In pre-1960s America, if you had questions about sex (Is masturbation cheating? What’s a butterfly flick? Butter or margarine?), you were at the mercy of your friends, who probably knew less than you did. Then came the sexual revolution with its free-flowing sex advice, some of it accurate. We like to think the Playboy Advisor column, as it reassured, instructed and entertained several generations of men, gave birth to a genre that thrives today.
One of the most read and most controversial sex columnists working now is Dan Savage, whose Savage Love column is syndicated in more than 50 newspapers around the world. Savage also dispenses his hilarious and sage advice in best-selling books, podcasts and blogs, as well as a smartphone app. And he’s gay, but the majority of his readers are straight. “His columns answer a Chaucerian panorama of correspondents,” according to Washington Monthly. “Gay Mormons, incestuous siblings, weight-gain fetishists, men yearning to be cuckolded and otherwise ordinary Americans grappling with an extraordinary range of problems and proclivities.”
Along with his unconventional sex advice, Savage is known for his advocacy of LGBT rights, including gay marriage. He has frequently appeared as a liberal pundit on CNN, Real Time With Bill Maher and The Colbert Report. And he has been repeatedly attacked, even condemned, by conservative politicians, media pundits and clergy. Savage hasn’t been reluctant to fight back against those he deems homophobic and dangerous. After Rick Santorum compared homosexuality to bestiality, Savage announced a contest to redefine the word santorum. The winning definition—which he explains in this interview—continues to plague the former senator, who is reportedly exploring another presidential run in 2016.
Savage, 50, was born in Chicago, where his father was a police officer and his mother a homemaker. He now lives in Seattle with his husband, Terry Miller. They married in Canada in 2005 and renewed their vows in 2012, following the legalization of gay marriage in Washington. The couple has an adopted son, DJ, who has come out of the closet to Savage and Miller—as straight.
In September 2010, prompted by the suicide of a teenager who had been bullied because classmates thought he was gay, Savage and Miller created the It Gets Better project. They made a video in which they speak to gay kids who are isolated and feeling hopeless. They posted it online and encouraged others to follow suit. “The idea was simple,” Savage explains in American Savage: Insights, Sights and Fights on Faith, Sex, Love and Politics, his latest best-seller. “There were LGBT kids out there who couldn’t picture futures with enough joy in them to compensate for the pain they were in now. We wanted to offer them encouragement.” The It Gets Better project currently has more than 60,000 videos. Celebrities and politicians, including President Barack Obama, have contributed.
At a time when support for gay marriage is increasing, gay sports stars are coming out of the closet and more openly gay members are serving in Congress, we asked Contributing Editor David Sheff, whose last interview for us was with the Chinese artist-dissident Ai Weiwei, to meet with Savage. Sheff says that when he arrived to begin the interview, Savage admitted he was nervous about speaking to Playboy, thought by some to be a bastion of heterosexuality. “But he quickly relaxed,” Sheff says. “Soon he was animated, speaking passionately, emotionally, vividly and hilariously about a wide range of subjects. Clearly he warmed up to talking to Playboy, as evidenced by a text he sent soon after the interview’s conclusion. “I forgot to say one thing,” he wrote. “I have lusted in my heart.”
PLAYBOY: According to the Playboy Advisor, the number one question sex columnists are asked is “Am I normal?” What’s behind the obsession with normalcy?
SAVAGE: Even though everyone has non-normative desires—variance is the norm, in fact—people are terrified by what they think and want. When you ask people what they see in their minds when they imagine two people having normal sex, they say the missionary position, vaginal intercourse and husband and wife, with the intention of making a baby. How rare is that? That’s freaky shit right there. That is not normal.
PLAYBOY: If the non-normal is normal, why do people need to be reassured?
SAVAGE: Sex negativity is imposed on us by religion, parents and a culture that can’t deal with sex. We pretend sex doesn’t interest us, while the culture is sexually obsessed. I also think sex negativity is hardwired into the human experience. You’re born with it, because when you’re a kid, prepuberty, sex is this fucked-up thing grown-ups do. When you hear about it, you think, Creepy, gross. Like, oh my God, you adults do whaaaat? Then you hit puberty and the riptide pulls you out; you get sucked under by this thing you swore you’d never do. It’s terrifying. That’s why people are plagued by their desires and why they need to be constantly reassured. They never wanted to get into that ocean, and they’re suddenly drowning. Your dick or your pussy seizes control of your brain and tells you who’s really in charge.
