Columnist and activist Dan Savage on his toughest questions, alt-weeklies, and raising a son who might've beaten him up in high school

City Paper

Mondays at City Paper are crazy, as the staff hurries to make sure everything is in place for another delicious steaming-hot pile of Baltimore’s Best Alternative Weekly. At some point every Monday, Dan Savage’s  syndicated “Savage Love” column comes across my desk. I am nominally “editing” the column, but because it comes in print-ready form from Seattle’s alt-weekly, The Stranger, where Savage is the editorial director, it rarely needs to be changed at all. Instead, it’s kind of a break amid the chaos to hear Savage’s words of wisdom on everything from fisting to stale marriages, always delivered with perfect wit, humor, and gutter language.

In 25 years of writing the column, Savage has championed LGBT+ rights and rallied against teen bullying, among other things. When Rick Santorum ran for president on a radically anti-gay agenda, Savage initiated a successful campaign to define the word “santorum” as “the frothy mixture of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the byproduct of anal sex,” and for that definition to be the word’s top Google result. After a rash of teen suicides, he and husband Terry Miller started the “It Gets Better” campaign to offer queer teens the advice and perspective they might not be getting elsewhere.

Perhaps closest to our hearts is the fact that he’s the editorial director The Stranger, one of America’s Best Alternative Weeklies, and a champion of the form. We couldn’t be prouder to say that he’s one of us. 

CP: How many questions do you get a week?

DS: A couple thousand, sometimes more. It sounds like a lot but it’s actually fewer than I used to. And I don’t think it’s because my column is dying, I think it’s because the internet exists now, and a lot of the mail I used to get is solved by a wiki or a Google search, like, “what’s a butt plug?” “How does a cock ring work exactly?” All that info is online now. When I started writing the column 25 years ago, that info was not online and it was actually kind of hard to get. And the other thing is that, because it runs in papers like yours and The Stranger, there’s comment threads, so people who want to argue with me or share their own 2 cents don’t have to go through the filter, don’t have to write me and get in the column, they can jump on a comment thread and say whatever they want, including that I’m an asshole and an idiot. [Laughs] It used to be that people who wanted to say that I was an asshole and an idiot in my column had to send me a letter telling me I was an asshole and an idiot, hoping that I would publish it, and now they can post it themselves.

CP: If there’s one thing the internet’s good for, it’s making it easier to tell people they’re an asshole and an idiot.

DS: Yeah. But I still get like two, three thousand letters a week. A couple thousand I used to get every week were people asking how a cock ring worked or wanting to tell me I’m an asshole, that all happens online now.

CP: Are you possibly able to get through all those, or do you have people screen them for you?

DS: I’m addicted to reading my own mail. I don’t have an assistant. I dink through it all really quickly. Sometimes I don’t want to tell people I read all my own mail because I can’t respond to everybody. I wish I could. But I do read it all, and I appreciate all the input and feedback and questions even if I can’t get to respond. I especially appreciate the questions from people who enclose photographs of their boyfriends.

CP: [Laughs] Is there a single question you get the most or a couple that are most common?

DS: You know, “Is this normal, is this OK?” is still a question I get with alarming regularity. Because all those what’s a cock ring, what’s a butt plug, how do I get a fist in butt questions are now answered with a Google search and a wiki page, I don’t get those easy questions anymore. I think the most
common question I get now is, I call it the “unscrew the pooch” question, where someone has completely fucked up everything, and they run to me with a screwed pooch and say, “help me unscrew this pooch.” [Laughs] So it’s all these situations, like really complicated situations, and the advice is harder to give. It’s like situational ethics, as opposed to—ya know, the column about how a butt plug works is an easy column to write and I could write it in my sleep. I could write it in my sleep and I frequently did. The column where I really have to pay attention to nuance and circumstance and take two or more people’s feeling and possible positions into account, those are hard to write, and that’s all the mail these days.

CP: I find myself, probably like everybody who reads the column, reading the letter then trying to guess how you’re going to respond. It’s definitely hard, and I’ve seen how you sometimes backtrack, like a week or two later, you’ll be like, “I said this thing, and some people pointed out that might not be the best thing,” which I think is a great thing to do as a columnist.

DS: Advice is an opinion about what could or should be done, and if opinions can’t change as you get your hands on more information or other people sharing their opinions or perspectives, then you’re an asshole, not an advice columnist.

CP: I imagine, with that volume and doing it as long as you have, is there anything that comes in and really surprises you or still shocks you?

