Author of “Savage Love” Dan Savage shares how his column began

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Dan Savage started his sex column, “Savage Love,” in 1991, and since then has become a husband, father, author, co-founder of the It Gets Better Project, avid podcaster all while continuing to help others through his column in Seattle’s The Stranger.

Born in Chicago to a large Irish Catholic family, Savage was a bit of a black sheep. His father was a Chicago cop and Catholic deacon. His mother was a Catholic minister. They had him attend a seminary prep school to prepare him for a life of being a priest. However, Savage took a slightly different direction in life.

“I met somebody when I was living in Madison, Wisconsin briefly with my then-boyfriend who was starting a newspaper,” Savage says. “I told him you should have an advice column because everyone reads them. You see that Q&A format, you can’t not stop and read that.”

He was immediately given the task of running the advice column himself. He had no background in writing for a publication, only a familiarity with it from growing up and reading columns. The column originally began as a joke and was only supposed to last for six months to a year. The joke, Savage says, was the fact that a gay person was giving straight people sex advice.

“I was going to treat straight people with the same contempt that heterosexual columnists traditionally treated gay people with,” Savage says. “This was a new experience for straight people and they kind of loved it. They didn’t take it as the insult that I intended it to be at first. It turned into a real advice column by accident. I started getting real letters from lots of people, straight and queer.”

“Savage Love” was a place where people could talk about sex and ask for advice using the vernacular found in conversations between friends. Sometimes it questions were posed with humor, slang and sometimes profanity. Savage says that was the “juice” that drove the column and continues to drive the column.

“It’s a place for people to talk about the sex they’re having, not the sex that everyone agrees everybody ought to be having,” Savage says.

Nearly three decades later, Savage is married, has a son and has written two books on each of those changes to his life – “The Kid: What Happens After My Boyfriend and I Decided to go Get Pregnant” and “The Commitment: Love, Sex, Marriage, and My Family.” Savage says that neither of those things changed who he is as a person, but they introduced new aspects of life he didn’t have before.

The It Gets Better Project, founded by Savage and his husband, Terry Miller, was a response to the suicide of Billy Lucas, a 15-year-old who took his life after being bullied for being queer. Savage developed a strong need to speak with queer kids who were hurting because they were depressed about being bullied and being hopeless about things getting better.

“I struggled with the fact that the kid who most needs to speak to a queer adult about being a queer kid and growing into being a queer adult is the kid whose parents would never let them go to a Gay Straight Alliance or attend a queer youth support group or interact with a queer adult,” Savage says. “The queer kid that we talk about when we talk about being bullied is usually the queer kid being bullied by their peers. The worst bulling that many queer kids encounter is at the hands of their parents.”

It Gets Better bridges the gap between queer adults and queer kids. It goes around the disapproval of parents, teachers and religious leaders. These kids can get direct advice via Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media platforms. It Gets Better is a place for queer kids to receive advice from queer adults on how to deal with unhappy families, strategies for coping and ways to make it better for themselves.

“I’m going to keep doing my column,” Savage says. “It will be pried out of my cold, dead hands one day. I’ll keep doing my podcast. It’s a real honor actually that people trust me with their secrets, their problems. They trust my judgement and value my insight. That’s a real honor.”

Savage’s sex advice column can be found in Seattle’s “The Stranger” newspaper or online at thestranger.com/savage-love.

TED SIMONS: DAN SAVAGE IS BEST KNOWN FOR HIS SEX-ADVICE COLUMN, "SAVAGE LOVE," WHICH HE STARTED MORE THAN 20-YEARS AGO AND IS NOW A STAPLE IN NEWSPAPERS AROUND THE WORLD. SAVAGE IS ALSO KNOWN FOR HIS WORK ON BEHALF OF THE L-G-B-T COMMUNITY AND RECENTLY APPEARED AT THE SCOTTSDALE MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART AS PART OF THE MUSEUM'S SERIES SPOTLIGHTING DIVERSITY. PRODUCER SHANA FISCHER SAT DOWN WITH SAVAGE TO TALK ABOUT HOW HE FOUND HIS VOICE AND HOW HE'S HELPING YOUNG L-G-B-T KIDS FIND THEIRS.

SHANA FISHER: SO THANK YOU FOR BEING HERE, DAN.

DAN SAVAGE: THANKS FOR HAVING ME.

SHANA FISHER: NO PROBLEM. MOST PEOPLE KNOW YOU AS A SEX ADVICE COLUMNIST. WHAT IS YOUR BACK STORY?

DAN SAVAGE: I'M FROM CHICAGO, A LARGE ARGUMENTATIVE FAMILY. MY FATHER WAS A COP AND I WENT TO THE SEMINARY IN HIGH SCHOOL, THE THIRD SON, THE E FEMME NANT ONE SUPPOSED TO BE A PRIEST AND I WENT THE OPPOSITE DIRECTION.

SHANA FISHER: HOW DID YOU BECOME A SEX COLUMNIST?