PLAYBOY: What’s the root of religious conservatism about sex?
SAVAGE: Judaism, Christianity, Islam and almost every other faith have constantly tried to insert themselves between your genitals and your salvation, because then they can regulate and control you. Then you need them to intercede with God, so they target your junk and stigmatize your sexual desire. If you have somebody by the balls or the ovaries, you’ve got them.
PLAYBOY: And then you come along, telling us that when it comes to sex, anything goes.
SAVAGE: I don’t say anything goes. I don’t believe all sexual expression is good. Sex is powerful, and you must approach it thoughtfully, because it can destroy you.
PLAYBOY: Destroy us how?
SAVAGE: Sexually transmitted infections, unplanned pregnancy, partner violence. It’s why we need comprehensive, responsible, kink-inclusive, queer-inclusive sex education for all kids.
PLAYBOY: Did your parents talk to you about sex?
SAVAGE: When my brothers and sisters were teenagers and having their first relationships, my parents were all over them. “Who are you going out with?” “Where are you going?” “I want to meet this person.” My sister was sexually active, as I was, in high school—sorry, Laura, I hope your son doesn’t read this—and she could go to my mom and say, “My boyfriend is saying ‘If you loved me, you wouldn’t make me use a condom,’ ” and Mom could blow up and yell at her boyfriend if he was stupid enough to show his face at our house. When I had a boyfriend at 16, I couldn’t rely on my mom to vet this shit. I wasn’t out to her at that point, so I couldn’t confide in her at all, which is a problem for a lot of queers. They fly blind into adult relationships.
PLAYBOY: With what result?
SAVAGE: You’re 15 and watching your siblings have relationships, and you want to have a boyfriend too. But because their age-appropriate boyfriend targets aren’t out yet, a lot of young gay kids date older people, which is a recipe for potential disaster. My first boyfriend when I was a teenager was 28, and he was a wonderful guy and good for me. But the odds that it might be an exploitative relationship are that much higher.
PLAYBOY: If not your parents, was there an equivalent of Dan Savage you could go to for sex advice?
SAVAGE: I read Xaviera Hollander, the Happy Hooker, her Call Me Madam column. She took questions about kinky sex, crazy sex, bi sex, BDSM, and was so unfazed. She gave advice that was constructive, not judgmental.
PLAYBOY: What do you think of others in the media who offer sex advice? How about Dr. Laura?
SAVAGE: Dr. Laura is a vile piece of shit.
PLAYBOY: Dr. Phil?
SAVAGE: He’s part of the advice-industrial Oprah complex. I’m not a big fan of telling women that when their husband looks at porn it’s a form of cheating. That’s what you say if you want to drive the divorce rate up even higher than it is.
PLAYBOY: What do you tell a woman whose husband looks at porn?
SAVAGE: He’ll pretend not to look, you pretend to believe him, and then give him some credit for covering his tracks if he does so successfully. If you stumble over evidence once in a great while, then you repay his courtesy of covering his tracks most of the time by ignoring it.
PLAYBOY: What impact does the availability of limitless porn online have on kids as they grow up?
SAVAGE: A lot of girls have the expectation that they’ll have to do all these things they see in porn, whether they want to or not. And it weighs on the boys too that they’ll have to perform all these acts. It’s as big a stressor for boys as it is for girls. They see these 20-inch dicks and rock-hard abs and all that. I tell my son, “You have to be careful when you look at porn. A lot of porn is for men who can’t get laid, who can’t get girlfriends. A lot of porn is created for angry men.” Kids see porn and think that’s what sex is. So we have to say to boys and girls what the right-wing fundamentalist fucktards won’t say, which is that other kinds of sex are normal and at your ages it might be better to masturbate together. That oral sex is less risky. That a lot of what adults do isn’t vaginal intercourse. That everyone doesn’t have a 20-inch dick. It can lift the burden from them. But parents don’t talk about sex at all with their kids. It’s hard talking about sex with a teenager. My son doesn’t want to hear it from me or anyone else, but you have to meddle. You have to say, “You can roll around and jerk off. That’s a lot of what adults do.”
