Dan Savage: All-American

Longtime sex columnist on fatherhood, ethics, politics and freedom

Nov 28, 2012 at 12:00 am
Dan Savage: All-American
Original Photo by LaRae Lobdell Reproduced by Desiree Kelly

Dan Savage would be the first to admit that, when he started his column 20-plus years ago, he had no idea he'd be where he is today. Roving the country doing speaking tours, maintaining a weekly schedule with his podcast, author of several books, writer of opinion columns for such newspapers as The New York Times, Savage has slipped the sultry bonds of sex advice to become something more, a sort of ethicist for the growing progressive wing of American culture. Few writers enjoy such wide readership, or have created so many recent coinages, such as "DTMFA," "GGG" and, perhaps most notably, "Santorum."

Similarly, how could Savage have known two brief decades ago what the world would be like today? With marriage equality gaining increasing acceptance (according to Marriage Equality USA, 48 percent of Americans live in states, counties or cities that recognize legal relationships beyond one-man-one-woman), and the gays and lesbians entering the mainstream of American life to a greater extent than ever before, the LGBT community has made remarkable strides since the early 1990s. And even straight culture has become less priggish during that time, with a young generation that's better educated about sexuality, more sex-positive in outlook, and largely viewing sexual expression as a human right.

And that's largely thanks to, well, folks like Dan Savage, who've bypassed our hysterical national puritanism and addressed sex with a candor that has leveled the playing field for all of us — gay and straight — in the name of freedom. Frankly, what could be more all-American than that? 

With Savage poised to come to town this week, we relished the opportunity to interview the man whose sex column we've printed for the last 10 years or so. We dialed him up just a week after the recent national elections quite early in the morning, at 8:30 a.m. Pacific Time. Though he admitted he had suffered from insomnia and hadn't slept a wink all night, Savage was, to his word, good, giving and game, and quickly got up to speed for an enjoyable half-hour of chatting and a lot of hearty laughter.

mt: Well, if there's any reason to feel good this morning, you must be feeling vindicated by the recent elections.

Savage: Absolutely, elated still, every once in a while I go on the interwebs and I read newspapers from Nov. 7. Just go back in the archives and pretend it's Wednesday morning again.

mt:  We have marriage equality in, what, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Washington, an openly gay senator in Wisconsin?

Savage: Yeah, we didn't get marriage equality in Minnesota, we just defeated the amendment on the state constitution there to ban it. Marriage between same-sex couples was illegal in Minnesota and still is, it's just not "double illegal," which is what the bigots are trying to do.

mt:  Right, my mistake. And on another issue that you've written about: marijuana prohibition. You know, you have Colorado and Washington state ... have voted to end state-level prohibition.

Savage: Yeah, we have a new state motto in Washington, "Welcome to Washington, where you can get married and get high, and if somebody doesn't like it, they can get fucked."


mt: [laughs] It seems like it's an especially good time to be Dan Savage.

Savage: Yeah, except I might have to find a new line of work 'cause there's less and less to fight for. It's a good time to be someone who believes that people should have equal rights and control of their own bodies, and, you know, the freedom to marry who they want and to smoke what they want and do what they want. I just think that everything about the election was awesome, except for what happened in Kansas, which I think you can say after every election. A couple of city LGBT civil rights laws were rescinded at the ballot box.


mt: And speaking of vindication, you also have David Petraeus resigning from the CIA for adultery.

