Savage Intent

Dan Savage, media's gay enfant terrible, keeps pushing for a more just, sex-positive society

Interview by Doug Rule
Published on October 3, 2013, 7:23am | Comments

A decade ago Dan Savage irreverently propagated the term ''santorum'' as ''the frothy mix of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the byproduct of anal sex.'' The coinage was a jab at Rick Santorum, in response to the former U.S. senator and Republican presidential candidate's notorious antigay statements, including linking gay sex to bestiality and incest. Even reasonable, usually non-confrontational types couldn't help but smile at Savage's efforts, aided and abetted by readers of his nationally syndicated sex advice column ''Savage Love.'' And Savage's definition of ''santorum'' remains one of the first results to pop up in a simple search of Google and other online search engines.

But you'd be wrong to think such antagonism is all in a day's work for the Chicago-born Savage. ''A lot of people think that Savage is a name that I took to write the column,'' Savage says. ''But it's actually my family name. I lucked out.''

Dan Savage

Dan Savage

(Photo by LaRae Lobdell)

Ultimately, with a few exceptions, Dan Savage is simply provocative, not hostile. His primary focus, from his early work in the theater to the It Gets Better Project he started with his husband Terry Miller, is to connect people through the critical values of love, respect and honesty.

Savage started writing ''Savage Love'' 22 years ago in The Stranger, the Seattle alternative newsweekly started by a co-founder of The Onion and for which the Seattle-based Savage now serves as editorial director. ''I've always described the column, and the podcast now, as a conversation I'm having with my friends about sex,'' he explains. In doing so for the past two decades, Savage has arguably become contemporary America's most famous advocate for sex -- a new generation's Dr. Ruth-meets-Dear Abby. He's helped push society to become a safer, more welcoming place for gays and ''kinksters'' by advocating for more honesty ''about what people are actually doing in bed,'' rather than ''everyone in public giving lip service to the ideal'' of monogamy. In fact, Savage has also coined the term ''monogamish'' to define relationships, including his own, that ''occasionally have three-ways or whatever [but are] much more monogamous than not.''

Savage appears at D.C.'s Jewish Literary Festival on Saturday, Oct. 12, one day after National Coming Out Day. And Savage does see his work as a natural extension of the original push for coming out as LGBT. ''You see more and more people speaking up and speaking out,'' he says. ''And we blazed that trail for the pot-smoking, kinky, non-monogamous straight people.''

METRO WEEKLY: The primary reason we're talking today is because you have a new book, American Savage: Insights, Slights, and Fights on Faith, Sex, Love, and Politics, which you'll be talking about at the Jewish Literary Festival. Just what is your connection to Jewish literature?

DAN SAVAGE: [Laughs.] I don't know! One of my first boyfriends was Jewish, so maybe the Jewish DNA I scarfed down in my teens has left a lasting imprint.

MW: Does your new book touch on anything Jewish?

SAVAGE: I talk about my Catholicism a lot in the new book. I'm not a believer, and I haven't been for a long time. But I describe Catholicism as a virus that can lay dormant in your body for so long, you forget you were ever infected. And then all of a sudden it can come roaring back, which it did after my mother's death.

I write about embracing my identity as a cultural Catholic -- I feel culturally Catholic -- and it was my Jewish friends who helped me get there. It was while watching people I knew and loved, really good friends and folks at work, who didn't believe that there was a god, and weren't hanging out impatiently waiting for the Messiah to show up for dinner, but get together and celebrate the holidays, do Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah and affirm their cultural identity as Jews. And watching my non-believer Jewish friends embrace their cultural identities as Jews without having to embrace any of the dogma or baggage or the beliefs in imaginary sky friends helped me tiptoe back to my kind of Catholic cultural identity.

MW: On the topic of being a cultural Catholic, Mark Oppenheimer wrote an essay a couple years ago in The New York Times about how your Catholicism in many respects has really influenced your work. Do you think that's true?

SAVAGE: I was immersed in Catholicism as a child. My dad was a Catholic deacon, my mom was a Catholic lay minister. An ex-nun came and lived with us when she fled the convent for a little while when I was a kid. I worked at the rectory at St. Jerome's. I went to a preparatory seminary for high school. So I would have had to have been a ''bubble boy'' with headphones on to avoid having the Catholicism that I was steeped in as a child impact my writing or my worldview. That's the place I started. A lot of religious people hate me -- hate my writing, hate what I do, hate what I say. But if you took all of my sex-advice columns, 20 years' worth, and you boiled them all down to their absolute essence, any honest reader knows or would admit or be able to recognize that what you're left with is: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. With my definition of ''do unto'' and what's being ''done unto'' being a bit broader than other people's definitions. The columns are usually about how to treat people well, how to demand decent treatment, how to meet needs or get your needs met.

