Q&A With Dan Savage: On Obama, Fox News' Shepard Smith and Success of 'It Gets Better' Project

Savage caught the eye of the nation following a string of suicides by gay youths, when he and husband Terry Miller posted a video telling gay children that if they can hold on, life does get better.
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Dan Savage first made his mark with his nationally syndicated sex advice column, Savage Love, an X-rated guide for a generation of kink-savvy readers, from youths interested in trying anal sex to married adults considering a three-way tryst. A gay activist—for years he asked readers to address him as "Hey, Faggot!"—Savage appears regularly on Bill Maher and The Colbert Report, confronting conservatives who condemn gay marriage and denounce gay sex as half a step from bestiality.

In September, Savage caught the eye of the White House and the nation following a string of suicides by gay youths in Minnesota, Indiana and Wisconsin. He and husband Terry Miller posted a video on YouTube reaching out to gay children, telling them that if they can hold on through the torturous middle school and high school years, life does get better. Savage encouraged gay adults to shoot videos of their own emphasizing that same message.

They did. Within days his inbox was flooded with homemade videos from prominent gay figures like Ellen DeGeneres and Adam Lambert as well as straight leaders like President Obama and Secretary Clinton.

Today Savage is a columnist, host of one of the most popular podcasts on the Net, and founder of the It Gets Better Project, a non-profit organization designed to spread his video's message. He and Miller have also just released It Gets Better the book, collecting the transcripts of their favorite videos along with original essays from once-bullied, now-successful gay adults like humorist David Sedaris and award-winning novelist Michael Cunningham.

Savage spoke with me about his run-in with the White House, the responsibilities of closeted TV news anchors, and that memorable moment when the idea for his video hit him.

Savage: I had read this woman's blog. This was just after those suicides. She said she wished she had gotten the chance to tell those kids, it gets better. I read that and thought: so true. It's the kind of message I've been delivering at all these colleges. Then I thought, "F— these colleges." That's not where this message is really needed. You want to help gay kids, you have to reach them in middle school and high school, when they're being bullied. Of course, no middle school would let me in to talk to those kids. A gay man coming to middle school: he'd be looked at as just a potential child molester.

Kors: Right.

Savage: I was sitting on a train, headed to JFK, when I realized, oh my God: I don't have to wait to talk to those kids. With the Internet, I can reach them directly, before they give up hope and kill themselves. Because when a 14-year-old kills himself, that is what he's saying, that there's no joy in the future that could compensate for this pain. They know there are other fags and dykes in the world. But they don't know the path, how to go from where they are to there. You know, for so many gay kids, there are no gay role models in their lives, no examples of what a healthy, happy gay life looks like. I realized, we could provide them with that example—whether their parents want us to or not. (Savage laughs.) See, I'm a subverter at heart. So that aspect of this project—going around the adult authorities—really appealed to me. Plus, it's more like: whether the parents want us to do this right now. I figured eventually, when they're in a different place, a lot of parents of gay kids would thank us for bringing this message.

Kors: When I saw your video, I immediately thought of Bowling for Columbine. In that film, Matt Stone, the co-creator of South Park, addresses the Columbine shooters and says he would have told them, Look, you're two weeks from graduation. You think because it sucks now, it's going to suck forever, but as soon as you graduate, everything changes.

Savage: You know, a few people have sent me that clip. They called it the first "It Gets Better" video. I love it. I think the South Park guys are brilliant. And that clip addresses another important aspect of this: vengeance. Because those kids didn't just kill themselves. They took down a lot of other kids in the process. That desire for vengeance is often a part of being bullied. I think about Dr. Trevor Corneil in our series. He referred to his wall of medical degrees as his "F— You" wall. Not his wall of accomplishments but an f— you to all the kids who tormented him in that small town. He triumphed over those assholes.

Kors: Do you think revenge is an acceptable part of the equation?

Savage: When it's framed in the form of the best revenge is living well. Obviously the kids at Columbine didn't deserve to die.

Kors: Some of them probably felt marginalized themselves.

Savage: Probably. Makes me think about one girl in our series. She felt like she was run out of town. And I say, they're doing you a favor to cast you out of a place like that. You have to say to yourself, "When I look back, is this a place I'm going to be glad I was cast out of?" Fact is, most of us gay people are refugees. And we're grateful for it.