Savage: [laughs] Yeah, what's funny about the Petraeus thing is if Petraeus were gay, the extrapolation would be: "Look, see, gay people can't be trusted and DADT should never have been repealed!" When something happens, a sex scandal or some inappropriate behavior involving a gay person, right-wingers and anti-gay haters blame all gay people everywhere for that, and that's everything you need to know about gay people: that individual's actions. But we're allowed to extrapolate nothing, and we shouldn't, about the way all straight people are based on the actions of one straight person. It seems insanely silly though. David Petraeus has a dick. [laughter] And he's in a long-term relationship and I don't believe that competence and fidelity necessarily correlate very strongly. FDR had a mistress and he was a pretty good president. If we make dishonoring a monogamous commitment over decades of a marriage a disqualifying test for office, we're not going to have many decent public servants in the long run. Bill Clinton, now beloved, I believe he had an infidelity or an adulterous relationship at some point? Vaguely recall some impeachment or other?


mt:  But not with Petraeus. I was surprised that it is on the books in his home state of Virginia, that it is in fact a crime.

Savage: Mm-hmm. I guess it's one of the upsides of gay marriage being illegal in Virginia: You can't be convicted of adultery if you're never allowed to marry in the first place. So gay people in Virginia are immune to adultery prosecutions.


mt:  Always looking on the upside, huh?

Savage: [laughs] Yeah, you've gotta take those silver linings where you can find them in a place like Virginia.


mt: I thought it was sort of funny how Petreaus, for instance, oversaw the CIA while it killed hundreds of people by drone strikes, but for having an affair with his biographer, you know ... it seems like a double standard, doesn't it?

Savage: Yeah, it does. Um, the real scandal is not that David Petraeus put his penis in someone that he shouldn't have put his penis in, the real scandal is here you have the quagmire that is Afghanistan; the real scandal is the refusal of the American public to pay attention to what's going on in Afghanistan. You know, we don't want to hear about it. But we want to hear about this. If only drones looked like dicks, actually dildos, flying over Afghanistan, maybe the American media and public would be more interested in what the hell we're doing in Pakistan and Afghanistan.


mt:  Now that you've said it, I'm sure now we can tune into YouTube in two or three weeks and it'll probably be there. [laughter] Did you always have kind of a keen interest in morality? 

Savage: Well I was raised Catholic, my dad was a preacher and a Catholic deacon and my mom was a Catholic lay minister and ... I'm in my 40s, and there were a lot of adults around my house when I was a kid, in the late '60s and early '70s, when I was first becoming conscious, arguing about the civil rights movement, arguing about the women's rights movement — social justice movements, for lack of a better phrase. Debates about politics were always really present. One of my earliest memories is my mother and father having a knock-down, drag-out argument about Watergate and Richard Nixon. That's part of what passed for entertainment in my family. We argued about politics over the dinner table and everybody debated everything and my grandfather, with whom we lived, was a newspaperman, so the house was full of newspapers and it was how you passed the time between high school and death, arguing about politics and stuff. Basically, yeah, my parents kind of instilled an interest in morality. And the intersection of morality and politics I find kind of fascinating. Being gay, sex is inherently interesting because sex is the central mystery of your existence, sex is what sets you off and it's the problem you have to solve: "Why am I this when most people are that?" Sexuality can lead to a sort of estrangement from your family, it can bring you into conflict with the faith in which you were raised, and you do a lot of thinking about it. You can't avoid it. Every gay person, no matter how poorly educated they are, is in their soul a philosopher because they stand there going, "Why me? How'd this happen?"


mt:  I think you've taken that tension between what today's standard of morality would tell you and what you feel and I get the sense that you've noted in your writing how morality changes over time and what you've managed to do is find that integrity or ethics are in fact, a great constant.

Savage: The great constant for me has always been the Golden Rule, you know, just to go back to my religious upbringing and education as a child. Do unto others as you'd have them do unto you. And that can have a more expansive meaning than some Sunday school teachers seem to realize. Uh, 'cause it applies to sex too. Do unto somebody what you'd like done unto you and only do unto others what they want done unto them. And just that very basic tenet applies to sexual conduct and to relationships. And ... everything I've written, every column I've written, every piece of advice I've ever given down you're left with that.

mt:  Yeah, although you do have some boundaries. As far as I can tell, the only things that are beyond-the-pale gross-outs for you are sex involving feces, the dead, animals, children, anything nonconsensual, hard-drugs, cigarette smoking. Did I miss anything?

