One of the Savage Love columnist's most notable qualities is his concern for heterosexual men—but that wasn't always the case.
Two summers ago, over the Fourth of July weekend, the New York Times Magazine published a cover story I had written about infidelity and the future of marriage. My main character was Dan Savage, the writer and activist who for years has argued that many good marriages fall apart because couples have unrealistic expectations about monogamy. For months after my essay ran, I heard from friends, and from total strangers. Some of the mail was creepy: I got letters from two husbands who said they had been trying to broach the subject of an open marriage with their wives, and now they were hoping that, by leaving my article lying about the house, they could casually segue into the topic. But most of the letters were sweet and sincere and not the least bit unctuous. One newlywed woman, a neighbor of mine, saw me on my street and said, "Thanks for that piece. Dan Savage has meant a lot to me, and to my marriage."
As it happened, almost every person who wrote or spoke to me about the piece was heterosexual. Dan Savage is famously gay, one of the most famous gay Americans, and I had no idea how deeply many straight people related to him—even more, how much they loved him, how grateful they were for what he said, for what he wrote, for him.
Savage promotes the nuclear family unit because he believes that it is a healthy model for everybody: gay couples, straight couples, children. But his cheerleading for heterosexuals goes even further. He always seems to be rooting for us. I believe that one of Savage's most notable qualities is the particular compassion he feels for straight men.
But Savage did not always feel so warmly. After a rough adolescence, he expected to find a little company in the theater department in college, and he was a bit perplexed, he recalls, to be "the only gay guy in the acting program." After college, "all these other guys in the acting program came out. That made me mad at straight people." Blaming straight people for closeted gay people does not make immediate sense, but remember that it was the mid-1980s, gay men were filling the graveyard, Ronald Reagan was doing nothing, and an out, proud gay identity was one possible munition against the enemy. If straight people were shaming gay people into the closet, fuck straight people.
"I started writing Savage Love still really mad at straight people," Savage says. "But getting their mail. . . . It's really straight guys who get the bum rap. The way straight people have redefined marriage, and the way they define sexuality, it's really unrealistic about male sexuality.
"And reading letters from straight guys made me hugely sympathetic to straight guys. And I was already sympathetic to straight women, because men are pigs and I sleep with men so know what that's like. I arrived sympathetic to straight women—I became sympathetic to straight men, reading these bat-shit letters from straight guys who were being terrorized and being driven crazy, because sex is scarce if you're a straight guy. It's not scarce if you have a pussy or if you're a fag. But if you're a straight guy?
"Straight guys run the world, but that includes the Taco Bell franchise. They're less free sexually than anybody else. The girl who eats pussy once or twice in college can tell her husband, and he's not going to believe she's a lesbian, and she is not going to be terrorized by that experience. But these poor straight guys, who meet the one guy who blips onto their sex radar, and they're devastated! They think no matter how much sex they've had with women, this is proof . . . because straight male sexuality is two negatives bundled together: it's to not be a woman and to not be a fag. So anything a straight guy might be interested in that is perceived as feminine or faggy is really destabilizing to their selves.
"After reading their letters for a couple years, I realized gay men and women were complicit in this too. If you've had sex once with a man, they say you're gay. Gay men want you to be gay—if you look like Tom Cruise. There is not a lot of speculation whether Seth Rogen is gay. I fucked women. Nobody ever says to me, 'Oh, you couldn't have done that if you weren't actually straight."'
And soon enough Savage had a lot in common with the average straight guy. He is a breadwinner in a fairly traditional marriage, with a son and a stay-at-home spouse. He is, to me, a fellow dad, one whose heart clearly lies with the two-parent family with children. As I learned in Seattle, he is one of the few men as boringly earnest on the pleasures of parenting as I am; he is adoring of his husband, Terry, and much of his finest work—his books, his This American Life essays—are hymns to close relatives.
Right now, Dan Savage is our country's sex doctor and its love doctor, its number-one gay and its cheerleader for straights, its theorist of gay marriage and of straight marriage. There is, therefore, nothing particularly gay about the work he does at the moment; he has transcended those categories. And that is a feat only a gay man or lesbian could accomplish. I could never win the kind of acceptance as an authority on gay sex, or gay families, that Savage has won among straights. Our very few openly gay actors cannot get cast as straight leading men—they may be tolerated, even loved, but they are still marked—but Savage has broken free of the box. He is, I think, the first openly gay American to do so.
"One should never underestimate the simple radicalism of an openly gay man giving straight people sex advice," Andrew Sullivan told me. "To come out swinging like that, as an openly gay guy telling straight people what to do in bed, was more revolutionary than we now realize." It's true; I never realized it.
When I am watching Dan Savage, or listening to him, or reading his words, I never even think about the revolution. I just think about sex, or I think about love. How radical is that.
This is an excerpt from Dan Savage: The First Gay Celebrity, by Mark Oppenheimer, an e-book that can be purchased here.