Savage’s ‘perfect Catholic family’ fell apart fast

Acclaimed author, gay rights advocate and nationally syndicated columnist Dan Savage graciously accepted FFRF’s Emperor Has No Clothes Award at the 36th national convention in September 2013 in Madison, Wis., where he gave these remarks (edited for print).

By Dan Savage

In the early 1980s, the Catholic cable channel in Chicago did a special on my family because we were the “perfect Catholic family.” My dad was an ordained deacon and my mom was a lay minister. They ran Catholic marriage encounter sessions in Illinois and Wisconsin and Indiana. All four of their children had been confirmed in the church. I was in the seminary. I was going to be a priest.

My dad was also a Chicago homicide detective. So, sort of a “gun in the pulpit” perfect Catholic family special. Two years later, sitting around the kitchen table with my mom and my siblings, we laughed at the idea of the television program returning and doing a “Where are they now?” special. My father had left and divorced my mother and had been defrocked as a deacon. I’d come out of the closet. My brother Billy, my oldest sibling, had gotten a preemptive vasectomy. We had birth control in the house. There had been abortion. My mother was sleeping with a married man.

By that time, when I was 17 or 18, I was a hardcore agnostic because I had a lot of questions. It was my sexuality that brought me into conflict with my faith. I was inquisitive and, ironically, my parents encouraged their kids to question authority. From a very early age, I had been asking the inappropriate or awkward questions.

In some ways I’m so grateful for being gay despite the chaos that that caused when I was 15, 16, 17 years old. If I hadn’t been gay, I sometimes wonder if I would’ve questioned my faith. 

But my sexuality was the thread that  — once I began to pull on it — ultimately unraveled the garment of faith and irrational belief. Not all gay people do that. Some gay people, after realizing their faith is in conflict with their sexuality, move on to some new faith that isn’t in quite as much conflict.

But for me, faith fell apart because I figured that if the church was this wrong about me — well, it stood to reason that the church was wrong about other stuff. The church, this human institution, was pretending to know things that no human being could possibily know.

And it’s generally a bad idea to trust people who pretend to know the unknowable, to take things — hugely consequential things — on faith alone. Better to acknowledge the unknowable, embrace ambiguity and think for ourselves — and date boys.

I call myself agnostic or an atheist, but sometimes I have to admit to being an agnosti-theist because, well, I do cross myself on airplanes. I flew here today and crossed myself. I have a superstitious hangover.

Remember Ann Landers? I’m sure all of you do. I was talking to somebody in their 20s just yesterday, and I mentioned Ann Landers and she said “Who?” Sometimes, people in their 20s make me feel as old as I am, which is 49, and also make me feel like slapping them.

Anyway, about 10 years ago, I went to an auction of Ann Landers’ effects. Her daughter, Margo Howard, had packed up her mother’s big condo on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago after she died. I read about the upcoming auction in the paper. Included was the desk on which Landers had written her advice column — for 40 years. And I thought, I want to have that desk. 

I had just gotten a book deal that paid a stupid amount of money, so I called Margo. We’d been on the radio together after Ann died. A producer put us on together to pit us against each other. They thought Margo would talk about how great her mother was and how important and meaningful her column was. And me, being the author of the rudest and dirtiest sex advice column in the world, would dump all over Ann Landers and say that she sucked.

I can be an asshole, but I’m not going to go on a radio program with someone’s grieving daughter and talk about how horrible her mother was. 

Also complicating the producer’s scheme was the fact that I loved Ann Landers and her column. I didn’t always agree with her, but who always agrees with anybody? I don’t always agree with myself! Sometimes I read columns I wrote 10 years ago and I think, “What was I smoking? Or thinking? Or smoking and thinking?” 

I wanted Margo’s “permission” to go to the auction because I knew it would get written about as somehow disrespectful. I’m really embarrassed to say this, but I took $10,000 in cash to the auction. I took that much because I thought I’d be bidding against the Smithsonian for her desk, on which so much had been written about the culture, sexual mores and relationships over the decades.