DS: The only ones—acts and what people do with their bodies or kinks or weird left-field stuff, that just doesn’t surprise me anymore. Something that comes in that I’ve never heard of before isn’t a surprise, that’s been happening like every couple of months for 25 years. What surprises me are people who write in who are clearly in the wrong, clearly abusing someone, clearly not honoring the golden rule, not being GGG [Savage Love-speak for “good, giving, and game”], being abusive emotionally or sexually, and they write in thinking they should automatically have my support. They have no perspective. Those are the people who shock me. The people who can’t see that they’re in the wrong when they’re clearly in the wrong, and you get a lot of that. I don’t know if it’s a personality disorder, I don’t know if I have a high percentage of sociopaths in my readership, I guess, maybe, perhaps, or people who don’t have any perspective on how they come across. They just can’t see it. When I read the letter, when anybody reads the letter, they can see it.

CP: I think it’s great when you include those—it probably feels good to rant a little bit.

DS: It does.

CP: I want to talk to you a little bit about alt-weeklies, because we’re one and you’ve been running one for a long time. And The Stranger is, nationally, probably the one that we look to the most. What do you think the role of an alt-weekly is these days? Like you mentioned, your column’s not dying, print media’s not dead yet, what do you think our role could be?

DS: [Laughs] It’s strange the difference between being an alt-weekly—I was in an alt-weekly pre-internet, running one, maybe you were too [Ed. Note: I wasn’t], it was so much easier then. You spent two days crapping the paper out, then you had five days off, three of which you pretended to be at work. And then along comes the internet and you really are a daily now, everyone’s a daily, everyone’s a minutely publication. You’re on Twitter, you’re blogging, you’re writing constantly and, a, it’s really exhausting, but b, I think it really obliterated to a lot of readers the difference that they perceived in status or legitimacy between an alt-weekly publication and a daily publication. Online, we’re all the same. The way a reader experiences my writing and my column is really no different than the way a reader might experience a columnist at a daily newspaper. It’s just one more thing in the feed. And I think for alt-weeklies with the right perspective, that was really empowering and legitimizing. There used to be this sneering back-and-forth “those stupid kids from the weeklies” and “those old fogies from the dailies,” and that was when weeklies were young and dailies were ossified and there was a sort of caste system in the media. And now, a lot of the writers I meet at the Seattle Times are younger than I am, and most of our staff is late middle-age. I think this is a great time to be writing for an alt-weekly if you can pick the lock and keep the lights on [laughs] and modernize what you’re doing. We do a lot of stuff at The Stranger that isn’t alt-weeklying. We do ticketing, we do HUMP!, our porn festival, we do events, we do live shows like the Lovecast. We’ve diversified and that’s kept the lights on. If you’re paying the bills and you’re keeping the lights on, in a way there’s never been a better time to be an alt-weekly than right now, because the new media environment favors our type of writing, with everything from you can drop the occasional F-bomb, which is not being juvenile, I think it’s being adult. Delighting in the F-bomb, exalting it, that’s juvenile, but just writing the way people speak, writing the way you speak, including using profanity? That’s mature, not immature, and the new media, the online media empowers that kind of writing, the kind of writing that we were always doing. Blogging—you can look at a [lot] of, you know New York Press back in the day, even my columns, a lot of what came with the online world was really the writing we were already doing in print, and we were primed for that kind of writing and ready to go. It was dailies that stumbled around not knowing what to do for 20 years, trying to figure it out. 

CP: Along the way, you’ve also become this real national spokesperson and activist for all kinds of issues. I wonder if that’s been a comfortable transition for you?

DS: Well, I’m comfortable with it, I think there are some people out there who aren’t. There are people out there who insist I don’t speak for them, and I never claimed to speak for anyone but myself. I’m not
the one who sometimes describes me as an LGBT activist or a spokesperson for the gay community. I’ve never described myself in those terms.  I’m a gay person with a mouth
and a platform and I will use it as an activist to benefit the LGBT community when appropriate when I can and where I can. But I do not speak for all queer people, and thank God, because there are a lot of queer out there who are idiots and I wouldn’t want to speak for them.

CP: Along the way there have been a lot of things that reached really broad audiences and really touched people, including the “It Gets Better” videos. What sparked that?

