In Conversation with Dan Savage
Interview by Erin Dixon
Illustration by Fanny Bostrom Gentle
I met Dan Savage on a cold day in Seattle, Washington, where he lives with his husband Terry Miller and their teenage son DJ. Since 1991, Dan has worked at the city’s alternative newspaper The Stranger, for which he currently serves as Editorial Director and pens the internationally syndicated advice column Savage Love. He also guides carnally curious callers on his popular weekly podcast, the Savage Lovecast, and occasionally plays political pundit on television programs like The Colbert Report and HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher.
Our conversation took place over chicken teriyaki at what he described as “medicore Asian-fusion in the ugliest restaurant in Seattle.” He quickly modified the description to “actually very New York.” We’ll chalk that up to a rare slip of the tongue. As the Savage Lovecast’s cult of listeners can attest, Dan has an eloquence all his own, walking a straightforward conversational line that is as unpretentious as it is expressive—whether the topic be “piece-of-shit mothafuckers” on the religious right or BDSM. His speeches may not possess the same idealistic approach as Obama’s “Yes we can!” but they boast a similarly inclusive attitude and have spawned a lexicon of evocative terms, including “saddle
backing” and “santorum.” And as he and Terry have proven with the It Gets Better Project, words matter.
Founded last September in reaction to the suicides of gay teens Justin Aaberg and Billy Lucas, the It Gets Better Project started humbly with a YouTube video of Dan and Terry reassuring gay youth that their lives, however dismal they may now seem, will get better. Since its release, over 10,000 videos have been added to itgetsbetter.org, including contributions from the president, Hillary Clinton and Perez Hilton and a masterful rap by Rebecca Drysdale. This year, a compilation It Gets Better book will debut.
Erin Dixon: Let’s start out with more recent events: The repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” That finally happened. Are you surprised?
Dan Savage: Yeah, I am surprised. It looked for a while like it wasn’t going to happen. They’re trying to say now, “This was the plan all along.” But I can’t imagine the
plan all along was to wait for the very last minute in a lame-duck session when people are freaking out.
Erin: Does this affect your view on Obama’s follow-through on gay rights, which you have previously criticized?
Dan: Well, his heart was always in the right place, but we finally have some actions to match the pretty words. Basically I’m delighted, but I don’t believe we’d be here without the feet being held to the fire and without people saying, “Without some measurable achievements beyond cocktail parties in the White House for pride, people are going to be pissed and withhold money and votes.” We saw in the midterms that donations from gay and lesbian orgs and voters plummeted and that the Republicans picked up significant numbers of gay and lesbian voters, which is crazy. I believe that really helped light a fire under the Dems and under the Obama administration post the midterm elections.
Erin: So what’s the next thing?
Dan: The next thing is 2012.
Erin: Does someone like Sarah Palin really have a chance?
Dan: Oh, I hope they nominate Sarah Palin. That would be awesome. I mean, she’ll run a demagogue, populist campaign and God knows what kind of nuts that’s going to crank up, but she’ll lose. People hate her. Women hate her. Barbara Bush hates her. I would love for them to nominate her. What we see now in the G.O.P. base—Joe Miller in Alaska, Christine O’Donnell in Delaware—is that they will nominate idiots and lose elections in the process. So hopefully they’ll do that in 2012.
Erin: To move away from straight politics and towards the sexual aspect of your work, what hang-ups do we still have as a culture?
Dan: Harry Blackmun, the Supreme Court justice, wrote this thing where he said that he’ll no longer tinker with the mechanics of death, trying to craft a jurisprudence that would account for the death penalty as a constitutional animal that wasn’t inherently cruel and unusual. I feel like I’m just not going to tinker anymore with the mechanics of monogamy. It doesn’t work. We have ideas about human sexuality and love that are in conflict with the realities of human sexuality. We’re constantly trying to jam a square peg into a round hole, insisting that there is something wrong with the peg or wrong with the hole, but not with the jamming. Which is not to say that everyone should get to fuck everyone all the time however much they want to and that anything goes. I watched my friends in the ’80s fuck themselves to death. I know the consequences.
I don’t think all relationships should have to be open or monogamous, but people need to stop pretending that love means you don’t want to fuck other people. Love means you might refrain. Particularly women are raised to believe that there’s something deeply, deeply psychologically wrong with someone who wants to cheat, much less has cheated. But if we’re interested in the survival of relationships over the long term, we need to have a much more realistic approach to monogamy. Monogamy wasn’t expected of men until about 60 years ago. Women were monogamous—terrorized into being monogamous and punished if they were not monogamous. Men had mistresses and whores and wives. It was not fair and it was discriminatory. So sixtyish years ago, the rules changed and rather than extending the same freedom and license that men had always enjoyed, they extended to men the yoke that women had always worn. How’s that working out for us? Not. So. Well. Everyone talks about the divorce rate correlating with the pill and the Sexual Revolution. The divorce rate, I think, correlates most with monogamy being imposed on men.
