Dan Savage: It’s ‘never been worse’ for LGBT youth

Founder of It Gets Better Project says higher visibility combined with anti-gay forces can make growing up gay as hard as ever

SAVAGE  LOVE | Dan Savage, shown here at an appearance at the Kessler Theater last year, will appear at UNT on Feb. 7. (Rich Lopez/Dallas Voice)

DAVID TAFFET  |  Staff Writer
taffet@dallasvoice.com

Sex-advice columnist Dan Savage, known for his It Gets Better Project, will keynote the University of North Texas Equity and Diversity Conference next week.

“I’ll talk about how it’s gotten worse in some ways,” Savage said.

He said that kids can’t fly under the radar anymore like when he came out in 1981.

“Everyone is hyper-aware in a way they weren’t before,” he said.

He called that a result of the Reagan Revolution, when anti-gay rhetoric became organized.

“Mom and Dad beat up on gay people at the ballot box so it became OK for kids to beat up on gay kids at school,” he said.

This week, Savage said he received a letter from a father whose 13-year-old son recently came out.

“How do I know I’m parenting him correctly?” the dad wanted to know.

As a father with a 13-year-old son himself, Savage gets aggressively protective. He tells parents to make sure there’s a Gay Straight Alliance in school. If the school has anti-bullying policies in place, make sure they’re being enforced and let the principal know you’re watching and “you’ll create holy hell.” And make sure the child has gay role models and friends.

GETTING  BETTER AND BETTER | Dan Savage, right, and his husband Terry Miller started the It Gets Better Project to help LGBT youth. Their original goal was 100 videos but they have more than 50,000 that have gotten 50 million views. (Photo courtesy of Dan Savage)

He advises that when the young teen’s straight friends start dating and they have no other out friends in school, reassure them that their time will come. And don’t be afraid to give an LGBT child the same advice you’d give a straight child. That’s not homophobia, he said. It’s parenting.

But Savage called this “the best of times and the worst of times” for LGBT youth to grow up.

“If you grow up in a rural area, go to a Christian school, are bullied from the pulpit and there’s no GSA, it’s never been worse,” he said.

Savage said that when he began the It Gets Better Project, he and husband Terry Miller hoped for 100 videos. A day after posting that first one, he had topped that number and within a few days had 100 more. He said that at last count there were more than 50,000 It Gets Better videos that have been viewed more than 50 million times. That includes one of the most popular — the City Council speech made by Joel Burns that has been seen more than 2.7 million times.

Two of Savage’s favorite pieces that were included in the book It Gets Better, which will be released in paperback in March, were contributed by A.Y. Daring and Gabrielle Rivera. Daring, who identifies herself as black and queer, grew up in rural Canada. Her simple story tells of moving to a bigger city and entering a university with the oldest LGBT support group in the country. Rivera, a gay Latina from the Bronx, tells youth that, “It doesn’t get better.” But she says that you get stronger.

It Gets Better has been incorporated as a nonprofit organization. Savage said as soon as the videos took off, they trademarked and copyrighted the slogan and “people started throwing money at us.”

“We created a brand,” he said.

He said they’ve had to protect that brand and were able to shut down an anti-gay group that tried to co-opt the phrase.

That money raised has been redirected to GLSEN, the Trevor Project and the ACLU LGBT project. And he would like to see It Gets Better merged into another organization rather than continue as a standalone. Talks with other groups are ongoing.

Savage commented on the presidential campaign and the image of one of the candidates he helped create.

In 2003, in response to an interview in which Sen. Rick Santorum’s called gay sex a deviant behavior, Savage wrote, “There’s no better way to memorialize the Santorum scandal than by attaching his name to a sex act that would make his big, white teeth fall out of his big, empty head.”

As a result, the definition of Santorum that pops up first in an online search of the name has been dubbed the candidate’s “Google problem.”

Savage dismisses Santorum’s campaign, however.

“He’s not running for president,” he said. “He’s running for a Fox News contract just like [Mike] Huckabee.”

On Rick Perry, he wonders how Texans feel about the general impression that Perry’s not smart enough to be president.

“He’s just dumb enough to be governor?” Savage wonders. “I love that Barack Obama is now more popular in Texas than Rick Perry.”

After the George “Rentboy” Rekers scandal, Savage helped popularize the term “lift the luggage” to mean supplying your partner with sexual pleasure. He said studies have shown that homophobic men are turned on by gay pornography.

“Every time a [Ted] Haggard or Rekers comes along, it makes homophobia look gay,” he said. “So we celebrate when they come tumbling out of the closet.”

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Savage at UNT

The Equity & Diversity Conference at University of North Texas University Union, 1155 Union Circle, Denton. Feb. 7 from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. 940-565-2711. Dan Savage will speak at 10 a.m. in the Silver Eagle Suit.

Registration is free for UNT students, $100 for UNT faculty, staff and alumni, $150 for non-UNT students and $275 for others. Onsite registration, available the day of the conference is $350.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 3, 2012.

