Bil Browning

31 Days: When I Met Dan Savage

Filed By Bil Browning | August 17, 2011 8:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Living, Marriage Equality
Tags: Dan Savage, Google Chrome, It Gets Better, pride reception, White House reception

This photo's story is after the jump.


I'm doing a series of posts for 31 days that will feature a photo from my personal collections and the backstory behind the picture. I'm trying to stick with shots that have not appeared on the site before. I'm using the stories as a writing exercise to help me prepare for writing a book. You can find the rest of the series posts here:

I met Dan Savage in the East Room of the White House at the pride reception earlier this year. Put lightly, it was slightly awkward at first.

I've been highly critical of the It Gets Better project and was particularly brutal in my opinion piece on the Google Chrome commercial that featured Dan and the project. I'd heard through the grapevine that Dan was upset about my post, but we'd never talked about it. (Other than a handful of e-mails, we don't normally correspond.)

Jerame pointed out Dan and his partner, Terry, to me during the reception. The couple were at the end of the room talking to other guests. Dan wore an "Evolve Already" button on his shirt.

"If it comes to blows, I'm out. You're on your own," Jerame laughed. We listened to the President's speech together and when we turned around afterward, Dan and Terry were directly behind us.

I've enjoyed Dan's writing for years; hell, I even bought The Kid when it came out. Truth told, I'd rather have been meeting Dan for the first time with the proper amount of jovial camaraderie and kudos for your new acquaintance's work that seems to be required when writers meet.

I know how much criticism can burn - especially with the internet to amplify it. Things get repeated and twisted and the keyboard allows people to say extremely hateful things in anonymity. After a while, it builds up and, at times, it can be overwhelming. There's nothing like waking up in the morning, opening Twitter and seeing exactly all the reasons why you suck in your stream.

I was just critical of a Google Chrome commercial, but I'd seen the piece flung around the web as an attack on Dan. Stepping up to speak to Dan, I didn't want him to think, "Oh God. Here comes that guy who thinks I suck."

Jerame stuck around long enough to introduce himself and then bowed out of the conversation to join a group of friends nearby. Dan, Terry and I had a gracious conversation and established that there were no hard feelings between Dan and me.

When we finished talking I turned around and asked Jerame to take a photo of us. We clinked the champagne flutes together in solidarity as Jerame snapped this picture with his phone.

Before he turned away, Dan asked me if I wanted one of the "Evolve Already" buttons and pinned it on my suit jacket himself. The button was meant to poke at Obama about his "evolving" stance on marriage equality.

As we walked away from the White House that evening, I turned over another meaning in my mind. I'd like to believe I've evolved further than the slavering crowd that loves to talk smack online about people they don't know. It's not easy, but the art is finding the path between critic and curmudgeon.

It's easy to tear down. It's much harder to build. Evolution happens naturally.

I've left the button on my jacket and I'll stop wearing it when Obama has fully evolved into a pro-marriage equality President. He's on the right path too.

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I really like this photo. Bil, you look good with a stubble, and I'd encourage you to try growing a full beard (if Jerame will go along with it, of course!).

At first I didn't like Dan Savage either, but now I'm not sure how much of that was jealousy, that he has managed to become successful with his writing, and I have not. But truth is that the "It Gets Better" campaign has shown itself to be one of the most ingenious conceptions of the modern LGBT movement, and I expect it will live in our history in a similar manner to how Larry Kramer wrote "The Normal Heart" and Army Maupin wrote "Tales of the City".

Then there's this aspect: Dan is hot. Once while I was watching one of his online video clips, he began talking about his adolescent years and masturbating, and I realized the thought of him masturbating was a super-turn-on for me. (It's funny sometimes how one doesn't have to be aware of such things, and all at once they sneek up on you. But that's one reason why it is so painful for us to be and stay in the closet.) So although I don't always agree with what Dan says, we are gay brothers on some level and, as it appears you have concluded, too, Bil, Dan has more pluses than minuses and it's best to just let Dan be Dan.

I must say, though ... Dan looks under-dressed for the occasion. But whatever.

That's true. I guess despite these gaping flaws, he does have more pluses on his card than minuses. A brother is still a brother. It's just a bit disappointing when people you look up to end up being just as flawed in the same ways as the people you dislike. Oh well, nobody's perfect...

I grew up reading Dan's stuff, and I always liked his clever writing and more heartfelt stuff (The Kid, for example). I also love the It Gets Better Campaign and I have to acknowledge everything he's done for queer youth...