When I sign-off on infidelity occasionally -- or give people a permission slip -- it's always when infidelity is the lesser evil. Not like, just go for it and cheat, cheat, cheat. But if you're faced with an impossible choice between two awful things, there are times when the cheating is the lesser sin, and in those instances I do give my permission slip. Which then causes religious people to say, ''Oh my God, he's pro-adultery.'' And it's like, well, I'm pro-situational ethics. I'm pro-accommodation. I'm pro-realism/being realistic. And usually when I'm pro-adultery, I'm being anti-divorce, for which I get no credit from religious people who are also anti-divorce. [Laughs.]

Dan Savage

Dan Savage

(Photo by LaRae Lobdell)

MW: That's true, you don't view the world as a black-and-white construct.

SAVAGE: I don't have the luxury of standing at the pulpit and saying, ''Thou shalt not.'' When you get into the weeds, when you get into relationships, when you get into multi-decade long-term relationships, marriages with children, the right thing to do isn't always obvious. It isn't always black and white. Sometimes the right thing to do is the less-wrong thing, not an absolute pure-right thing.

MW: How many questions do you get in a week on average?

SAVAGE: About 5,000. Easily half of the mail is, ''You're right,'' ''You're wrong,'' ''I agree with you,'' ''I disagree with you.'' So half the mail isn't questions, it's just people wanting to sound-off on whatever it was I was writing about or talking about on the podcast. I like the feedback.

MW: Do you read all of it?

SAVAGE: I try! I don't have an assistant. Half the mail now, people say, ''Dear Dan or whoever reads his mail for him.'' I read my mail for me. Only I read my mail. I don't have an intern. I don't have anybody.

MW: So you can only respond to a fraction of them?

SAVAGE: There's no way I can respond to every question. There's no way anyone with a syndicated advice column could ever respond to every question. There are just too many questions.

MW: How have the topics changed in the 22 years that you've been writing ''Savage Love''?

SAVAGE: It's changed a great deal. Generally people are more kink-positive now. People are less freaked out by anal sex or bondage or watersports. It's an ongoing conversation that the column has been a part of about what people are actually doing in bed, and kind of a de-stigmatization of standard-issue kinks.

But the real difference for me and my column: My column pre-dates the post-AIDS arrival of the Internet -- Wiki, Google, all of those things. And pre-Internet, pre-Google, pre-Wiki, half the questions were, ''What's a cock-ring?'' ''Fist-fucking, how do you do it?'' [Laughs.] ''I live in Atlanta. Where is the BDSM group in my area?'' Or, ''Are there swingers clubs near me?'' So, half the columns I would just write about what a cock-ring was, refer people to the BDSM groups or swingers clubs in their area. I don't get those questions anymore – because butt plugs have a Wiki page. [Laughs.]

I don't get to write the easy columns anymore. All of the mail now is hard: This is what I did, this is what my partner did, this is the problem we have, this is the situation we're in, this is our medical crisis. They're really situational ethics, almost always now. Where you're just parsing and thinly slicing a series of unfortunate events, to borrow a phrase, and having to issue a ruling about who is in the wrong. Those columns are so much harder to write than how to get an arm into your ass. [Laughs.]

MW: That must make it more interesting, because you're being challenged to a degree you weren't before.

SAVAGE: It does. And it gives me a better window, I think, onto peoples' actual sexual dilemmas. And I think it's ultimately why I'm much more realistic about the place of absolute fidelity in a multi-decade, long-term relationship. You know, my sample is skewed. I hear from people with problems. I don't hear from people that monogamy and marriage are absolutely working. Most of what I hear is just very depressing. Lots of sexless marriages. Lots of people who are insanely frustrated, have been cut-off, lots of sexual dysfunction. And a lot of it can be traced back to the impossible strain we've placed on marriage, by saying the only place where you are allowed to find sexual fulfillment is in marriage with your partner. It puts more weight on that relationship – over the course of four or five decades – than many of the relationships can bear.

MW: I'm guessing that in the 22 years you've been writing the column, it's also had an impact on your sex life.

SAVAGE: [Laughs.] Yeah, I think so. I was never really that invested in strict monogamy, after I gave it a whirl in my early 20s and realized that I was no good at it, that it was slightly unrealistic. But, in the abstract, I still bought into a lot of the cultural myths about it, that it came more easily to many other people.

