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Dan Savage’s message to gay youth: ‘It Gets Better’

Dan Savage (right) partner Terry Miller.

Dan Savage (right) and partner Terry Miller.

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Dan Savage will discuss and sign copies of “It Gets Better,” 7 p.m. March 23 at Nettelhorst School auditorium, 3252 N. Broadway.

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Updated: June 18, 2011 12:19AM

Before he was a widely read sexpert, syndicated “Savage Love” columnist Dan Savage was a gay youth struggling with his sexual identity in Chicago. Growing up in Rogers Park, the third child of conservative Catholic parents, Savage stayed closeted while attending St. Ignatius and St. Jerome grammar schools and Quigley Preparatory Seminary North. He came out at age 17.

Now, nearly three decades later, the 46-year-old Savage is married to his longtime partner, Terry Miller, and together they’re raising an adopted son, D.J., in Seattle. Clearly, then, things have improved — in Savage’s case, tremendously. Which is precisely the notion he and his chief collaborator Miller want to convey with their ongoing online endeavor, the “It Gets Better Project” ( Things can improve. And while not everyone digs their approach (, Savage is no stranger to criticism.

Culled and adapted from thousands of videos submitted via YouTube, including a splashy musical creation by Second City alum Rebecca Drysdale (, the new book version — It Gets Better: Coming Out, Overcoming Bullying, and Creating a Life Worth Living (Dutton, $21.95) — features handpicked and heartfelt essays from contributors famous and obscure, gay and straight. (Savage is contributing his earnings to charities that benefit lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youths.) Random folks from Chicago, New York and Berkeley share space with such out-and-proud notables as financial queen Suze Orman and best-selling humorist David Sedaris. Secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton and President Obama chip in, as well. That all four have Chicago roots seems merely coincidental.

Savage — who recently shot a pilot for MTV that tails him to various college campuses as he dispenses frank sex advice to students — spoke with the Sun-Times about growing up gay, the nature of his latest outreach and, of course, sex. But nothing too kinky.

Q. Why didn’t something like “It Gets Better” exist before?

A. Social media didn’t exist until recently, and I really think this was about YouTube and Twitter and Facebook — a little bit like the revolutions in the Middle East right now are about YouTube and Twitter and Facebook — in that it allowed us to reach out to these kids and talk to them without being physically in the room with them. A lot of gay kids at that age [teens] are closeted and they couldn’t go to a gay community center to get counseling or join a support group. Or they live in parts of the country where there is no such thing as a gay community center or a support group for gay youth. And what this new social media allowed us to do was deliver these messages right to these kids, right into their homes, whether their parents wanted their kids to get these messages from gay adults or not. And in many cases, they don’t.

Q. Have you heard from many people who were on the verge of killing themselves before being introduced to this project?

A. There are people who made videos who talk about their suicide attempts, and we’ve heard from just scores and scores of young people for whom the videos have done what they were designed to do: give them hope to go on. And we heard from lots of people in pretty extreme situations. Gay and lesbian teenagers are four to eight times likelier to attempt suicide — particularly if their families reject them. It’s not uncommon or something that just started. There just wasn’t really any sense that we could address it until now.

Q. You’ve said that growing up, you were never bullied much for being gay.

A. I wasn’t, but there was still a time in my life where I thought about suicide. My parents are very Catholic and very religious, as was I at the time, and I thought to be the good son that killing myself would be the right thing to do for my parents, for my family, because it would be easier for them to have a dead child than a gay child.

Q. At what point did they realize you had been pondering this, and what was their response?

A. I told them about it after I came out, and they were just really happy that I hadn’t killed myself, particularly out of deference to their stated beliefs about homosexuality. They realized after the fact the damage that they had done thoughtlessly to one of their kids. But that was a long time ago, at a time when many, many more people believed that homosexuality was something that a straight kid could drift into and that responsible parents would nudge you away from by making sure you understood that they wouldn’t approve. If my parents were bringing up kids today, they would certainly not do that. They’re not monsters. But at the time, that’s what they believed good parenting was.

Q. Did your suicidal mindset last for several years?

A. Yeah, a couple of years. But it never went past thoughts. I never made any serious attempt on my own life. I was in some ways lucky. I talked to gay friends who had much more difficult coming-out processes than I did. When I was a teenager, I didn’t think there was anything wrong with me. I thought there was something wrong with the world. I thought I was fine, but people just couldn’t deal. And that made my life difficult, but it wasn’t because I was perverted or damaged or sick or sinful. It was that the world was a mess.

Q. Did it take your dad longer than your mom to accept your homosexuality?

A. I didn’t come out to my dad till later. My parents got divorced, and Catholicism fell apart, and he moved away, and so I was able to dodge coming out to my father till I was 20. He was a Chicago cop. He was a homicide detective in Area 6, which included the gay neighborhood at the time, which wasn’t a nice neighborhood at the time. And he thought [singer and anti-gay activist] Anita Bryant was right, and that gay people were a threat to the family and a threat to his children. And he would say these things in front of me when I was a small child, and I carried that around with me, and I was very afraid to come out to him. But when I did come out to him, he apologized and was great and said that he knew. He just didn’t know how to talk to me about it.

Q. How has Chicago changed in terms of sexual attitudes since you came up here?

A. It does feel like Chicago’s a much more sexually liberated place now and a much more sexually integrated place now. Gay people live all over, and there’s not just one gay neighborhood anymore, not even necessarily a need for a gay neighborhood anymore, because you can be safe in many, many, many parts of Chicago and be openly gay. And that wasn’t true when I was a kid.

Q. Your son is 13 now. Has bullying been an issue for him?

A. It hasn’t. We live in a very liberal place and he goes to a very liberal school [laughs]. And we’ve been careful about that. We sought out places where he wouldn’t be bullied. Only once in his life did he encounter somebody being bigoted. At a summer camp for snowboarders that he goes to every year, somebody found out he had gay parents and was giving him grief and he said, “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” and snowboarded away. I believe he also said, “F--- you!” [laughs] He wasn’t shattered by it.

Q. If someday he says, “Dad, I’m gay,” have you thought about what your reaction might be?

A. We want him to be whatever he’s going to be. He is straight and he has told us he’s straight. We knew from a very early age that he was straight. In some ways it’s a relief, because if he were gay — and some kids of gay parents are gay, just like some kids of straight parents are gay — people would say, “Look, having gay parents makes you gay,” and they would hold him up as an example of that, even though I can point to my straight parents and Terry can point to his straight parents. [They] didn’t make us straight, so that’s not the way it works.

Q. Is it more satisfying to give sex advice or to spread this gospel of hope?

A. [Laughs] Well, I really enjoy my day job. Who wouldn’t enjoy my day job? Who doesn’t like to talk about sex? Who doesn’t like to get a bunch of e-mails about sex in the morning? It’s like, “This is awesome!” I’m just glad that I’ve been able to leverage my goofy column that I very much enjoy writing. Every once in a while I will leverage it to do something that creates some social good. I think it’s hilarious that I’ve parlayed the dirtiest sex column in the world into occasional op-eds in the New York Times. I don’t know how that happened.

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