Dan Savage gets in trouble for saying things. For saying that monogamy isn’t a requirement for a healthy marriage, that postponing coming out can be the right choice, and that not all gay people are good…
For his honesty in discussing matters pertaining to sex, human relationships, and the preservation of human dignity, writer and activist Dan Savage was named the 2013 Humanist of the Year. Dr. Marty Klein sat down with him at the American Humanist Association’s annual conference held in San Diego, California. The interview has been edited for length and language (note: it does contain adult content). A longer version of this interview aired on the Humanist Hour podcast, available at podcast.thehumanist.org.
Marty Klein: Congratulations on being named Humanist of the Year.
Dan Savage: I know, me and Jonas Salk. And Gloria Steinem and Margaret Atwood and Kurt Vonnegut. Like I said in my acceptance speech, I just think you’re running out of people to give this award to.
Klein: I was delighted that I got to introduce you and present you with the award, given the many ways you’ve been contributing to psychological sanity in this country. Let’s start with the monogamy thing. I’ve been a sex therapist and marriage counselor for thirty-three years—about 35,000 sessions—and so many of them are with couples where the sex just isn’t working.
Savage: I got a letter just this morning from a married woman in her twenties. She didn’t feel like she could be monogamous, and her sex life with her husband had fallen apart. Then she started cheating on him. Now the sex is really great with her husband, because he no longer represents the death of all possibilities, adventure, and variety. She wants my help on how to break this to her husband. He’s previously said he’d never want to be in a non-monogamous relationship, but he’s in one. He just doesn’t know it.
I get so much mail from people in marriages where one person isn’t interested and the other person is, or one person has a really high libido and the other has a really low one. There’s all this misery. The keystone is that in heterosexual marriage people can’t conceive that maybe it’s not about monogamy. Maybe monogamy weakens marriage rather than strengthens it.
Klein: That’s the challenge to the narrative of monogamy that you’re doing so powerfully. It does raise an interesting question about integrity, though. If we stipulate that for a lot of marriages, non-monogamy of some kind is going to be the best choice, how does a person look their beloved in the eye and lie to them and feel okay?
Savage: I don’t think people should lie. I don’t think people should make commitments they can’t keep. The culture shouldn’t extract commitments from people under duress that we know they won’t be able to keep, but it does. As I’ve said in my column, sometimes you have to do what you need to do to stay sane and stay married. Usually, that involves a situation where someone is dependent on somebody else so that divorce might harm a lot of innocent bystanders—like children.
Also, I think non-kinky people don’t understand that for those with a foot fetish or an interest in female domination or whatever, it’s not something that can be willed away. Being eternally frustrated in a long-term relationship will eventually cause someone to subconsciously or consciously sabotage the relationship in order to get that need met. Some people say, c’mon, it’s just a foot fetish. Well, okay, so let that person periodically do it with somebody else then. Let him go to a foot model party and get his foot fetish freak on.
And as we see with Fifty Shades of Grey, it’s not just men who have these frustrated desires for adventure or variety. The mail from my readers suggests that women grapple with their kinks too.
Klein: David McWhirter and Andrew Mattison wrote a book in the mid-1980s called The Male Couple in which they documented that a huge percentage of successful gay couples were not strictly monogamous. In some cases, if one partner was going to see somebody else, the other partner got to vet them, and the new guy had to be respectful to the other partner. There was no question about who the primary partner was. Isn’t it ironic that with all this talk about how gay people want to destroy marriage, it’s gay men who actually are able to see multiple forms of what marriage can look like so that it succeeds?
Savage: Yes, we’ve remade marriage for ourselves. I don’t think it’s about making marriage safe for gay men but conceiving a model of marriage that respects and accommodates male sexuality—not gay male sexuality but male sexuality. When you have two guys in a relationship and neither has been instructed by the culture that one’s there to police or regulate the other’s desires, it opens up new options, unlike a lot of opposite-sex relationships.
There’s so much time and energy that people expend, particularly in straight relationships, monitoring each other for evidence of what both know to be true. “Oh, you’re looking at porn. You checked out that person’s butt. You have the hots for your personal trainer,” and so on confirms what we know: even if your partner isn’t having sex with other people, your partner wants to be.
The Guardian ran a great piece on the fairytale of monogamy last year that basically said every monogamous relationship is a disaster waiting to happen, because eventually an incident is going to happen. Hopefully, it’ll come in a form that’s not fatal to the relationship. But if what you believe is most meaningful about marriage, if the talismanic token of your partner’s love for you is that they never will have sex with anyone else ever again, at some point during a multi-decade relationship you will be shattered, because the odds of it happening are so high. So by encouraging people to be monogamous we’re setting every relationship up for failure.