DS: There was this kid Billy Lucas from Greensburg, Indiana who killed himself, he was 15 years old. He was bullied because he was perceived to be gay and went home and hanged himself and I was just gutted by that particular suicide that was in August or September of 2010. The feeling was, in reading about him, and reading about Justin Aaberg and these other kids that summer who all killed themselves, you just felt that this is an adult paper, but I could only have spoken to that kid for five minutes, I really think it could have made a difference, because I was in that place too once, being picked on, bullied, and in despair, suicidal, and I’m so glad I didn’t.  Now, with the perspective I have as an adult, if I could share that with that kid, that would make a difference. I was thinking, at that time, that you can’t share that with that kid as a gay adult, you can’t talk to that kid. There are kids who are queer who are growing up in parts of the country where there are LGBT youth support groups, there are gay-straight alliances in their schools or there are kids whose parents are also bullying them, as was the case with Leelah Alcorn’s parents, whose parents would never allow their kids to speak to an LGBT adult, who would never allow their kid to go to an LGBT support group. Look what Leelah Alcorn’s parents did to her, cut her off from all support, pulled her out of her school, and sent to her to right-wing Christian bigots pretending to be counselors. And that’s the kid that we need to talk to. And I was just thinking about, that’s the kid, the kid who lives in a place like Greensburg, who has bigoted parents, so we would never get an invitation to speak at a school, where kids are bullied, we would never get the permission from parents to speak to their kid if the
parents were bullies, then it just occurred to me that with YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, particularly YouTube, that we could speak to these kids without their parents’ permission, that we could reach into their phones, and their computers, and their schools, and their homes, and we could share our perspective with them. You know, that kid is bullied because of his race or her class or his faith, they go home to parents of the same race, same class, same faith that they can turn to for support, that they know that if they tell them, you know, an African-American kid goes home and tells his African-American parents that he’s being bullied because of his race knows that he’s gonna have two advocates on his side who will march into that school and raise holy hell. A queer kid who goes home may not feel comfortable telling his parents he’s gay because he doesn’t know how they’re gonna react. And he’s right to fear that. Forty percent of homeless youth are queer kids who were thrown out after they came out to their parents. So he doesn’t have that support, he doesn’t have advocates. And one of the things you get from your parents, it isn’t just advocacy, but perspective. They will tell you how they got through it, they will share their stories of the bullying or the racism or sexism or anti-Semitism that they encounter and how they survived it, what they did, what their strategy was. But a gay kids goes home, or a lesbian kid or a bi kid or a trans kid and doesn’t get that, they can’t expect that from their almost invariably heterosexual family members. And the idea behind the project was, we could get that to those queer kids. We could bring that adult into their lives, bring those adults into their lives who could offer them that perspective and advice, those strategies that they couldn’t get from their own parents or aren’t getting from
their own parents.

CP: Has it changed things much for you to be a father and to think of your son in this way? 

DS: My son—Terry and I joke that we are raising the kid who beat us up in high school. It’s not that we have to protect our kid from bullying, it’s that we sometimes have interventions with our kid to keep him from becoming a bully himself. Not that he’s bullied anyone, but he’s a skateboarding, snowboarding, sometimes thoughtless straight boy, and we have to tap him on the shoulder and be like, “Be a human too!” [Laughs] And he is a human, and he’s a good kid, but he’s never been bullied or picked on, it wasn’t like we looked at what was happening to our kid and thought, “oh, we need to develop this for him.”

CP: How old is he?

DS: He’s gonna be 17 next month. 

CP: Does he read the column now?

DS: No. If your dad was gay and wrote a sex column, would you read it?

CP: Probably not.

DS: [laughs]

CP: But would you let him if he wanted to?

DS: Well I couldn’t stop him if he wanted to, he has access to the internet, The Stranger is out all over town in Seattle where he lives and rattles around with his friends. But he doesn’t talk to us about it and in some ways, it parallels my experience as a teenager. My dad was a Catholic deacon and a priest and a cop, sort of high-profile in Chicago where we grew up, and so that was a little mortifying. And I think my son is appropriately and proportionately mortified by what I do for a living. I’m not giving him a complex, he’s not neurotic about it, but just like when I was 15, if I could flip a switch and my dad would’ve been an architect like Mr. Brady instead of a cop and a deacon, I would’ve. I think if my son could flip a switch and I was a lawyer who went to an office downtown, he would flip that switch, at least right now.

CP: I remember the story you did on “This American Life” about your son’s expectations about whether he would be gay or straight.

DS: There was a time in his life when he thought he was gonna be gay when he grew up, or even wanted to be gay, wanted to be like us. That’s another thing the religious right says that they’re worried about with same-sex couples parenting, is our children will emulate our sexuality and be gay when they grow up, as if there’s something wrong with that. They’re the ones who force their kids to be straight when they grow even if they’re not. We would of course never do that to our child and I don’t think any queer parent would. For a lot of us, the most painful experiences in our lives were our parents trying to force us to be someone we weren’t, or making it clear that they would be devastated or disappointed if we were who we turned out to be. So, we wouldn’t do that to our kid, but there was a time when he wanted to be like his dad, that time is over, in every respect, not just his sexuality, and one of the things I think we did right when we had those conversations with him when he was young is, we didn’t make it sound like a coin toss, like there’s a 50-50 chance you’ll be gay or straight. We told him that 95 percent of everybody is straight, so the odds are, just statistically looking at this, you are probably gonna be straight, but if you aren’t straight, if you’re gay or you’re bi or you’re trans or whatever, we love you, and we always will and that won’t change anything. And still, there were times when he insisted that he was gay. And his evidence was, you know, kid logic. He’s young and he thinks the fact that he’s a 9-year-old boy who thinks girls are icky, he doesn’t like girls, so that’s proof that he’s gonna be gay when he grows up and we were like, “Nope, when we were 9 years old we looooved girls.” So, loving girls when you’re 9 years old and wanting to hang out with a girl is not a sign that you’re going to be a ladies’ [man] when you grow up. It’s a sign that you’re gonna be a man’s man.