Kors: There's been pressure on you to expand the focus of the series to all bullied kids. Your series has touched on non-gay bullying, but you've kept the focus on the struggles of gay youths. Because that childhood struggle is different for gay kids, isn't it?

Savage: Absolutely. You know, after our video went viral, I called my older brother Billy. He was straight and a geek. And he was much more brutally bullied than I was. I told him, "I don't want you to think that I forgot about you. Because I do remember how hard it was for you." And he said something so smart. He said, "Yeah, but when I went home, I had Mom and Dad, and you didn't." That's the way it is for so many of these gay kids. They go home to parents who are bullying them too. Siblings pick on them. They're dragged to church where they're bullied by the pastor who tells them they're evil and going to hell. The kid who's straight and bullied goes home to a shoulder to cry on. Gay kids often go home to parents who are bullying them as well.

Kors: I know. And a lot of the political figures in your series, the straight ones like Obama and Clinton, they say go home and seek support from your parents.

Savage: Actually Obama said it a little better. He said, Seek support from "your parents, teachers, folks that you know care about you just the way you are." But yes, a lot of videos said that. It's one reason there was an outcry to limit the videos to gay videos. We're not going to do that. But we will make sure the project stays LGBT-focused.

Kors: I'm wondering how you felt when the White House called saying Obama had prepared a video. Because I saw that video, and I have to be honest, it really enraged me. He's talking about how tough life can be for LBGT kids, and I'm thinking, "You're the one keeping gay people as second-class citizens." If it were black people that couldn't marry, his thoughts wouldn't be "evolving."

Savage: And that video came in before ["Don't Ask, Don't Tell"] was repealed, before the White House dropped its defense of [the Defense Of Marriage Act]. Yeah, I was dubious too. Plus, this project wasn't about celebrities. I didn't want kids to think that to be happy, they had to be famous or rich or live in the big city. I wanted them to know that they could be happy living a regular life. But when I saw the president of United States looking right into the camera and saying to gay kids across the country, "There's nothing wrong with you," that meant a lot to me. This is the president stepping into this fight on behalf of gay kids, jumping in on the same side as porn star Buck Angel and fags like me.

Kors: Right.

Savage: How old are you?

Kors: Thirty-two.

Savage: Well, you have to see it as a gay man from my generation. It took Ronald Reagan seven years to even say the word "AIDS." By that point you had gay men dying left and right. And for those of us who lived through it, to feel abandoned, like our lives didn't matter at all ... Now four weeks in to the press coverage of gay teen suicides, Obama turned around and made this video.

Kors: In that sense, it is remarkable.

Savage: Listen, I went on CNN and said it wasn't enough, that the White House has the power not just to say "It gets better" but to make it better. But Washington is a Rube Goldberg contraption where to do anything takes forever. So for him just to say it—to link arms with us—that meant something, especially to do it during a critical political time, with him zipping around the country before elections. He took time away from that to make this video.

Kors: So you weren't angry?

Savage: (Savage laughs.) Some things have pissed me off. I remember Valerie Jarrett, one of Obama's senior advisers, gave a speech to the [Human Rights Campaign, the gay rights group] and called it "It Gets Better," instead of "We Can Make It Better." And I went apo-f—in'-plectic. In my blog, I said, "F— you. We're sick of your words and your speeches. F— you and deliver on your promises."

Kors: You wrote that in your blog?

Savage: I did. And you know what happened after that? Officials at the White House called me.

Kors: No way. What did they say?

Savage: They said they didn't like my column, and they started pointing out all the things they've done for the gay community. And I kept saying, "DADT, DOMA, DADT, DOMA." The amazing thing is, it was a few weeks after that that Obama went ahead and made the video.

Kors: You know, I saw on Rachel Maddow's show yesterday that the ban on gays in the military still hasn't changed.

Savage: I know. It's amazing how the military is dragging its feet. Still, everything points to the change coming. I just saw a video the Pentagon is now using to indoctrinate Marines, to tell them that they will accept and respect gay soldiers. ... Still, I think if the White House could have gotten away with not delivering on their promises, they would have. But the pressure from their base was there. The money from gay donors cratered, and the gay vote was no longer a sure thing. I think finally they thought, "We can't take them for granted anymore."

Kors: Why a book? Isn't the online video series enough?