PLAYBOY: What impact has the internet had on the kinds of questions people ask you about sex?
SAVAGE: Before the internet came along I used to get a lot of “What’s a butt plug?” “How do I do…whatever?” Those were easy columns to write, but now butt plugs are on fucking Wiki pages, so I get questions about situational ethics.
PLAYBOY: What are the differences between what men and women ask?
SAVAGE: I get a lot of questions from young women who don’t know what men really are, because they’ve been lied to all their lives. “He looks at porn and it makes me feel I’m not enough for him.” “He checks out girls on the street and it makes me feel I’m not enough for him.” I write them back and say, “You aren’t enough for him, and he’s not enough for you either.” Girls who are smart about that shit aren’t writing me questions about why they feel they’re not enough for their boyfriends. They know they’re not. Why isn’t making the sacrifice to be monogamous considered to be nobler than this myth of effortless monogamy that’s a result of love and passion?
PLAYBOY: Why is a sacrifice nobler?
SAVAGE: You’re told that if you’re in love, you won’t want to fuck other people. But if you’re in love, why do you have to make a monogamous commitment at all? It should be implicit and understood. So I get a lot of questions from women like “I’m not enough for him and he wants a three-way. What should I do?” I get questions from men about how to talk their girlfriends into having three-ways.
PLAYBOY: And your answer?
SAVAGE: You ask. I say you ask for a three-way, and if that’s important to you and she’s not up for it, maybe you aren’t right for each other. I tell people to communicate. Put your needs out there, and if they reject you, then you know you’re not compatible. You need to keep putting your needs out there until you find either somebody who’s willing to meet your needs because they take pleasure in the pleasure they’re giving you or somebody whose needs are a close enough fit with your needs. The problem with some of the advice out there is that people are told they should never do anything in bed that they don’t want to do. That’s bullshit.
PLAYBOY: Are you saying people should do whatever their partner wants them to do?
SAVAGE: You should never do anything in bed that scars you. You should never do anything in bed that leaves you curled up in the fetal position on the floor crying afterward. But yes, we should tell people they have to be whores for each other. You shouldn’t be an ingrate or a dick or selfish, but we should tell people who are in sexless relationships and who aren’t doing what their partner wants, “You bought the dairy, so milk the fucking cow. If you don’t milk it, it’s going to find somebody else to milk it.”
PLAYBOY: What if someone asks what their partner wants and doesn’t like the answer?
SAVAGE: It happens all the time. Young women write me that they pressed and pressed their boyfriends to share their secret fantasies with them and then were terrified when they found out what those fantasies were—when it’s not “I want to fill the bed with rose petals and light a thousand tea candles in the bedroom.” That’s not a male fantasy. Girls tell me about Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice and romantic comedies and all that bullshit. I always tell my female young-adult readers, “Careful. If you press him about his fantasy, you’re much likelier to hear ‘a three-way with you and your sister’ than ‘a trip to Paris.’ ” Male sexuality is crazy, perverse. Men are testosterone-pickled dick monsters. We just are.
PLAYBOY: What if she doesn’t want to have a three-way with her sister?
SAVAGE: It depends how badly he wants it. If that’s what he wants and you don’t want to do it, maybe he should find someone who does, and you should find someone whose fantasies are more in line with yours.
PLAYBOY: What are some of the most surprising questions you’ve received over the years?
SAVAGE: The ones that surprise me are from people who want my blessing to do things that are just absolutely, positively wrong. People who think intergenerational sex—I mean fucking kids—is okay. Or fucking dogs. I have a complicated relationship with bestiality. The standard argument against it doesn’t logically hold up. “An animal can’t consent.” Well, I’m wearing a leather belt. I know that if I were a sheep, I’d rather be screwed than stewed. Still, I think it’s wrong and people shouldn’t do it.
PLAYBOY: How often do people—we imagine it would mostly be men—complain about the infrequency of sex in their relationships?
SAVAGE: Actually, I get letters from women who are distraught because they had fun, inventive, active sex lives with their husbands until they had children, and then their husbands saw them as just moms and couldn’t see them as sex objects anymore. But that doesn’t mean the men don’t want to have sex. Straight men would do everything gay men do if straight men could, but straight men can’t, because women won’t. If I told straight men there was a park with all these women from the ages of 18 to 60, some of them insanely hot, some of them average, all of whom want to fuck you and don’t want to know your name or your phone number and never want to see you again, that park would be full of straight men tomorrow. Not all gay men go to those parks. Not all straight men would go either, but many, many would.
