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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Online only: A Conversation with Dan Savage

Posted By on Thu, Mar 31, 2011 at 1:22 PM

Syndicated sex columnist Dan Savage -- whose column of course appears in City Paper every week --  was in town last night, giving a talk at the University of Pittsburgh. Savage was on hand to talk about the It Gets Better Project, an online outreach effort directed at gay teens. Savage and his partner Terry Miller launched the project after a spate of suicides involving LGBT youth. The website now hosts thousands of online videos posted by LGBT adults, as well as their friends and allies -- all encouraging young teens that, yes, life can indeed get better after high school.

I met with Savage before his Pitt appearance, and we talked about the project ... and about a certain former US Senator from Pennsylvania whose name -- thanks to a Savage-led Google bomb -- has become a synonym for the "frothy mixture of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the byproduct of anal sex."

The idea behind It Gets Better was to use social media to talk to kids directly. So why do a book?

I think books are magic. I've heard so many instances where somebody stumbled across a book at a time when they really needed to read that particular book. We're also trying to be sensitive to the fact that not all kids are online, not all kids can risk an incriminating browser history. And it's a way to call schools out and say, "All right, you say you're doing what you can to let the queer kids in the school -- out or not out -- know that they're supported by the administration. So shelve this book in the library."

For a lot of us -- particularly guys my age -- our first encounters with any writing about homosexuality was to go to a library, find the gay books, and sneak off to another part of the library and read them.

We want to call schools on their bluff. There are a lot of schools out there that are hostile environments for gay kids, that don't have GSAs [gay-straight alliances], where bullying is unchecked. And they're all pretending that butter can't melt in their mouth right now. So we want to say, "Where's your GSA, where's your anti-bullying program? Shelve this book." The President of the United States has an essay: What's controversial about that?

Well, last year the school district I grew up in refused to air Obama's speech about studying hard. So in some places, that might make things worse.

Oh my God.

So, what were the gay books in the library when you were a kid?

Oh, they were horrible. They were like Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) by David Ruben. It was just this horrible book: "The relationships are short-lived and violent, and they can never be totally satisfied with each other -- blah blah blah." Unlike those 100 percent satisfying, never-violent straight relationships.

In selecting stories for the "It Gets Better" book, you had thousands of videos to choose from. What criteria did you use?

We really looked for a spread. There's only about 100 pieces in the book, and we wanted the book to represent the breadth of the LGBT experience. We have pieces by folks from all faiths, and religious traditions, people of all races, classes, trans people, bi people.

One of the early criticisms -- very early, like practically when our video was the only one up –-- of the project was that it was just gay white men talking. That made me psychotic because the project was open-sourced. Anybody could contribute. If there isn't something in there, or you don't feel represented, make the fucking video that represents you. Take some responsibility to participate.

And really -- at the end of the first week, when we had about 1,000 videos, everybody was in there. You can find everybody. There's tons of African Americans, tons of trans people, tons of white people, tons of other people of color.

The story I like to tell about that aspect of it is early on, we got an e-mail from a professor at Gallaudet University, the school for the deaf, scolding us for not having closed-captioned our video. And sending us the software so we could do it. Terry dropped everything and spent I think 12 hours one day closed-captioning our video. We wrote back to her and said, very proudly, "OK, our video is closed-captioned!" And she wrote back and said, "Now do the rest." There were like 1,000 videos on there, and we didn't have the 12,000 hours.

So we wrote her back and said, "You're right -- gay, deaf kids are isolated twice, and they need to get the message too. You're a professor at Gallaudet -- make some videos. There are gay people on your campus who speak ASL." Now there's lots of ASL videos on the site.

Were there videos that really surprised you, whose experience you just never expected to hear?

I've been around, and I've heard so much. So I can't say there's anything that leapt out and me and I went, "That's a life experience that shocks me." There were videos that really touched me, though. Gabrielle Rivera's video -- she's the lesbian poet from the Bronx who says, "It doesn't get better; you get stronger." I love that video.