Savage: Well, not every kid has Internet access. And kids don't want to leave incriminating Internet histories on their browsers either. Plus, I'm a book person. Books are magic: you never know where they're going to end up. A book brings the project inside school buildings. When a gay kid goes to his school library and this book is there, it's a message to him that he's accepted.

Kors: I wondered about that. Having this book in the school library would be nice, but do you think a lot of these schools that don't want you and other gay educators on campus would want your book in their library?

Savage: It's already happening. Over 1,000 copies of the book have been donated to school libraries across the country. People are buying it for their alma maters and calling to follow up, to make sure they're placing it on the shelves. At this point, the project is moving on all fronts: a documentary, an upcoming piece for TV. We want to change the culture.

Kors: Do you envision a future where you are invited to speak at middle schools and high schools?

Savage: (Savage laughs.) You know, I said that in my book, and now I'm getting invited to schools across the country. We're going to our first one in the end of May: Terry's high school in Spokane, Washington. Terry writes in the book about how he was just brutalized there. Now the school has a new Gay Straight Alliance.

Kors: That's a big change.

Savage: Yeah. The irony, of course, is that any school that would invite me isn't the school I need to go to. It's the ones that don't want me—the religious middle schools out in the heart of the red states—where this message needs to reach most. So, I'm happy to go, and I will be visiting a few schools in the fall. It's hard because a lot of these schools don't have a budget to fly you out there, like universities, and regardless of what people may think, working for an alternative weekly newspaper, I'm not rolling in the dough.

Kors: You had Adam Carolla on your podcast recently.

Savage: Yeah, that was a few months back.

Kors: Then the next episode you announced that the show now contained "100% less Adam Carolla."

Savage: (Savage laughs.) Yeah, I don't think that statement was me, more like an intro cooked up by [my staff], the tech-savvy, at-risk youth.

Kors: Well, Carolla likes to say he always wished he were gay. That way he and Jimmy [Kimmel] could have sex, live happily ever after and watch football on Sunday without dealing with women's s—. I certainly understand that. But ... do you think that's crazy?

Savage: No, no, not at all. Straight men look at gay life, at gay culture, and it does looks like paradise because you don't have to deal with women, and you can have sex all the time. Other people look at bathhouses and places like that, and they're disgusted by gay men. But the operative word there is "men." If straight men didn't need women, the natural mode is to have sex all the time. With women in the picture, it's not that easy.

Kors: Yeah. No doubt. ... I have to tell you, in all honesty, I read your book wondering, "Will it get better for me?" Living in New York, single a long time. I'm not saying I'm the 40-year-old virgin or anything. But ... let's say I haven't had James Bond's dating success either. Family and friends always say, "It'll get better. Don't worry: it'll get better." But they don't know. They don't have a crystal ball. They can't see the future. Dr. Phil says that people can make the same mistake over and over again until they die. What if I'm making the same mistake over and over again on these dates? If I can't figure out what that mistake is, why would it suddenly get better?

Savage: You want some advice?

Kors: Oh, absolutely. I would love it.

Savage: Okay. I think the best thing for you to do is just live your life. Live a life that's worth living, one where you do what you want to do, pursue your passions. That way, if you meet someone, they'll be joining a life that's already really good. And if you don't meet anyone, you can still look back at the end and say, "You know what: I lived a really great life."

Kors: Makes sense.

Savage: Keep going on dates. And don't get bitter, either about women or the dating process. ... Life doesn't owe you anything, and I think it's up to all of us to go out and create a fulfilling life for ourselves. Like, my husband Terry, he left the house an hour ago. We have a life together. But if he never comes back, I still need to have something here, a life of my own, one that's fulfilling in itself.

Kors: In the video you talk about your life with Terry and the joy you guys have had. And in the book, you mention that you shot an initial version of the video where you detailed all the pain you endured before you met, back when you were bullied. You write that you scrapped that video because "kids who are currently being bullied don't need to be told what bullying looks and feels like," that your message would be stronger if you focused on the happiness coming down the road.

Savage: Absolutely.

Kors: I think there's an important lesson there: that while empathy is good, hope and optimism are more important.

Savage: Exactly. That's what Harvey Milk said: "You gotta give 'em hope." Ultimately life is disease, death and oblivion. It's still better than high school.

Kors: I have a theory about why there's so much disgust for homosexuals, and I'm wondering what you think. Most straight men are absolutely revolted by the idea of gay sex—hairy, sweaty, man-on-man anal penetration. It's very easy to ricochet that disgust for gay sex towards a disgust for gay people.

