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‘Savage Love’ columnist on Santorum

Dan Savage on marriage equality, the ‘It Gets Better’ project, and $20 skull rings

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Dan Savage, the outspoken author of the internationally syndicated relationship and sex advice column “Savage Love,” originator of the “It Gets Better” Project, and creator of the alternative definition of “Santorum,” wears many hats. Yet, one is certainly not a dunce cap. Wedding Pride sat down with the controversial author and gay-rights advocate to discuss marriage equality, his and his husband’s unironic love for Vikki Carr, and how “Despicable Me” launched a gay-advocacy campaign.

Wedding Pride: What’s the last thing you texted?

Dan Savage: A friend wrote to me from a new anti-gay organization’s inaugural press conference to tell me that they were condemning me during their remarks for advancing my promiscuous values to non-homosexuals. And I texted him back: ‘Right on.’

WP: What was your knee-jerk reaction when Massachusetts, the first state to legalize same-sex marriage in the U.S., did the deed?

DS: I was thrilled. When the Massachusetts Supreme Court decision came down, the decision itself was so beautifully written. I know people who have incorporated part of the decision into their wedding ceremonies — even straight people I know have done so. I think I had read in the “The New York Times” at the time that even if we had lost, we still would have won because the arguments against our civil equality were so thin and the arguments made by the Massachusetts Supreme court justices were so sound — they were affirmative, reasonable, and beautiful. It felt like a very significant vindication in the courts and a sign of much good to come.

WP: Did you do anything to commemorate the occasion?

DS: For Massachusetts? I don’t think that [my husband, Terry and I] did. We’re not celebratory people. We don’t do anything of Valentine’s Day, we really don’t do anything on our anniversary, so we probably were like, ‘Oh! This is really good news!’ read the decision, and got on with it.

WP: Is there any kind of occasion the two of you will celebrate?

DS: Well, we celebrated our 10th anniversary in a big way — we got married. But it was sort of a top-secret wedding. We had 10th anniversary party in which we invited our friends and family, and before we ran to Canada and got married in Vancouver. So, the party was like a secret wedding reception.

WP: What was your favorite moment from your wedding?

DS: We were in the car with our son on the way to Vancouver and we’re talking to this woman, Karen, who performed our ceremony, and we were asking her if we had everything we needed and she was like ‘bring this document, that document, and bring the rings.’ And we were like ‘Crap, we didn’t get rings ….’ And in a way, just 10 years ago, marriage for us was this new thing, and we just literally forgot about the whole ring part. So we turned the car around and went to this rock-and-roll-jewelry-crap-T-shirt store that Terry knew about in [Seattle’s] Pike Place Market and we let our son pick out some temporary rings for us. And he picked out these chunky, silver rings with skulls on them because we’re always supposed to remember that we can’t break up until we die, it’s death do us part. The idea was that we were going to wear them for a couple weeks and get new rings and I’m standing here in the kitchen, right now, wearing that ring, that skull, on my finger still. We’ve never replaced them.

WP: That’s kind of awesome.

DS: Yeah, it is kind of awesome. I mean, they’re cheap, they’re $20, but they don’t turn my finger green. The funniest thing is that Terry is so fashionable that a skull ring on him looks rock and roll, and a skull ring on me looks white supremacist. In fact, someone saw my ring on a plane and asked if I was a white supremacist and I was like, ‘What?! No!’ So I have to turn it around, so you can’t see the skull, the skull’s always in the palm of my hand.

WP: But Terry’s is out and about for everyone to see?

DS: Yeah, his is out, but it looks good on him. Terry’s so stylish, he looks good falling down the stairs. There’s nothing that man does or wears that doesn’t look good. And I don’t know why he married me because I’m a spaz. I look good in the dark.

WP: Being married, it must have been a great feeling when DOMA was overturned. What was your initial response?