Erin: If we’re talking in evolutionary terms, will men ever be able to be monogamous?
Dan: No, and women won’t either. Women aren’t any better at monogamy. There’s a study out from Indiana University that says that men have an easier time becoming aroused with a familiar partner. Women have an easier time becoming aroused with an unfamiliar partner.
Erin: So how do we arrive at that non-monogamous point, as a culture?
Dan: We get there by carving out some allowances. As I’ve said for years, even before the science started catching up with me, we talk about monogamy like we talk about virginity. You’re monogamous until you fuck someone else and then you’re not monogamous anymore. We should talk about monogamy the way we talk about sobriety. You can be monogamous, you can fall off the wagon and then you can monogamous back up. If you’re with somebody for 30, 40 years and they only cheat on you once or twice, they were good at being monogamous. They were really good at it. And if you only cheated on them once or twice, you were good at it, too. And honesty isn’t always the best policy and you should shut your fucking mouth. The greater good is the survival of the relationship, particularly if there are children involved. You should both do what you need to do to stay together and stay sane. If that includes some wise, judicious adultery along the way to maintain your sanity and preserve the relationship, that’s better than saying, “If you wanted to sleep with someone else, you should have gotten a divorce.”
Erin: Which requires a rethinking of marriage as we define it now…
Dan: A restoration of marriage as it was defined for millenniums.
Erin: I’m certainly not disagreeing with that, but then the question is: Why does marriage remain an important institution?
Dan: Because love is grand. It’s worth celebrating. Also legally, socially marriage has dimensions beyond just the sexual component and, yet, sex is the first thing we think of when it comes to betrayal. I think that there are other betrayals besides sexual betrayals in marriage. If you cheated on your wife ten years ago and got away with it, or you cheated on your husband ten years ago and got away with it and you have two small children at home and you feel bad about cheating, you can betray your spouse all over again by telling them about it, by unburdening yourself, by “being honest.”
Erin: It’s interesting that you select the term “honest” because a reviewer of your book Skipping Towards Gomorrah wrote, “I would never recommend this book to my family because they couldn’t handle the honesty.”
Dan: Well, a relationship is a myth. I mean honestly, schmonesty. A relationship is kind of a myth that two people create together. It’s a lie that people tell each other about who they are, who they are as a couple, who they are as individuals and how they add up to more than the sum of their parts. Honesty can destroy that. A marriage isn’t a deposition. You don’t have to answer every question. You don’t have to answer truthfully. You’re not under oath. If you act that way in a relationship, it’s not going to survive. Some people act that way in relationships and it’s abusive. From the cliché “Do I look fat in these pants?” to “When we were in college and there was that month that we were broken up, did you date anyone else?” sometimes people need and want to be lied to. It’s your job as a loving partner to tell them the lie they want to hear—whether it’s about you or something else.
Erin: You obviously address this type of issue a lot in your podcasts; is there anything about callers that still surprises you?
Dan: The inability of people to see the freaking solution staring them in the face. You know, most people know what they have to do. They just need a push. I’m in the push business and the permission-slip business: This thing that you know you need to do? Yeah, go do it. Go break up with that guy. Go cheat on this person. Go do this, go do that… What you’re asking for is permission to do something. Go do it.
Erin: A lot of people label you a cynic, whereas I tend to see your view on many things, including monogamy and people’s ability to achieve it, as pretty optimistic. Would you consider yourself a cynic?
Dan: I feel cynical, but a cynic is the shell around a romantic’s heart. Cynicism is the protection. I like love. I like people being in love. I’m sad when friends break up with people and I’m sad when a relationship ends, particularly for stupid reasons—like cheating is a stupid reason to end a relationship, drawing a distinction between habitual, repeat-offending cheating and abusiveness and your run-of-the-mill infidelity. It’s like pornography; you know it when you see it. It’s cheating versus cheating.
Erin: To talk about the It Gets Better Project. Do you believe that it has served its purpose? Obviously it has helped people and you’ve gotten this massive amount of support and a database that shows gay youth that there’s caring out there. Is it done or would you like it to evolve further?