Savage: I think there's some truth to that.

Kors: On your podcast, you've even spoken about your own disgust with the idea of licking vagina.

Savage: Right. And I think that disgust is fine. The problem comes when straight people have limited interactions with gay people, so when they see gay people, their minds immediately leap to anal sex. When straight people see each other, they don't think of the other person's sex acts. ... Anyway, that "ick factor" and the anti-gay bigotry with it is fading the more straight people and gay people interact. I know when my neighbors think about gay people, their minds leap to barbecuing and block parties because that's what we do.

Kors: That's excellent. You know, Adam Lambert's video addresses this issue. He talks about articles written about him on the Internet and how the reader comments section always overflows with discussions about how he's a "faggot," a homo, gay, gay, gay—when, as he says, there's so much more to him than his sexual orientation. His message to gay kids is: Don't let bullies narrow you down so that you see yourself as solely "gay."

Savage: Exactly.

Kors: Talk to me about Hump, the amateur porn film festival you started in Seattle and Portland. The idea behind the festival, if I understand correctly, is to deplete that "ick factor," heal the divide between the gay and straight communities, and make everyone more comfortable with each other.

Savage: Absolutely. It's a celebration of sexual diversity. Of course, there are people who set out to make professional pornography, with cameramen hired from Craigslist, but those entries always stick out like sore thumbs. The videos audiences love to watch—the ones that get them cheering—are videos of couples doing what they love to do. That joy: that's what everyone comes together to celebrate, going outside your comfort zone, watching something you wouldn't normally watch and, in some way, recognizing a bit of yourself.

Kors: Because we all need sex.

Savage: Right. We're all human, and sex is ridiculous, and we all need a laugh. There's something about Seattle and Portland, too, that's very accepting and loving. The open culture here—it's very West Coasty.

Kors: Do you ever think about how fast things are changing? For example, in 1997 when Ellen came out of the closet and appeared on Oprah, she was jittery and nervous and talked about how her family didn't want her to be around the kids because the gay might be catching. Now CoverGirl makeup has hired her and is telling its customers, what she smears on her face, we want you to smear that on your face too.

Savage: I've never heard that put so well. (Savage laughs.) Ellen is, for a lot of people, the gay person they know. People were dubious when her show started. Her show is not about her lesbianism, but she doesn't play it down. It reminds me that there are two simultaneous wars: legislation battles, like gay marriage, which are more like trench warfare, and the other is a culture war. We have won the culture war. Flat-out we won it. And it's not just from Glee.

Kors: Oh yeah. You hate Glee.

Savage: I don't hate it. It just doesn't work for me. ... But the culture war is more than what's on TV. It's blogs and podcasts and everywhere regular people can be heard. Think about this: we take our son snowboarding with a lot of his friends, kids from the neighborhood. And no one thinks, "Oh no, two gay men with our kids. They must be child molesters. They're going to rape our kids." No. People are over and done with those stereotypes.

Kors: To aid that progress, do you think Anderson Cooper and Fox News' Shepard Smith should be out?

Savage: I think people in general should be out. But outing someone is an aggressive act. It's a brutal thing to do, and it should only be done to brutes. Outing Ted Haggard is one thing, after the way he treated the gay community. On the other end you have Rachel Maddow, who has shown how to be open and classy at the same time.

Kors: So with Cooper and Smith, you'd say it's their decision.

Savage: Yes. It's their choice. Though there is an argument to be made about outing Shep Smith because his organization is a homophobic piece of s— that, like the Republican Party itself, stands for low taxes and beating up queers.

Kors: I wanted to tell you how much I love the first piece in your book, "Stay With Us."

Savage: Oh yeah, Jules Skloot, choreographer from Brooklyn. She made such a great video. It's just 50 words, and she expresses it all, with attitude. "Listen up, people." (Savage laughs.) She put it beautifully.

Kors: One of the best parts of your show and now your book is that you make room for voices that see the world a different way. Like Bronx poet Gabrielle Rivera, whose piece is featured in the book. She says it doesn't get better.

Savage: Yes! She was the first person we contacted about making this book. When people saw her video, they said, "Ah, you're going to hate this." I watched it, and I thought, "I love this." She says it doesn't get better—but you get stronger. And I thought, "You get stronger" is the Bronx Latino lesbian way of saying "It gets better." Surviving as a gay kid in a tough neighborhood, that's a hero's journey.

