The evolution of Dan Savage

Our favorite stuntman talks about his new Rick Santorum plot and why he won't believe Obama -- but supports him

Published August 17, 2011 12:30AM (EDT)

Dan Savage, right, and his husband, Terry Miller, wait for President Obama to speak at the LGBT Pride Month event at the White House in Washington in June.
Dan Savage, right, and his husband, Terry Miller, wait for President Obama to speak at the LGBT Pride Month event at the White House in Washington in June.

The evolution of Dan Savage from sex columnist to political stunt artist has been an inspiring, and often really dirty, tale.

Early readers who discovered his Savage Love advice column (which he launched in 1991 for Seattle's the Stranger and which went into heavy syndication in the nation's free weeklies) were first jarred by how readers' questions began -- "Hey, Faggot," Savage's attempt to reclaim and defuse the word -- then hooked by his remarkably candid style. In that just barely pre-Internet world, when sex was a subject left to breathy advice columnists in the glossies and late-night radio, Savage was like a breath of fresh air. Or maybe a quick whiff of poppers.

His was a blazing, rude voice bursting out in a '90s culture still weirded out by reports of teens, gays and presidents actually having sex. Along the way, he dropped the "faggot" tag, created a wildly popular podcast, and coined irresistible expressions -- from "GGG" (his advice that partners should be "good, giving and game"), to "pegging" and "diamondbacking" (go ahead, look them up) -- that are as rudely hilarious as he is. He's got a show slated for MTV, and he's emerged as the leading voice not only on sex information but also sexual identity, and may well be the most effective gay rights spokesman around.

And the key is his showmanship. He and his husband, Terry Miller, drove the "It Gets Better" campaign  into the feel-good viral campaign of the YouTube era. But he's also done well with his hilarious feel-bad campaigns, like his very successful neologism of the word "Santorum," created in 2003 to shame then Sen. Rick Santorum for comparing homosexuality with bestiality and incest. "There's no better way to memorialize the Santorum scandal than by attaching his name to a sex act that would make his big, white teeth fall out of his big, empty head," Savage wrote readers, asking for submissions. A campaign was launched (just try searching the name), and this summer a frustrated Santorum, a GOP presidential candidate, finally was driven to denounce Savage by name on a radio show -- a prankster's purest victory. Savage also recently went after Marcus Bachmann, alleging -- relying on nothing more than his trusty gaydar -- that the "reparative therapist," who sports a slight lisp, was probably gay (an idea picked up by "The Daily Show" and  criticized elsewhere).

It should be mentioned that Salon early on was home to a controversial Savage prank: In 2000, we sent him to Iowa to volunteer for the presidential campaign of Gary Bauer. In riveting gonzo style, a flu-addled Savage described being so infuriated by Bauer's gay-baiting in the press that one night in Bauer HQ he began "licking doorknobs ... the front door, office doors, even a bathroom door. When that was done, I started in on the staplers, phones and computer keyboards. Then I stood in the kitchen and licked the rims of all the clean coffee cups drying in the rack." Conservatives and media mavens condemned both Savage and Salon. Iowa even went after Savage; he ultimately pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of fraudulent voting in a caucus, and was sentenced to some probation and community service and given a small fine.

I spoke to Savage last week about politics, President Obama and the latest prank he may well have in store for Rick Santorum.

There's still a lot to be concerned about. But do you get giddy with the progress you're seeing?

[Laughs.] Yeah, I actually am! You know, we're winning.

Anyone who wants evidence that we haven't won yet just needs to look at the Republican field. You know, we live in a two-party system, and for one party, the only thing they can seem to agree on is hating gay people. They hate us like they hate evolution. Unfortunately, they just can't wish us away, any more than they could wish evolution away. It's not a done deal and it's not sewn up. But they're now fighting a rear-guard action, while we're advancing on all fronts.