Dan: Well, it had its cultural moment, right? Something can’t be a phenomenon forever, but what we can do is leverage its moment into a fundraising mechanism to support the website so that kids who are eight years old now and in six years will be 14 can find the videos, which means people need to know about the website. It needs to be updated, looked after… Compare it to red ribbons for AIDS awareness that are all smoldering in landfills and dresser drawers. They’re no longer doing the job. The videos can keep doing the job, but only if kids find their way to them. We want to make sure that they’re stored on a website in a way that they can be accessed and keep doing outreach so that as more and more kids hit puberty and realize they’re queer and encounter pushback from their families, their churches and their peers, they can look to these videos and get from them what kids are getting from them now.
Erin: Does it ever astound you that people have so much time in their lives to make being gay such an issue?
Dan: Oh my God. Think of the money that has been spent by the religious right, even to just prevent the DADT (Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell) repeal. Money well spent. What did Jesus say? Feed the hungry? House the homeless? Clothe the naked? He didn’t say, ‘Freak out ’cause there’s a faggot Marine.’ We’re going to win inevitably—and they know we’re going to win. Stop fighting. Give us everything we want. One of the religious right’s objections is having to hear about homosexuality. They don’t want to hear about it in the news. They don’t want to see it in their newspapers. They don’t want it to be a constant subject of conversation on the radio where their kids are going to hear about it. You know why you hear so much about homosexuality? Because there’s a fight. If the fight was over, meaning we had everything we wanted, there would be nothing left to say. I was in the U.K. a few years ago on vacation and after a month I said, “Jesus Christ, I haven’t read a thing about homosexuality or gay people that wasn’t in the entertainment section—that wasn’t about Elton John or Jack Shears.” It was because gay people there have everything they want. It’s over.
The religious right here says, “We don’t want to hear about it, but we’re going to fight you tooth and nail every step of the way.” Well then, you’re going to hear about it because we’re not going to stop demanding our rights. It’s not like you’re going to win one and we’re all going to go, ‘Oh, shit. Let’s march back into the closet. How sad for us. Prop 8. Oh, it’s all over; we might as well stop demanding marriage rights.’ It doesn’t have that effect. At the end of the day, we’re going to get married, we’ll serve in the Armed Forces and they’re going to have nothing to show for the hundreds of millions of dollars that they spent battling the gay agenda, except stacks of press releases and fucking idiot websites that no one goes to—and dead kids. That’s what they’ll have to show for it: dead teenagers who were tortured to death by the children of these assholes.
Erin: Speaking of children, would you say that Glee is an accurate portrayal of the gay high school experience, aside from the singing and dancing?
Dan: We’re having the same argument about Glee that we had about Friends at one time. Friends was no more an accurate portrayal of heterosexuality than Will & Grace was of homosexuality. Glee is not an accurate portrayal of high school or sexuality, or anything. It’s a fantasia, but it’s important and valuable and culturally significant. It’s changing the culture, but that ain’t high school. Particularly all those 35-year-old high school students ain’t high school, unless they got held back for 20 years.
Erin: And what about Modern Family? The gay couple with the kid?
Dan: There’s that interesting statistic out now that Modern Family is really popular with the Republicans. I think it’s because they like that Latino woman’s tits. I like her tits, which is saying something. Basically, there are two wars going on for gay rights simultaneously. There is the First World War. It’s trench warfare and legislative battles and everyone is really dug in and there’s a lot of mustard gas seeping out of the mouths of the bigots. The lines move very slowly and it’s very frustrating. We just had a major breakthrough with DADT and overran that line, but that took 17 years, longer if you count the time that the policy was being fought for before that. At the same time, there’s a Vietnam War going on, which is a guerilla war, and that’s the cultural war. We’re so far behind their lines in the guerilla war, which is part of what Modern Family’s about, Ellen, Glee… Culturally, we’ve won. It’s over. We’re acknowledged as a part of culture and you can’t do a show about modern American families and write gay people out of it, because gay people are a part of modern American families and starting modern American families.
Erin: Because of the nature of your work, we know a lot about your family, your decisions, your marriage... Beyond all that, who are you? What do you like to do?
Dan: I like to read. I like to read about the Stuarts; they’re my favorites. I like to bake cookies and cakes. I snowboard with my husband and our son. I’m very into snowboarding. I like to drink. I’m very boring. People come to our house who’ve read the column and “knew” me before they met me and expect to find a sling over the dining room table and a goat under it, and it’s really Ozzie and Harriet land. My husband is a potter and a musician. We like to travel, but we don’t get to do it very much because we have a kid. I like to go to the movies. I went to see The King’s Speech and last night I went to watch The Young Victoria, which is terrible. I like books and movies about European royalty. I’m a monarchist. I believe that if we’re going to have Bush Dynasties and Kennedy Dynasties, they should be constitutional monarchies with no political power whatsoever, as opposed to what we’ve got. I also watched Pineapple Express the other day on DVD. I watched it again because James Franco is just beautiful all the time but is particularly beautiful in Pineapple Express because he plays a loopy stoner with long hair, which is my ideal boyfriend. I’m too Type A to have a lawyer boyfriend; I have to have a stoner boyfriend.