Kors: I also love the author bios, which are extended and sort of rambling in that fun David Foster Wallace-type of way. Like the bio for singer Sia Furler, which notes that Ms. Furler "is currently totally awesome."

Savage: Love that one. (Savage laughs.) Terry worked with all the authors. People got to make their own bios, bios that expressed character. He had a lot of fun with it.

Kors: My mom runs an adoption facilitation service, and she loves working with gay couples because they're excited to adopt. You and Terry adopted your son, D.J., and you wrote an excellent book about that process, The Kid. It must be meaningful that that adoption door is now to open to you.

Savage: It is. And we are very grateful to have D.J. ... I've noticed that many straight couples, when they go to adopt, they've gone through infertility first, so they come in upset and angry. You know, with the agency we worked with, the whole first day in the agency's adoption process was about grieving our infertility. Terry and I were looking at each other like, "Uh, I grieved my infertility when I was 12."

Kors: Right.

Savage: Doors are opening in all areas of life. That's one of the things I wanted to communicate in this book. Gay kids who grow up wanting to be Marines, now that option is open to them. Back when I came out, in telling my mom I was gay, I was basically saying that I'd never marry, never have a child, that I was going to live a marginal existence. And now all of that has changed. I have a son, and I have a great marriage.

Kors: Not really a marginal existence.

Savage: Marginal? When I'm pissed off, I say so in my blog, and I get a call from the White House. (Savage laughs.) Things have gotten better.

Kors: On your podcast, you've mentioned Pastor Fred Phelps several times, the hate group leader who pickets soldiers' funerals, brandishing "God Hates Fags" signs. I interviewed him, and I want you to know, I don't think he's homophobic in the traditional sense. I think he's simply crazy. He started telling me how the Bible says that Obama will be sending "freeze-dried plump white babies" to Africa to feed the starving villagers.

Savage: Oh, "free-dried plump white babies." That's awesome. You'll have to send me the link.

Kors: In your column, you talk about open relationships. Do you think someday we'll see three-way marriages?

Savage: I don't want to go there, at least not now. My approach is, let's move the conversation one step at a time. It's like when people talk about legalizing marijuana. Immediately someone brings up legalizing cocaine. We need to argue out each of these things on its own merits. For three-way and four-way marriage, they'll be good arguments for and against. And I believe that is an argument we're going to have when the time comes. But I don't want people to confuse that with this.

Kors: You and Stephen Colbert are excellent at using neologisms like weapons. Just like his "truthiness," you redefined "lifting my luggage." And after [former senator Rick] Santorum linked gay sex to bestiality, your turned "santorum" into a neologism so vulgar, it's actually wreaking havoc with his potential run for the presidency.

Savage: Well, thank you. That was the plan. And did you see, he now turning to it into a feather in his cap. "Oh, the gays are after me and have hurt my feelings." (Savage laughs.) He is definitely running for president though. Not that he'll win, or even that he thinks he'll win. Obama's going to wipe the floor with this Republican field. Santorum's campaign, just like the rest of them, is for four more years as Fox News commentator.

Kors: I'm a big Dr. Drew fan, and I noticed a big difference between the two of you. A woman will call his show worried because she can't have an orgasm, and within two questions, he's uncovered that her father was abusive and that she has a drinking problem, and he'll tell her, "You have to solve these problems first." You stay focused on the sexual questions and answer them.

Savage: Yeah. Dr. Drew tends to pathologize. He never met a spanking enthusiast who wasn't raped by her father or an anal play fan who wasn't abducted by aliens. Everybody has crap in their past. And they're calling me for help in getting an orgasm. Not having an orgasm in their present can be traumatic all by itself. I want to help those people.

Kors: What do people need to know about the It Gets Better Project?

Savage: That it was a true community project. A lot of straight people have made videos. [Washington Post columnist] Ezra Klein talks in his video about how he was bullied. Though our primary focus is the struggle of gay youth, we're keeping those videos up because they're important too. Gay kids need to know that a lot of straight kids are on their side—that more people are on their side than ever before. Sometimes gay kids think of straight kids as the enemy. We want to send the message that you will meet great straight people, and that as you grow older, the straight people who are in your life—parents, siblings, friends—they'll also get better and more supportive.

Follow Joshua Kors on Facebook: www.facebook.com/joshua.kors

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