And I've been really touched by the videos by straight people. It's great that people feel such a sense of ownership over the whole project, but early on people were like, "Why are their videos from straight people here -- that's not what the project is about. Take those down! How dare you!" they were writing to the straight people themselves, scolding them, after Terry and I -- who founded the project -- had posted the videos to our fucking project. And for me, I think a lot of the straight videos -- even Ezra Klein did a video, and he talks about having been bullied and how he got through it. He doesn't talk about LGBT issues at all, he just talks about coping. For me, the subtext of those videos for gay kids is, not all straight people are your enemies. And that's an important lesson for them to learn. So I love the videos by straight people.

But doesn't invite the argument that "your blues aren't like mine," and that straights are wrong to think that they know what gay kids go through?

Bullying is bullying, but there are unique and particular aspects to anti-gay bullying that account for gay teens being at four to eight times greater risk for suicide. So to address that, I think it's legitimate to have a gay-specific anti-gay bullying campaign. But that doesn't stop anyone else from doing a general one.

[According to University of Illinois researchers,] there are 67 anti-bullying programs designed for middle-schools and high schools. Only five of them even address anti-gay bullying. So it's a little straight-privileged for folks to turn around and say, "This one anti-bullying program doesn't talk about straight bullying," when of the 67 programs, 62 are entirely about straight-bullying. Even though anti-gay bullying in the schools is 50 percent of the bullying problem.

Were you surprised to get a video from President Obama?

We were blown away. It's not like Terry and I were sitting in a bar, having a cocktail telling oral-sex jokes about the night we met, thinking, "Oh yeah, in three weeks the President of the United States is going to make a video for this project." That kinda took us by surprise.

We launched the project after Billy Lucas' suicide in early September. It was Tyler Clementi's suicide at Rutgers that touched on race, and class, and technology -- it hit so many buttons. And that was the suicide that sort of exploded the issue into the national conversation. It was the shark attack that was so gruesome we started looking at all the other shark attacks ... it just felt like something has to be done, and we had stepped up a few weeks before and said, "Here's something you can do." So when everyone wanted to jump in, we had already built up a structure and some momentum.

How did you hear that Obama was going to be contributing a video? Did they just e-mail you the link?

No, the White House called. It was the second time I'd gotten a call from the White House in a few weeks.

What was the first one?

In the first week of the project, [White House advisor] Valerie Jarrett gave a speech to the [Human Rights Campaign]'s annual fundraising dinner titled, "It Gets Better." And I wrote a typical-of-me, measured, even-handed blog post. I said they had no right to promise kids, to give them hope, and to say "it gets better," because they can actually make it better, they can deliver, and they weren't. And I was really angered by the attempt of the White House to co-opt a campaign from a place of powerlessness about giving kids hope, by people who had a tremendous amount of power and could deliver more for these kids, and for all LGBT people -- stop enforcing Don't Ask/Don't Tell, stop appealing DOMA decisions that are going in our favor. Both of which things they have now done.

That must have been a hell of a blog post.

I don't take total credit. I actually think it was the mid-term elections, where they saw the total cratering of money from gay donors and the 33 percent of the gay vote [going] for Republicans. They went, "Now we've got to actually deliver, and not just promise."

Were you concerned that Obama's video was itself an attempt at co-optation?

We were worried going in, because what we'd gotten from Obama up to that point was him saying all the right things: Every speech he gave about gays was beautiful, and every cocktail party where he made remarks was very moving. But he wasn't delivering. He'd give these speeches as if he weren't the president of the United States -- like he was just some guy who thought gay people were nifty and shouldn't be discriminated against.

