Scroll To Top

Dan Savage Hits National TV, Strikes Back at Critics 

Dan Savage Hits National TV, Strikes Back at Critics 


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 better future.

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.

The Advocate: 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 terrifying.

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 little scary.

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 to work?
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 sometimes.

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 this special?
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 U.
[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 mongers.

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 schools doing?
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 example?
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 that

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, namely bullying?
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?

Advocate Magazine - KehlaniAdvocate Magazine - Gus Kenworthy

From our Sponsors

Most Popular

Latest Stories