—  Michael Stephens

Savagely better

BETTER ALL THE TIME | Dan Savage, right, and his partner Terry Miller offered a helping voice for LGBT youth during a rash of suicides with the ‘It Gets Better’ campaign. The campaign has grown that the couple has turned it into a book. Savage comes to Dallas to talk up the book and likely, some sex.

Giving advice on sex or telling LGBT youth it gets better, people listen to Dan Savage

Sex advice guru Dan Savage — whose column/podcast/iPhone-iPod app Savage Love has made him the queer Dear Abby — founded and launched the It Gets Better Project (ItGetsBetter.org) in September 2010 with husband Terry Miller via its first YouTube video. At the time, he never expected that it would go as far as it has in sheer numbers (10,000-plus and counting) and input from across the globe and social strata: President Obama’s video went up just a month later, and Fort Worth Councilman Joel Burns was attributed with expanding the cause when his (unrelated) heartfelt confessional went viral.

Now the book companion, It Gets Better: Coming Out, Overcoming Bullying, and Creating a Life Worth Living (Dutton; $21.95), edited by Savage and Miller, drops, featuring all-new essays by the likes of David Sedaris, Kate Clinton, Michael Cunningham and Alison Bechdel, as well as video transcriptions and expanded essays from high-profile personalities and everyday folks alike.

Savage, who serves as editorial director for Seattle’s The Stranger weekly and recently shot a TV series pilot for MTV (he’s awaiting word on whether it’s being picked up), spoke about the book, where he turns for advice, and the next social-sexual mission on his agenda.

— Lawrence Ferber


Dallas Voice: How does this book further the It Gets Better mission and message? Dan Savage: The book includes pieces from people who haven’t made videos. It also creates another way for kids who need to hear these messages to find them. I’ve written books before, and you never really know where a book is going to wind up. Sometimes they wind up in school libraries; I’ve gotten notes from people who stumbled across my book The Kid in the Himalayas. The Internet has tremendous reach, of course, and kids are wired and tech savvy, but not all kids have access to the Internet and not all kids want to leave a browser history that might incriminate them. So this gives another way to reach a lot of kids.

Who would you like to see contribute an It Gets Better video or message but hasn’t yet? I would love for the prime minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, to make one. I would like to see — and am not surprised we have not seen — a video from a prominent Republican elected official. There has been not one. I wish every politician would make one.

Look at New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg. He made a video where he said we welcome everybody — LGBT youth have a home in New York if where you’re at is not welcoming you. At the same time that he released that video, he slashed funding for the Ali Forney Center, which is a shelter for LGBT teens, and he was called out for his hypocrisy. People were able to use the video to shame him and he reversed [his decision] and re-funded the center. So calling in these chits, and being able to hold the people to the promises they made in their videos, is valuable.

That said, for me the most important videos are the ones from people no one’s ever heard of — average, everyday LGBT folks reaching out and sharing their joy with LGBT kids who may be having trouble picturing a future for themselves. Queer kids know there are gay celebrities out there, and straight celebs and politicians who are fine with gay people, but what some of them are having trouble picturing is how they get from being a bullied, miserable 14-year-old gay kid whose family is also tormenting them to a happy, secure, loved and perhaps, reconciled with their family gay adult.

What are the next steps in It Gets Better’s future? There’s a good body of videos and we want to archive and tag them so they’re more easily searched. There are a lot by trans people, but you can’t always tell which just by looking at the thumbnail images, so we would need to make them easier to break out into playlists and search. We’re working on that now. The mission after that is to make sure that five to 10 years from now, once this moment of such intense media interest has passed, that kids who are 5 today and going to be 15 then and don’t know about the website can find their way there. We have to make sure that there is enough money raised to host and maintain the website and awareness about it in schools and where kids are at.

As a sex advice columnist, who do you look to or read for sex advice? I read a lot of sex columns. I like In & Out, Caroline Hax, Dear Prudence, Margo Howard. If you go to TheStranger.com/Savage, there’s a blogroll called “Want a Second Opinion?” which is links to other columns I approve of and enjoy.

So what is the one issue when it comes to our sex lives that you have made your number one mission to change through your work? I just want people to be more realistic about monogamy. People’s expectations about what a long-term relationships is like are so in conflict with what LTRs are actually like that a lot of decent, fine, functional relationships have ended because people had irrational expectations. If we can change expectations we can save a lot of relationships. Life-long sexual monogamy and the expectation that an LTR is always going to be this extraordinarily passionate fuck-fest sets us all up for disappointment.

And is there one strategy you are taking to go about that? It’s an issue that constantly comes up. Sexual dissatisfaction, mismatched libidos, unmet sexual needs, people being cut off sexually by their spouses after they have children. I’m in the position often of recommending what I describe as “the least worst option.” I think if the choice is a nasty divorce that upends the lives of four to five people and family or a little discreet infidelity that makes it possible for that family to remain intact and otherwise completely functional, I’m for infidelity.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 25, 2011.

—  John Wright