Dan Savage: Writer, Activist, Potty Mouth

In his lecture at the Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum on February 29, Dan Savage used vulgarity with such pointed elegance that attendees couldn’t help but applaud. Savage, a nationally syndicated sex advice columnist and author, leads much of the public discourse surrounding LGBT civil rights and reproductive rights. He spoke at the Athenaeum on Wednesday as part of the Shifting Perceptions speaker series, which promotes inclusivity and dialogue on campus by bringing in prominent female, gay, and lesbian leaders.

Savage Love, the column that Savage is best known for in Seattle’s alternative newspaper The Stranger, began as a joke about 20 years ago.

“I was going to be a gay advice columnist that treated straight people and straight sex with the contempt that straight advice columnists had always treated gay people and gay sex,” said Savage, “I was abusive and nasty to straight people…and straight people loved it. They started sending me real questions…I started having to really answer them and look things up,” he said in an interview with the Forum.

The focus of his speech at the Athenaeum last week was a more recent project called the It Gets Better Project. Eighteen months ago, Savage reacted to the reports of LGBT youth suicides by creating a YouTube video with his husband Terry Miller that addressed LGBT teens. The video aimed to tell those teens that while bullying from peers, parents and churches may seem bad now, it can and will get better once they get through high school.

In his lecture, Savage cited that ninety percent of LGBT kids face bullying for their sexual orientation and are four times more likely to attempt suicide than straight kids.

In the wake of their video, thousands of others added their own videos of encouragement to the It Gets Better YouTube channel. There are now 50,000 It Gets Better videos online, featuring testimonials from the “middle-aged gamer lesbian in the basement,” said Savage, to public figures like Tim Gunn and President Obama.

Savage described two main goals of the project. First, he wants to save lives. Savage said what saddened him most about these youth’s suicides was that they couldn’t “picture a future with enough joy in it to compensate for the pain they’re in now.” By projecting thousands of personal stories of triumph and joy in adulthood, the project tells LGBT kids that they can overcome the plight they may feel in school, at home or from religion.

In response, Savage has received hundreds of emails from LGBT youth expressing their gratitude. In his lecture, Savage told the story of a 15-year-old lesbian girl who tried to come out to her family but was met with threats from her parents to disown her and cut her off from their financial support. Forced back into the closet, the girl watched It Gets Better videos on her phone under her bed sheets in the middle of the night to find hope.

Second, the project aims to “force people to acknowledge LGBT kids and to reach out to them now when they’re living,” said Savage. He bemoaned the unsavory fact that the public generally takes notice of suffering LGBT kids only after one of them commits suicide.

It Gets Better helps to not only reveal supporters and role models for bullied kids but also send their messages to kids that have no support in sight. Acknowledging that he could never be allowed to visit high schools or middle schools to talk to kids about sexual orientation, this project allows him and others to speak to them “whether [parents and administrators] want [them] to or not,” he said.

The conversation also turned political on Wednesday night. When asked about the Republican primaries, Savage was uncompromising (lest we forget his neologism for Santorum; if you don’t know it, Google it).

“The Republicans have created a moronic base where only morons can now win elections…It’s a delight to watch as a Democrat, and I hope it continues,” he said in his interview, but later cautioned, “The American public re-elected George Bush—don’t put anything past us.”

Savage also discussed the recent debates over contraception and the transvaginal ultrasound bill. He told women in the crowd that ultra-conservatives “hate you and your NuvaRing as much as they hate me and my boyfriend, because we’re both having non-pope-approved sex.”

In a candid stroke of brilliance, he urged women to turn Virginia’s transvaginal ultrasound bill on its head by taking ownership and then photographs of their vaginas and projecting them on large congressional buildings in the state’s capitol, or even on Governor Bob McDonnell’s house itself. “They [supporters of the bill] want to have a good look at your vaginas,” he said, “but they’re also scared of them.”

Looking for more of Dan Savage’s work? Apart from his sex advice column and the Savage Love Podcast, Savage’s books include The Commitment and The Kid, among others. He will also have a television show on MTV this spring called Savage U. The show will follow him as he visits university campuses across the country to have open and honest discussion on sex, sexuality, and relationships. The premier airs on April 3.