Erin: But your husband’s not a stoner, long-hair type…
Dan: Not now. He was when we met. Now he looks like a Nazi and doesn’t smoke pot.
Erin: Five years after you wrote The Commitment, your book on marriage, is there anything you would add?
Dan: I think that what makes a long-term relationship work is taking the attitude: You’re stuck with me, I’m stuck with you. Neither of us is going anywhere, so let’s make the most of this and have more fun than grief. That’s what my husband and I manage to do. There’s still grindy day-to-day life stuff, but if you can compartmentalize those fights and not let them poison your affections for each other, and if you can have a lot of sex—with each other—there’s something Pavlovian about it. There are times I want to wrap my hands around my husband’s throat and kill him. Choke him to death and then some part of my reptile brain says, “No, no. You need that throat for later.” There’s something about associating someone we live with with orgasms, so when you look at them, part of you is thinking “orgasm” even though part of you is thinking, “I want to kill you.”
Erin: And 11 years after writing The Kid, how is it being a father? Your son’s about 12 now…
Dan: He’s 13. He wants to be a snowboarder when he grows up. He’s really good at it. He could be better at it, but he won’t let us get him a coach. He doesn’t like anyone to tell him what to do. My husband and I joke that at the same time we were adopting, there was some other family that was adopting—conservative Christians out in the woods—and they adopted princess sparkle magic fairy boy, who they’re probably in the process of tormenting to death right now, and we adopted little thuggy straight boy. We’re raising the kid who beat us both up in middle school. We’re raising him not to be that, but it’s a struggle. It’s genetics, ’cause he didn’t get it from either of us.
Erin: You often begin your podcasts with a stream-of-consciousness rant—what’s on your mind now?
Dan: I’m thinking about the two books I have to write and I’m thinking about politics. Politics is all I think about these days. That’s all I hear people talking about these days. The country’s kind of gone insane. It’s gone off a cliff. Politics is what happens when the money runs out… I’m really worried about the next six months, about the Democrats and their mystifying willingness to just grab ankles whenever the Republicans say “Boo.” The Democrats are always terrified. Republicans, even when they lose big, are not terrified; they’re not cowed.
Erin: They just bring out more guns.
Dan: Right. Clinton said—and he was right—that given the choice between strong and wrong, and weak and right, Americans will choose strong and wrong. Republicans offer that by the fucking truckload. And Democrats: weak and right. [They are] apologetic, cringing scaredy cats. It’s so aggravating. With politics there is always a losing side, but there’s still this notion that you can come up with a solution that will make everyone happy. What happens in the end is that you make everyone unhappy. It’s what Obama keeps doing.
He got health care passed, which pissed off all the tea-bagging, right-wing psychopaths who think there’s a constitutional right for your kid to die of leukemia without medical care, but [he] also so compromised the plan and jettisoned the public option that he pissed off everyone who was pro-heath care. So we got health care and everyone’s mad. There isn’t a side that’s like, “We won!” No one has the courage to say, “This is what we’re about, this is what we’re doing. If you don’t like it, fuck you, organize and take us out next election.” A majority doesn’t exist to perpetuate itself. The Republicans understand that. You get a bunch of people in there, you ram a bunch of shit through and then you hold on for dear life and see what happens. Democrats get in and they’re like, “Oh God, we would do this, but, oh, we can’t. We have these swing districts, these vulnerable congressmen.” You never hear about vulnerable Republican congressman when the Republicans are advancing their agenda. Never. It’s like, “All right, you’ve got to vote this way, you’re Republican. It might cost you your seat. Fuck you. What’s more important is the agenda.” Democrats don’t think that way. Our top concern is not Nancy Pelosi’s job. It’s health care and it’s progressive values that, oh, we have to wait on because there’s an election coming. There’s an election coming every 16 months, so we can never do anything—particularly on the gays. But we did something just now.
Erin: So what are your books about?
Dan: One’s an It Gets Better book, a collection of the pieces, and one’s a book about sex, which I have yet begun to start to write. I have to really get on it. [It’s about] monogamy, S&M, objectasexuals, Jenny Sanford, Elizabeth Edwards… That’s going to be awkward now.
Erin: Little bit.
Dan: Cold subject, hot topic.