Savage: [chuckles] Uh, gay Republicans. You should never sleep with a gay Republican. A dead gay Republican puppy would be the worst thing you could possibly do, covered in feces.

mt:  With a cigarette somehow in there.

Savage: Yeah, with a cigarette in his mouth. That would be the worst, sort of the perfect storm of not-OK-with-me.

mt: But I think the fact that I can compile a list like that — although I have been copy-editing your column here for the last 10 years — shows how your readers, me included, feel we know you in a very personal way.

Savage: Which can be awkward at airport restrooms.

mt:  Do you ever get tired of people treating you that approachably in real life as in the column?

Savage: No, you know, sometimes you're grumpy and tired and flying or doing whatever, and a moment like that happens and you can be a little exasperated — but then you remember that the alternative is worse, you know. You don't want to write and write and write and nobody to give a shit. It's a measure of the success of the column, people feel they know me so well and want to approach me even when I'm standing there with my dick in my hand at a urinal in a restroom at Midway Airport in Chicago.


mt: Well, I think you've done a lot of good by opening your life in that way, I mean, you've turned your life with Terry and your child into kind of media events in a way. Is there anything you intentionally keep out of scrutiny in your life?

Savage: Well, until we'd started the It Gets Better Project, Terry had never gone on television, and there were no pictures that we'd ever released of our son. I did write two books about our lives together. But I turned down offers from people who wanted to do reality shows about our lives and have cameras in our house and follow us around. We always turn that stuff down. DJ is a shy kid, and we're, I think, good parents and so we wouldn't have done it even if he were an extrovert. We have always been very protective of his privacy and striven to give him a normal childhood so, you know, he hasn't been ... even today, there are not a lot of pictures of him out there. He doesn't go on television and he hasn't been hustled — I mean, I'm not saying that gay parents whose kids have been hustled forward to testify at hearings or anything are abusing their kids, there's a lot of kids with gay parents who want to do that and are articulate and anxious to be front and center in the fight for the rights of their families. Um, DJ ain't that kid, and has no desire to do that kind of stuff. And we haven't hustled him into doing anything like that. In some ways, you know, I've been told, "Oh you're a whore and you're exploiting your family." And I always look at those people and think, "Oh, my god, if only you knew, you know, that somebody offered us a million dollars to do a reality show years ago and we looked at them like, 'No.'" Nobody says no to TV people offering you a million dollars — so their heads kind of exploded.


mt:  I was reading Skipping Toward Gomorrah last night and I was really impressed with the way you articulately and humorously responded to right-wing gasbags — and not just on gender orientation but a broad range of issues. Is that how you see them, all tied together?

Savage: In many ways, yeah, I do. And I think one of the reasons my column has been so successful over the long haul — and it's been a long haul now — is that it's a sex column that readers get the impression is written by someone who doesn't just think about sex all day long. Other issues, other political issues come into play in the column, but, yeah, I do think choice, women's rights, birth control, "straight rights," as I like to call them, and gay rights, health care, I think all these things are linked. The marijuana issue I wrote about a lot in Skipping Towards Gomorrah. I think there's a link between the government telling you who you can marry or who you can love and what you can grow in your garden and what you can smoke. It's not the government's role to intervene in your life in that way.


mt:  Mm-hmm. And you get the sense that a lot of these right-wing people are in some way closeted. Like, "If it weren't for prohibitions on being gay, I'd suck every cock on the east side!"

