A Conversation with Dan Savage

SBN - interviews - Dan Savage

By Andrew J. Rausch

Dan Savage is a Renaissance Man of sorts. He’s a well-known figure, but is known for different things to different kinds of people. He’s a bestselling author, a media pundit, journalist, and LGBT activist. He writes “Savage Love,” an internationally-syndicated relationship and sex advice column that he initially wanted to call “Hey, Faggot!” in an attempt to reclaim the word for the gay community. He’s the editorial director of the Seattle newspaper The Stranger, a frequent “Real Time Reporter” on Bill Maher’s HBO show Real Time with Bill Maher, and the host of a wildly-popular weekly podcast, also titled Savage Love.

He makes frequent appearances on various CNN and CNBC news programs, discussing hot button-topics like same-sex marriage and the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy. He also hosted the MTV series Savage U, where he traveled around the country talking to college students about sex, and also hosted a three-hour call-in show on Seattle radio station KCMU. In addition to these accomplishments, Savage has also done things as varied as writing and producing the short-lived ABC-TV sitcom The Real O’Neals and working as a theater director.

In 2010, Savage and his husband, Terry Miller, began the It Gets Better Project to combat suicide among bullied LGBT teens. In his writing and appearances, Savage has frequently clashed with both conservatives and the LGBT establishment. He gained his fair share of notoriety when he publicly opposed GOP Presidential candidate Rick Santorum’s rather closed-minded views on homosexuality. This eventually led to Savage setting up a website on which he defined the term “santorum” as “the frothy mixture of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes a byproduct of anal sex.” In another of his more controversial actions, Savage declared openly that “I wish the Republicans were all fucking dead.” In yet another of these controversies, Savage once stated that Green Party Senate candidate Carl Romanelli “should be dragged behind a pickup truck until there’s nothing left but the rope.”

Savage’s outspoken rhetoric has not only drawn ire from the Republican party, but it has also sparked outrage among many Christians. In 2012, Savage, an avowed atheist, ruffled more than a few feathers when he advised a room full of college students they should “learn to ignore the bullshit in the Bible about gay people,” prompting many in attendance to leave. He later called the walk out a “pansy-ass move.” In 2015, Savage remarked to CNBC talk show host Chris Hayes about the Pope’s meeting with noted shitbird homophobe Kim Davis, saying that homophobia “unites people across different Christian faiths.” Savage was then predictably criticized for persecuting Christians and bullying the Pope.

You grew up in the Catholic church. Since then you’ve stated that you don’t believe in any gods. What made you come to this conclusion? Could you talk a little bit about that?

I was one of those kids who had concerns from the very beginning. [Laughs.] In Catholic school they would explain to us that only Catholics went to heaven. Even as a young child, to learn that Gandhi wasn’t in heaven, but Hitler could be there if he’d made a confession on his deathbed… That offended my sense of justice and morality, even at that young age. But really it was my sexuality that brought me the conflict or opened my eyes. What happened was, I realized that what the church was telling me, and what my parents were telling me based on what the church told them… what they were telling me about myself was wrong. I just knew it in my bones, so I began to question what else the church might be wrong about. If they were wrong about this, perhaps they were also wrong about virgin births, and people floating up into heaven, and transubstantiation in the Catholic church, and all sorts of other things.

It wasn’t long before I started to pull at that thread and the entire garment unraveled. Unlike some people, I didn’t make the leap to “what the church tells me about myself is wrong, so I’m going to go to another church that doesn’t say that about me.” I began to think, why does my church tell me these things? Why did the people who ran the church claim to know these things that they can’t possibly know with any certainty? And that’s where faith comes in. It just instilled in me this incredible cynicism and doubt about anyone who claims to know anything they can’t possibly know. I think there should be humility in the face of the unknowable, and not guesswork that becomes dogma.

In the past when you’ve talked about Christians bullying gay kids, the Christians have responded by calling you a bully against Christians. What are your thoughts on this?

I read on the Internet that I bullied the Pope! [Laughs.] It’s right-wing Christians who say that. It’s people who would be unrecognizable as Christians to Jesus Christ. That’s right out of the ring-wing playbook; you accuse the other side of that which you know yourself to be guilty of. That’s why Donald Trump accused Hillary Clinton of being crooked. That’s why Donald Trump was out there talking about a rigged election—because he was rigging the election with the help of the Russians.

