Playing it Any Way But Straight

Dan Savage is the author of the internationally-syndicated sex advice column Savage Love. A mainstay in the alternative press, Savage's funny, provocative and sometimes profane columns range from reflections on bizarre fetishes to his views -- both positive and negative -- of the gay rights movement. Savage juggles being a respected newspaper editor, loving father and partner, and a dignified gay man in today's America, all while writing one of the most salacious weekly advice columns in print today. His latest book, The Commitment, a memoir on gay marriage, drops this September. Campus Progress sat down with Dan to discuss hot conservatives, the urban archipelago, and the two types of Santorum.

How did you respond to the outing of a high ranking staffer of one of your longtime foes -- Rick Santorum?

It's typical. They don't believe what they say about homosexuality, or they wouldn't have people like that on staff. I was on Bill Maher's Politically Incorrect a while ago with some jackass from Stop Homosexuality International. The guy just got back from vacation and we were talking about that. And then I looked at him after the show, and said, "How can you just sit there and trade quips with me on some goofy late night show?" and he kind of laughed and shrugged it off. But it goes to the heart of people like James Dobson who say that they believe we're a threat to the survival of the planet ... why don't they ever act like we are?

Speaking of James Dobson, what do you make of his advice on preventing homosexuality in your child through affirming his maleness by showering with him and teaching him to pound square wooden pegs into square holes?

We gay people, we just don't know how to get pegs into holes. That's really beyond our capability.

The Dobson thing was pretty funny. But sometimes in this political climate it is hard to keep laughing. How do you get through it?

How old are you?

I'm 25.

I'm 40. I came out in 1979 and then the AIDS shit started and we weathered that storm. And we'll get through this. I think for some queers or straight folks your age it seems more dire. I still think it's pretty dire. The scariest years of the AIDS epidemic passed because we fought, not because we folded our arms and waited for the storm to blow over, we pushed it away.

Given the ways in which various conservatives want to legislate the gay community, it seems hard to imagine voting for conservatives if you are gay. How do you respond to gay Republicans?

How do you respond to Republican women? Republican Hispanics? There are some people who are just deeply damaged. Look, I have some gay Republican friends who aren't crazy; I would count Andrew Sullivan among them, but he endorsed Kerry last time out. Not all gay Republicans are crazy or willing to lash themselves to the whale of George Bush.

You look at gay people and all studies show we drink more, we smoke more, we do more recreational drugs. Gay people are more likely to take extreme ill-advised sexual risks. There's a certain self-destructive streak that I don't think has anything to do with homosexuality per se, but has everything to do with the pain that gets wedged into your soul when you internalize the bad things you are told about being gay and punish yourself all your life.

I would add voting Republican when you're gay to that list, along with doing crystal meth and having sex with 40 guys in one weekend. They're both dumbass, self-destructive things to do. A certain number of people are stupid enough to off themselves.

In your upcoming book, The Commitment , and a recent This American Life piece, you talk about your son's reaction to gay marriage -- which went from negative to positive. How did his transformation take place?

Kid culture is a really strong thing. All these gender attitudes get passed on just like the "Jingle Bells, Batman Smells" song our kid came home singing from kindergarten.

At home, we didn't force him to play with dolls. He didn't like dolls; he liked cars and trucks, bombs and guns. But we didn't present them as boy toys. He learned that at school. Kindergarten is like the Academy Francois. Every noun has a gender, and kids all learn it. Everything has a gender and it gets reinforced in this creepy way that as a parent you can't do much about. It was at school where he learned marriage was for boys and girls.

He couldn't understand why his fathers would even think about marriage -- neither of us were girls. It was all mixed-up in his little head; he thought gay meant living with your best friend. We had to walk it very carefully; I mean we're not going to pop in a gay porn tape or anything, but we said, "Well, friends don't share a bed. People in love do." Eventually he got it. His friends' parents started getting divorced and he was watching a marriage collapse. That was when he understood how serious it was. He felt threatened.

You know, if gay marriage was legal everyone would hear so much less about it. Once it's legal, the only gay marriages you'll hear about are the ones you're invited to. Lou Sheldon and James Dobson won't be invited to any and won't have to worry their thick heads about it again.

Do you have plans to get married?

Not at the moment. We're ambivalent.

But now DJ [Savage's son] is on the marriage bandwagon?

Yeah, he's joined by my mother in the pro-gay marriage camp.

As a gay man raising a son in a nation that can be intolerant of your lifestyle, how do you make America a place that you want your son to grow up in?

I would send people to UrbanArchipelago.com. After the election last year we wrote this group essay in The Stranger [the Seattle-based alt-weekly where Savage serves as editor] arguing that cities that matter went for Kerry. I don't feel estranged from my country. I don't live in the United States of America; I live uptown in Island America. For gays and lesbians it's not a contiguous land mass that stretches from sea to shining sea -- it's a chain of islands -- it's Indonesia. It's an archipelago. You can hop from the island of Chicago or the island of New York or the island of San Francisco or the island of Seattle, but there's a lot of places where you just can't go. Just like there are a lot of places in America where it's not great to be black.

If you look at the electoral map, there are no blue states. There are blue cities. The fight for progressives is an urban battle -- we control the cities. Cities are where the brains, the money, and the power are. That's how we can change the country -- we concentrate on where we live. I'm done with being concerned about people who slit their own throats at the voting booth and want to slit mine too. To hell with them.