PLAYBOY: Have you?
SAVAGE: I’ve never been to a bathhouse. I’ve never had sex in a bush. That doesn’t interest me, but gay guys do do that. Female sexuality is different, whether you believe sexual reserve and caution are biological or cultural or some combo of the two, which is what I believe. The risks of being sexually active fall disproportionately on women’s shoulders. Sexually transmitted infections are easier to pass from male to female. If she gets pregnant, that’s all on her, particularly if it’s an anonymous encounter. She’s vulnerable to intimate-partner violence, to rape. When straight men complain that women aren’t up for anything, I always write back and say, “Well, tackle the rape problem and maybe more women will be. Tackle the intimate-partner violence thing.” Female sexual reserve acts as a check on straight men’s ability to spin out of control sexually. The challenge gay men have—and I wish there was more HIV-AIDS education about this—is to find inside ourselves that check that straight men have imposed on them externally, or we can spin out of control sexually and destroy ourselves, which is what we did [during the AIDS crisis]. You can fuck yourself to death, and we shouldn’t do that again. My point of view has always been that straight people need to have more sex and more sex partners than they do, and gay people need to have fewer sex partners than they can. It’s just hard for straight guys to get laid. Pussy is hard to get, and it’s hard to get because of disease, pregnancy and violence. I don’t think women are naturally any less horny.
PLAYBOY: After a point, do things other than sex become more important for couples? Friendship? Love?
SAVAGE: They say your priorities are out of whack if you look at an otherwise serviceable, decent, loving relationship and think, Well, the sex isn’t there; I have to end this. You do have to end it if you’re going to have a sexually exclusive relationship and the sex sucks. But if you’ve been married 20 years and the sex has died, but you love each other, are good parents and partners together, or two extended families have been knit together and there’s shared property, I think it’s perfectly legitimate to stay together and fuck other people. How is that not a marriage? That’s more of a traditional marriage than this idea that marriage is supposed to be a lifelong fuck-fest passionathon. We know that the longer you’re together, passion dissipates and fades. There may be sex and it may be regular, but it will be less intense, and you may miss that intensity. The only way to get that is with other people. The research into sexless marriages seems to indicate that women have the low libidos, but it’s not that they don’t want to have sex. They just don’t want to have sex with their husbands. How do you fix that? Well, a lot of what you hear in polyamorous circles and from swingers is that as soon as you start having sex with other people, you also start fucking your spouse more; you desire your spouse more when your spouse doesn’t represent the end of novelty and adventure. One of the beefs conservative assholes have with gay male couples is that we’re less monogamous. I like to think we’re more likely to be successfully not monogamous. By the way, lesbian couples are more likely to be monogamous than heterosexuals or gay men.
PLAYBOY: Bottom line, do you advocate cheating for men and women who are bored?
SAVAGE: Sometimes. Better to do what you need to do to stay married and stay sane. If your partner won’t fuck you, one person doesn’t have the right to unilaterally declare another person’s sex life over.
PLAYBOY: But you said a partner’s refusal to have the sex one of them wants could be a deal breaker, that that’s when you realize you’re in the wrong relationship.
SAVAGE: Sometimes, but there are situations when the least worst option is cheating. We’re not natural monogamists. People argue that we are. Then why in so many cultures—Judeo-Christian, Islamic—is adultery a death penalty offense? What species has to be threatened with death to do that which comes naturally?
PLAYBOY: Okay. So you cheat to save your marriage. Should you lie about it?
SAVAGE: Absolutely. I don’t want my husband to tell me the truth about everything all the time. What relationship could survive that kind of a scalding, deposition-style nightmare?
PLAYBOY: Isn’t lying another betrayal?
SAVAGE: I want to be lied to. He wants me to lie to him. There are things you don’t say because they can’t be unsaid and would be shattering, so you protect each other. Sometimes the most loving thing you can do in the wake of an affair is lie.
PLAYBOY: Aren’t you giving men a free pass to cheat all they want and then lie about it? No wonder a lot of heterosexual men like your advice.