Savage: Exactly, that's often the case. It was really gratifying to hear Ron Paul say something in a debate that sounded like almost verbatim something I wrote in Skipping Towards Gomorrah, where drug prohibition came up and he said he was against drug prohibition, the audience booed, and Ron Paul was like, "I wouldn't do heroin if it was legal, would you? Would you go to the heroin store and buy heroin and do heroin? I wouldn't." I'd written that in Skipping Towards Gomorrah, you know, that I live in Seattle, where the streets are paved with heroin, and I don't do heroin. I could get as much as I want in 10 minutes by leaving the house; I don't do it. People should trust that people will make generally choices that are in their own interest — the better choice. So I think what you see a lot with conservatives is this desire to have this internal conflict, or lack of self-control, kind of imposed on them — that they would be sucking dicks if it weren't for anti-gay discrimination. When it comes to this disapproval, religious or otherwise, they're just externalizing this internal complex — they're trying to oppress others because they're working so hard to oppress themselves and want this choice taken away from them. You see that with porn, access to porn: They want to restrict other people's freedom to make or view porn because they lack the self-control to push away from their own goddamn computer. "People are going to get addicted." I'm not. I like my porn, I'm not addicted, I get my work done, I leave the house, the house is clean, we make breakfast and dinner for our son. The idea that porn is like the hurricane that just hit New York and New Jersey and it's just going to swamp you and wash your house away is bullshit.


mt:  And its most staunch opponents are probably sitting in front of the computer with the Kleenex box there.

Savage: Or a wetvac — they're in front of their computer so much Kleenex just won't do it.


mt: [laughs] That's another thing — in addition to the candor and honesty and openness that you foster with your writing, you're also such a funny motherfucker.

Savage: [laughs] Well, the topic lends itself to humor, you know, when you write or talk about sex. Everybody feels a little bit ridiculous in pursuit of sex, feels a little ridiculous in the moment, and feels a little ridiculous right after. We need the release. Sex kind of brings us all low, makes fools of us all and we need to laugh about it.


mt:  Now, there are people who maybe don't feel you've gone far enough. What's with the people throwing glitter at you?

Savage: [laughs] Well, you know, it's "the narcissism of small differences," that Freudian term. Attacking your own because they're not [radical enough] ... that's a lefty thing and it's kind of a queer community thing: the search for apostates and heretics and attacking them. If I'm the enemy of trans people, then the war is over and they lost and they should give up. But it's, politically, you know if you're playing the game of who is the most victimized, attacking your real enemies doesn't prove you're most victimized, claiming you have enemies within proves you're the most victimized. Um, I've written for Savage Love for 20 years and certainly we know more now, all of us do, I think, about trans issues than we used to. And there's a lot of cherry-picking that goes on, reaching back to my column 15 years and finding a turn of phrase or a term that now is deemed a hate term — and screaming at me about it. That's fine and whatever. Um, I've also used the word "fag" in my column a lot and I still do. You'd accuse me of hypocrisy if I screamed and yelled and clutched my pearls and fell to the floor in shock every time someone said the word "fag" and then used other terms liberally myself. But I don't. I've actually defended people against GLAD. When David Spade was attacked several years ago for using the word fag in his comedy act, I defended him. So, I don't detect any hypocrisy there. That's natural and normal. You see Republicans attacking Republicans all the time, you see, you know, the way Jews go after Jews in the debate about Israel, what's being done to Peter Beinart. That's normal, there are always sort of intracommunity disputes and arguments and witch hunts.


mt: On the progressive side we call it the circular firing squad.

Savage: [laughs] Yeah, and I think right now we can declare a truce on the left for our circular firing squad and just lay back and relax and enjoy theirs [on the right] because they've got a really great one going.


mt: [laughs] My editor, Kim Heron, says when he goes to the hardware store the guy behind the counter can't stop talking about your column. But now he tends to say, "What happened? It's about politics or love. What happened to all the sex?"