So I took all this money, thinking, “Oh, it’s going to be me versus the Smithsonian because they’re going to want to put her desk next to Archie Bunker’s chair in the museum, but I’m going to get it and take it home.”

I bought Ann Landers’ desk for $197. I know, right? No one was there from the Smithsonian bidding against me. 

Then they began to auction off all of Ann Landers’ many awards and honorary degrees, from the American Cancer Society, the American Leukemia Foundation, General Motors, Illinoisan of the Year, Chicagoan of the Year, medallions, plaques, tchotchkes. One award had been given to her by the pope when he visited Chicago in the 1960s, which now sits on my mantel. There is something in my house that a pope has touched, and it’s not a 10-year-old boy. Imagine that. 

When people ask me during my college speaking gigs — often I get a card, especially when I speak in the South — “Do you believe in God?,” it’s a game for me to just read that question and say “Nope” and go right on to the next question. Because it’s the people who do believe in God who have some explaining to do, not those of us who do not.

I will take a photo of my Emperor award sitting next to the award from the pope on my mantel and post it on Instagram. Thank you all very much for this, it’s very meaningful. I can’t express it enough.

I was told to not run my mouth too long because they wanted some time for Q&A, which is my preferred format in everything. So I’m happy to answer any questions.

Q&A with Dan Savage

Q. Would you take $500 for the desk? 

A. No! I have to write my column on it for four more decades so that there is a hundred or 80 years of sex column-ing and advice columning at this desk. Then maybe the Smithsonian will want it. 

Q. How much cash did you have left after the auction? 

A. About $9,200. So I took my mother to lunch. 

Q. Was it weird having that much in cash?

A. That felt stupid, carrying that much money around. I felt very “First World and starving orphans” at that moment. But what can you do? You give a gay dude a lot of money and he’s going to spend it on stupid stuff. Like this jacket! 

Q. Will you tell us more about the It Gets Better project? What motivated you?

A. The story behind why I started it is a downer. A 15-year-old kid named Billy Lucas killed himself in Greensburg, Ind. He’d been very brutally bullied in middle school and high school because he was perceived to be gay. He’d never come out to anyone as gay, so he may not have been gay. Not all victims of anti-LGBT violence and bullying are gay, but he likely was gay.

“Gaydar” is strong with middle schoolers and high schoolers. “Good” Christian kids said because he was sick and sinful, God hated him. They said he was going to hell and might as well get it over with. [Billy was found hanging from the rafters in his grandmother’s barn.] I wrote about it from a place of real rage.

I get really weepy when I try to talk about this. His parents created a Facebook memorial page for him, and the same kids who had been bullying him went to the Facebook page to celebrate his death, to call him a faggot again and to say in front of his grieving parents that they were glad he was dead. I wrote about that from a place of white hot rage.

I was reading the comments on a blog post I’d written, which drew similar outrage and fury. A woman whose handle is Despicable Me cut through everyone’s anger by writing, “I wish I had known you, Billy, and had been able to tell you that things get better. Rest in peace.” 

That “things get better” kind of gutted me, along with that desire to have had a chance to speak to him, because things do get better. And they have gotten better — at a macro level for LGBT people and at a micro level personally for so many of us in our lives after escaping high school. 

Vicious ‘family’ values

When I came out to my parents in the early 1980s, I was not just telling my mom and my dad. I was not just burning them with mental images that took them years to stop seeing. They could look at my sister’s boyfriend without seeing his dick in her mouth, but they couldn’t look at mine, couldn’t make the same leap with my boyfriend for a while.

But telling my very traditional parents I was gay in the early 1980s meant telling them that I would never marry, never have kids. I would have a marginal career if I had any career at all, and that I could never be a Marine.

And here we are in just the course of my adult life, since age 18, and I am married to the same guy for 20 years. We have a 15-year-old son that we raised from birth together. Now I can be a Marine. I don’t want to be a Marine, much to the relief of the United States Marine Corps. But the kind of gay people who could be Marines and would like to be Marines and would be good Marines can now be Marines and serve openly. 