SAVAGE: I’m not giving a pass to serial adulterers or people who are vicious and manipulative.
PLAYBOY: You’ve said you believe that couples can be “monogamish.” Are you and your husband? Do you tell each other about cheating?
SAVAGE: In my relationship with Terry, a couple of things came out a decade after the fact. Because so much other water had gone under the bridge, what was revealed didn’t seem as threatening or devastating as it would have if it had been revealed in the moment. Because we’re solid. Looking back, I wouldn’t have wanted to know then what I know now, and knowing it now doesn’t bother me.
PLAYBOY: You and Terry have been married for a decade. Now more Americans support gay marriage than are against it. Are you convinced it will eventually be legal everywhere?
SAVAGE: Well, the polls here move in one direction on this issue. We win the persuadables. Period, the end.
PLAYBOY: And what about the non-persuadables? Is it only a matter of time before they come around too?
SAVAGE: No. This will always be an issue, the way abortion will always be an issue. Can you believe we’re still debating access to birth control, that access is increasingly restricted? We will forever have to fight a rear-guard action to defend our right to marry. The religious right is not going to give up on this.
PLAYBOY: But just as the tide is turning on marijuana legalization, it appears to be turning on gay marriage. Will the opposition at least become less fervent?
SAVAGE: I would hope so. I hope we get to the point that we’re the new pot. I mean, I enjoy the old pot; I’d like to be the new pot. But I don’t think so. Judeo-Christianity-Islam has thousands of years invested in stigmatizing and policing nonprocreative sex.
PLAYBOY: Some opponents of gay marriage do believe marriage is solely for procreation.
SAVAGE: That’s why Rick and Karen Santorum have had sex only seven times, right? That’s why Mike Huckabee and his wife have had sex only three times. That’s why now, with in vitro fertilization, nobody should be having sex at all. Humans average 1,000 sexual contacts for every one live birth. What’s sex for? Our genes are desperately trying to get out there. Some part of my reptile brain, when I fuck my husband in the ass, is trying to get him pregnant. My brother Billy got a vasectomy, yet still, when he has sex with his longtime partner, a woman, he’s thwarting the control. His higher mind is saying to his reptile brain, “I’m in charge,” while his reptile brain is spewing away, trying to get his girlfriend pregnant. And it won’t work. And I’m spewing away trying to get my husband pregnant. We don’t look at people eating in restaurants or cooking unnecessarily elaborate meals and think, Well, that’s perverse. We should eat like the squirrels and cheetahs and just tackle something and devour it. We should save that desire for nourishment, because food is only for nourishment; food is not for pleasure. But we say that about sex.
PLAYBOY: You mentioned Santorum. He has been the object of some of your fiercest attacks. Why him?
SAVAGE: In 2003 Santorum gave an interview to the AP in which he compared gay couples who wish to marry to people who rape children and fuck dogs. That’s a vile and disgusting thing to say. In response, my readers came up with a vile, disgusting and proportionate response.
PLAYBOY: That response was to your contest to redefine the word santorum.
SAVAGE: Yes. The winner defined santorum as “the frothy mixture of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the by-product of anal sex.” The operative term there is sometimes, by the way. If you’re doing anal sex right, there is no santorum, lowercase, as opposed to Santorum, uppercase.
PLAYBOY: In your view, who are the most offensive homophobes now?
SAVAGE: Vladimir Putin and the president of Uganda. We expected the backlash here in the U.S., but the backlash is abroad. What is our responsibility to queer people in Uganda who are being brutalized because of the rapid success of the gay-rights movement in the West? In countries like Uganda, leaders have this easy way to assert their moral superiority: hating gay people in the same way shitty, fucked-up Christians in America do. Putin is very blunt about this. It’s how they prove their moral superiority to the West. They don’t have to take better care of their citizens, they don’t have to have a functioning democracy, they don’t have to have a decent environment, they don’t have to have a justice system that works. They just have to hate gay people really hard and they’re better than the United States, better than Canada, better than France. It’s exactly like the Christians. They don’t have to stop masturbating, stop having premarital sex, stop drinking, stop getting divorced and remarried. All they have to do to be good Christians is hate gay people. “I don’t have to keep my dick out of anybody; I just have to hate you and where you’re putting your dick.”
