Dan Savage Does Not Back Down From a Fight

Sex columnist and gay rights activist Dan Savage on boycotting Russian vodka, giving advice, facing criticism, and how Chicago has changed in his lifetime.

Savage, 48, during a recent trip to Los Angeles   Photo: Brian Kuhlmann; Hair and Makeup, Styling: Christina Culinski; Photo Assistant: James Exley

On October 19, you’re appearing on a Chicago Ideas Week panel called “Instigators: Fighting the Good Fight.” What advice will you give?

Many activists heap the guilt trip on: “You haven’t done enough—where were you last week?” That turns off a lot of people who might want to make a difference. It’s important for hardcore, dedicated activists to identify the doable thing for those who may not have all the time in the world to pour into a cause. For the It Gets Better Project [which aims to prevent suicide among lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth], sit in front of a computer for 10 minutes and be that shoulder to cry on that queer kids don’t have. It has a huge impact.

You called for a boycott of Russian vodka after Vladimir Putin’s government passed a bill against gay “propaganda” in July. How did that start?

It wasn’t my idea. Two dozen Russian activists and queer Russians living in New York had called for boycotts. I jumped in and seconded those calls.

The boycott has faced a lot of criticism, even from LGBT activists, about its effectiveness.

People who are arguing about it are proving the boycott’s effectiveness, because nobody was talking about what was going on with Russia or the persecution of LGBT people there until we launched this boycott. Now everyone’s talking about it.

Should the Winter Olympics, which will be held in Sochi, Russia, be boycotted as well?

I haven’t called for a boycott of the Winter Olympics. I’ve retweeted some other people’s calls to keep the conversation going.

You’ve been writing your sex advice column, Savage Love, for 22 years. [It appears in several dozen newspapers and online at thestranger.com.] How have readers’ questions changed in that time?

Pre-Internet, pre-Google, a lot of the questions were “Define this” or “Explain how I do that.” I miss those questions. Almost all the questions now are situational ethics: “I did this, my partner did that, what do we do?” For a lot of those questions, there’s no good answer, just a lot of bad choices. [There are also] trans [issues]—straight guys who are into trans porn and trans women. That I didn’t get questions about 22 years ago.

Is there something you wish people would stop writing to you about?

Porn. All men look at porn, and most women do, too. If you have a problem with porn or your partner looking at porn, the only solution is for your partner to pretend not to look at it and for you to pretend to believe him or her.

Anything else?

The problem of sexless relationships or mismatched libidos. I’m constantly having to tell people that the solution is to cheat or to divorce. Because there’s no amount of counseling—there’s no amount of doing the dishes—that’s going to make someone who doesn’t want to fuck you, fuck you.

When is the last time you changed your mind on an issue?

This is dangerous to talk about, but pedophilia. I’m not pro-pedophilia. I’m not pro–child molestation. I’m a parent [to son DJ, 15], and I have that same rage [every parent has] reading anything about child abuse. But I’ve heard from so many pedophiles who have never acted on their desires, who have struggled against them in isolation, never being able to open up about that pit of absolute despair they’re in. They’ve managed to live with that, to never harm a child. In writing the column over the years, I’ve learned to make a distinction between a child molester and a pedophile who would never harm a child. I think that person deserves some credit and some support.

How much longer do you think you’re going to answer these letters?

I’m going to be Ann Landers. They’re going to pry my column out of my cold, dead hands. Unfortunately, we’re running out of newspapers to run columns. I’m hoping some daily papers get some courage to pick it up.

What is the daily life of a sex advice columnist like?

I’m really very boring. [Savage lives with his son and his husband, Terry Miller, in Seattle.] People will come to our house for dinner and be shocked by how boring we are. We read a lot of books. We are always learning new card games, making dinner, going to the gym, taking care of our kid. The most exciting thing about us is we go snowboarding.

You grew up in Rogers Park and graduated from Quigley Catholic High School in 1982. How has Chicago changed since then?

It seems less Catholic now. When I grew up, if you met somebody, you didn’t ask what neighborhood they lived in; you asked them what parish they went to. And the gay community is so much more powerful and so much larger. [Andersonville] was still a Swedish neighborhood when I was a kid, not a gay neighborhood. I did lose my virginity seven blocks from the Argyle el stop. Maybe I planted the seed, quite literally.

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