The heartening thing, even if we are cursed with a President Santorum, which is not going to happen, or President Perry or Bachmann, is what we've seen over the past 20 years, under Democrats, there's been some progress. There's been great progress since the Democrats got the wake-up call in November of last year, on gay issues, legislatively. But there's not a lot of regress under Republicans. They seem to shrug and live with it, with gay progress, once it's achieved.

And yet, increasingly, there seem to be many Republicans who no longer think of it as an issue, who are even willing to lead on it.

Really? Wait, wait, wait. So many? I thought it was three.

[Laughs] OK. Maybe a few more than that, at least in New York.

I think if there are so few that if you fucked them all at once it wasn't an orgy, but a four-way, you can't call that a lot.

But even a Michele Bachmann -- who has genuinely shocking views about homosexuality -- she has to completely muzzle herself on the campaign trail.

Yeah, I mean we've been seeing that for 18 years. I think back to Colin Powell, when "don't ask, don't tell" passed, before he gave testimony in the Senate in favor of it, had to clear his throat and say that gay and lesbian Americans were good and loyal and brave and true, just like other Americans. But not fit to serve. He had to pass a compliment before he stuck a knife in us.

You're seeing this sort of -- you can't engage in the kind of vicious demagoguery when everybody loves Ellen. And, more important, 75 percent of Americans have a relative who's out. So they're having to -- depending on which audience they're playing to -- really  moderate their anti-gay bigotry. You're not talking about the gay boogey-monster anymore. You're  talking about Neil Patrick Harris. And you're talking about my gay nephew. And you're talking about my lesbian co-worker -- who aren't these monsters. Which is why they've had to craft these photo-negative arguments, compared to their previous arguments, where they acknowledge that gay people are contributing members of society -- which even Santorum does now -- but that marriage needs to be reserved for [straight people].

And it's hilarious! But I think their anti-gay hatred is just as toxic. They're just trying to dress it up. What we're seeing is the Southern strategy, and dog whistles on race, which we've been seeing since Nixon. We're going to get  dog whistles about sexual orientation for 50 years.

One of the things I like about your podcast so much is you do spend a lot of time talking to people outside urban elite areas -- you spent a lot of time last year talking about Constance McMillen, for example – where life for gays hasn't evolved that quickly.

One of the things that was a wake-up call for me last year before the "It Gets Better" campaign -- why we launched it, my husband and I -- was when I was sort of unaware how bad it was getting out there. You know, in the Greensburg, Indianas, and the Topachakees, Californias, where Constance McMillen was. What I didn't realize before those suicides opened my eyes, was that as it was getting better in New York or San Francisco or Seattle, it was getting worse out in the sticks, out in mega-church land. Because those of us who are out and urban and fully integrated into our work lives and families, our existence has made it impossible for queer 14-year-olds to fly under the radar in a Greensburg.

When I was a kid, and I was odd, the default assumption was that I was odd, not that I was gay. Now when a kid is odd in a Greensburg, gay or straight, the default assumption is gay. Because my job requires me to be in constant communication with people all over the country who are writing in to "Savage Love," calling the podcast, I think I'm a little more conscious of what's going on out there in the boonies -- but even I didn't see that. And that's a bitter pill for those of us my age to swallow. Us out there leading our lives and being successful have actually kind of made it worse for 14-year-old gay kids in Greensburg, Ind.

Well, made it worse, but that's part of progress, right?

Absolutely. I'm not suggesting that we shouldn't have lived this way, or we shouldn't have come out. And the people who are most responsible for making it worse are of course anti-gay politicians and anti-gay preachers, and parents, teachers and peers who are persecuting these kids. But we've created a kind of hyper-awareness about sexuality and sexual orientation that has let to hyper-scrutiny about those things, in places where people weren't on the lookout for it before. Everybody's on the lookout for it now.

It's going to be hell on that kid from Greensburg before it gets better.

Yeah, absolutely. It's going to be, unfortunately.

