Dan Savage and Greg Berlanti have never met. This may surprise some, considering how entwined their careers have become, and how their outlooks on life align.
Savage—the godfather of sex columns, the creator of the “It Gets Better” project, and the author of four bestselling books on queer relationships—is one of the first results to appear when you type “gay love advice” into a Google search. Berlanti—a Dawson’s Creek showrunner, the creator of cult favorites like Riverdale and Broken Hearts Club, and the Willy Wonka of teen romances (he works on as many as 10 per year)—is the director of Love, Simon, the latest mainstream contribution to the queer film canon, and and the optimistic gay rom-com so many people have been waiting for.
When they finally come together to chat, they immediately start gushing, with Berlanti, 45, saying that Savage’s 1999 book The Kid shaped the way he approaches parenting (he has a son with former soccer star Robbie Rogers), and Savage, 53, declaring Love, Simon one of the loveliest films he’s seen in quite some time. These two men, whose closeness in age unites their experience of queer progress, have dedicated the majority of their working lives to creating accurate reflections of love, sex, and relationships. Here, as they share their views and ideas, Berlanti and Savage wax nostalgic, get a little bit philosophical, and express their ultimate hope of a bright future for queer romance.
Fran Tirado: What childhood memories do you have of romantic depictions of queer people in movies, books, or pop culture?
Dan Savage: There really were none. There was Al Pacino in Cruising. That gave me a very different impression of the life I was to lead. There was Billy Crystal’s character in Soap. There was a gay son on Dynasty. But those characters wound up going from gay to bi to being with a woman. The romance I saw was the ability of romance with a woman to “fix” a gay guy and make him straight. So, of course, that’s what I was hoping for when I was 15 years old and flirting with girls. I was crossing my fingers.
Greg Berlanti: I remember the son on Dynasty! There was also a miniseries called Celebrity in which one of the guys turns out to be gay. I remember watching that with my father and he said, “Turn this off.”
DS: I had a similar experience watching Barney Miller. My dad was a cop and loved Barney Miller because he thought it was the only realistic cop show on television. There were a couple of recurring gay characters—one of them had a little pink poodle and was screamingly feminine. I distinctly remember watching that with my dad and we both got very quiet. I felt implicated by it, and resolved in that moment that when I grew up I wasn’t going to be that kind of gay guy—I would be a “normal” gay guy that straight people like my dad would like.
FT: So your first interactions with queer romance and attraction showed you that it was something that could be fixed or modified. Are there other ways in which either of you felt your initial understanding of queer romance was misled?
GB: What I would always take away was the sense that it would never work out. I remember in Maurice they had a closeted relationship. One guy comes out and deals with his sexuality and the other doesn’t. This combination of not ending up together and people choosing to hide their identity—that would happen in films. I remember at the end of Maurice they reunite, and I’m paraphrasing, but one says to the other, “What’s it like?” And the openly gay character says, “You don’t get to know.” I remember thinking to myself, If I have to choose between love and being out, I hope I have the courage to choose to be out.
DS: I remember that in the 1970s every parent had a copy of this horrible book called Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* But Were Afraid to Ask, by this asshole, Dr. David Reuben. There’s a section on homosexuality that painted a really dire picture, saying there was no such thing as love between homosexuals—that all gay relationships were short and violent and unhappy. I think there’s something in the book like, “Because penis plus penis equals nothing, whereas penis plus vagina equals life, and a future, and happiness.” Keep in mind that when I was young, there was no internet, no Glee, no Andrew Sullivan, no Rachel Maddow, no Anderson Cooper. There was no representation. Yet, despite the lies, I just knew in my gut that this couldn’t be true—this idea that two people of the same gender couldn’t love one another, or that pussy on dick was somehow magical love everlasting. I saw a lot of opposite-sex relationships that didn’t look much like love to me.
FT: Are there any images of queer romance or relationships that really got it right? For example, I remember reading The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and when the queer romance entered the scene, the book didn’t come to a screeching halt. That felt revolutionary at the time.
GB: For me, it was the movie Longtime Companion, about the AIDS crisis in New York. Just the depth of love between these people as they were losing the individual they loved in the midst of devastation—that to me was really profound. I would watch it in college, again and again, when my roommates were out, and sob uncontrollably.
DS: For me, the first real representation of love I saw onstage was in AIDS plays. Not Angels in America, which would come much later, but early plays reacting to the epidemic. One, in particular, was called As Is, and another was Jerker, about a phone-sex relationship between two men who would never actually meet in person. There was that stage of abject terror in the AIDS epidemic when people stopped touching each other, and a lot of people had phone sex and phone relationships to take the place of physical intimacy. [Stifled pause] I’m crying talking about it because both of those plays showed me through writing what love could look like even during a time of death, plague, and terror.
FT: How do you think our community’s relationship to queer romance has changed now that we’re seeing more narratives that don’t necessarily involve HIV and AIDS?
DS: HIV/AIDS is still an issue, and the HIV infection rate is still way too high, particularly in communities of color and communities affected by poverty. Until we have a functioning national healthcare program, this may always be the case. But we do live in a time now where the possibility of marriage and family opens new avenues. That’s interesting to me—someone who, at 12 years old, said, “I will never marry, I will never have children, and I will very likely be exiled from my family at large.”
GB: I had the exact conversation with my parents the night I came out to them. They said, “You’ll never marry or have kids.” I remember very clearly saying to them, “You know what, I will have a family,” but I had no idea how. I was coming of age at a time when you didn’t know these things were possible. Dan released a book called The Kid in 1999, and that was the first book I read about a gay parent. That book showed me a way and a path. In my mind I remember thinking, So it’s OK to still want this.
