May 26, 2013
I had the chance to catch up with queer author, columnist, and provocateur Dan Savage this week for QBlog in advance of his new book “American Savage”, which comes out on Tuesday! We chatted about sex, marriage equality, community pushback, transphobia, biphobia, bullying, the new book and more.
Read my interview with Dan below, then come out to Powell’s books this Sunday at 2pm for a Q Center-sponsored reading, Q&A, and meet and greet with Mr. Savage himself!
Logan Lynn: Hey Dan. Thanks for squeezing me into your busy schedule today. I’m looking forward to your book launch event at Powell’s in Portland coming up this weekend on June 2nd! How does it feel to be making these book rounds once again?
Dan Savage: (Laughs) It feels good. It’s been 7 years since I managed to carve out the time to sit down and write a book because they invented blogging and podcasting and vlogging and Twitter and Instagram. It’s not enough anymore to write a weekly column or bust out a few news items a week. You have to be constantly running your mouth online. It really takes the time away that I used to be able to put into plowing away at a book. It was a tough thing to manage.
Lynn: Well, I’m looking forward to reading it. You recently won an Emmy as well, correct?
Savage: Yeah. I didn’t win an Emmy, everybody who participated in the It Gets Better project won an Emmy. It was awarded The Governor’s Award, which is kind-of their Up With People, social justice, good works award. We are really proud to have gotten (the Emmy) but it was for the project and it’s because of the great impact it has had. The Emmy wasn’t for me and Terry. It was for all of us.
Lynn: That’s really great. What has been the most rewarding part of being involved with the It Gets Better project for you?
Savage: I’ve heard from so many LGBT kids who were helped by the project. People don’t write newspaper stories about kids who don’t kill themselves, so most of these stories aren’t out there and people don’t hear them. I now have ongoing penpal/Twitterpal relationships with some of the young people – young lesbians, young gay men – who were, in their words, “saved” by the project. One of the privileges of my job, and something that keeps me young, is everyday I open my email and there’s a flood of personal letters and questions and observations from people of all ages, but particularly young people because they are the ones who are just starting out on their sex lives, trying to figure out what it is that they want, who they want, and how they want to be wanted. I value that. Hearing those stories, hearing those voices, and these young people who credit the project with literally saving their lives, and then getting to know them as people and getting to see what they’re doing now a few years later is really tremendously rewarding.
Lynn: It is a really special thing you all are doing and I’m so moved by your efforts (and reach). There’s not a lot of jobs in the world that are rewarding like that, so that’s really great.
Savage: Yeah, actually there aren’t.
Watch Dan & Terry’s It Gets Better video:
Lynn: So this interview is for Queer Voices, which is a blog program of Q Center, who is co-sponsoring your Powell’s event in Portland. We are the only physical space-based LGBTQ community center from San Francisco to Canada, and Q Center also runs the Sexual & Gender Minority Youth Resource Center (SMYRC). How important do you feel community centers are to our queer landcape?
Savage: There’s a gay community center in New York, there’s a gay community center in Chicago, there was an attempt to get one off the ground here in Seattle but it collapsed. It can be a tremendous resource. I feel in some ways, paradoxically, the need for a physical space is less because there is this virtual space. There used to be a lesbian resource center in Seattle, it started in the 70’s I think, and part of the reason it was so necessary is that you couldn’t find a book about lesbians. You couldn’t find information about lesbians. A woman who was coming out in 1978 did not know where to go to find her community, so to open the yellow pages and see a thing called “Lesbian Resource Center” was hugely important…It’s important to push away from the goddamn laptop, be face to face. There are some things that cannot be done in cyberspace that require physical meeting. It is important visually to claim space. To claim space that isn’t a bar, not that there’s anything wrong with bars – I hate this sort of smearing of bars that can go on in activist communities. Bars are important (laughs) – so I’m of two minds, kind of mixed about this. I see the importance and the necessity of places like Q Center and I also see at the same time concurrently that some of the need that drove people to create these sorts of centers has been obviated by the internet. Even with the ease of access to information online and people’s ability to find community online, there comes a point where people need physical space, physical contact, face to face time…and where is that gonna happen? I’ve been to centers in small towns where a community can feel under siege, and to have that palace I think psychologically is important.
Lynn: I am with you on that. The internet age presents us with a new set of tools to reach people with for sure. Q Center’s online presence is much of what drives people to use our programs and services. It also presents a new set of challenges for all of us, particularly for our young people around bullying. While I’m on that subject, many have praised your efforts to stop bullying and to further equality for our community, but on the flipside of that, I have read and experienced you coming under fire at times for your views and opinions on a range of hot-button issues. As a very public gay man, do you ever feel a pressure from within the rest of the acronym to somehow represent, or not represent, them?
Savage: Well, it’s funny because what you typically hear is “You don’t speak for me. You don’t speak for all queer people. How dare you present yourself as speaking for all queer people.” – which I do not do. I have never said I speak for the queers. I speak for my own damn self. The exact same person will then turn around and say “Because of your privileged position, you need to weigh everything you say because you speak for a community”. It’s like, one or the other. Either I don’t speak for everybody or I do…and I don’t wish to speak for everybody…but when the same people that criticize me for claiming to speak for everybody turn around and say I need to weigh my words very carefully BECAUSE I speak for everybody, that just makes my head explode!
David Frum is a conservative writer I disagree with about a lot but I enjoy reading. He’s come around on marriage and some other things, and I think he’s wrong about a lot…but no one ever says to him “You speak for all Canadians” or “You speak for all white men and you need to be very careful about what you say in public”. The people who typically say “You speak for” or “You don’t speak for” just want you to shut up. It’s a censorious impulse. It’s a silencing impulse. They don’t have the courage to disagree and argue with me about my point. They want to delegitimize my making it…and it’s a dishonest argument. You know, I’ve stuck my foot in it and there are things I have absolutely been wrong about. I unpack at great length in this book how wrong I was about bisexuality. I’m not above learning and growing. Sometimes people throw things in my face that I wrote 20 years ago about Trans stuff. All of us know more about Trans issues now than any of us knew 15 years ago. The whole community has been on a journey…but there’s this desire to say “Look, you used the word ‘Tranny’ in a column” – which I haven’t done for years – but “You used ‘Tranny’ in a column, therefore you’re transphobic and a bigot and wacka wacka woo” and to those people I say “Suck my dick”.
Then there’s some dishonest actors who say that I’m a rape apologist and all of these horrible things. People will take things out of the column out of context in radical ways, and there is a glorious tradition in Queerland of destroying ourselves and our own. I think you saw that really crystallized when Warren Beatty’s trans son attacked Chaz Bono for being a misogynistic transphobic bigot. Just at that moment the whole trans thought police effort disappeared off its own ass. If we can’t have inner-community disputes and inter-community misunderstandings and attempts to educate and bring everybody, including myself, along then there are problems.
If I am the enemy of trans people everywhere, then trans people are fucked. I have been handing my column over to Kate Bornstein and Buck Angel for 17 years. I share my platform with them, they have written to me when they have disagreed with me, and they’ve been guest experts on my podcast over and over again, and I get no acknowledgement of that. Often the people who are attacking me for trans stuff worship Kate Bornstein as a hero, and Kate Bornstein and I are friends. So…how am I the enemy of trans folks? Kate Bornstein has been a guest expert in my column for 17 years and Kate Bornstein and I are buddies, so how am I the enemy? Can you explain that to me again?
Lynn: Do you think it’s that as marginalized communities we do not always feel powerful enough to stand up for ourselves or to fight those on the outside who are actually working against us, so we lash out at those who we perceive to have more power than we do, but are still within our reach?
Savage: Yes, I think that’s a large part of what goes on. The danger though, and the difficult thing to straddle is, sometimes being criticized illegitimately or by people who have ulterior motives or people who themselves are working through what’s going on, or it’s about resentment…sometimes criticism will emerge from those impulses that are legit, like you actually were wrong…but If you are attacked frequently for shit you are not wrong about, or your motives are called into question, you can get to a point where you just stop listening to criticism – and we shouldn’t do that. I shouldn’t do that. There have been many times that I have been wrong…like when I said the clit was inside the vagina. I was wrong about that.
Lynn: That seems like a perfect segue to Marriage Equality. I know you touch on that in at least one full chapter of the book. Do you think marriage equality matters or do you feel like activist, press, and political figures within the LGBTQ community need to be focusing our energies elsewhere?
Savage: I think marriage matters very much. I think marriage is a social justice issue. I think marriage goes to the heart of what it means to be queer – it’s about who you love. I think being able to declare for yourself who your next of kin is, that’s hugely important to sexual minorities who often have hostile family members, and marriage is empowering in that way. Our families of origin can be very cruel, particularly to older LGBT people who are much less likely to have supportive family members…so the protection marriage brings for those people, and brings to them cheaply, is hugely important. You know, Terry and I, because I make a decent living – not an obscene amount of money as some people assume, but enough – we were able to go see a lawyer and I think we spent eight thousand dollars with an attorney having living wills and all this shit drafted up for us to carve out some of the rights that marriage brings. Then marriage comes to Washington D.C. and suddenly working class, poor, and many queers of color, were able to access what Terry and I had to spend $8K on for fifty bucks…and they did. We saw people lining up to do it, right? The pictures coming out of Washington D.C. and Seattle and everywhere else where marriage has come online for queers, those are not all gay white men getting married. They just aren’t.
That said, there are other important things. I was very involved in the DADT fight, rhetorically – which is all I do. I run my mouth. I talk. I scream. I yell. I have been speaking out frequently about the fact that the DADT repeal is not done, it’s not finished, because trans people are still barred from service. This idea that we can only work on one thing at a time, that we can’t work on ENDA and something else also, is bullshit. Sometimes I get tarred, I’ve been glittered for being over-focused on marriage…as if other people have the right to tell me what my focus should be. And that whole time I was also working on the It Gets Better project and bullying. This idea that it’s one thing or another, or one thing at a time, or “my” thing, is crap.
A lot of the people who are saying we shouldn’t be working on marriage and that we should be working on X, Y, or Z are actually just opposed to marriage, but they don’t have the courage, honesty, or decency to say that. They say “You’re working on marriage because it’s about gay white men and privilege” and what they mean is that they don’t think any queers should get married at all…but not having the balls or ovaries to say that, they say “People are dying” – H.I.V. is also a very important issue. I write about it a lot – or “Homeless queer youth”. I talk about that constantly. It’s an issue that’s hugely relevant to the It Gets Better project. Queer kids who are thrown out after they come out to their families is hugely relevant to the bullying issue. So everybody should work passionately about the shit that fills them with a desire to work passionately about whatever. I have no patience for the people who are standing around with their arms folded, going “Why are you working on that? Why aren’t you working on this?” How about YOU work on it!
Lynn: Good, old-fashioned, armchair activism…
Savage: Yeah. Why don’t you pour all that passion you are pouring into slamming other people who are working on the things that fill them with passion, into working on the shit that you care about.
Lynn: Amen! Speaking of shit we care about, can you give us a little bit of an overview of this new book and maybe speak to what inspired it?
Savage: Well, the book is about marriage and family, and is a bit more political. I talk about healthcare and Obamacare, gun control, sex education…it originally started out as just a collection of essays, things I had written other places, just bringing things I had written over the last decade together. Then I started revising them and reworking them. Originally the book was going to be 80% old stuff and 20% new stuff, and now it’s 90% new stuff. There’s basically nothing in there that isn’t reworked or brand new. There is a big chapter about marriage, and where we are at right now…and that’s been changing so rapidly, I want the book to come out ASAP. I wrote about adopting, about becoming parents, about Terry and I getting married; and this book has essays about life and memoir-y stuff about my mother’s death, about my son, now 15, coming out to us as straight when he was 12, which was kind-of bizarro hilarious…
Lynn: Alternate universe!
Savage: Yeah, like, how we were so careful all his life to let him know we loved him whoever he was, and yet somehow stil he thought we were going to be disappointed that he wasn’t gay. It really broke my heart. So, I touch on all of that stuff. There’s some humor and comedy in the book as well. I wrote a play – a short play – that’s in the book about Jesus and the huge asshole, which is Jesus talking to a fundamentalist Christian who opposes healthcare reform. I think people will enjoy it.
Lynn: That all sounds really interesting. Can’t wait ’til my copy arrives! So, people like to put a lot of labels on you. Are you a social activist or do you fancy yourself a social agitator?
Savage: I just see myself as an asshole with a column. It’s funny, we’ve known for a long time that nothing changes somebody’s opinion about gay people faster than knowing one, having a friend or somebody you like or respect who’s gay in your life…and I was an activist for a long time with Act Up! I was also an activist in college for queer rights a million years ago. After Act Up! I worked on not gay white male issues. I worked on prison issues which, at that time in Wisconsin, impacted communities of color much more severely than pasty white communities. Then once I started writing the column, for so many young straight people who were high school age and college age, I suddenly became the gay guy that they knew.
Savage: I originally started writing this column as a bit of a joke, as a lark, but when it took off and became syndicated and suddenly was hugely popular, I realized that this was sort-of the next phase of my activism, and this was a platform that I couldn’t abuse. If the column every week was about gay rights or H.I.V. or slut shaming or rape or whatever everyone would stop reading it. I have to be judicious and smart about the fact that mostly the column is for fun – it’s about sex, it’s about people’s sex lives, people read it for a bit of a vicarious thrill and for a laugh – but then if I get serious, people are used to reading the column, so they will still read it. I have a lot of readers who would never read a gay guy, who would never read about gay marriage or H.I.V. or gay people adopting children or anything else, but because they are in the habit of reading me and because my column is usually about them, they will go there. Very early on I realized “Oh, I have this (puts on an evil voice) POWERRR! They are my flying monkeys and I can deploy them if I don’t abuse them…if I don’t deploy them all the time, when I go to them and say “This matters and you should give a shit. You should do something about it.” they will. You saw this with the It Gets Better project, which was launched in my column.
Lynn: That’s cool. I’m pretty sure that’s the kind of power that doesn’t conjure up that sinister voice you just put on, though.
Lynn: Who would you say your favorite person in the world is, Dan?
Savage: Oh my god, I’m gonna be such a weirdo and say Terry, my husband. It’s like any other longterm relationship or marriage. We have our ups and our downs, we have our regularly scheduled fights, we have our conflicts. Any successful marriage equals wrongs committed, forgiveness extended, repeat, repeat, repeat…but he really is the most important in my life, and one of my favorite people. He draws me out of myself. I’d be a very different person if I hadn’t met him 18 years ago, because he’s in some ways much smarter than I am, and in other ways much more frivolous than I am. I can be very dark and dour and somewhat sour, and I can get very wrapped up in the injustice of it all, whatever it is that we are talking about…and Terry reminds me that it’s time to have a Mai Tai and maybe we should go to the beach and maybe I should put my dick in him for half an hour and forget my troubles…and that’s really important. He is my favorite person in the world.
Lynn: That’s sweet…and I don’t think that makes you a weirdo at all! If you had the attention of all LGBTQ people in the world what would you say to them?
Savage: Just the basic – Come out! Just come out. It feels like we’re all out these days, but it’s not true. I get letters everyday from people who are closeted. Particularly from the bisexual community, because many bisexual people are closeted. Nothing undoes homophobia like knowing somebody who’s gay, and nothing undoes biphobia like knowing someone who’s bi. There are so many people out there who know bi people but do not know they know bi people because so many bi people are not out. Coming out is the single most political action a lesbian, gay, bi, or trans person can take. Period. Full stop. The end. Everything else you do above and beyond being out is extra credit, and you shouldn’t be made to feel guilty by anyone if you are out to everyone in your life but you aren’t marching and you aren’t in any other way politically active. You shouldn’t feel guilty, because you’ve done a whole hell of a lot just by being out. That said, there are people who are in a position where they can’t come out, where it is too dangerous or too risky right now. You know…16 year olds who are growing up in shitty parts of the country without a lot of support or have families which might harm them should they come out, they get a pass. You do not have to be out yet, but if you are 26 and you don’t live at home anymore and you are paying your own rent and you’re not out, at that point you are just a coward. Sorry. And you’re part of the problem. So that’s what I would say to all queers everywhere…and if you are out, Thank You. Well done. You helped us get to this point, this tipping point we’ve reached in this culture.
Lynn: …and if you had the attention of all allies or potential allies out there, what would you say to them?
Savage: Well, if you’re allied, awesome! But what I would say to straight people generally, I got a letter just now, and they often complain that we’re a tiny percentage of the population but they are constantly hearing about us on the news, and why do queer issues so dominate? It’s because you’re fucking with us! Don’t discriminate against us and there will be nothing to write about. The gay rights movement exists because of straight people oppressing us, not because we thought it was fun.
Lynn: Wait…we aren’t all just notoriously attention-seeking?
Savage: Right! Most gay people just want to get on with their lives and be left alone. The world that a lot of straight people in America want to live in exists. It’s called Canada. You go to Canada and you just don’t hear about gay people all the time on the news, because gay people aren’t legally oppressed. That doesn’t mean there aren’t bigots. There will always be bigots, but they have full civil equality, so there isn’t this constant push about marriage. There aren’t these battles to cover. We’re written about all the time and talked about all the time because there’s a war on, and if you want that war to end, surrender motherfuckers. It’s not over until we say it’s over and it’s not over until we win. We are not going to settle for second class citizenship and I think we’ve made that clear at this point.
Lynn: So your call to action to get gay off the air is for them to vote our way come election season?
Savage: Yes. It’s actually work to oppress people. It’s work for straight people to oppress gay people…and when they oppress gay people they are also oppressing themselves, because they are not just enforcing some stupid norms about the way gay people have to live, they are enforcing stupid norms about the way straight people have to live, too.
Lynn: Thank you so much for talking with me, Dan. I’m looking forward to seeing you this weekend in Portland. Is there anything we can expect from the book launch at Powell’s on Sunday?
Savage: I’ll be reading and doing a Q&A…and hopefully there will be cake!
For more info on Dan’s Portland book launch, click HERE.
Get in touch with Dan Savage on Facebook HERE.
Follow Dan on Twitter HERE.