What I've learned over the years is that it comes easily to almost no one. What comes easy is posturing and preening, and everyone – in public – giving lip service to the ideal, and in private cutting all sorts of different bargains with themselves and their partners. Those bargains need to be out in public. People will write me and say, ''I don't know anybody who's ever been in an open relationship or even had a three-way where the relationship didn't end, where it wasn't a disaster.'' And I'm constantly pointing out that there are lots of people out there in ''monogamish'' or open-relationships who are successful. You know many of those people, but you don't know that they're in a non-monogamous relationship because the stigma is so great that most people that are in open relationships don't tell anybody about it. Particularly straight couples, who don't tell their friends, neighbors, co-workers that they're not monogamous. We only hear, typically, about a three-way or a non-monogamous relationship when it ends. When cheating or a three-way was a disaster and it leads to the destruction of the relationship, we all hear about it. When a couple's having lots of three-ways and lots of fun and it's good for them and it makes their bond stronger and it's really pleasurable and it's something they really enjoy doing together, they don't tell their parents about that. They don't tell their co-workers. They move through life allowing everyone to assume that they're sexually monogamous when they're merely socially monogamous.

MW: You must feel some responsibility to share your own experiences in relationships.

SAVAGE: That's a funny story. When I wrote The Kid, the book about Terry and I adopting our son, we were monogamous. At Terry's insistence. And so I just sort of briefly mentioned it. Seven years later, I think it was, I was writing The Commitment, about our decision to marry. In that time, between adopting and marrying, we had become non-monogamous. We had become ''monogamish,'' a term I coined.

As a gay dude, you say you're not monogamous and other gay people assume a level of promiscuity that just wasn't accurate. You know, we occasionally have three-ways or whatever, [but] we're much more monogamous than not.

So I was sort of trapped, because I'm writing this book about our marriage, talking about my parents' marriage, my brother's marriage. I was like, well, I can't not come clean now, because if I don't mention that Terry and I are not monogamous in this book, and it's ever found out -- because the religious right goes through my dirty laundry and digs through my trash -- they'll claim we were lying and we misrepresented ourselves when I wrote The Kid. So I kind of had to come clean. It was never my intention to become the poster boy for not-monogamous gay marriage, but I sort of painted myself into a corner and had to do it.

Dan Savage

Dan Savage

(Photo by LaRae Lobdell)

MW: People being more willing to share experiences beyond monogamy in some sense seems like the next level of coming out.

SAVAGE: It is. There are many kinds of coming out. When somebody says, so-and-so came out, we all think of him coming out as gay, lesbian, bi or trans. We own the coming-out metaphor, the coming-out analogy.

But people are coming out about being pot smokers. People are coming out about being not monogamous. People are coming out about being kinky. We've created this model for changing the world, which was to tell the truth about who you are. We've shown that if all of the millions of oppressed people living in the shadows speak up all at once and tell the truth and come out, you can change the world. You can change how the world regards you. You can change your political place in the world. You can make society a safer, more welcoming place if collectively and en masse you fucking tell the truth. And I think you're seeing that now with people who are in non-monogamous relationships, and with pot-smokers, with kinksters. You see more and more people speaking up and speaking out. And we blazed that trail for the pot-smoking, kinky, non-monogamous straight people.

MW: Growing up, did you ever think that this is where you would be in your life?

SAVAGE: I have a degree in theater. I wanted to do theater. In a way, I kind of get to do theater. My activism is kind of performance, and I think of my column as kind of a play. I do do theater here in Seattle. After I moved here, I did a lot of shows that were very successful. The plays I wrote and directed in Seattle, if I had done them in New York or Chicago, I would probably have a theater career. But I did them in Seattle, which is like, I don't know, selling the best waffles in Antarctica -- not that many people are going to get a taste. It's just not a theater town.

MW: Let's talk about the It Gets Better Project. Are you still involved?

SAVAGE: I know the guys and gals who run it. It's a very simple and minimal operation. It is what it is and does what it does, which is to collect those videos and curate them, and make sure that the website is up and running and that LGBT kids who need to find their way to it, can. And Terry and I are still happy to be identified with it and involved with it, but the thing is a machine that goes on its own.

We just got a video very recently from NASA. An astronaut is talking to LGBT kids -- gay people who work for NASA talking about working on the space program and being who they are and being able to work, and having the support of their colleagues. We didn't solicit that video. We didn't go to NASA and say, ''Hey, you got any astronauts? Any gay engineers who might want to make a video?'' People are still stepping up and creating these videos. There's still this forward momentum with it, and it's still having an impact, and it's still reaching LGBT kids.

The goal of the project wasn't to collect a billion videos. The goal of the project was to speak to LGBT kids and help them. And it still continues to do that.

MW: I know you started it as a response to anti-gay bullying and suicides, to let people know that whatever struggles they're having will pass, that it will get better. Do you ever worry that it might give people false hope?

SAVAGE: No, I don't. I guess there should be an asterisk after ''It Gets Better'': ''Individual results may vary.''