PLAYBOY: Another sparring partner of yours has been former governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. He once said that you must be “not a happy person,” because you’re so “rude, vile and angry.” You responded, “You can rest assured that I’m a happy person, Mike. Have you seen my husband in a Speedo? No gay man with a husband who looks like mine in a Speedo is unhappy.”
SAVAGE: I love that pseudo, false, pious, ersatz, bullshit empathy. Fuck you and fuck your pity, Mike Huckabee. Suck my fucking dick. I don’t need your pity, and I also didn’t need your approval. Neither interests me.
PLAYBOY: Have you had the opportunity to say that to his face?
SAVAGE: No, I never said to Mike Huckabee “Suck my dick.” There is a long list of people I’ve invited to suck my dick, though, figuratively. Rick Santorum never got the invite. Herman Cain did. He always says that being gay is a choice. I’ve always felt the correct retort to “It’s a choice” is “Prove it. Suck my dick, and suck my dick like you like it. You don’t have to have a boner while you suck my dick, but you can’t be crying like it’s an Oz repeat on HBO.” They’re arguing that basically, kids, there’s a switch in your brain that you can consciously flip, and it makes you gay. It’s a choice you make. So let’s have them make the choice and prove it. The fly in that ointment is that some of them are closet cases, so they could probably do it and claim they won the argument. But at least we’d have videotape of them sucking people off.
PLAYBOY: Closet cases? Who?
SAVAGE: Look at Marcus Bachmann, Michele Bachmann’s husband. Anybody who has gaydar—anybody who has eyes—looks at him and sees a tormented closet case who has externalized his internal conflict and is abusing other people, doing his reparative-therapy bullshit. It’s so sad and pathetic. A lot of the self-destructive behaviors gay people are prone to drifting into are directed inward, and then you have these shitbags like Marcus Bachmann for whom it’s all directed outward. Marcus Bachmann is the photo negative of the guy on the last bar stool in the gay bar, drinking and smoking himself to death, except instead of destroying himself, he’s destroying other vulnerable queer people in an effort to destroy the queer inside himself.
PLAYBOY: Why do you think homophobia in some manifests not in disagreement but in hatred?
SAVAGE: The religious justification for homophobia undergirds much of it. Also there’s paranoia
SAVAGE: We have very poor sex education in this country, so a lot of teenage boys experience paranoia that it could happen to them, that it’s a trapdoor you can fall through if you put a finger in your butt or if it feels good when someone plays with your nipples—that it’s evidence of the cancer of homosexuality growing inside you. And because we can’t talk about what causes homosexuality, we can’t reassure kids who are paranoid about their own sexuality. Male heterosexuality in this culture is a bundle of two negatives. To be a straight man is to not be a faggot and not be a girl, so anything that’s faggy or girlie can shatter your heterosexual bona fides.
PLAYBOY: As a child, did you feel paranoid that you might be gay, or did you always know and accept it?
SAVAGE: I knew.
PLAYBOY: How difficult was it for you to come out of the closet to your parents?
SAVAGE: I was about to come out to my mom when I was 15 or 16 years old, but my dad left. He walked out. She was not emotionally prepared for it, and she was destroyed for a while. I thought, If I go in there now and tell her I’m gay, it’ll kill her, and I can’t do that. I was a cliché fag boy, a mama’s boy. I baked. I stayed home. So I waited until I was 18 to tell her, and that was hard, because we’d grown apart. She became suspicious, but I just couldn’t do it.
PLAYBOY: But she knew and you were both pretending?
SAVAGE: She didn’t know. Well, years later she was like, “Yeah, I guess I kind of knew,” but that was an era when people looked at Liberace on TV and didn’t think he was gay, because thinking someone was gay was literally the worst thing you could think of someone. You didn’t allow yourself to think that, particularly of your own children. So the fact that when I was 13 years old and my parents asked me what I wanted for my birthday and I said tickets to A Chorus Line—the national tour was coming to the Shubert Theatre in Chicago—it didn’t register as maybe I was gay. What 13-year-old straight boy wants to go to A Chorus Line as opposed to a Bears game? When I was a kid I was gay-ish, a sissy boy. Not all gay men were sissies as kids, but almost all boys who are sissies grow up to be gay men. I would put on high heels and a wig when I was two and tell my mom I was going to be a girl when I grew up. I mean, not all gay men have feminine traits like that—Jason Collins doesn’t strike me as the kind of gay man who was jumping around in dresses when he was four, but who knows? I was.
