Photo: Dan Savage and Terry Miller courtesy of MTV
The first It Gets Better special aired in February on MTV, and now Dan Savage is back for the second 60-minute It Gets Better special on October 9 at 11 p.m. ET/PT, just two days ahead of National Coming Out Day. We recently spoke to the guy behind the It Gets Better Campaign about working with his partner, Terry Miller, on the project, as well as getting his opinions on the first presidential debate and what those "dickbag" Republicans are trying to accomplish in this campaign.
So I've seen a rough cut of the new It Gets Better special and the second special is pretty amazing. I was curious about your involvement with the crafting of the special. How involved with it are you?
I work with the producers; I am one of the producers. I work behind the scenes, and I talk about the kinds of stories that I think are important to represent. In the first special, I thought Vanessa’s story was great because it showed the hard work that comes after coming out. Too often, I think in the LGBT rainbow windsock, we’re-all-brothers-and-sisters land, coming out is presented as the solution to all of your troubles when it becomes the beginning of other problems. Better problems? Problems that are more fun to work through because the payoffs are really worth it emotionally and sexually and socially. That was my major concern: that it wasn’t Polyanna-y. We want, particularly, to let kids know that it can complicate their lives.
I’m assuming that comes from the fact that you were also sensitive to the fact that people were critical of It Gets Better as being a trite message. That things might get better, but they’re also complicated.
And no one said it gets perfect or it gets utopian. Better doesn’t mean life doesn’t still have challenges and problems. And ultimately we all die in the end, right? [Laughs] No one gets out of here alive. I think some of that initial criticism was a reaction to those three words and people didn’t watch any of the videos. It’s about how they struggled, coped, what they got through it for now.
I remember this one video from a teacher in Massachusetts who had just been dumped by her partner of several years. And she was really devastated, but even she was like, “This is better than life in the closet.” She was saying that dealing honestly with pain and heartbreak is better than the life she lived before in the closet.
One of the things that I love that you say in this special is that you’re never done coming out. That coming out is something you continue to do and must do. It’s something that I have asked a lot of people about how they negotiate that continual process in their personal and professional lives.
Most people are straight, so the default assumption for people is that you’re straight. Unless you present really, really queer, which a lot of us do. Some of us do more strongly than others. Some of us present more queer at different stages of our lives. But it’s like a muscle, the more you come out, the easier it gets. And the more you do it, the lower the stakes are. You’re going to run out of friends and family members and colleagues to come out to—and then it’s going to be waiters. [Laughs] You know what I mean? Waiters and hotel clerks; people you’re never going to see ever again. All the hard people land on your desk when you’re young when you’re a teenager and in college.
Have you ever gotten criticism...
All I do is get criticism. That’s my job!
Yeah, OK, I guess I mean, people have said things about a gay “recruitment” process and I wonder if some see this MTV special as instructions on how to come out.
Yes, exactly, it’s instructions on how to come out. Absolutely.
But have you received that sort of vitriol personally, as if you are recruiting the next generation of gay kids?
Only a troglodyte idiot like Tony Perkins would think that if you explain how a queer person comes out that a straight person would think, I guess I’ll be queer then. You know, what we try to do with the specials, and they’re different than the It Gets Better videos, which area about LGBT adults to illuminate that path for queer kids. There’s a lot of queer kids who are 15 and bullied or isolated, and they don’t know how to be one. The TV specials are focused on kids who are walking it. We try to show the fallout, for real, and a wise way to come out.
For example, Natalie in this special she does the hard follow-up work, like what you saw with Vanessa in the first special.
I know that in the past Terry, your partner, had been more private and didn't want to be photographed or filmed but now he's been involved in the specials and the It Gets Better campaign. Is that something you decided as a couple or he decided it was time to do?
He decided it was time. I explained the idea to Terry, and he said, "You know, you should totally do that, make that video. And I said, “I want you to do it, too. I want you to be in it with me.” I expected he would argue with me. But he immediately said yes; he’s always been very moved by this issue because he was really brutalized in the way we’ve heard these kids who’ve killed themselves were. He was viciously, viciously bullied all through high school. I’m amazed sometimes that he survived it, frankly. And it probably contributed to why he was such a private person. You know, he didn’t put himself out there. His willingness to be on TV and talk about this...I don’t have a gun to the back of his head. He wants to do this.
One of the things that we didn’t film, because we didn’t think of it at the time, but the high school where Terry was very brutally bullied, and where when his parents went to the administration, the principals blamed Terry and said he needed to stop ‘acting that way’. In the wake of the It Gets Better book, he was invited back to that school to give a talk. Going back to that school was very hard for Terry, but then for him to find out the school had a GSA and it was the biggest club in the school, was really great. After he gave the talk, the principal came up and apoligized to him on behalf of the school and the administration for how the school failed him.
So there was a political debate last night, what do you think about what happened?
I think the president’s strategy worked really well if he what he wanted to do was make sure that Democrats were in a white-hot panic. All I know is I don’t know any complacent Democrats today. Maybe he did it to shake us all up out of our complacent stupor; that we’re over-confident in thinking he’ll get re-elected. Holy fuck, what the hell was that? Romney looked like someone who wanted to be president and Obama looked like someone who didn’t want that job anymore.
Have you been surprised by how the Republican party's anti-gay and anti-marriage equality messagi hasn't seemed to get people revved up in the same way it has in the past? Or do you disagree with that?
I disagree with that. Tony Perkins and the Family Research Council wrote the marriage and family planks of the Republican party platform. Paul Ryan, the same day as the debate, promised to push the federal marriage amendment and to fight and protect DOMA.
Every time the Republican dickbags run on Choice, once they get into office, they don’t really do much about it. Because then you’re taking on women, who are half the population. But if they get in and want to throw a bone to the far Right, taking on homos? What are we 3-and-a-half percent of the population? I wouldn’t put it past them to start pushing the FMA again if they win.
You know, with this high-profile position—and I’ve said before that you’re our No. 1 spokesgay—I wondered how you feel about that? Since you even get criticized by the gay community for not being PC, although you have such positive messages and work for queer youth, do you ever feel compelled to temper yourself when you’re out there defending yourself against the right wing so that people don't discount the It Gets Better work?
No, I don’t worry about that. If I worried about that, I’d be paralyzed. I’m criticized because I’m too focused on marriage. I get criticized because the message of the It Gets Better campaign is wrong. I’m like, "OK, fine, you get out there and you focus on what you think needs to be pushed. And if you don’t like the It Gets Better campaign, do something of your own."
You know, I’m in a really fortunate position because I really don’t answer to anybody. The joke here at The Stranger, which is my full-time, real job, is when people call and demand to speak to my boss because they want to get me fired, they put them through to me. And I let them make their best shot: “Make your best case, talk me into firing me.” And that’s liberating and empowering. I try not to be a dick. I listen to feedback. there have been times I’ve gone too far. And I take criticism to heart. But there’s a lot of psychotic nutbags out there, on the left and the right, in Straightland and Gayland. I can’t waste time on that. If the gay rights movement was set back 50 fucking years every time someone said that to me, it would be 400,000 B.C. right now. We’d have hairy red asses and be living in the trees.
Watch the trailer for the second It Gets Better special below: