By Lucas Grindley
Originally published on Advocate.com February 21 2012 5:00 AM ET
When MTV premiers a one-hour special tonight called It
Gets Better, host Dan Savage will yet again
become the face of the LGBT adult world as it delivers a message to young
people. This time, he’s sending them three, documentary-style coming out
stories instead of the thousands of YouTube videos from adults promising a
Viewers on MTV and Logo tonight at 11 p.m. ET will meet
Greg, Vanessa and Aydian — a closeted student body president, a lesbian
fighting for her family’s acceptance, plus a trans man trying to get married.
And while Savage has often called himself an imperfect
messenger for the movement, it was during the taping of the special and his
upcoming MTV sex advice show, called Savage U, that some tried again to question whether the outspoken, nationally
syndicated sex columnist really represents them. It was during a taping of Savage
U in Vancouver that he was glitter-bombed
by trans activists for what they say is a history of transphobia.
In a wide-ranging interview with the controversial civil
rights activist, the lead Google bomber admits he finds Rick Santorum’s chances
of beating Mitt Romney “terrifying.” He wonders aloud whether their antigay
views are contributing to the suicide epidemic. And Savage responds to his
trans critics, accusing them of opposing marriage equality.
But amid all of that, as is always the case with Savage, he
has a deadly serious mission for helping youth survive.
When it happened, you sent us your reaction to Rick Santorum winning in Iowa,
saying that you thought it was going to be good for the LGBT movement as people
realized he’s outside the mainstream. Are you surprised that he’s been surging
instead. He’s the front runner in a lot of polls.
Dan Savage: You could
knock me over with a drop of Santorum. I am completely blown away by this. I do
think that the clock ran out. Everybody else had their surge and he had a surge
at just the right time for Iowa. But now it’s something different. Some people
are saying that because the economy is improving, Mitt’s rationale for running
is kind of deflated and his selling point is deflated and the GOP base is now
looking to run against birth control?
And Santorum is benefiting from a shift to social issues. Whatever it is, it’s
So you are less enthusiastic about his benefit to LGBT
people now than you were after Iowa?
Yes, I am actually. Because after Iowa I thought he was
going to tank. I thought he was going to have his little Iowa moment like Mike
Huckabee and then go nowhere and just prove again that the Iowa base is too
conservative. But this is now crazy. We are reaching a point that is actually
I watched the MTV special, which is really powerful. The
stories are all about coming out. But it made me wonder. Your message from
adults to young people used to be that “it gets better,” and now I wonder if
the message is, “it gets better, especially if you come out.”
No. We don’t go into in the special very explicitly, but
what I’ve said for years is the answer to your troubles as a gay kid isn’t just
to come out. That’s going to give you new troubles, different troubles.
With 40% of homeless kids being queer kids who are thrown
out after they came out, it is irresponsible of gay adults to run around saying
“come out, come out” to gay youth.
What you see in the show are really kids – young adults – at
three different places in the coming-out process. And the show clearly
demonstrates that the coming-out process isn’t over in one day. It’s not one
event. It involves struggle and follow-up conversations and more work. You
don’t just say “I’m a lesbian,” and it’s all over. But that’s what’s so great
about Vanessa’s story, her reality. You really see something in the special
that we have talked about as people who are gay but that we never actually see.
On television, this is somebody who is breaking through a kind of tentative,
qualified, conditional acceptance from their family to something deeper and
more loving. And that is almost invariably the second step when we come out to
our families. There are more conversations. There are more tears.
So it’s definitely not a message of everyone should come
out. It’s more of a warning that you should be thinking about how this is going
And that’s quite clear from Greg’s story. It’s not like his
troubles are over the moment he comes out. You see him working up toward it,
very cautiously. And you see him clearly anticipating that this could have serious
and negative fallout for him. He does what young people should do when they are
going to come out to their families — you need a plan. You need a backup plan.
You need a place to stay. You might need some space. You need friends, you need
support. And Greg lines all of that up and then comes out. I think that is
really a strong message. Because he doesn’t just scream “I’m gay” into a
crowded room and his problems are over. That is one of the damaging messages
It’s not intentional. For most of us, coming out is the
beginning of things getting better. But coming out by itself didn’t make it
better. It’s a lot of work and stuff that comes afterward. What you see with
Greg, Aydian and Vanessa is those three different stages. Greg is just taking that
first step out. Vanessa is doing that hard lifting, the follow-up with the
family, standing up for herself, demanding full acceptance, not qualified
OK-and-maybe-we-can-live-with-this acceptance. And Aydian is really getting on
with his life. One of the things I think is so great about Aydian’s story is
that it really emphasizes that you are never really done coming out. There are
always going to be new people coming into your life and coming into your orbit.
And then it gets easier.
I know you came out when you were 18, and you had said
something like you had at least thought about suicide as a “good Catholic boy.”
Yes, and I came out between 15 and 18. I started coming out
at 15 or 16 to some friends as bi and then started revising that as gay, and then
came out to my family around 17- or 18-years-old.
If you can do it right and you can plan it the way that
Greg did, does coming out help fight suicide and the epidemic of it?
There is this report that just came out that I am sitting
here reading that says what shields gay youth from suicide is love from
families and friends. It offers the best protection while bullying causes
highest risk. If you have your family’s support, there is nothing more
valuable. If your family reacts badly and they attack you and retaliate, there
is nothing more potentially damaging. That is why the stakes are so high when
kids are coming out younger and younger. I got a letter last week from a dad
whose 13-year-old son had just come out to him. He is on his son’s side. But that
is crazy — to me. When I came out in high school, people then were still not
coming out until college or after. People thought I was crazy coming out in
high school. That was really uncommon when I came out in high school in 1980.
It is now very common. Now we have people coming out in middle school, and I’m
like, What? What? Middle school? Oh my God.
Your husband Terry Miller said in an interview with NPR
that he thought if he had come out to his parents earlier, then maybe they
would have worked a little harder to protect him from bullies when he was in
school. Do you think that’s the case? Is that one of the effects of coming out
to your family?
Potentially. There are no guarantees. That would have been
the case for Terry — that hindsight assessment. He knows who his parents are
now, and maybe they could have gotten it quicker. Also when he was being
bullied for being perceived to be gay, he wasn’t out to them, so there was this
awkward subject. And they weren’t perhaps as aggressive as they could have
been, in part, because they didn’t want to make him feel anymore awkward or on
the spot than he already did.
That’s one of the problems when kids are bullied for being
gay or perceived to be gay, and they are
gay. Their parents can’t initiate a conversation about, “well, are
you gay?” Maybe your parents are ready to
have it but they get the feeling that you are not ready. So they can’t offer
you their full-throated support. Or, they are inhibited around talking to you
because it raises the subject of sexuality.
Did you get to help pick which three stories to tell in
Yes, I was involved in the production.
One of the stories is of a trans man, as you’ve
mentioned. Obviously you were glitter bombed by trans activists while taping Savage
[Laughs] You know, I have been glitter bombed a few times,
only once was it a trans person.
My trans friends really want me to emphasize that only once
was it a trans person. The rest of them have been just like batshit victim
They’ve criticized you for a long time. And I wonder if
the criticism was in the back of your mind when picking the story to feature? I
mean, it’s a third of the special.
No, not at all.
I mean, I am not anti-trans.
Was it helping to show that you’re not?
I’m not saying that you are saying that I am. But other people out there are. The violence that trans people are subjected to is so much worse, and the reality is the whole bullying issue comes down to gender non-conformity. It’s the gender non-comforming kids who are singled out. And we would have been irresponsible to do this special without doing a trans story. People are going to accuse me of only including a trans story because of this criticism. However, I can’t win for losing. If there wasn’t a trans story in there, I’m anti-trans. If there is a trans story in there, I am covering for my anti-trans loathing. There is just no way of winning. The explosion is going to be there’s no bisexual story in there. OK, so I’ll be accused of being bi-phobic.
Well, there is one testimonial from a bi youth.
You’ve said that the way trans activists have dealt with
this issue, with the glitter bombs, is making people want to talk about trans
issues less. Why do you say that?
You can go to Bilerico Project and read the “trans mafia” post. We are reaching a point where no one
feels they can get it right. You talk to gay bloggers and they say they are
just going to avoid the issue. Because if I get a noun wrong or a pronoun
wrong, I am going to get called Hitler and glitter bombed and screamed at. I
get letters about trans issues and I think maybe I shouldn’t write about that,
maybe I should leave that alone. Is that what they want? I write the most
widely read sex column in America, and if I stop writing about trans issues or
addressing them or using letters where trans is raised for fear of getting it
wrong, then that’s going to add to the trans invisibility problem.
You can’t win. That’s the problem with some of this. It’s
not about people who are all on the same side honestly hashing shit out. It’s
about a tiny sort of batshit wing of the movement blowing its stack and wanting
to be the victimy-est victims in the room by claiming to be victimized by their
allies. It’s a stupid waste of time. You know, somebody throws glitter at me
and there are 900 people at the event. We still have a great event. We talk
about trans issues. I answer some trans questions on top of everything, and all
anybody comes away with is, you know, he got glitter bombed. [Laughs]
What exactly is Savage U? What is this thing you are going around to
We went to MTV and talked about doing a very different show,
and it included tape of me going to colleges doing live Q&As, and they came
back and said we want to do that. We want to do what you’re doing. And so what
I am doing on TV is what I’ve been doing for a dozen years. Live at
universities, I stand at a podium and people write questions down on cards.
They can ask anonymously, and I just read the question and answer the question.
We did some more by adding some speaking to students one-on-one about sex
problems and sex issues, identity issues. And that’s the show basically.
“Eighteen And Not Pregnant,” I’m calling it.