But his continued statements about bisexuals are really quite disturbing. He tries to make these arguments and then distance himself from the same rhetoric used by Conservatives about the queer community, but all he does is draw sad parallels between himself and them. Watching him speak on bisexuality (and the "inherent truths" about it that he never backs up) is almost eerily similar to watching Ann Coulter point out "inherent truths" about queers/liberals/gay marriage/whatever will give her some media time/single mothers.

Looking at this clip, he tries to make some sort of insinuation about a "truth" (again) that most bisexuals will end up in opposite-sex relationships and then another "truth" that most will trade in on their privilege and move away from caring about the LGBTQ community's struggle. And yet right away, he makes a statement about his own privilege; that he and his partner essentially traded in on their two-parent, one-child, yuppie family privilege. So it's quite an odd point to make about the "upsetting truth" about bisexuals, when he's basically allowed for the same argument to be made about monogamous, child-rearing, white gay men (with money, no less) and their ability to "drift away" to be part of typical heterosexual, child-raising couple communities.

The one argument he never seems to consider is that even if many gay and lesbians use bisexuality as a transitional phase, is it so hard to reserve the "Oh, hmm" reaction and just take a person's stated identity at face value? You might ridicule the typical asshole on Grindr trying too hard to throw up the "straight acting, bi guy, not gay" smokescreen, but is that condescending attitude really necessary for everyday interactions with people face-to-face? What about just keeping those smug comments to yourself, since 1) you don't know that person enough to make that kind of statement about them and 2) they're not you, so whatever experience you had with your sexuality isn't a decent litmus test of theirs. When I see Dan and his partner, and they say they're gay men, I don't go "Hmm." and suggest that they're actually bisexuals in a "gay phase". I wouldn't because it's an arrogant and shallow assessment of their lives and identities, of which I am far from intimately aware.

But maybe Dan is okay with making those judgments about people he doesn't know. I know that part of the charm of Dan's writing and his marketability is his frank and arrogant statements about sexuality and people and politics, but that just means that Dan's quickly ending up on the opposite side of the same coin as the people he criticizes. Just change "left" to "right" and "gay" to "bisexual" and you've got every delightful Bacchman/Coulter/Santorum soundbite about sexuality you've heard before.

This is a really interesting analysis of Dan Savage, one of the more interesting ones I've read so far.

But, and here's the big but few care for: Isn't this also true of a large segment of the gay marriage advocacy community? That its calling for marriage in remarkably conservative terms and in terms of economic security and commitment in fact echo the Right's holding up of marriage as a necessary social glue?

I've reminded people, here and elsewhere, that Evan Wolfson's 2004 book Why Marriage Matters bears the same title as as the conservative Glenn Stanton's 1997 book on marriage. Indeed, reading those two books next to each other, as I have, it's hard to distinguish which is more conservative.

Food for thought.

That's true, but I think it's the difference between believing in gay marriage as one of many issues and institutions (and what you believe about marriage in general) and believing in gay marriage as an end to the gay rights movement and a definitive need in society.

Definitely, there are a good amount of people in the gay marriage advocacy camp (and observers) who perceive gay marriage as "the end" (more or less) in terms of equality (re: Dan Savage stating that the only LGBT movement issues left are marriage and DADT) . There are likewise those who perceive marriage itself as "social glue", instead of what should be one of many options out there for people to decide if they want to access.

I loathe the idea of people seeking to achieve only what they need and then resting on their laurels. It's selfish. And I can't deny that there are plenty in the gay marriage camp who do that. But I don't think it necessarily means that gay marriage is the issue; I think it only means that those who think it's the ultimate issue in gay rights and those who view marriage as "social glue" have missed the point.

Do I perceive Dan Savage to be one of those people? Yes. I don't know him personally, but based on his statements, it sure seems like for him advocacy is just gay marriage and DADT, which is a sad level of narrowmindedness for how intelligent he seems. I don't think he started out that way, and if he didn't, it seems that resources and security have resulted in him being concerned solely with those hot-button surface level issues pertinent to his life.

But how some people (no matter how many) choose to interpret an idea isn't necessarily a reason to dismiss the idea itself. Only their take on the idea is what should or should not be dismissed. I suppose it's like a baby and bathwater situation, though arguably the bathwater is immense and it is filthy and the baby is comparatively tinier.

It's called the IGM (I've Got Mine) movement. :)

My problem with Savage has always been that while one the one hand he's gifted at reaching people in a way that most of us could never hope to, he says things publicly that leads people like me to wonder if he bothers to think about what he's saying before he opens his mouth.

