Sarah Beth Alcabes kisses girlfriend Meghan Cleary, both of California, after the US Supreme Court’s ruling on cases against the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and California’s gay marriage ban known as Prop 8, outside the court in Washington, June 26, 2013. (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)
Dan Savage started the It Gets Better project in 2010, with a short video online addressed to gay, lesbian, bi and transgender young people facing harassment, letting them know that, yes, it gets better. Today more than 50,000 people have posted videos at ItGetsBetter.org, which have been viewed more than 50 million times. He’s also a best-selling author whose new book is American Savage. He lives in Seattle with his husband, Terry, and their 15-year-old son, D.J.
Jon Wiener: How did you feel when you first heard the news that the Supreme Court had overruled DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act that had defined marriage as limited to two people of the opposite sex?
Dan Savage: I’m morbid, so my first thought was ‘I can die now.’
You didn’t think “now we can live happily ever after”?
For fifteen years my husband Terry has been a stay-home parent. I’m the sole source of support for my family. I have had this burden on my shoulders: if something should happen to me—if a plane I was on crashed, or some of these people who send me death threats made good on that threat, Terry wouldn’t get my Social Security survivor benefits, which he would if he was a woman; he would pay a crushing tax burden; he would lose the house. Terry and D.J. would be made to suffer.
And what was the official reason for that?
Persecuting Terry and D.J. in the event of my death was framed as something that, in some mysterious way, would strengthen the heterosexual family. So that morning, when the decision came down—it was 7 o’clock in Seattle—suddenly I didn’t have to worry any more about the gratuitous financial persecution of my husband and son in the event of my death. Which I hope isn’t coming anytime soon.
How did it happen that a gay man became the go-to guy for straight people seeking advice about sex? When you started the Savage Love column, was that the plan?
That was absolutely not the plan. I started the column as a joke. A friend was starting a newspaper, and I said, “You should have an advice column, everybody reads those.” He said, “Great idea, you should write it.” I was a gay dude and out for a long time even then. We thought it would be funny to have a gay guy giving advice to straight people. And I would treat straight people with the same contempt and revulsion that straight advice columnists had always treated gay people. To be treated with this kind of contempt was a new experience for straight people, and they liked it. So this thing I thought I would be doing for six months or a year turned into something I am now trapped into doing for the rest of my life.
The letters you get from teenagers led you to write in American Savage: that “every teenager should be required to take a sex-ed class.” I imagine the curriculum would not be “abstinence only.”
Very different. And very different from what people who consider themselves progressive mean when they say “comprehensive sex ed.” I call that “sex dread education.” Because it’s usually abstinence plus: If you’re going to have sex anyway, my God wear a condom! Otherwise your penis will explode, or you will get pregnant and you’ll die. Reproductive biology is what we teach in most of our ‘good’ sex ed classes—these things nobody thinks about when they are having sex or trying to get laid.
So what do we need to teach in sex ed classes?
What we need to teach is pleasure. What really trips people up is, how do you communicate about your desires? What is consent and how do you obtain it, explicitly? What we have now is like a driver’s ed class where they teach you how the internal combustion engine works, but they don’t teach you how to steer, or break or what the red octagon on the stick means. Sex for pleasure is difficult, and that’s what we have to teach.
Back in 2007 there was a famous incident at Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport, when Senator Larry Craig, Republican of Idaho, was arrested in a men’s room and charged with “lewd conduct.” The police arrested forty other men in the same sting operation. Larry Craig pled guilty to a lesser charge of “disorderly conduct.” He denied he was gay, but didn’t run for re-election. I wonder if you have any sympathy for closeted men like Larry Craig who get arrested in police operations like that one.
When I first came out when I was 18 years old, I went to gay bars and would meet 50- and 60-year-old gay men. Some of my friends would make fun of them, but I would do the math: when they were 18, it was the 1940s or the 1950s. It was a terrible time to be gay, and they really missed out on what we are benefiting from—this new space in the culture to be openly gay and happy.
But now, when you meet guys in their 50s or 60s who are closeted—the Larry Craigs, the Ted Haggards—they didn’t miss out. They opted out. Larry Craig could have been an openly gay or bisexual man and lived with some integrity and honesty. He chose to be a hateful homophobic closet case. And a rabidly anti-gay senator. The idea was “nobody will think I’m gay if I’m the biggest bigot in the USA.” I have no sympathy for those guys. They should be outed.
What about the other thirty-nine men who were arrested the same day in the same airport men’s room?
I have sympathy for some of those other guys. They have sad lives that are warped by shame, but they really didn’t hurt anybody except themselves. Larry Craig hurt gay people, and he hurt them badly. He got everything that was coming to him, and I wish he’d gotten worse.
This interview, originally for KPFK radio in Los Angeles, as been edited and condensed.
How did the “opt-out revolution” change men?