So when I say to Christians, “You must not bully gay kids,” they turn around and say I’m the real bully. “Quit saying mean things to us!” [Laughs again.] “You’re calling us names. You’re being intolerant about our intolerance.” I put no stock in this argument that right-wing pseudo-Christians make about me being the bully, which is what they say about the whole gay rights movement. They say it’s the persecution of Christians. They’ve had the free hand to persecute queer people for so long that no longer being able to persecute them now makes them feel like they themselves are being persecuted. They say, “We had so much fun burning your houses down for so long, and now we can’t do it anymore. How unfair to us! That was an important part of our culture for centuries, and we don’t get to do that anymore.” So they’re sad.

When Christian lawmakers ignore the other so-called abominations found in Leviticus but then point out homosexuality, do you feel they’re doing this on purpose? Or do you think they don’t actually see the hypocrisy in what they’re doing?

Their reading of that is very selective. And hypocritical. Because when anybody starts to point out anything in Leviticus that they ignore, or anything in the first five books of Moses, they turn around and say, “Well, here’s the new testament and Jesus revised all that  stuff about women having to live in huts or killing your daughters or virgins on their wedding nights.” Somehow that no longer applies. But homosexuality being an abomination still does. They cite that, but when we cite other passages to show how ridiculous this is, then suddenly they don’t want anything to do with the Old Testament. Suddenly that becomes the Jewish book, and it’s not about Christianity. It happens a lot. They want to have their Leviticus and eat it, too! [Laughs.] They want the bits of Leviticus that apply to others and not to them. This is what the cheap grace of conservative mono-Christianity is all about. If you hate queer people, which means if you aren’t queer yourself means no sacrifice, then you’re good with God. We saw that with Bristol Palin, leaping from dick to dick from one unplanned pregnancy to the next. But she can still call herself a good Christian because at least she hates gay people. At least she opposes gay marriage. It’s this low bar that’s very easy to clear, and then you can feel as if you’ve done everything you can possibly do as a Christian to be right with God. It’s so hypocritical.

We have this whole Christian-financed movement to block marriage equality because “marriage is sacred” because of Jesus, because of the Bible. Yet there is no movement to re-criminalize divorce, because that might inconvenience straight people, so they’re not going to do that.

In 2015, you responded to Ben Carson’s assertion that homosexuality is a choice by challenging him to prove it by making the choice and sucking your dick. You caught a lot of flak over that. Do you regret your choice of words, or are you still pretty happy with that?

Oh God, absolutely not. I actually put it in my book! [Laughs.] Ben Carson wasn’t the first. I also issued that challenge to Herman Cain four years earlier when he was running for President. And I issued that challenge to Tony Perkins and some others.

They’re constantly invoking gay sex in an attempt to demagogue or stigmatize, and I think it’s a good strategy for us to invoke gay sex right back at them. They use gay sex to make the little old ladies who send them checks uncomfortable. So I think we have an absolute right to use gay sex to make them themselves uncomfortable. And it gets to the heart of the matter. That’s why that comment took off the way it did both times. I also challenged Mike Huckabee to suck my dick… God, my dick could have been in so many unpleasant places! [Chuckles.]

The reason the comment took off is because isn’t because it’s profane but because it’s called for, because they’re the ones saying that gayness is a choice that people make. It’s a switch that someone can flip. And they argue that there should be no marital rights for queer people and no gay rights laws because gay people don’t have to exist. They say it’s just simple and easy because these people could just choose to be straight. Well, if it’s simple and easy to choose to be straight, then it must be simple and easy to choose to be gay. So you go ahead and choose it. You show how that’s done since sexual orientation is the simple matter of flipping a switch.

To make their argument ridiculous by being graphic and sexual in a conversation that’s already primarily about people’s sex lives is, I think, completely legitimate. That’s why the comment took off and the right wing flipped out, because they knew I had them. It was a solid punch, and it was a punch that landed. That’s why they blew it up into this controversy about what a potty-mouthed monster I am. But it didn’t work.

Politicians like Mike Pence are in favor of conversion therapy for gay kids. Their religious views won’t allow them to believe that being gay can be a natural thing. They see it as a curable sickness. My question is this: what the fuck is wrong with these people?