I think people, even young LGBT kids, are smart enough to know that life isn't a cakewalk. And the title of the project is It Gets Better, not ''It Gets Utopia'' or ''It Gets Perfect.''

The most important way in which it gets better for LGBT kids, as you move into adulthood, is just having autonomy, having the ability to make your own choices, to make your own moves without family, preachers, teachers controlling every aspect of your life. Even if you do encounter ugliness or more struggles, you're going to have more control. That control is itself a way in which it gets better.

Adult life isn't a party, whether you're gay or straight. Life is a struggle, and every life ends in usually some amount of pain, disease, disillusionment and death. Still, it's better than high school. [Laughs.] Saying ''It gets better'' to a bullied queer kid – living in the middle of nowhere in a community where he or she has no support, where their family is also bullying -- that it's going to get better than what you're experiencing right now isn't setting the bar too high. It isn't filling them with false hope.

Most of the people who offer this line of criticism, they're not watching the videos. A lot of the videos detail the challenges, the struggles about where people are now. I remember one video early on from this woman: ''I've been bullied, it was awful. I got out, I went to college, and I met my girlfriend who became my wife, and she just divorced me. And I'm devastated. But this is part of life. Love, then falling out of love, then divorce, and pain. Pain is part of life. And I'm able to experience this pain now, and I have people on my side. And my parents who rejected me when I came out as a lesbian have been wonderful and loving and here for me through this. So even in the midst of all this pain, I can still see evidence of how it is better.''

There are some of them where people are like, ''Rah-rah-rah, my life is awesome! 24 hours a day!'' But that overstates it. If you watch the videos honestly, and without just a desire to shit all over the project, you'll see people acknowledging that better doesn't mean perfect.

MW: You had struggles with coming out in your Catholic family. Is your family supportive now?

SAVAGE: Oh, yeah. My family is hyper-supportive. My [late] mother gradually became ''P-FLAG supermom.'' She said she didn't want me to bring any boyfriends to the house, ever. She always thought, of all her kids, I was the one she wanted most to parent -- though she was very happy with my other siblings parenting. And she was just really devastated that me [being gay] meant that I would never marry or have kids. And of course I'm married and I have a kid. It just took her some time to come around. But it also took me sticking up for myself for her to come around. It took me even at an early age saying, ''Laura can have her boyfriend over, I should be able to have my boyfriend over.''

MW: With work, raising a teenage son, how do you keep your relationship with Terry thriving?

SAVAGE: [Laughs.] I've always said that the only time you remembered why you liked your partner well enough to want to have kids with him in the first place is when you're away from your kids together. It's really important to get away for a weekend every now and then, to take advantage of your friends and family who are like, ''Oh, we'd be happy to babysit for a weekend if you guys want to go away.'' Take advantage. Some parents feel guilty when they do that, as if they're not being model parents. It's worse for your children if you become so estranged from your partner due to the pressures of co-parenting that you fall out of love. Your kid wants his parents to stay in love, to stay connected, because you're the world that they inhabit. If you fall apart, that's not in the best interest of your child.

MW: How do you balance all of the work that you do?

SAVAGE: It helps that Terry is a stay-at-home parent. We're really a unit. And as anyone who knows both of us will attest, he's the smarter one and the bossier one of the two of us.

I work two or three full-time jobs. Part of what's made that possible over the last 15 years and made it possible for me to write a book in the middle of doing everything else I do, is I don't have to buy my own clothes or do my own laundry or cook my own food. Terry, conversely, doesn't have to do his own dishes or clean his own bathroom. I take care of that.

MW: I know that The Kid was made into an off-Broadway musical. Have there been attempts to adapt your other books, or have you thought about putting your story on stage?

SAVAGE: [Laughs.] No. No, no, no. There's no other plan right now to adapt stuff I'm working on or I've written. Just The Kid. I was flabbergasted when [librettist Michael Zam, musician Andy Monroe and lyricist Jack Lechner] approached me and wanted to do The Kid as a stage piece, as a musical. I literally sat through during the whole meeting going, ''I don't think there's a musical in this. But if you guys do, go for it. But I don't see it.'' But they found it in there, and they've produced a really kind of wonderful and moving piece.

I'm really excited to see the next iteration. They're now re-working The Kid and they're going to do a new production on the West Coast. I thought the music was great and the show has real potential. It's only going to get better.

Dan Savage appears Saturday, Oct. 12, at 8 p.m., at Foundry United Methodist Church at 1500 16th St. NW. Tickets are $30. Call 202-518-9400 or visit washingtondcjcc.org.

''Savage Love'' is syndicated locally every Thursday in the Washington City Paper.


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