PLAYBOY: Some parents try to force macho behavior on children they suspect are gay, because they think they can “fix” them.
SAVAGE: You can’t beat the gay out of a kid, but you can kill that gay kid trying. One result is that once you’ve assembled yourself to appease your sports-obsessed father, to fool your peers, your girlfriend…once you put that together, it creates a cognitive bifurcation. The pride you take when you do fool people, when you put together this bullshit version, this Potemkin kid who isn’t you, and people buy it and you’re like, Oh wow—there’s power in that. There was for me. But some kids are crushed by it. The guys I knew who were self- or otherwise destructive were guys who believed they were terrible, that there was something wrong with them. The guys who were healthier believed there was something wrong with everybody else. I was that guy. I thought, I’m fine. My church is crazy. My parents are crazy. Everyone in my Catholic grade school is crazy. Everyone in this neighborhood I live in is fucking nuts. But I’m fine.
PLAYBOY: Why did you have a sense of self-esteem compared with kids who think there’s something wrong with them?
SAVAGE: I think my parents gave me that.
PLAYBOY: But you had to hide. As you say, you were nearly 20 by the time you came out to your mother. And you were Catholic.
SAVAGE: Yeah, but the Catholic Jesuit thing came back to bite them on the ass in the end. We weren’t knuckle-dragger Catholics. My parents beat into us that Jesuit thing about integrity and honesty and scrutiny and thoughtfulness. Don’t lie, be truthful and live with integrity. You have to be yourself and you can’t lie to Jesus. God can see you. In the end it was just, I can’t lie to my parents about this, even though they probably would have preferred to have been lied to.
PLAYBOY: Were you initially devout, or did you always question religion?
SAVAGE: I remember distinctly when I was seven or eight years old looking at some sort of illustrated encyclopedia of world history. It showed a procession of priests in long robes with feathers and people marching in front of a Mayan pyramid. I think they were going to cut somebody’s heart out. I told my dad, “This looks like Mass!” What I couldn’t wrap my head around is that those Mayans thought they were right. So I thought, How is it proof of anything when my parents tell me what they think is right? I thought about all those George Carlin–esque Catholic grade-school brainteasers. What about all the people who lived and died and never heard about Jesus? They’re all in hell? What about the unbaptized babies? They’re in hell? What about Hitler? If somebody heard his confession, he’s in heaven, but Mahatma Gandhi’s in hell? It seemed so arbitrary and irrational. Mainly, when I realized I was gay, it brought me into conflict with what my church was telling me. I didn’t just move two steps over and find the affirming Lutherans. I looked at the whole religion racket and it kind of fell apart, especially when I saw how much it was torturing gay kids.
PLAYBOY: You started the It Gets Better campaign so gay kids would have an easier time than you did. What specifically inspired it?
SAVAGE: A suicide, Billy Lucas’s suicide. It was devastating. Then someone put a blog post on the Facebook page his family had put up to memorialize him. The same kids who had brutally bullied him in school visited it—to celebrate his death. To call him a faggot. To say they were glad he was dead. I was furious. But someone wrote, “I wish I had known you, Billy, and been able to tell you that things get better. Rest in peace.” That just leaped out at me: Things get better.
PLAYBOY: Do they get better?
SAVAGE: They do. On a macro level, in society, and on a personal level. But there are kids out there who don’t know it, who are lied to about what it means to be gay, and they are in despair. They think it can’t get better for them. Gay kids commit suicide at higher rates. We abuse alcohol and drugs at higher rates; we smoke at much higher rates—all these self-destructive behaviors. But the truth is many of us made it and it did get better. My feeling about Billy Lucas was if I’d had five minutes with that kid I could have talked him out of it, just by giving examples from my life. But I didn’t have access to that kid. That kid is growing up in a part of the country that doesn’t have LGBT support groups. I went to the White House conference on bullying. Until I got into a breakout session, nobody said that LGBT kids’ worst and most destructive bullies are often their parents. What do you do about that? Before that I had been going around the country just gutted reading about Lucas. I went from college to college but was thinking I should be going from high school to high school. But I would never get an invitation to speak at a high school, and I would never get permission to talk to a kid who needs to hear from a gay adult, because his parents are homophobic. Then it occurred to me: I don’t need anyone’s permission anymore. I don’t need an invitation. I have YouTube. I have Twitter. I have Facebook. I can bring the gay support group to that kid, whether his parents like it or not. Now that corporations and politicians have made videos—Obama, Hillary Clinton—people have lost sight of the fact that there is an upright middle finger at the heart of the project. It says that we, LGBT adults, are going to talk to your LGBT kids whether you like it or not. We’re going to reach into their computers and their phones, and we’re going to speak to them. You can’t isolate your kids the way you used to. You can’t terrorize your kids. The religious right gets it. The religious right freaks out about It Gets Better because we’re talking most specifically to their kids. They’re the kids with homophobic parents, and we’re making a run around their pastors, their churches, their teachers and their parents. These videos have gotten millions and millions of views.