DS: “If they’ll give a baby to those guys, they’ll give a baby to anyone.” [Laughs]
GB: [Laughs] I think every generation comes of age taking for granted the shit the previous generation had to deal with. There’s a part of me that wants to tell today’s youth how hard it was, the same way I had an older generation say that to me.
DS: I remember when [my partner] Terry and I were adopting, we had some gay and lesbian friends in their 60s and 70s who were just appalled at what we were doing and couldn’t imagine why we would want to do that. I had this conversation with this guy who said, “All I wanted when I was your age was not to get arrested for sucking a dick.” Like you said, Greg, I took for granted that I wouldn’t get arrested for sucking a dick, and I wanted more in my life than just the ability to toss dicks down my throat. I wanted marriage, I wanted family, I wanted children, and I didn’t see why I shouldn’t get it. People generations before us would tell us they were worried that we were reaching for too much—that we would force the pendulum to swing back and create danger.
FT: Dan, it seems like you created a representation of romance that felt, for lack of a better term, “post-oppression,” in that it showed a queer story that didn’t focus so much on acceptance. And similarly, Greg, with Love, Simon you tell a story that feels like what some would call “post-gay.”
DS: I wouldn’t call it post-gay, but post-hate, in a way. Post-the-expectation-that-the family-will-reject-you. Twenty years ago, the parents that loved and accepted their queer kids were the exception. Now we’ve flipped that script. Now the parents who love and accept are the rule. We gawk at the parents who are assholes about it and reject that because it’s so odd now.
FT: Post-hate is a perfect way to put it. I read a recent study stating that 65 percent of kids between 13 and 20 are identifying as not completely straight. I have a friend who’s 20, and who never had to come out to their mom—their mom just said, “I already know you’re queer and that’s how it is.” How do you two think the relationships of this generation will differ from the ones you experienced?
GB: In the ’90s, the internet was exploding. AOL chat rooms were exploding. And for my generation, if you didn’t come out at the beginning of college, you were trapped in the closet. The median age felt like 22 or 23. Now, with the internet, that gets younger and younger because people feel connected.
DS: And you have kids putting themselves out there, with self-representation and social media.
Nick Robinson (left) and Greg Berlanti on the set of Love, Simon.
FT: And “It Gets Better!”
GB: In spite of all that, Love, Simon still shows that self-inflicted closet that we put ourselves in. I don’t know if that’s ever going to go away. It may just be because kids aren’t comfortable with that part of themselves yet, because they still don’t have enough context around them to make them feel safe. Or they may just simply worry that if they tell someone that they’re queer, trans, bi, or gay, that someone’s going to love them differently. Not less, just differently.
DS: There’s a reason queer people get together in groups and start swapping their coming-out stories. It’s because at the end of the day it’s the only thing we can be sure we have in common. It’s a touchstone and often a hero’s journey. I think straight people really tap into it and are inspired by our coming-out stories. If we can tell the truth about something so stigmatized and so difficult, why can’t they tell the truths about themselves that are less scary?
FT: Love, Simon does that too, by showing us loving parents and a supportive school system and friend circle. It’s much like Dan’s work with writing and “It Gets Better”— necessary resources must exist to help de-stigmatize queer romance.
DS: We’ve always had to go see ourselves in the stories of people who aren’t queer. Now they can see themselves in our stories. Love, Simon wasn’t made for just seven percent of the population, and that’s really radical.
GB: The first time we tested Love, Simon, in California, everybody applauded the kiss at the end. We thought we may have to go to some place that’s not California to make sure it wasn’t just an environmental thing. So, we went to Toledo, Kansas, to a theater that was literally right next door to a church supply center. The theater filled up, and everybody reacted in the same places, and they all clapped during the kiss—young people, old people, straight people. The scores were even a little higher. That said, there have been some extra burdens, surrounding scrutiny and other conversations that come with something being the first of its kind. Which I’m totally fine with, as long as people see the movie.
Scenes from Call Me By Your Name.
FT: Queer people have so few opportunities to produce our narratives for mainstream audiences, whereas straight people get a jillion rom-coms and love stories each year. What kind of impact do you hope romantic depictions like Love, Simon, or Call Me by Your Name, or Moonlight will have on generations to come?
GB: With any LGBTQ film, TV show, or book, I don’t like to think that one has more impact than another. They’re all helping each other, chipping away at this glacial thing. There were so many art-house films that paved the way for me. In 10 years, when you re-gather Dan and me to have this conversation again, perhaps the fact that these movies, shows, books, or whatever have a gay character in them will not be the most pronounced thing about them. The pronounced thing about them will be all the other things the artist may be trying to say.
DS: Artists tell stories. Going all the way back to Billy Crystal in Soap, when there was only one character on TV who was gay, the deal for queer artists has been: Tell any story but your own. Increasingly, queer artists are able to tell their own stories in addition to the other stories they want t tell. Hopefully we’ll continue to see a space for queer artists to tell any story they want. Then, each particular piece of art that comes out can be judged on its own merits, and we won’t have to judge each individual story or work of art quite as desperately. That’s progress.
FT: Is there a type of queer romance you think needs to be prioritized next? What could a Love, Simon look like 10 years from now?
DS: I’m looking forward to watching a great pronoun-preference comedy.
GB: Oh, gosh. Well, I’m old now. I’m going to deflect and say there are younger people that can answer that question much better than I can. The fluency with which young people speak about gender and sexuality now is so much more evolved, and they’re going to have remarkable stories to tell as a result of that. I find myself having to catch up with the openness and ease with which they talk about these issues and have these conversations. It’s a whole new language, and that’s exciting. That’s inspiring to me.