Tyler Clementi’s cousin wrote us an interesting op-ed the
other day. She argued that, in New Jersey, passing same-sex marriage there
would help provide validation to youth who are at risk of suicide. And I wonder
if you think that outside factors in politics really make a difference in the
lives of middle-schoolers and high scholars. Are they really paying attention
to whether marriage equality is passed in Washington, in your home state, for
Yes, they are. I think the social climate
— the political climate — for gay people really does impact young gay people.
What kind of a world are they coming into? Are they coming into a world where
they are citizens or not citizens, where they are equal or not equal? Where a
culture and society stands on these issues is going to impact not only their
futures but also their lives right now, and impact them positively.
Think about [don’t ask, don’t tell]. I wish there weren’t so
many impoverished kids who wound up in the military because they probably had
no other options, but there was no other way up and out for many impoverished
kids — unless you were a gay impoverished kid. You couldn’t go in the military
out of high school if you were gay, and now that’s changed. That’s something that really does
impact the lives of people who are juniors and seniors in high school who are
tying to figure out how they are going to pay for college. They are aware,
acutely so. And now it’s open, and they are aware of that and acutely so.
I’m also constantly in communication with young people
because they are always emailing me about my column. Queer kids who are behind
enemy lines, who have homophobic families, who are living in shit places that
are intolerant, they need an idea in their heads of a place in the world and a
time in their lives when they are going to be free and away from this. So it is
not irrelevant that gay people can marry in seven states — six right now,
hopefully seven if we can hold onto it in Washington state. It is not
irrelevant to them that we are gradually achieving our full civil equality, and
our culture is coming down on the side of the full humanity
of gay people. That is going to impact their lives even if they are in the
worst possible situation right now with a homophobic community and homophobic
family. Knowing that there is a way out and that there is a better place and
there is going to be a better time in their lives can give them hope. And
that’s what Harvey said was so important, right?
Yeah, give them hope.
It gave me hope.
I was one of those kids that Harvey Milk was talking about, that some
kid is going to open a newspaper and see that in San Francisco that an openly
gay man was elected to city supervisor. I was that gay kid. I was reading those
stories about Harvey Milk in the newspaper when I was going through my gay
puberty, and it helped me. So these people who want to poo-poo the importance
of things like the DADT repeal and every gradual victory on the march toward
marriage equality are being disingenuous. I don’t trust them when they say
these things are irrelevant and not a part of the solution.
Would it be unfair, would it be too simplistic, to say
that if you are opposing marriage equality as a politician that it’s
contributing to kids’ suicide rates?
It’s not helping!
But I don’t think even Rick Santorum is sitting there,
rubbing his hands together, cackling and saying maybe if I oppose this, I
can kill a gay kid. Still, people have to
understand that they are contributing to a noise machine that tells gay kids
they are not equal or valid or valuable or fully human when they support
policies that discriminate against gay people or say that our love isn’t real
or say that our love isn’t equal. It’s a couple of tons of sand on that beach,
but you are still pouring sand on that beach.
I want to call it an overstatement, but there’s a grain of
truth in that.
On marriage equality, do you think this is the right
priority for the movement now? Are there other things that ought to be higher,
It’s the people who kind of don’t want marriage equality at all who argue it shouldn’t be the priority. It’s not the priority. We don’t have to have one priority. Each of us doesn’t have to work on just one issue. I am all over this bullying thing, and I am rabidly for marriage equality. They are not mutually exclusive. There are folks out there, including some of the
fuck-for-brains who glitter bombed me who argue that one of the reasons they
have the right to attack me is because I prioritized marriage equality. OK,
guilty as charged. But it’s not a zero-sum game. If you think there are other
issues that are more important, get to work on those issues.
Every time I mention marriage equality, I also mention ENDA,
I also mention repealing DOMA. These aren’t mutually exclusive. We don’t have
to have one priority, and we will never agree on one priority. Everyone should
be encouraged to move on the issues they think are important, and everyone
should support each other as they move on those issues. If we are going to get
into an arms-folded-across-our chest argument about whose priority is more
important and which item on the LGBT agenda should come first, we are not going
to get anywhere on any priority — on anything.
And you know, DADT, I believe is going to help us get ENDA
in the end. Because there should be a campaign for the Marines that says, I
shower next to a gay person, you can work next to one. And the same thing with marriage. If gay people can be legally married, it’s ridiculous that they can be legally fired. These things aren’t either-or’s. They are both-and’s. All of these, and. All of these, and.
But there are some people out there who have an
anti-marriage agenda. They are hiding that behind a claim that other issues are
being ignored in favor of marriage. There is something disingenuous obviously
at work there. Not for all of them, but some of them.
But for those trans activists that are making the case
about your priorities, do you really think they are against marriage?
None of them were trans — the folks who came
to the Vancouver speech. But I don’t know, I can’t pop their heads open and
look inside, as tempting as that might sound. When people say one of the items
against me is I am for marriage, what am I supposed to make of that?