It’s a funny story, how the wiseass gay theater kid at the video store became America’s most trusted and outspoken sex advocate.
Through his sex column, “Savage Love,” Dan Savage has become one of the highest-profile gay figures in the country, a tireless and fearless advocate of a liberalized philosophy on sex and relationships. People think of different sexualities as opposing baseball teams; Savage has been coaching all sides for 22 years now. He’s crass, unapologetic, fearless and wise. He’s what Dr. Ruth would have been had she grown up watching Internet porn.
Savage’s writing career began in Madison, Wis., in 1991. He was working at a video store and became friends with Tim Keck, co-founder of The Onion. Keck told Savage he was starting a newspaper in Seattle—the alternative weekly already there, Seattle Weekly, wasn’t alternative enough. Savage suggested on a whim that Keck include a sex advice column. The rest is history. “Savage Love” continues to run in The Stranger, and dozens of other newspapers around the country, including this one, to this day.
Savage started his career unabashedly gay—until 1999, every letter began with the opener “Hey Faggot,” in an attempt to reclaim the word—and the concept was “to treat straight sex with the same revulsion that straight advice columnists had always had for gay sex,” Savage told journalist Mark Oppenheimer, who wrote an e-book declaring Savage “the first gay celebrity.” However, this gag was short-lived, since as the column’s popularity grew and grew, it wasn’t just gay people who were writing him letters. Straight people began pouring their hearts out to him too, asking questions not just about the vagaries of butt sex and BDSM but about heartwrenching relationship problems as well.
“When I started writing it, there was no Internet, there was no Google. A lot of the questions I would get, would be, ‘I’ve heard that there’s this thing called a butt plug. What the hell is that?’” Savage says. “And butt plugs literally have a Wiki page now. So, I don’t have to explain to people how a butt plug works.”
Instead, he gets what he classifies as “situational ethics and relationship conflicts,” and what he dishes out these days is as much relationship counseling and sex therapy as it is sex advice.
It’s a trend in his career—there’s something about the wisdom he espouses that appeals to a larger audience than he initially intends. His column is now a paragon of sex-positivity for all genders and sexual orientations on a national level. The It Gets Better campaign he started with his partner of 18 years (and husband of eight), Terry Miller, aimed to help bullied gay youth but quickly snowballed to include bullying victims of all sexual orientations. (The campaign did try to refocus the message back on queer kids.)
What makes his appeal so universal? Perhaps it’s because the type of sexuality he proposes to straight people is more libertine than that which many straight people are told to practice. He believes monogamy in long-term relationships is difficult to the point of being unrealistic, so he often preaches the value of open relationships and the less-promiscuous “monogamish” ones, a term Savage coined a few years ago.
In fact, as Savage has been pointing out recently in interviews, the lifestyle he preaches for straight people is essentially the one gay men have lived for years, the one condemned by Jerry Falwell and his ilk in the late ’70s and early ’80s as the “gay lifestyle.”
“[Straight people] renamed everything,” Savage recently told an audience at the New York Public Library. “Gay people had ‘tricks’; you people have ‘hookups.’ Gay people had ‘fuckbuddies’; you guys have ‘friends with benefits.’ The whole moving to the city, living in an urban area, having an apartment, fucking a lot of people, dating around, and then settling down in your 30s. That period of straight life—post-college, pre-marriage—that … is the gay lifestyle. … And that’s how straight people now live. We are all faggots now in our 20s.”
Despite the unrestrained mouth, Savage is also a throwback in many ways, the rare newspaper editor and columnist who managed to achieve a level of national fame and celebrity. His lifestyle these days—a stable marriage with a kid—is, somewhat counter-intuitively, rather traditional, as Oppenheimer points out.
For all his popularity, Savage is not without critics. He has been accused of bigotry towards transsexuals, bisexuals and women; his staunch backing of the necessity for gay marriage in the ’90s, before the gay community reached a consensus on the need for it, led some gay people to brand him with a scarlet “C” for conservative. Even now, there seems to be some disagreement in the LGBT community as to whether Savage is a good representative for the cause. That criticism, says Jerry Portwood, executive editor of Out magazine, seems to come from the lesser-seen, more conservative wing of the gay community.
“For example, when I’ve posted things or written about things or put things on social media about Dan, often you have straight women defending him and Terry, and often it’s the gay men who are the ones that are more negative and that are attacking them,” Portwood says. “I find interesting that he has this very strong base of straight women who are willing to stand up for him.”
Savage has never shied away from controversy, and he’s never let a fear of consequences stop him from speaking his mind. After Sen. Rick Santorum made remarks comparing homosexuality to pedophilia and bestiality, Savage ran a letter in his column calling for a contest to redefine the Pennsylvania senator’s last name into a sex act of some sort. The winning definition, “The frothy mixture of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the by-product of anal sex,” morphed into a huge “Google problem” headache for Santorum during his failed presidential run in 2012.
That same year, a group of gay conservatives called GOProud endorsed Mitt Romney for president. Savage tweeted a link to the story with the words, “The GOP’s house faggots grab their ankles right on cue ... pathetic.” In April, speaking in front of a gathering of high school journalists, he criticized anti-gay Christians for selectively quoting the Bible. When several students stormed out, Savage remarked, “It’s funny to someone who is on the receiving end of beatings that are justified by the Bible how pansy-ass people react when you push back.” Savage later apologized for using the term “pansy-ass” but stood by his comments about the Bible. But that’s Savage in a nutshell. Perhaps it’s his bravery, his willingness to stick to his guns in a funny yet deathly serious way, that makes him so universally appealing.
Savage was editor of The Stranger from 2001 to 2007 before becoming the editorial director, a position he describes as “the queen of England. I’m a consultant and I give advice, which is frequently ignored.” He continues to write his column, which he expanded into a very popular podcast in 2006. He is the author of six books, the most recent of which, American Savage: Insights, Slights, and Fights on Faith, Sex, Love, and Politics, came out May 28. This week, Savage shares some thoughts with us about his sexual philosophies, his experience as a gay man in the middle of the AIDS epidemic, and how his column has changed during the past 22 years.
How would you describe your column to a stranger? I’ve always described the column as a conversation I’m having at a bar with my friends about sex after we’ve had a few drinks. And people are being sometimes funny, sometimes maudlin, but using the language they actually use when they talk about sex with their friends ... or when they’re not drunk. My column is a sex advice column for drunks who are being honest.
I thought I might get your opinions on certain subjects that people might find out of the mainstream. For instance, what’s your take on monogamy? Ah, I knew you would go there first, just to piss people off.
I’m for monogamy if that’s what a couple wants and that’s what makes a couple happy. I’m for a more realistic attitude towards infidelity and adultery, which, over the multi-decade course of a truly long-term relationship, is likely to touch each and every one. I also think that open relationships work, and “monagamish” relationships work, which is how I describe mine.
I have never addressed the gerbil issue, but now, this week and this week only, I am breaking my silence. To begin, I would like to make a controversial statement: I have never had a gerbil in my ass.