Savage: Oh, my god, there's so much less politics in my column than there used to be. Now it's the blogging and Twitter that soaks up a lot of my political writing and commentary. But politics has always been a part of my column and politics has to be a part of the sex column because politicians won't leave sex alone. If politicians left sex alone then sex writers could leave politics alone. I would leave politics alone gladly if politicians would leave sex alone, but they don't. You know, we're debating access to birth control, we're debating abortion, we're debating women's rights and you know, whether rape babies are a gift from God and gay rights, gay marriage, and whether gay people should be allowed to adopt because of how we have sex or the persons with whom we have sex. Politicians are all over and about sex. I think any reader of a sex column that doesn't touch on politics is the reader who should be complaining because they're being failed by that sex writer.


mt: I can't remember who said it but, "In America sex is an obsession, in other parts of the world it is a fact."

Savage: Yep, Canada got the French, and Australia got the convicts, and we got the Puritans and, with that, as H.L. Mencken said, "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy." Absolutely, we are a nation obsessed with sex and that's ... everyone in France knew that Mitterand had a mistress and a child and they didn't give a fuck. 


mt: The headline I saw this morning was something like, "Petraeus Resigns, France Shrugs."

Savage: Absolutely. I was hoping after Clinton we would kind of get past and over this, but apparently not.


mt:  You laid out an agenda of sorts for gay rights activists: repealing DOMA, passing ENDA, fixing DADT. How do you see the forces of accommodation and backlash playing out on the other side, particularly with the GOP?

Savage: Well it's going to be interesting. They've really painted themselves into a corner on the gay issues. Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Counsel, wrote the family plank of the GOP platform, and they just are not very easily going to be able to walk away from that anti-gay hate. They're married to the anti-gay community, these people worry about us redefining marriage or accuse us of redefining marriage, when they've redefined Christianity to mean just hating gay people. And that wasn't such a huge problem for the GOP back when we were despised and misunderstood and an invisible minority group, but as we come out and really become assimilated, the GOP isn't just costing itself the votes of gay people anymore by attacking gay people — they're costing themselves the votes of our friends and family and our neighbors. You know, I have family members who would probably vote Republican, but won't because of us, because they don't want to betray blood and family. You know, Terry and I live in kind of a Catholic neighborhood in Seattle, liberal Catholics but probably some Republican Catholics around here who will not vote for Republicans because they have gay friends and neighbors that they don't want to harm. You know, gay people are 5 percent of the population roughly — 5 percent of the vote was gay — but what percentage of the vote was straight but with gay children or gay neighbors or gay friends or gay co-workers? That's a much larger percentage — and how do they get out of this corner that they've painted themselves into without alienating the anti-gay haters and their base? I have no idea. But they're really in trouble. 


mt:  Well, it will be amusing to watch.

Savage: And look at what both political parties do to appeal to Miami Cubans, which as a percentage of the national population are what? Point-zero-something? And the Miami Cubans get everything they want. And the American Jewish folks. Jews are 2 percent of the population? I think a little less, like 1.7 percent of the population. And both political parties are very deferential to and worried about appealing to the American Jews and the Jewish vote — 1.7 percent of the population. We're 5 percent: We're a political force to be reckoned with, and we punch above our weight because gay people aren't born into gay families, gay people are born into straight families.


mt:  It's good news for freedom. And I think we all owe a certain debt to you for helping out with that, over the years with your writing. 

Savage: Well, thanks.


mt:  Well, I'll let you get to your other call.

Savage: Sure thing. You have such a great voice! You don't smoke, do you? Please tell me you don't smoke.


mt:  I do.

Savage: You should stop! I knew it! I could tell from your voice. You should stop smoking.


mt: [laughs]

Savage: It's bad for you! I don't know if you've heard but there's a new surgeon general report that came out in, like, 1962? I can see smoking pot because you get high, it's a bargain, but smoking cigarettes? All you get is cancer!


mt:  I can't believe I'm being scolded by Dan Savage! [laughter]


Dan Savage appears Sunday, Dec. 2, at the Michigan Theater, 603 E. Liberty St., Ann Arbor; 734-668-8463.




Michael Jackman is senior editor of Metro Times. Send comments to him at [email protected].