This was underscored for me when he went on Keith Olbermann's MSNBC show last year and said that the only remaining issues for LGBT Americans were marriage and military service, as if the lack of LGBT workplace protections in this country, and especially in this economy, is nothing for Congress to be concerned about. To my way of thinking, that makes him part of the problem, not the solution, and causes me to ask myself if Savage has any clue what life is really like for LGBT Americans who don't share his level of wealth, notoriety, and media reach, including the LGBT kids he wants to support and speak to with the IGB campaign.

Chitown Kev | August 17, 2011 4:41 PM

Becky, this is my biggest problem with Dan savage in a nutshell...I couls point out specific things that he's said but he seems to be extremely impulsive in putting out some of his posts in a way that...sometimes, I think that if he took, say, 12 or even 6 or even 3 hours to think about it, he wouldn't post it.

I love Dan Savage's passion about equality and his outspokeness (let's leave aside for a moment Savage's notions of what "equality means). But sometimes, people with that much passion and that much outspokenness should be a little more...controlled (internally) about their posts and not allow the passion to take control (does that make sense?)

I totally agree, and as someone who's a bit outspoken herself, it's a quality I respect and admire. At the same time, however, I believe that LGBT media people at Savage's level (and all of us, really) have a responsibility to consider the impact of what they're saying before they say it publicly. To go on a popular nationally-watched show like Olbermann and completely erase workplace rights from the LGBT agenda is not only bad form, in my opinion, but also grossly irresponsible.

In addition, this kind of behavior works directly against what I assume Savage is trying to accomplish with the IGB campaign. Not every LGBT kid will grow up to be a famous author or even wealthy enough not to have financial concerns. Many, in fact, grow up in poor or lower middle-class homes and will not have the advantages in adult life which Savage seems to take for granted.

Indeed, Savage's rather narrow worldview seem to lend credence to the popular stereotype that we're all wealthy, with good jobs and nice homes. That makes him part of the problem in more ways than one. What kind of a service is Savage doing for the kids he targets with the IGB campaign by devaluing their right to work when he goes on these shows? Seems to me that he's great at voicing lofty ideals but he has no actual clue as to how to realize them in the cold harsh light of what reality actually is for most LGBT Americans.

Dan can be controversial at times, but I always find myself agreeing with him. I even sided with him in the Google Chrome ad dispute (sorry, Bil!) because I thought the compromise was small and unavoidable to a great upside. That's great you got to meet him. :)

I met him once too. He molested me.

... Let me explain. After one of his lectures in Albany I stood in line to get books signed and exchange a few words with him. I waited till the end so I wouldn't hold anyone up behind me. We chatted a bit, I told him I found The Kid very moving. He showed me a few pics of his family. I thanked him because I felt that reading him while growing up helped solidify my identity and keep my self esteem afloat. We hugged goodbye, during which he said "OK, so I'm going to undo your bra so you can tell people you were molested by Dan Savage." I laughed, thinking he was kidding. Then I felt his hand (just one hand!) at my back, then a quick snap. I turned red, starting laughing and said "Holy shit, you really undid my bra. With one hand!" He smiled and said, "Yeah, I'm good at it." We said goodbye again and I slinked off to the restroom to put my bra on again.

Good times. :)

This story is shocking ... and yet it doesn't surprise me. There is something about Dan that causes me to feel that he doesn't always know where the line is -- and in this instance, "the line" is a personal clothing boundary, and boundaries like that ain't rocket science for most of us.

He doesn't know where the line is verbally sometimes, either. That is why he sometimes makes statements that are extreme to the nth power. And that is also why he is as popular as he is, you don't know what he's going to do next. But I doubt he will ever be interviewed live on PBS.

(P.S. As readers have probably picked up on, Dan can molest me sometime, but hopefully in a more appropriate time and place than what he picked for you, Drew.)

I agree... Drew's story about Savage taking off her bra isn't even vaguely warm and fuzzy—it's creepy. And it's exactly the kind of smug (and sexist) a-hole I would expect him to be. Let's not mix being controversial in a positive way with being a pr*ck.

I appreciate your honesty and thoughtfulness in this piece, Bil. That's an awkward position to be in, for sure. I struggle to balance my impulse to be nice--and within the LGBT community, to be united--with the need to be honest. Real journalism requires honesty. You called the commercial as you saw it; the Internet, as is its habit, raised criticism to shrieking. Which led to you sweating bullets in the East Room.

Well, look on the bright side, Bil. At least Dan didn't respond instantly like his first response to the Obama Administration's IGB video. Dan posted, literally, on the Stranger Blog (The "Slog") "Fuck you!" (Don't get mad at me for the choice of words--they are Dan's--see

Perhaps Dan's rhetoric is also evolving, as now it's just the passive button-wearing of "Evolve Already." We still have hope for you, Mr. Savage.