There are obviously upsides to monogamy in terms of paternity, disease, and emotional security. But if you want a monogamous commitment, you need to forgive each other in advance. You say, we love each other. We’re committed to each other. We’re going to be monogamous. If infidelity occurs, we’re going to agree now that we’ll work through it and that we won’t let it destroy everything else that’s great about our relationship.
Klein: That’s not a conversation most people are prepared to have at the onset of a relationship.
Savage: I had it with my husband Terry when we decided to adopt. It sometimes freaks out the marriage and monogamy marauders because I wouldn’t adopt with him if he didn’t agree that infidelity wasn’t a relationship-extinguishing event. Because I wouldn’t do that to a kid.
Klein: That’s brilliant.
Savage: He was a really adamant Mr. Monogamy, and I was going along. But then I said, “Okay, we’re adopting a child now, and you had said to me previously that if I cheated we’re done.” That was Terry’s thing. “That’s fine when it’s just about the two of us,” I told him, “but now that we’re having a kid that has to end,” because it would be unfair to bring a child in with that sword of Damocles hanging over his head—that if there was an infidelity we’d break up instead of working through it.
Klein: That’s a wonderful way to think about it: the sword isn’t just over your heads; it’s over the kid’s head.
Savage: When somebody writes me a letter and says, “X happened, I’m thinking I should leave.” My first response is always, “Do you have children?” That’s going to color my advice because I think the needs of children and the damage they may experience has to be factored in, and maybe you should suck it up for your kids.
Klein: The tension that’s emerged mostly since the 1950s is between doing what’s best for your kids versus your self-actualization. The therapy industry is partly culpable, as it talks out of both sides of its mouth; on the one hand, we say you should be true to yourself. On the other, we want every parent to be responsible and adult.
Savage: I get in trouble for saying it, but once you have kids, you can’t keep reinventing yourself. Constancy is a virtue that is under-discussed, undervalued, and a huge gift you give your children. Not that you can’t keep learning and growing. Not that you can’t change incrementally, but there’s no moving to India dragging your seven-year-old along. Your child’s sense of security in the world and in your relationship is more important.
Klein: Let’s talk about your more overtly political stuff (although in America anything involving sex is ultimately political). Were you surprised at the extraordinary response to the Google Santorum thing?
Savage: Yes, very surprised.
Klein: For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, please explain the Google Santorum thing.
Savage: In 2003 then-Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) was interviewed by the Associated Press. He compared people in gay relationships—not people having gay sex, but people in long-term, committed gay relationships—to child molesters and dog fuckers. He compared intimate, adult relationships—my relationship—to somebody who runs out and rapes a child or screws a dog.
There was a scandal, but George W. Bush went on TV and said Rick Santorum is a good man, and the scandal was about over. A reader wrote me and said, “I don’t want this interview ever to be forgotten. I want this to hang around his neck forever. You should have a contest to redefine Rick Santorum’s last name. Then, if that’s successful, it will forever memorialize this interview.” (By the way, I give that guy full credit for the idea in my new book, where I unpack the whole campaign. I was thrilled when he finally agreed to talk to me but he insisted on anonymity.)
So my readers responded, proposing new definitions for “Santorum.” Then we took a vote and people picked “the frothy mix of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the byproduct of anal sex.” When the thing went viral, Google investigated whether we had manipulated something. But it was totally legit, which is why they didn’t knock it out of the rankings. This was being linked to and talked about in the news, and people were actually looking for this new definition, searching and clicking through to it. So it just sat there at the top of the search results.
When Santorum ran for president in 2012, the 2003 AP interview came up again and again, which was exactly what that reader had wanted. Santorum had to answer for it. He was being asked about his comments, about gay couples, whether gay people and same-sex couples were the moral equivalent of dog rapists and pedophiles. It really hurt him in 2012, and it’s going to hurt him in 2016 if he runs again.
Klein: Wouldn’t it be bizarre if it tipped people away from voting for him once again?
Savage: It will be what does it. I mean, he leads the bigot bloc of the Republican Party—anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-birth control. It’s the nutty anti-sex-for-pleasure wing. Even though human beings have a thousand sexual encounters for every one live birth, even though straight married people have a great deal of sex and very few children, there is this religious understanding of sex—that it should only be for procreation. That’s one reason they attack gays, because we only have recreational sex. We prove that sex is mainly for intimacy, connection, and release.
Klein: So you were pleased with the effectiveness of the Google Santorum campaign.