I need to talk to the next Billy Lucas before he harms himself, but I would never get an invitation to a high school to speak to that kid, the queer kid, who most desperately needs to hear from LGBT adults. Kids who are queer are at four times greater risk for suicide. That doubles if their parents are openly hostile.

That is why I say that Tony Perkins [of the Family Research Council] sits on a pile of dead gay children every day when he goes to work. He encourages parents to do what he damn well knows doubles the already quadrupled risk of suicide for their queer kids. Then he points to the suicide rate that he’s helping to drive up as proof that the gay “lifestyle” is unhealthy and dangerous. 

I would never be able to get permission from that parent who’s following Tony Perkins’ lead to speak to their kid, to tell them that things get better. Then it occurred to me on the train to JFK that I’m in the YouTube/Facebook/Twitter era and no longer needed permission to speak to queer kids. 

I could record a video, use my column and my podcast to encourage other adults to make videos, upload them to YouTube and encourage kids to watch them. And bring the LGBT youth support group to that kid whose parents would never allow them to attend one. And it worked. 

A girl in Texas

The letter that most sticks with me was from a 15-year-old lesbian kid in Texas. I usually don’t say the name of the state, so don’t remember that. Growing up in a shitty state with a shitty governor. (See, I could have said Wisconsin, which is a wonderful state with a shitty governor!)

She came out to her parents because she was being bullied and needed their support. She was perceived to be a lesbian, which she is. She went to her parents and came out to them, and they did what Tony Perkins tells parents to do. 

They threatened to disown her, throw her out of the house, cut off all her contact with her siblings and not pay for her education if she didn’t go into counseling at their megachurch. They said she had to take it back — not be a lesbian.

So she did what so many queers before her have done. She lied to her parents under duress and told them that she was mistaken, that she was not a lesbian, that she was confused. She went home from her counseling session and put up a poster of Justin Bieber, because that’s as close to lesbianism as she could get for a while. (I’m not making fun of effeminate boys. Anyone who’s ever met anybody I’ve ever dated knows that effeminate boys are my favorite.)

She wrote me at [my column] Savage Love to tell me that she was watching It Gets Better videos on her phone, in her bed, in her bedroom, under the covers in her parent’s house in the middle of the night. That was what we wanted to do. We kicked down her parents’ front door, marched into their daughter’s bedroom and climbed into bed with her. We brought the queer youth support group to her, the one her parents wouldn’t let her attend. 

She said that it was helping. She was seeing families of gay people, bi people, and trans people, whose families had the same reaction as hers, coming around. She was seeing lesbians with families of their own and wives and children and colleagues who respected them and friends who loved them for who they really were. 

It was giving her hope for her future, and it was getting her through this time when she was being pushed toward suicide by her parents.

‘Game over’

You can’t stop us anymore by accusing us of “recruiting” or being pedophiles. You can’t! The culture has to stop pretending that there is no such thing as queer kids. Because there are. We don’t jump fully formed out of the backs of gay bars at age 21, pride beads around our necks. 

So I kept saying on TV, “game over.” We’re going to talk to your queer kids whether you want us to or not. And I would say we’re going to talk to your queer kids whether preachers, teacher or parents like it or not. And she wrote, this Texas kid, that not only were the videos giving her hope for her future, they were giving her hope for her parents. Because she was seeing people whose parents were like hers and had came around. She was seeing parents like my parents, who came around. Right?

What she said at the end of her letter, which changed the way I talk about the It Gets Better project on television, was just so shattering.

She said, “Every day I get up and go downstairs and I look at my mother and my father and I love them for who they’re going to be in 10 years.” 

Terry and I made one out of 150,000 “It Gets Better” videos. We made one, but because so many other people made them and shared their stories, we convinced her that that was possible, even for her family. And one day, her parents are going to thank us for what we did for their daughter.

She is the success story of It Gets Better. That we reached that kid, at that moment and gave her what she needed to get through it but also gave her the insight that allows her to love her parents at a time when they are failing her. And incapable of loving her. 

Thank you very much! 

Freedom From Religion Foundation