PLAYBOY: Do you hear from kids who have been helped by the videos?
SAVAGE: The project is four years old. I’ll go to a college and meet a 20-year-old who was 16 when it started. I’m standing there and someone bursts into tears and runs and grabs me and Terry because it was the thing that made the difference for them. I get e-mails from emergency room nurses who are dealing with homophobic parents and some kid who just attempted suicide. A nurse wrote that she spent all night lying in bed with this kid who’d attempted suicide. She had her iPad and was watching videos with him. She said, “I hope his parents don’t find out.” That’s the subversiveness of the project. A girl wrote to thank us. She came out to her parents at 15, and they rejected her and connected her to a therapy program at her church. She was watching videos in the middle of the night. She wrote to say, “I’m watching It Gets Better in my parents’ house in the middle of the night in the bedroom under the covers.” Her parents can’t stop it anymore. We kicked down their front door and crawled into bed with her, and they can’t stop us. She said, “I watched the videos at night, and every morning I’d get up, go downstairs and look at my mom and my dad, and I loved them for who they were going to be in 10 years.” She had that image in her head that will get her through this, because she’s seen so many kids in the It Gets Better project talking about their parents who did exactly what her parents were doing but who now love and support their kids. Kids who have been bullied by their parents are flabbergasted to find out many of us with supportive parents didn’t have supportive parents when we first came out. She is able to love her parents now, while they’re incapable of loving her. We also hear from parents who are grateful because they’re raising some sissy kid in the woods. A woman wrote me from Georgia, and her son is clearly gay. She wrote early on to say she was using the exact phrase, telling him “It gets better.” “He didn’t believe me, because who am I? What do I know?” Just hearing it from his straight mom wasn’t good enough. But having all of us say it made it credible.
PLAYBOY: But in the meantime there are still frequent reports of gay kids being bullied.
SAVAGE: It’s the best of times and the worst of times for queer kids. If you’re out and gay and your parents are on your side, and there’s a gay-straight student alliance at your school and you have friends who’ve got your back, there’s never been a better time to be a gay 15-year-old boy than right now. If you’re out and gay and your parents are fundamentalist Christians and you go to some shitty Christian school where kids bully you and the administration bullies you, and there are no services where you live, then there has never been a worse time to be gay than right now for that kid, because there’s no hiding. There’s no closet. We’ve deconstructed the closet for those sissy boys, and they’re exposed. But it does get better, and they need to know it does. I remember going to gay pride parades when I first came out and seeing parents of queer kids willing to march down the street for us. That was from Mars. I think we’ve reached a point where more parents love and accept their queer kids than not. The rejecting parents are the exceptions, the freaks. I’m constantly blown away. Constance McMillen is this lesbian kid in Mississippi whose school was fucking with her around prom and painting a bull’s-eye on her back. Her whole family was on her side. A lesbian in a tiny town in Mississippi, and her dad was yelling into TV cameras, “Nobody’s going to fuck with my daughter!” A tiny town in Mississippi! These news stories constantly pop up about queer kids being bullied by teachers and administrators, and their parents are on their side. It hasn’t quite sunk into the thick skulls of high school administrators and teachers that they can’t abuse queer kids with impunity anymore, because the families are likely to be on the kids’ side. We’ve got lawyers now and we will come after you. We’re winning and we’re not going to sit idly by anymore. You can’t just beat up a queer kid at a high school in Mississippi and have it be a local story. We will jump down your fucking throat.