Savage: I was. I was surprised that it held on to the top ranking for so many years, only to be knocked down in 2012. Santorum declared victory but it was still the third return, so that definition was still sitting near the top of the page for anyone who Googled him.
Klein: The “It Gets Better” project—do you think of that as a small thing that just got bigger than you ever imagined, or did you hope it would be that big?
Savage: It took Ronald Reagan seven years to say “AIDS.” The idea that within six weeks of launching the It Gets Better video the president of the United States would be contributing his own—we didn’t see that coming. When we rolled it out in my column, it wasn’t celebrity-based. It wasn’t about politicians. I was just asking ordinary LGBT people to share their stories by making videos. Because when a queer kid kills himself, part of what he’s saying is he can’t picture a future with enough joy in it to compensate for the pain he’s in right now. The research bears that out, that queer kids out there are isolated and can’t imagine how they get from where they are to where someone like me is. I don’t mean like a minor local celebrity—I mean a happy adult.
When we rolled it out on YouTube, we grandly called it the It Gets Better Project with that one video of me and Terry. I wanted 100 videos. I thought, if we get 100 we’ll get some of everybody—African-American gay guys living in Chicago, for example, short, tall, white, black, trans, and cis people from all over—and I’ll have this wonderful resource at my disposal, mainly for the LGBT kids who write to me from all over the country. I’d be able to direct them to these 100 videos. Instead we got 5,000 in a week, and they just kept coming. There’s way over 100,000 now, and there are It Gets Better projects all over the world. NASA even released an It Gets Better video in June.
Klein: Wow. That’s gotta feel good.
Savage: But the goal wasn’t having the most videos ever on a YouTube channel, or getting the president to do it. The goal was to save lives, and we know we’ve done that. Nineteen and twenty-year-olds approach me now who were sixteen and seventeen when the videos hit. They come up to me with tears running down their faces, telling me that the videos saved them. You can actually go to YouTube and look up videos, and you can see kids commenting on them and the creators responding. You can see kids getting help and referrals and support in real time. But they don’t write newspaper stories about the kids who haven’t killed themselves.
Klein: That’s a dog-bites-man story.
Savage: Yes. The popularity of the campaign also forced the question for politicians, sports teams, and corporations: Are we going to make an It Gets Better video? Whose side are we on? Are we on the side of queer kids who are being bullied? Or are we on the side of the bullies and the bigots destroying these children? A lot of people stepped up at that moment and took a side.
The president’s video came up before the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal while his Justice Department was still defending the Defense of Marriage Act, before he delivered on any promises to the gay community. I was one of the critics of the president, saying, “Enough with the speeches. Where are the promises to us being kept?” So I watched the video, thinking, if this is just more fine words and no action, I’m going to be pissed, because he can offer more than help. I watched the president’s video and I said, “Oh, this is huge.” Here’s the president of the United States looking gay boys in the eye and lesbian girls and bi kids and trans kids and saying, “There’s nothing wrong with you.” By implication he was saying there is something wrong with the people telling you there’s something wrong with you. For queer kids, all too often those people are their own parents and their preachers. The president inserted himself into the middle of that conflict and sided with the queer kids. It blew my mind.
Klein: What do you think about atheist kids who come out about their non-belief and face rejection from their families? They often lose friends, or their churches throw them out. They’re miserable, and may even want to kill themselves. What are your thoughts on including atheist kids in the It Gets Better Project? I imagine you’ve been approached like this for other cohorts of kids.
Savage: Yes, lots of different permutations. Anyone’s free to start their own It Gets Better style project and help others. I’ve been mentioning it repeatedly as we debate about openly gay kids remaining in the Boy Scouts. The debate keeps being framed as openly gay people joining the Scouts. No, it’s about kids who started scouting when they were five and are now fourteen and are realizing they’re gay, and shouldn’t be thrown out. I hope they come around with the atheist kids, too, and stop throwing them out.
I’ve heard stories about atheist kids who are persecuted. It’s very similar to the coming out process, and the blowback can be very similar to what a lot of gay kids suffer. I would be very into supporting a project that was affiliated with or modeled on the It Gets Better Project for atheist kids. But I am unapologetic about the It Gets Better Project remaining focused on LGBT kids, because there’s a unique need to provide them the love and support and the role models they lack in their lives.