Your reader-initiated contest to name a sex act after Senator Rick Santorum is practically legendary. When I Googled Santorum a month ago, his Senate website came up first. I Googled it today and Spreading Santorum came up first. Given the popularity of the site, do you get a lot of negative backlash?

I get a little bit of crazy right-wing feedback but not much. I don't come across in print or in my column like the kind of fag who's going to burst into tears if they send me an e-mail about going to hell. Those people save up that kind of energy for people they think they can move with that. But I do get the occasional e-mail -- "you're going to hell" or "you're wrong about politics" and whatever -- I like those. I like to argue with those people. I get the most vicious e-mails from lefties and fags disagreeing with me on tiny, minor points. It's the narcissism of small differences. I go off the reservation once in a while, I'm just not doctrinaire.

Did you ever get any feedback that made a profound impact?

Every once in a while I get a letter from a straight girl or guy who has never known a gay person who reads the column and likes me -- whatever hang-ups they had the column helped them work through it. One of the clichés of the gay rights movement is that nothing changes a person's position on homosexuality more effectively than knowing a gay person. This apparently doesn't apply to Rick Santorum, but whatever. I run reader- written advice columns for gay and straight 15-year-olds and everyone reads them. It's a great way of reaching people. I don't like to give myself blowjobs; I'm not limber enough plus I'm Catholic and hate myself, but I think that I probably have more straight readers than any other gay writer in America. I kind of think I'm first in the pool, especially for a lot of young straight kids.

Have you ever gotten any questions that you thought were from a family member, friend, or famous person?

Well, actually, I've had an e-mail exchange with Ashton Kutcher about things I wanted to do to [him]. He didn't like the things I suggested.

If you could just give me your Kinsey moment for a second: From a sexual perspective, is there something you feel you've generally learned about your readers or America as a whole?

All straight guys are kinky. All women are crazy, because straight guys are land-based mammals, and women expect them to breathe underwater and then are shocked when they can't. And the culture is nuts about monogamy. There's no normal. I have so much sympathy for straight guys now that I never did before writing the column. Straight guys have so much less room to maneuver sexually and emotionally. Anything that's perceived as remotely female or faggy they can't allow themselves to do without having their sexuality questioned by each other, by themselves, and by us -- by gay people and women. Literally a third of my mail is women asking if their boyfriend is gay because "he cried at my best friend's wedding."

I know quite a few people who think Tucker Carlson is rather cute despite the fact that they can't stand him. Are there any conservative pundits you feel that way about?

Rich Lowry. I think he's kind of hot in a frat boy gone to seed way. But, boy, the Republicans have cornered the market on hot young guys. You go to the Democratic National Convention or the big Dem-lefty-progressive events and you want to pass out bars of soap to all the guys, and tell them to get out of the house every once in a while and get some fucking exercise and expose themselves to the light of the sun. And then you go the Republican Convention and there are all these Abercrombie & Fitch studs everywhere. It makes your teeth hurt.

Perhaps that is fitting seeing as conservatives are so obsessed with sex. I get the sense conservative pundits think and talk about sex more often than anyone.

They do, that's one of the ironies. The Dems are the party of sexual libertarianism; they're the party that doesn't think about sex very often because it's not an issue. Once you reach that position, you don't have to talk about every last goddamn thing the teenagers or gays or whatever is doing. Where I part company with a lot of my lefty friends is that I often think people have to show their consequences of their choices. But the Republicans are obsessed with sex because they want to regulate every last goddamn thing people do. I looked up Antonin Scalia's defense on Lawrence [v. Texas] today for this blog item I wrote on Andrew Sullivan's site and I read off his list of things that (oh my god) Lawrence explicitly permits including masturbation, pre-marital sex, and adultery. And he has to make this long list and be obsessed about all these ways people rub their genitals together. Because he wants to control it.

In 2000, you snuck on to Gary Bauer's presidential campaign and served as a volunteer and wrote about it. Some of the things you described in your article led to you being sentenced to 50 hours of community service. Where did the idea came from? Were there any really satisfying moments?

The cleanest doorknobs among all the candidates in 2000! Well, I went to Iowa without preconceived notions about what I was going to write, and I came down with the flu and couldn't get out of bed for two days. And then I thought it would be amusing to drag my ass in there. It was all very Swiftian and tongue-in-cheek. It was almost hypothetical -- how quickly could I work my way into the campaign, how close could I get to Gary Bauer, how trusting would they be, and how soon. I was alone in the office with all their computer files. I could have erased everything. If I was really a saboteur, there's so much more damage I could have done than I did. The only damage I did was making fun of the little jackass. It occurred to me when I was sick, "I should go in there and get that shit sick." Even though I knew going in you're not really infectious after you come down with the flu, I thought it was kinda funny. And I can neither admit nor deny that I actually licked or didn't lick anything.

What did you do for community service?

I had to do a certain number of hours at a non-profit community based organization, and I have a friend in town who runs an art center and I help out there all the time. So we just started clocking my hours. I worked on a production of a homoerotic parody production of Peter Schaffer's Equus.

I think that's exactly what Gary Bauer had in mind.

I think it is.

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