So, Obama. A lot of gay supporters of him obviously feel the same larger disenfranchisement with him that a lot of people on the left feel -- maybe even more acutely, because he's waffled on his language about gay marriage, now claiming that he's "evolving" on the issue. How do you feel about him?

Well, I think my feelings began to evolve after the midterms in 2010. I think the Democrats saw the writing on the wall, with the percentage of the gay vote going to Republicans [doubling] to 30 percent; donations from gays -- gay groups, gay orgs, gay people -- to Democrats plummeting; that they realized they could no longer just fob us off with speeches and the occasional appearance with the Human Rights Campaign -- that they had to deliver. It wasn't until after that, that we got "don't ask, don't tell" [effectively ended], that they stopped the DOMA appeal. Anyone that argues that this was the plan all along, to pass the DADT repeal at the 11th hour in a lame duck session, a hail-mary pass thrown by Joe fucking Lieberman, is an apologist and an idiot. But we got those things because we began to push back and play hardball.

The gay vote isn't just gays -- my dad ... well, my Dad will vote for jackasses ... but my siblings won't vote for anti-gay politicians -- the gay vote is our families, our extended families. And the gay vote is bigger than the Jewish vote. It's bigger than the Miami-Cuban vote. And Jews and Miami Cubans get everything they want. Tremendously powerful blocs. And it was after the November 2010 midterms that we suddenly, in the eyes of the Democrats, overnight morphed into Jewish Miami-Cuban cocksuckers who couldn't be taken for granted anymore. And they had to give some winners.

So how do I feel about the Obama administration? I'm really very pleased with what's been delivered. I am not an idiot, and I'm not a Pollyanna sort of kumbaya type. I don't doubt we wouldn't have seen these things, that these things would not have been delivered, if we didn't make it clear there would be a price to pay if they weren't. Obama "isn't there yet" on same-sex marriage -- if you believe him. And, frankly, I don't. I don't think somebody who was for same-sex marriage in '96 is against it in 2011. And I agree with Tracy Baim, the editor of Windy City Times, who did the interviews with Obama back in the '90s when he was running for state Senate in Illinois, that we're not going to listen to what he says anymore, because it's too aggravating. We're going to watch what he does. And he's doing the right stuff.

Not on every front, for LGBT -- the gay guy whose partner is being deported. I've been screaming about this for two, three years. Janet Napolitano issued a directive saying we're not going to enforce the Widow's Penalty anymore, which is where somebody who is not a U.S. citizen -- a foreign national marries a foreign citizen -- emigrates to America and then their partner dies within a year -- they're supposed to be deported.

It's a shocking policy.

I guess it's to disincentivize murdering your new American husband, at least for 12 months. And they don't enforce it, and it's the law. She literally said at the time, we're going to stop enforcement while Congress works on a solution. And we know how Congress smiles on immigrants.

So when's that solution coming? The same argument, we could suspend enforcement of the deportation of legal spouses of same-sex couples, under the same logic -- but we don't. That's a failure of the Obama administration. And, the administration says, we have to follow the law. Well, Janet doesn't, apparently. She has more power and authority than the president, her boss, to address this injustice?

So there are things that are frustrating and galling, still. But DADT, dropping the DOMA appeal, all the little fixes around the edges that they've done. All that adds up to something that has to be rewarded. The LGBT movement, I think, doesn't do itself any favors if we convince our ostensible allies in the Democratic Party that we're never satisfied. We won't be fully satisfied until we have full civil equality, but these developments are satisfying and there has to be a payback. It's a political process.

You were invited to a White House reception, but you wore an "evolve already" button, jabbing Obama for his "evolving" comments. But you support his political pragmatism.

Right. Which means, I went to the president's reception. I didn't leap over the rope line to meet him. I'm going to write him a check. I'm going to wear an "evolve already" button, and participate in this kabuki nonsense around his position on gay marriage. What we know about evolution now is there are leaps in evolution. I believe the president will experience an evolutionary leap in January of 2013, win or lose the election. I think we're going to see a lot of evolution then. And that's, it's insulting when somebody says your relationship, your marriage isn't as important or valid, and your family doesn't deserve the same protections as everybody else, for political reasons. But we've got to play the game. We have to win the argument. And we are -- we are playing the game and winning the argument.