When the project was going viral and I was on TV all the time talking about it, I would invariably be asked if I was bullied as a kid. I would talk about being bullied at St. Jerome’s, which is where I went to middle school. I was talking about it so much I began to think, I bet my brother Billy has seen this. We’re really close so I called him, and I said, “I don’t want you to think I’ve forgotten that you had it worse at Jerome’s than I did.” My only brother, Billy, is straight. He’s also smart and that’s why he was bullied in the 1970s. He read science fiction before that was cool. He typed his homework before kids did that in middle school. He knew the answer to every question, and kids were brutal to him for that. And he said something very smart in response. He said, “Yes, it was worse for me. But every day we would go home and I had Mom and Dad, and you didn’t.” That’s the difference for a lot of queer kids who are bullied. And I can see that it could be very similar for atheist kids who come out as atheist. They may go home to bullying at the hands of their parents who are very angry about them walking away from their faith.
Klein: And if they’re in a youth group or their friends all hang out in church, then they lose that. It’s about more than ideology. It’s about losing your social network. Coming out too soon can be the beginning of adult problems.
Savage: I tell gay kids to think about when and how they’re going to come out, picking the right time. Forty percent of homeless youth are gay kids who were thrown out after they came out or were outed. So we tell gay kids, look at your family. If they’re going to retaliate against you, go into deep cover and wait. Maybe that’s advice that some atheist kids should get: be smart; time your coming out in such a way that you’re not going to nuke your own life in the process.
Klein: Have you been criticized by the gay community for that?
Savage: When I tell gay kids to wait? Absolutely. I’m also accused of being homophobic because when I talk in colleges or to younger people I tell them not all gay people are good. One of the things I throw out there is that Jeffrey Dahmer ate a friend of mine. Not everybody you meet in a gay bar or at a gay pride parade is going to be a decent human being. You cannot do this thing that straight people suck, so I’m with my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters and I’m safe. No, you’re vulnerable in new ways. A lot of kids come out with their force field down. You really can’t, because there are sexual predators in the LGBT community. There are assholes in the LGBT community.
We’re not supposed to say that we commit suicide at greater rates, attempt suicide at greater rates, drink at higher rates. And some of us are very sexually destructive, or self-destructive because of the homophobia we’ve faced, because of what the culture says about us. But you’re not allowed to say that because it contradicts the rainbow windsock-waving part of the pride parade.
Klein: How do you deal with being attacked from the left, and what political advice do you want to give people who are just so angry—not just at you, but at reality. What’s the expression, don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good?
Savage: Exactly. It’s the narcissism of small differences. I get attacked for being transphobic because I used the term “tranny” back when transsexuals were using it. And then I watch Keith Ablow go on Fox News and say that parents shouldn’t allow their children to watch Dancing with the Stars with Chaz Bono because their sons will then turn around and cut their dicks off. If I’m transphobic, what the hell is Ablow? Why am I the one who’s getting all of the grief?
One thing readers find in my column are the words everyone actually uses when they talk about sex, including hate terms in a non-hateful way, colloquialisms, and sexual slang.
Another thing people on the queer left get mad about is that every week my column isn’t a cri de coeur—because of course there’s always some injustice. Instead, I keep this power drive for when something really needs to be exploded. One of the problems with the Left is it’s always making people feel guilty about not doing everything. Instead, I borrow from the Right and from my own activism back in the day with ACT UP. You want to identify the small task and the doable thing because that makes people feel empowered. Then they’re likelier to do the next doable thing and the next doable thing. Then they find themselves doing a lot more than they realized they could. Sit in front of your computer, talk for ten minutes, make a video, and upload it. It’s a small doable thing that can make a difference.
Klein: You generally seem to portray yourself as a person who doesn’t mind being misunderstood on a daily basis. Surely that can’t be true.
Savage: Sometimes it gets to me; it couldn’t not. But I have work to do. I’m not invested in a position of leadership in gayland. I speak for myself. I write what I think. I do my column. And I have a personal life.
Klein: What does it mean to you to be named the American Humanist Association’s Humanist of the Year?
Savage: I admire the organization very much. I’m a humanist, and I’m an atheist, although I joke about being a Catholic. I call myself culturally Catholic. Humanism is to be publicly good without God, and I think I am just that. The thing I get from the Right is that I’m an amoral, anything-goes, if-it-feels-good-do-it hedonist, and I’m not that guy. I really do think there’s an ethical, moral framework that you have to construct for your sexuality, for how you express it and how you move through the world interacting with other people. And it feels like that’s what was being recognized by the AHA. It’s gratifying because I kind of bury it in my column.
Klein: Not well enough—we spotted you. To summarize, Dan Savage was honored with the 2013 Humanist of the Year award because he is a highly ethical, highly moral person who is showing others how to be ethical and moral and politically active in the real world. Plus, he’s really cute.
Savage: Oh, shucks. I’m just old.