A Conversation with Dan Savage
Dan Savage is a best-selling author, pundit, and provocateur based in Seattle, Washington. Best known for his internationally syndicated “Savage Love” column, in which he offers candid advice on sex and relationships, Savage is also an LGBT activist and founder of the “It Gets Better Project” to prevent teen suicide. Savage sat with Conscience to talk sex, politics, and growing up Catholic in Chicago (where he briefly considered joining the priesthood).
As a teenager, you considered becoming a priest—but changed your mind soon after you enrolled at the preparatory seminary. How many firecrackers got you expelled?
It was a long time ago. My memory plays tricks on me. And I used to rely on my mother as my cloud memory storage. But it was two M80s, which is like an M80s and an eighth or a 16th of a stick of dynamite. So it wasn’t firecrackers.
It was explosives?
It was explosives, yeah. If some kid did that today, they’d go to jail.
Was anyone injured?
Nope. And I didn’t get sent to jail. I just got sent to St. Greg. [After his expulsion, Savage briefly attended St. Gregory the Great, a Catholic high school in Chicago.]
Can you tell us a little bit about Father Tom?
Oh, gosh… I don’t use his last name because he’s still alive, and I don’t want to get him in trouble. Father Tom was a very close friend of my parents. My parents were involved in Catholic marriage encounter. My parents met Tom through marriage encounter. He was a close friend and also had a drinking problem—and was sort of in and out of a treatment center for Catholic priests with drinking problems. My mom and he were particularly close. And, you know, whenever anybody asked me how Catholic my family was, I always say “priests made house calls.” So my mom called Father Tom when I told her I was gay. And he came running over because mom said there was something terribly wrong. And what my mother said to him was, “Danny says he’s gay.” Not “Danny is gay,” right? So, fingers crossed at that point. And Father Tom put his hand on my mother’s knee and looked her in the eye and said, “Judy, so am I.”
What changed your mind about joining the priesthood?
Well, it was very odd every day listening in religion class to a lot of these boys in the school who are vicious and brutal bullies, talking about what Christianity was and what it meant—and, specifically, what it meant to be Catholic. And the contrast between that and what was said in classrooms and done in locker rooms. That was galling. It was the reason I left the Boy Scouts when I was a little kid: Everyone takes the Scout’s honor to be decent and nice to each other, and everyone’s a shit. But I wasn’t free to leave the Catholic Church at the same age. It was really my sexuality that brought me into conflict and then opened my eyes. You know, I was always kind of a questioning kid. My mom believed in a woman’s right to choose. My mom believed that women should be ordained priests. There’s a poem that was on the fridge growing up my entire life, and I still remember by heart, about ordaining women. It was this line drawing of the Pieta and it said:
Did the woman say, / When she held him for the first time … / After the pain and the bleeding and the crying, / “This is my body, this is my blood”?
Did the woman say, / When she held him for the last time … / After the pain and the bleeding and the dying, / “This is my body, this is my blood”?
Well that she said it to him then, / For dry old men, / Brocaded robes belying barrenness / Ordain that she not say it for him now.
[From “Did the Woman Say,” by Frances Croake Frank]
And so that was literally on my mom’s fridge and burned into my memory as a kid. I was argumentative, and in religion class, I would sit there and say, “Obviously, Mary Magdalene and Mary [were] the first to preach the good news of the risen Lord, so isn’t that a sign that we’re wrong? In my heart, I know it’s wrong. What else are they wrong about?
Do you feel like there’s a backlash coming to the MeToo movement?
Yes, absolutely. I don’t think the fix for a culture where women were never believed is a culture where women are always believed. I agree with Margaret Atwood that women are people, and people are capable of lying and being malicious. I think the corrective to women [not being] believed is “what a woman says will be taken very seriously and acted on.” And that’s better than belief. It’s actual equality and actual respect.
What do you do with those gray areas?
You navigate them, and you continue to talk and negotiate and work it out. But any time there’s a massive cultural realignment or correction, unfortunately, there are victims of that shift. People get run over when you turn the ship.
Catholics for Choice believes abortion is a matter of conscience. Other secular groups might talk about it in terms of bodily autonomy. Where do abortion rights fit in your moral or political framework? And why do you think so many people are still uncomfortable with it?
That framework rests squarely inside of is the idea that someone owns their own body. Period. The end. Someone else doesn’t have a right to seize control of your body and turn you into an incubator by forcing you to give birth against your will.
[There’s] also the sort of practical angle that I thought about a lot when I was younger. Women have been getting abortions forever. There’s an abortion recipe in the Bible, right? Women pre–Roe were in danger. You read about back-alley abortions, and then you read about like what Romania was like under Ceausescu. You read about what goes on in El Salvador, where abortion is illegal, and it doesn’t work. There are still abortions. It’s just now you’re killing women too, which seems to be the point. This desire to enslave or punish women, punish women for having sex at all. If they get pregnant, punish them by forcing them to give birth and risking their lives.
It pisses me off, because they’re not prolife. They pass these laws arguing—[in] Georgia and everywhere else—that life begins at conception. And then [when] asked if these apply to fertilized eggs and [eggs in] freezers, they’re like, “No, no, because it’s not a woman.” Because by seizing control of that fetus, we can’t seize control of a woman and ruin her life, or punish her or kill her for being sexually active.
What’s the source of that?
It’s a reaction to the feminist movement. Abortion wasn’t a huge issue among Protestants 100 years ago, even 50 years ago, abortion was something weirdo Catholics were like a little too concerned about like masturbation – it made Catholics look weird. And when you look at the rise of the anti-abortion movement it just tracks with the rise of politicized evangelical Christianity, which weaponized the issue in an effort to fight back against feminism.
What comes up in letters that disturbs or upsets you?
The most upsetting letters [are when] there’s really nothing you can offer the person. If there’s a bias that advice columnists have, it’s to the solvable problem. So many letters come in [for which] the only answer is “There’s no help possible. You’re trapped.”
Can you give an example?
Well, someone in a sexless marriage with an emotionally abusive partner that they’re entirely economically dependent on. They’ve got three kids and no family. They’re miserable, but not in danger. There’s no way they can leave. What do they do? I’m like, “Smoke pot? I don’t know.” So I’ll write back privately to a lot of people [that] the only thing that could possibly fix this is a time machine, and I don’t have one.
What kind of advice do you give that you don’t take yourself?
Oh, my god. I have so many “physician, heal thyself” moments. I have no intention of dumping anybody right now, but it’s easy to say, “You should break up,” and it’s harder to actually do it. And there have been cases in my life where I needed to do it. Like my mother, I’m a relationship person and like [knowing] how to tinker and how to make them work. Sometimes I need to realize I should stop tinkering.