[Laughs.] I think we see on the right that there’s a lot of externalization of internal conflict. Sometimes it’s because these people are gay and closeted. When people run around saying sexual orientation is a choice , it’s because they’ve made a choice about sexuality themselves. That’s what they’re talking about. They’re gay and they’ve chosen not to be out. Like the Marcus Bachmanns of the world, you see people who read as gay, who appear to be gay, and are very vocally anti-gay. They’re just scolding themselves. They’ve externalized that internal conflict.

With others though, you do see this desire to cast around for a scapegoat. Straight people have made a real hash of their own marriages and their own families, and rather than take responsibility for it—instead of asking themselves what they’re doing wrong with the heterosexuality stuff—they want to blame gay people. They want to blame this “other.” They believe that gay people demanding to be who they are and to live openly and marry and commit and have our own families somehow undermines them and their families. It’s ridiculous. Rather than take responsibility, rather than saying to straight people “We’ve got to get our shit together,” they say things wouldn’t be so sucky if it wasn’t for those cocksuckers over there.

This current administration promotes religion in virtually every aspect of its function, from a desire to teach it in public schools to their reasoning for various legislative decisions. What do you see as being some of the most dangerous aspects of such actions?

They’re divisive. We don’t live in a Christian nation. Our founding fathers explicitly stated that fact. Favoring one religion over another is going to create chaos and divide Americans against one another. You look at why faith is stronger in America, why Americans are more religious than Europeans, and one of the answers has got to be that we didn’t have a state religion. Religion wasn’t about state control. It was about all of us as individuals getting to make up our minds about who our imaginary friends are going to be. Places with state religions where religion and power are married and joined together, that undermines religion in the long run. So another reason we shouldn’t be doing this besides its just being divisive and unconstitutional is, if you’re religious, then you should see that it’s bad for religion.

So maybe secularists, atheists, and agnostics should cheer these moves where the government promotes one particular kind of religion, because it ultimately undermines religion.

You and your husband adopted a son. Now Republican legislators are wanting to roll back adoption rights for gay couples. What are your thoughts on that?

They’re not hurting gay couples. They’re hurting kids. Look at Texas. There are more kids in Texas that need homes than there are homes for those kids. Turning away qualified, screened potential parents for these kids because of their sexual orientation or gender identity is just hurting children. You know, a gay couple that lives in Texas and wants to adopt a child can go and adopt in Oregon and then come back to Texas. Or they can do surrogacy. Or they can have a lesbian friend or a straight friend and create a new kind of family structure that involves more than just a couple. People will find a way to create their families.

What these laws do is they trap children in the foster care system, potentially for the rest of their lives. Everybody who works in adoption will tell you that same sex couples—queer parents—are often willing to adopt the difficult, hard-to-place children that no one else is willing to adopt; older kids, mixed race kids, HIV positive kids, kids who have had alcohol and drug exposure, abused and traumatized kids. A lot of queer parents are willing to take those kids and are happy to adopt them, not because we’re satisfied with crumbs, but because often queer parents identify with those marginalized kids. They empathize because they themselves might have been abused for who they are. They themselves might have been discarded by their biological families. So there’s an empathy and understanding. So to take those parents out of the adoption pool—the couples who are more likely than straight couples to adopt these hard-to-place kids who may never find homes otherwise—is just monstrously cruel. And it’s not cruel to queer couples who can move or adopt elsewhere, but to the kids who are trapped in Texas’ foster care system.

I have a friend who’s an evangelical Christian and kind of a fundamentalist. She’s a wonderful person and we have the kind of relationship that everybody talks about but few people seem to really be able to have, right? We actually talk over these divisions. We’re actually really good friends. I was there for her when the shit hit the fan in her marriage, and she’s been there for me when I was really depressed. And she came around on this issue. She knew me after we’d adopted, and that was something she really felt she couldn’t get past. I had to explain to her that our son had three chances at a straight couple for parents. His biological parents couldn’t raise him and absolutely did the right thing by putting him up for adoption. And then there were two different straight couples who wouldn’t adopt him that he’d been offered to first. They wouldn’t adopt him because of alcohol exposure during the pregnancy. And we’re the bad guys? We stole him from straight couples who could have raised him? No.

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