressers and ballet dancers that changed the world and made it safe for Jason Collins to come out, not the other way around. It was the queer people who couldn’t hide that made the world safe for queer people who could and, for a very long time, did choose to hide.


SS: What issues don’t we pay enough attention to?

DS: The situation for older gay people, who are less likely to have families to support them. The gay men in those generations are likely to have lost their peer networks to AIDS, and most of those men and women don’t have children. We’re seeing gays going into nursing homes and being bullied and shoved back into closets, and we should not be ignoring it or allowing that to happen. That is not paying the debt that we owe to GLBT people who were coming out when it was so much more difficult and potentially consequential to do so. They changed the world for us, and we need to be there for them. I think that’s something we’re not paying enough attention to.

Also, we’re not paying enough attention to the link between attacks on gay equality and attacks on women’s rights to control their bodies. It’s not just a case of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” The people who argue against LGBT civil equality or same-sex marriage or even our right to exist are the same people who argue against women’s rights to control their own reproductive systems. And it isn’t a coincidence. Their rationale is exactly the same. They argue that women who have abortions, even people who use contraception, are abusing sex and what sex is supposed to be about, which is procreation, not pleasure. And that animates their opposition to same-sex everything as well. It’s springs from the same cultural and religious roots. It’s based on a fundamental millennia-old misunderstanding about the nature and purpose of human sexual expression.


SS: You write so beautifully about your parents in your books. I love the sections in The Kid [2000] about your family, particularly about your mother. So what are our kids getting from their parents and grandparents?

DS: I hope that every kid with queer parents gets from his grandparents what my kid got from his own, which was grandparents that loved that kid and also treated the parents no differently than they treated parents of their other grandchildren. They regarded the relationship between his parents as a marriage like any other, as much of a partnership as any other partnership in their extended family.

It’s important, I think, for the kids of LGBT folks to see examples of loving and accepting straight people. In the It Gets Better project, one of the early controversies was that we allowed videos created by straight people onto the site. Ezra Klein made a video, and he contacted me because he was getting a lot of angry e-mails from people telling him to take his video down, how dare he, this was about gay people. I watched the video, and it was excellent. I wanted it on the site because I wanted queer kids to know that not all straight people are awful. The ones in your life right now—your peers, your teachers, your preachers, your parents—might all be terrible, but that doesn’t mean they’re all terrible.


SS: So, if you could pick two sets of spiritual grandparents or even great grandparents, who would they be and why?

DS: For myself personally? Well, Gore Vidal actually. I have all his books. You read The Kid. Part of our love story was my giving Terry Gore Vidal’s collection of books. The first gift I ever gave him and his reaction to getting my gift, making him realize, “My god, he’s not just a dumb twink.”


SS: But wait. The first gift you ever gave him was not that book. I know the story!

DS: It was that book. What was the first gift I gave him? You mean my dick?


SS: Yeah.

DS: But I took that back. Well, eventually I had to pull my pants up.


SS: So, Gore Vidal: check. Any gay great grannies of either gender?

DS: You get four grandparents, right? I would want someone like Paul Lynde or Charles Nelson Reilly, because I just think culturally the position they occupied was fascinating—how they navigated that by being out when you couldn’t be out.


SS: One more.

DS: By all means, Rita Mae Brown.


SS: Before time runs out… is Hillary a shoo-in for the Democratic nomination?

DS: I’m going to go out on the limb and say it’ll be Martin O’Malley.

SS: Martin O’Malley?

DS: I’m totally lying. Barring the unforeseen, it’s just hard to see it going any other way. If Terry could hear my voice right now he would be upset. He was for Hillary in 2008 and I was for Barack, and he made me promise that I would be as aggressively for Hillary when it was her turn.


SS: Ending with your day job, your regular advice column, what have you learned?

DS: Oh God, from writing an advice column? Working with clitorises. The first time I mentioned it I put it in the wrong place because I didn’t know anything (I was 26). I believe I said it was on the soft palate, because that’s where mine is. Turned out it’s not there. But that was 25 years ago, so I was writing those first few years pre-Google, pre-Internet. If you wanted to find out what a clitoris was, you had to ask somebody or go to a library and look it up. Or you had to know from firsthand experience. But I didn’t know.

What have I learned? Something that should be obvious but it isn’t. On the surface there are these differences around loving and desire and erotic target preference, the gender you’re attracted to or the gender you are. But these differences, they’re really all on the surface. The stuff that’s underneath—feelings, desire, vulnerability, and love—all of that I would say we share. In a way, all those differences that we obsess about—sexual tension and gender identity, kinks, and all those differences—form a very thin layer of frosting on the cake.


Suzanne Stroh, a screenwriter and translator, is translating Francesco Rapazzini’s biography of Élisabeth de Gramont. She co-authors and produces multimedia case studies for Harvard Business School.


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