You see the polls on marriage equality moving in our favor. Unfortunately, you know, some people say therefore the president should come out in favor of marriage equality. Fifty-one, 52 percent of Americans aren't for marriage equality in every state. And the overwhelming support for marriage equality in California and New York, and blue states, isn't going to add up to a victory. I've actually written and think that if the president came out for marriage equality now, I don't think Republicans who are for marriage equality are going to vote for him on that basis, but I do think Democrats who oppose it will vote against him, for that reason. So politically, I don't think it's unwise for the president to evolve at the pace he's evolving right now. But I don't believe him.

It does feel like there's this inexorable pull toward gay marriage, ultimately, in every state. That the die is cast.

Remember when abortion was legal in all 50 states? And now, effectively, it's disappeared from some states.

Everything can be turned back.

Yeah. It's a little like skirmishes you see with gay marriage are going to play out nationally in really fascinating ways. You have states like Louisiana, that have refused to issue birth certificates for children who were legally adopted by same-sex couples. And they're violating the law. And you've got to sue them at every step.

Were you surprised when Rick Santorum started invoking you? It's so amazing.

Oh my god. I think, you know, it's hilarious that all these years later, he's having to jump down in the gutter with me. Republicans run on victimology. Sarah Palin is a victim, and now Bachmann is a victim, because Newsweek made her look crazy, because she's never looked crazy in a photo before. And I'm persecuting Rick Santorum, and his own children can't Google his name. I think it's hilarious. There's a reason they used to lock up editorial cartoonists in the 19th century. Because someone who is powerful, or lusts for power, you can really harm him by making him ridiculous. And my readers and I really succeed in making him ridiculous. And Rick Santorum himself ran that ball the last five yards into the touchdown zone when he sent out that [fundraising support] letter to all his supporters. So any of his supporters who had not yet heard about the neologism -- and he didn't spell out exactly what it was -- anyone who read his letter who were curious what it might be all ran to their computers and Googled his name.

[Laughs.] And it fills me with delight! What's funny is, people said: "Oh, 'It Gets Better' is anti-bullying, and here you are bullying Rick Santorum."

Do people really say that?

Oh, abso-fucking-lutely. Oh my god.

That's amazing.

There's a difference between taking a piss out of a powerful politician and mocking him, and bullying a 14-year-old kid to death in a rural area. And, Rick Santorum, who wants to reinstate "don't ask, don't tell"; have a federal anti-gay marriage amendment; prevent me from going to my partner's bedside in a medical emergency, which is what that boils down to, when you get down to actual marriage; impoverish my husband and child, should I die, because I'm the sole income in our family; destroy my family. He would prevent me from adopting, if he could, and take our kid out of our home, if he could. He would literally destroy my family. I made a dirty joke at his expense, and I'm the monster.

Now,  you're issuing "a new definition of Rick," if he doesn't lay off gay people during this campaign.

[Laughs.] Well, that was just a joke. It looks like I might have to follow through on it now.

Ricks across the world, watch out.

I get all the credit for "The frothy mix of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the byproduct of anal sex." But it was actually a Savage Love reader that suggested that definition [of "Santorum"] and readers voted from a field of 10 and picked that one. And a reader actually sent in a great definition for "Rick," that turns "Rick Santorum" into a sentence, that I might actually put in the column next week. So I won't say exactly what the new definition of "Rick" is, but it's coming.

OK, we'll look for that. If you suddenly had a change of heart -- or actually, if he did -- and you wanted to stop the Santorum campaign,  do you think you really could at this point?

I don't know. I offered, if Rick Santorum made a $10 million donation to Freedom to Marry, to pull down, in the interest of civility, and penance for him. But I'm not sure that would do it.

By Kerry Lauerman

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