CP: So, this is our Sex Issue, and a lot of our stories are on the themes of sex and Marxism. Just to touch on that, you’ve written about the economics of sex work and whether it’s exploitative or if it can work in a way that really benefits the workers.

DS: I have friends who are sex workers who are not being exploited and are sex-workers rights advocates and advocates. Some people are exploited. I have friends who are in consensual sexual relationships with long-term and it’s all rosy. I also have friends who are in long-term relationships with abusive partners. You can’t just look at a relationship model or a job and declare it inherently abusive or inherently safe. I do know that the criminalization of prostitution, which has always been with us and will always be with us, makes prostitution more unsafe than it may already be. It compounds the problem. So the people who are against decriminalization, who claim that they’re concerned for the welfare of the people who are engaged in prostitution or sex work are either ill-informed or disingenuous, because everything about criminalization makes it more dangerous. And I’m not Pollyanna about the inherent dangers, and none of the sex workers I know, none of my friends who are sex workers, are Pollyanna about the inherent dangers. A lot of what they do in their outreach is about mitigating risk and you have to be conscious of them to mitigate them. You are not in denial. So I think people can do sex work for all the right reasons with agency and control. I think people can be exploited doing sex work. Two-thirds of people who are trafficked, studies have shown, are trafficked for domestic and restaurant work. And we never hear about them. There’s no concern about these people who are basically enslaved and being exploited, and why is that? Maybe it’s not as good copy, it’s not as sexy, maybe we’ve all intuitively grasped that the sexual violation compounds the economic violation for someone who doesn’t want to be doing sex work, maybe that’s why that evokes a larger response in people.

But the disproportionate focus on sex work, and the refusal to cop to the fact that if we had a decriminalized market, it would be safer for all involved. It would be easier to do outreach to get people out of sex work who wanted to get out of sex work. People leave sex work with criminal records that make them unemployable. Piling up criminal penalties on sex workers, because you disagree with sex work and you don’t think anybody should do it, makes it harder for people who’ve been doing it to stop doing it, who want to stop doing it to stop doing it. So it’s not really a Marxist analysis, I guess it’s really a capitalist analysis or a criminalization analysis. This is the lusty sex-negative trap when it comes to issues like pornography or prostitution, we want to have this debate about whether it should exist or not and that’s not the debate. The debate is how it’s going to exist. There’ll always be pornography, what kind of pornography do we want to have, and let’s move toward that kind of pornography. There’ll always be prostitution, what kind of prostitution do we want to have. And if you’re concerned about people being abused or harmed or exploited, let’s think about how we can address those issues, make that less prevalent, less of an issue. The lefty take on porn and prostitution really mirrors, eerily, the right-wing take on abortion. They want to have a debate on whether we should have abortion or not. And we’re gonna have abortion, that’s why we waved those hangers in the air. We’re gonna have abortion whether it’s legal or not. We’re just gonna have unsafe abortions and women are gonna die. We’re gonna have porn and prostitution whether it’s legal or not, whether it jibes with your feminist values or not, whether it jibes with your Marxist values or not, it’s gonna exist, so let’s address that reality and figure out how we can make it better.

CP: Do you get more of your criticism these days from the right wing or from the left?

DS: It seems to come in equal measures from both. [laughs] I’ll get some shitty, crazy tweet calling me all sorts of names and I have to click through to the person’s Twitter profile to find out whether it’s a right-wing fundamentalist Christian with a cross and Jesus and some Ayn Rand in their Twitter bio or if it’s some non-binary agender sex-radical queer person. It’s a weird position to be in where you have this large group of people who think that you’re this sex-radical maniac trying to destroy the family and all things good and decent and wholesome and destroy religion, and then you have this other group of people who think that you are a hetero-normative assimilationist, sellout who’s trying to betray what the whole gay liberation movement initially was supposed to be about. It’s a strange position to be in. But thankfully there are way more people that understand and dig what I have to say and dig my writing that I can turn a blind eye to the crazies on the right and the crazies on the left.

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