DS: When DOMA was overturned I was sitting at my computer with my husband upstairs and my son downstairs asleep, and I just sat there reading it and weeping. For me, one of the things that weighed on me was the financial peril that my family would be in if something should happen to me. Our relationship wasn’t recognized, we’re a sole-income family, and Terry has been a stay-at-home parent for 15 years. I’d hate to boil a marriage down to finances, but one of the things you pledge when you marry someone, especially if you have children together, is to protect them. And here was this thing I couldn’t protect my family from. And hey, I get a lot of death threats. So if one of these crazies whose constantly threatening to kill me shows up to an event I’m speaking at and killed me, my family would be persecuted. Terry wouldn’t get social security survivor benefits, he would lose the house, and our son wouldn’t be able to inherit our property. It’s injustice heaped on their grief, as if that somehow strengthened the marriages of straight people — somehow made Rick Santorum’s marriage stronger. So, when I read that DOMA was overturned, I felt this weight instantly lifted from my shoulders. I went upstairs, crawled into bed with Terry, held him, and cried.

WP: Hold on, death threats? How often do you get those?

DS: Well, you know, I really only get them when I’m reading my e-mail. So, it’s only every day.

WP: How do you deal with something like that?

DS: You know, Quentin Crisp — “The Naked Civil Servant,” the sort of crazy, gemmy, gay raconteur icon-ish dude of New York? He was really gender nonconforming and whenever he was on TV he would get death threats. But he was also in the phone book and would talk to anyone who called him. And the point was that he felt that if someone wanted to kill you, they’d jump from the shrubs and kill you. They don’t ring you up. So, the people who e-mail me, they’re just trying to ruin my day or get in my head and I’m not going to let them. You can’t let the fear of some angry lunatic shut you down and paralyze you. That incentivizes angry lunacy if they can silence you with fear. I refuse to be intimidated.

WP: Speaking of not being silenced by fear and anger, you enjoy creating neologisms, like creating a new meaning for ‘Santorum’ after the senator compared gay sex to incest and bestiality. What would be your neologism for a state that refuses to legalize same-sex marriage?

DS: Oh my God [Laughing]. I mean, I like ‘hate state’ and ‘hold out.’ But HSHO, ‘Hate State Hold Out,’ doesn’t feel right. If there’s one thing we can call anti-gay states it’s the confederacy because when you look at the map, coincidentally, all of the hate states are in the south. So, let’s just call them the Confederacy of Dunces? Yeah. That’s what we should call them.

WP: Another bold pop culture phenomenon you’ve sparked is the “It Gets Better Campaign.” Was there a specific event that inspired this project?

DS: Yes there was. It was one kid’s suicide, Billy Lucas, in Greensburg, Ind. in September of 2010. Then there were more suicides and what gets repeated is that we created the campaign in response to a state of suicides, and that’s not true, it was a response to just that one kid’s suicide. As we pulled the campaign together, or when we got the first video shot, there was another suicide and then when we posted it, a couple days later, there was yet another. But we were responding to that one kid because reading about his suicide was so heartbreaking and what happened to him even after death — that the same bigots and bullies who had tormented him in life went to his Facebook memorial page to celebrate his death in front of his family, I was just so angry about that. But what really inspired the campaign was a comment that was left on my blog on a post I was writing about Billy Lucas. Everyone was just raging and this commenter, whose handle was ‘Despicable Me,’ wrote: ‘I wish I had known you, Billy and had been able to tell you that things get better. Rest in peace.’ And it was that phrase, ‘things get better’ that leapt out at me because I felt so powerless, because I knew if I could have talked to that kid for five minutes it could have made a difference for him because kids are lied to. They’re lied to about what their lives are going to look like, what’s possible for them, and they don’t know that things do indeed get better. And as Terry says in the original video, things get better really fast.

WP: Is there any aspect of the project that you feel people overlook?

DS: There’s this ooey-gooey goodwill that’s adhered to the project, a lot of soft-focus that seems safe. I mean, the President [has done a video], Hillary Clinton did it, corporations and sports franchises have done it, and people sometimes miss the act of defiance. The religious right doesn’t miss it, they see it, but what the project boils down to is that we’re going to talk to your queer kids whether you want us to or not. We want to bring a LGBT youth support group to kids who live in parts of the country that don’t have one, or more importantly, kids who have parents who would never let them attend one. Game over and you can’t isolate them anymore. We can reach into your homes, and we can reach into your schools, and we can reach into your child’s phone and we can speak to your kid about being queer. And that was really radical, and still is.