But then we watched this video. And even if he hadn't acted on DADT, or taken action on DOMA, and now the White House anti-bullying initiatives ... he not just said the right thing, but said something that was so powerful that it was doing something. He looked right into the camera and said, "There's nothing wrong with you. There's something wrong with the people who are telling you there's something wrong with you." For many gay kids, those people are their parents, and their faith leaders. So the president of the United States is taking sides in a battle between a 14-year-old and his parents about his sexuality -- and siding with the kid -- that's powerful.

And Obama has to know that what he could get for that is conservatives saying, "This is Big Government intruding in the family, and standing between kids and their religious leaders!"

But nobody's said that. It's been six months since his video came out, and there has been no blowback. That's one of the things -- you don't ever want to find a silver lining in the deaths of teenagers. But at least it's harder now to claim that being gay is a choice. It's harder now to deny that there is such a thing as gay children, and that they are suffering -- in part because of the people who insist that being gay is a choice. So Tony Perkins is rattling around the country, and Rick Santorum, insisting that being gay is a choice and a sin. But it was easier for Asher Brown, at age 13, to choose to put a bullet in his own head than to choose to be straight. If it's easier to choose to blow your own brains out, it's not a choice.

There has been some political blowback created by It Gets Better. [Mayor] Michael Bloomberg in New York City made a video where he said to LGBT kids, "If you're living in a small town, and they reject you, come to New York. New York's great, we welcome everybody." At the same time, his budget was zeroing out monies for the only homeless shelter in New York for LGBT teenagers. And 40 percent of homeless teenagers are LGBT; they wind up in big cities and, if there aren't services, they turn to things like survival prostitution.

And people were able to beat Michael Bloomberg up with this video, and he restored funding.

You've brought up Santorum now. What was your reaction when you heard he was in the mix of Republican presidential candidates?

You know, I honestly believe that barring some catastrophe, Barack Obama is going to be a two-term president. And I think the Republicans all know it, which is why you're not seeing any serious R's step up. You're seeing Huckabee, and Bachmann, and Palin, and now Santorum. You're seeing the jokes. And they're not running for president, they're running for Fox News contracts. If they're the nominee, and they get all that exposure, then they will be on Fox News for the next four years, and they will make shitloads of money. That's what they're running for.

So what's Rick Santorum doing? He's not running for president. He's reapplying for the job of being a Fox News talking head.

So if that's the case, why try to restart the "Spreading Santorum" website? Which, by the way –

-- Which I keep talking about and then not doing.

Yeah. What's going on there?

I'm just in denial that this asshole is actually running. And I'm a little conflicted because he's trying to play the Sarah Palin victim card and saying [in weepy voice] "Look how they attacked me. I'm just a poor defenseless US Senator who was trying to take this man's child from him, and make sure gay sex and straight masturbation remain illegal ... and they made fun of me." So I'm a little hesitant to get that going again. And his "Google problem" remains whether I write another blog post about him or not.

But you promised my readers new content on the site!

I know, I know, I know. And I have had people say, "I will blog every day." ... I want to get my picture with him, but now I think it's too late. Because they're building this campaign whining about Spreading Santorum, if I show up at a Santorum event, they're going to be all over me.

They're waiting for you to lick doorknobs [as Savage famously did during the 2000 election season to give conservative presidential candidates the flu].

No, I've aged out of the licking-doorknob stage of my writing career.

Hemingway went through the same phase, I understand

I know -- Vonnegut was still at it in his 80s, but I can't keep it up. There's too much residual Purell on everything these days. Now the doorknobs burn.

Rick Santorum's career took off here. Do we have an obligation to do something about his presidential bid?

I think you've done enough. You've handed him an 18-point defeat, and elected that empty suit, Casey, in his place. And he's really made a mark, hasn't he?

I'm sorry. It was the best we could do.

No, I'm totally for your anti-choice Democrat over your anti-choice Republican. And you handed Santorum his ass. There are two things he has to answer for in running for President: You lost your home state by 18 points -- what the fuck are you thinking? And your name is a swear word.

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