DAN SAVAGE: BY ACCIDENT. I WAS WITH MY THEN BOYFRIEND AND SAID YOU SHOULD HAVE AN ADVICE COLUMN. YOU SEE THE Q&A FORMAT, YOU CAN'T NOT STOP AND READ IT. HE SAID EXCELLENT. WRITE IT. I HAD GROWN UP READING ANNE LANDERS, ABIGAIL VAN BUREN, THE HAPPY HOOKER COLUMN IN PENTHOUSE MAGAZINE -- MY BROTHERS HAD PENTHOUSE AS A KID. I READ THEM FOR THE ARTICLES. THE COLUMNWHEN IT STARTED WAS A JOKE. I WAS GOING TO SPEND SIX MONTHS OR A YEAR TO WRITE THE COLUMN. THE JOKE WAS I WAS A GAY PERSON GIVING STRAIGHT PEOPLE WITH SEX ADVICE. THIS WAS A NEW EXPERIENCE FOR STRAIGHT PEOPLE. THEY LOVED IT. THEY DIDN'T TAKE IT AS THE INSULT I INTENDED IT TO BE AT FIRST. IT TURNED INTO A REAL ADVICE COLUMN. I GOT REAL QUESTIONS AND IT BECAME AN ADVICE COLUMN UNDER MY FEET. WITH THAT YEAR IT WAS SYNDICATED AND PICKED UP BY OTHER PAPERS AND 28 YEARS LATER, I'M STILL DOING IT.

SHANA FISHER: YOU TACKLE A LOT OF TABOO TOPICS. WHY IS THAT?

DAN SAVAGE: I WAS WELL POSITIONED IN 1991 WHEN THE COLUMN STARTED TO GIVE PEOPLE PERMISSION. YOU COULDN'T BE OUT AND GAY IF YOU HADN'T GIVEN YOURSELF PERMISSION TO COME OUT, TO TELL YOUR PARENTS YOU WERE GAY WAS DIFFICULT TO DO. TO DISCUSS YOUR SEXUAL INTERESTS COMPARED TO TELLING YOUR PARENTS, PARTICULARLY YOUR CATHOLIC PARENTS YOU WERE GAY WAS EASY IN COMPARISON. I NEVER HAD HANG UPS AROUND PEOPLE'S INTEREST. THE WHOLE IDEA WAS TO LET PEOPLE USE THE LANGUAGE THEY USED WHEN THEY TALKED ABOUT SEX AND RELATIONSHIPS WITH THEIR FRIENDS WHICH WAS FUN AND HUMOROUS USING SLANG AND SOMETIMES PROFANITY. THAT WAS KIND OF THE JUICE THAT DROVE THE COLUMN AND CONTINUES TO DRIVE THE COLUMN. THEY TALK ABOUT THE SEX THEY ARE HAVING NOT THE SEX EVERYBODY THINKS SHE SHOULD BE HAVING.

SHANA FISHER: DO YOU FIND IT LESS CONTROVERSIAL?

DAN SAVAGE:28 YEARS AGO WHEN THE COLUMN STARTED, IT WAS REALLY CONTROVERSIAL. IT WAS WRITTEN IN SEXUAL VERNACULAR.

SHANA FISHER: YOU ARE MARRIED. YOU HAVE A SON. NOT NECESSARILY THAT ORDER.

DAN SAVAGE: WE WOULD HAVE GOTTEN MARRIED BEFORE WE HAD A KID, BUT BACK THEN, WE COULDN'T.

SHANA FISCHER: HOW HAVE THE EXPERIENCES CHANGED YOU AS A PERSON?

DAN SAVAGE:I WROTE A MEMOIR ABOUT ADOPTING MY SON AND TERRY AND I GETTING MARRIED CALLED THE COMMITMENT. I DON'T THINK MARRIAGE OR COMMITMENT CHANGED ME. THERE ARE PEOPLE NOT BEING THEMSELVES AND THEY MARRY OR HAVE CHILDREN AND THEY DISCARD THE PERSON THEY PRETENDED TO BE. I ALWAYS WAS WHO I WANTED TO BE WHEN I WAS CHILDST AND UNMARRIED. WHEN I HAD A CHILD AND MARRIED, I CONTINUED TO BE WHO I WAS, JUST MARRIED AND PARENTED NOW. THERE WERE STRESSES AND OBLIGATIONS AND TIME CRUNCHES THAT PREVENT ME FROM DOING AS MUCH QUEER THEATER AS I DID, BUT I DIDN'T BECOME A DIFFERENT PERSON. I DIDN'T DISAVOW THE PERSON. SOMETIMES YOU HEAR PEOPLE SAY NOW I'M A NEW PERSON. PARTYING AND HANGING OUT WAS MEANINGLESS. I DON'T KNOW WHY YOU HAVE TO DISAVOW ALL OF THAT. THE PERSON YOU ARE NOW IS PART OF THE EXPERIENCES UP TO THIS MOMENT. THE PARTYING AND ALL OF THAT BROUGHT YOU TO A POINT YOU WERE READY TO SHIFT TO PARENTING. WHY TURN AROUND AND GIVE ALL OF THAT THE FINGER?