WP: Has there been any responses from the LGBT teen community that has stuck with you?

DS: One girl wrote me and said that because of the videos she’s been watching on her phone, that every day she goes downstairs and looks at her mom and dad and loves them for who they’re going to be in 10 years. She had an image in her head of homophobic parents coming around, apologizing to their adult gay children, because she saw it in the videos. She didn’t hear about it. She saw it.

WP: Have you ever reached out to Despicable Me?

DS: She lives in Los Angeles, I believe and she came to an event and we e-mailed about meeting and talking and she didn’t come up to me, but she’s out there. I’ve never met her, but I’m always very happy to site her because it really was that comment of hers that cut through everyone’s anger with that beautiful melancholy statement really crystalized everything for me. This is what the next Billy Lucas needed to hear.

WP: Did you have your own version of ‘It Gets Better’ as a kid growing up in Chicago?

DS: I did. I would get on my bike and ride through the city and pass the gay neighborhood and see gay people. I remember being in a line for a movie when I was 9 or 10 with my family and there were two guys ahead of us in line to see “Logan’s Run” and they were holding hands. And my mom pulled just me closer to her, just me, because she kind of knew, and I remember looking at them and knowing she thought they were weird. And I was weird like them. I get it now. And they look happy and in love. So, I thought, they made it and so can I. I will be happy one day. And that was a benefit of living in Chicago as a kid, in a Midwestern gay mecca, being able to see gay people out there who looked happy.

WP: If you could give a piece of advice to people living in states where same-sex marriage is not legal, what would you say to them?

DS: Move? And I’m not being glib. I just feel like many gay and lesbian people live as refugees, it’s a big part of the gay experience. Growing up in Chicago in the ’70s and ’80s, even though there was a gay community there, I just got it into my head that I couldn’t be free until I got away from my family. Of course, you can stay and fight. That said, if you live in a town of 500 people or even in North Dakota with 3000,000 people, you can stay and fight and make it the most gay-accepting, wonderful place in the world, but there’s still not going to be enough gay people there for you to date. Gay meccas aren’t gay meccas just because bigger places are more tolerant, they have more people.

WP: Let’s end this on a silly note — if you could give your marriage to Terry a theme song, what would it be?

DS: The Vikki Carr version of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You.” We have a shared love of female vocalists and a week after we started dating we were walking down the street heard the horns from that song, we started singing it to each other, and that played at our wedding — or our secret wedding reception. We still sing it to each other and listen to Vikki Carr unironically, we have all of her albums, and whenever it plays we get very sentimental. And I don’t want to be too Pollyanna, but sometimes the two of us can be terrible human beings and drive each other crazy, but in the really important and majority of ways, Terry really is too good to be true. And I love him. So much.

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Reader feedback

Dennis Eisen from prospect heights says:
Dan Savage is a writer, journalist and reporter. Would you describe him as "sex columnist" if he was hetero? I don't think so.
March 21, 2014, 9:11 am
Elyse Wanshel from Brooklyn says:
“In addition to being a nationally syndicated sex advice columnist and author of books, Savage can also lay claim to being the only person at The Stranger to have actually converted his sexuality into a profession.” This is the first line of Dan Savage’s author archive bio on The Stranger — the publication that publishes “Savage Love.”
March 21, 2014, 11:55 am
Wah from Prospect Park says:
Well that's funny because the first line of Savage's official bio from his official page is this:

"Dan Savage is a writer, TV personality, and activist best known for his political and social commentary, as well as his honest approach to sex, love and relationships."

The Stranger is a (fantastic) alt weekly (FYI Savage is the Editorial Director of it, not just a sex columnist in it), but it's tone is clearly irreverent. I think Dennis's criticism is fully valid.
March 21, 2014, 1:43 pm

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