SHANA FISCHER: YOU AND TERRY STARTED, IT GETS BETTER.

DAN SAVAGE: WE STARTED IN AUGUST OR SEPTEMBER IN RESPONSE TO THE SUICIDE OF BILLY LUCAS IN GREENBURG, INDIANA BECAUSE WE FELT READING ABOUT THE SUICIDE, THIS HELPFUL IMPULSE TO GET IN A TIME MACHINE AND TALK TO THAT KID FIVE MINUTES BEFORE HE COMMITTED SUICIDE. I STRUGGLED WITH THAT, THIS DESIRE TO SPEAK TO THE KIDS WHO WERE HARMING THEMSELVES BECAUSE THEY WERE IN SUCH DESPAIR ABOUT BEING BULLIED AND FEELING THINGS WOULD NEVER GET BETTER. I STRUGGLED WITH THE KID THAT NEEDED TO SPEAK MOST TO A QUEER ADULT IS A KID WHOSE PARENTS WOULD NEVER LET THEIR KID INTERACT WITH A QUEER ADULT. THE QUEER KID BEING BULLIED IS THOUGHT TO BE AT THE HANDS OF THEIR PEERS, BUT THE WORST IS AT THE HANDS OF THE PARENTS. I WANTED TO SPEAK TO THOSE KIDS, BUT THE PARENTS WOULDN'T ALLOW IT. IT OCCURRED TO ME WITH YOUTUBE WE CAN SPEAK TO THOSE KIDS AND MAKE AN END RUN AROUND THEIR PREACHERS AND TEACHERS AND PARENTS. ADULTS WHO ARE QUEER CAN SHARE THEIR STRATEGIES, THE ARGUMENTS THEY EMPLOYED WITH THEIR FAMILIES, WHAT THEY LEARNED ABOUT MAKING IT BETTER FOR THEMSELVES. FOR MOST QUEER ADULTS, UNTIL SOCIAL MEDIA CAME ALONG WAS USELESS INFORMATION. QUEER PARENTS DON'T RAISE QUEER CHILDREN. AFRICAN-AMERICANS SHARE WHAT THEY KNOW ABOUT SURVIVING IN THIS CULTURE AS A BLACK OR A MUSLIM. A QUEER KID DOESN'T HAVE A QUEER PARENT TO SHARE WITH THEM ON THE PATH. Its QUEER ADULTS TALKING TO QUEER KIDS ABOUT THE STRATEGIES WE EMPLOYED, THE ARGUMENTS WE MADE WITH OUR FAMILIES, THE WAYS WE MADE IT BETTER FOR OURSELVES SO THEY TOO HAVE THE TOOLS.

SHANA FISCHER: ALONG MAKING IT BETTER, WE ARE DIVIDED ALONG EVERY LINE, RACE, GENDER, AND POLITICS. YOU HAVE BEEN OUT SPOKEN ABOUT THAT. HOW DO WE MAKE IT BETTER?


DAN SAVAGE: WE'LL NEVER COME TOGETHER. SOMEBODY ALWAYS LOSES. WE WANT TO BE SURE THAT THOSE THAT DESERVE TO LOSE, LOSE. THOSE THAT OPPOSED SAME SEX COUPLES LOST, AND THEY ARE BITTER ABOUT IT. NOT BECAUSE OPPONENTS DROPPED DEAD, BUT THEY CHANGED THEIR MIND. I THINK OF DAVID FRONT WHO OPPOSED MARRIAGE QUALITY, HE CAME AROUND. SOMETIMES PEOPLE LOST. THEY HAVE TO LOSE. WE HAVE TO BE OKAY WITH THAT. THERE IS PUSH, PULL AND BACKLASH WHEN PEOPLE THAT WISH THEY DIDN'T LOSE WINDED UP LOSING.

SHANA FISCHER: AND WHAT IS FOR YOU IN THE FUTURE?

DAN SAVAGE: OH MY GOD, I'LL KEEP DOING MY COLUMN, LIKE ANNE LANDER, I THINK IT WILL BE PRIED OUT OF MY COLD, DEAD HANDS ONE DAY. IT'S A REAL HONOR THAT PEOPLE TRUST ME WITH THEIR SECRETS, WITH THEIR PROBLEMS. BEFORE WE BEGAN THE INTERVIEW, I WAS LOOKING AT E-MAILS. THERE ARE HUNDREDS OF E-MAILS FROM PEOPLE THAT READ MY COLUMN, TRUST MY JUDGMENT, VALUE MY INSIGHT AND TRUST ME WITH THEIR DILEMMAS. THAT'S A REAL HONOR. I REALLY ENJOY THE GIG, ESPECIALLY WHEN PEOPLE ENCLOSE PHOTOGRAPHS OF THEIR BOYFRIENDS.

SHANA FISHER: CONGRATULATIONS ON YOUR SUCCESS. THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR JOINING US.

DAN SAVAGE: THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR HAVING ME.

Dan Savage: Activist & Author

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