Dan Savage’s advice and advocacy span relationships, politics, activism
Dan Savage is tired. Not because of his many jobs — nationally syndicated advice columnist, podcaster, LGBT political activist, editorial director for Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger, cofounder of the immensely popular It Gets Better Project for LGBT youth — but because he’s doing a phone interview shortly after sunrise to accommodate the time difference between the East and West coasts.
“It’s very early here, so I’m going to try and remember how to speak in complete sentences,” he says.
Complete sentences, however, seemingly have always come easily to Savage, a blunt, outspoken, and compassionate writer, speaker, and advocate.
When asked whether he expected to be bringing an advocacy role to his column “Savage Love” — advocacy has become especially urgent with the new Trump administration — Savage says the political involvement always came first.
“When ‘Savage Love’ began, I was still an activist,” says Savage, who demonstrated on college campuses for AIDS/HIV awareness during the Reagan administration. “I have always thought of [the column] as an extension of my activism. Every once in a while, because people read me and they like me, I can say there’s this thing going on . . . and let’s do this about it. And people will. So in a way, ‘Savage Love’ has allowed me to assemble a readership and an audience that I can activate from time to time. Because I don’t do it every week and I don’t do it constantly, people trust me.”
That trust is the result of many years of audience interaction: His column began in The Stranger in 1991, and the “Savage Lovecast” followed 14 years later. Both are going strong and show no sign of slowing. Savage will visit Boston for a live “Lovecast” recording at the Wilbur Theatre on Wednesday.
Savage, 52, says that while the routine of managing his many roles has gotten easier over the years, technology has made it tougher on his advice column.
“What technology has changed for me is the kinds of questions I get,” he says. “I used to get a lot of what are called ‘definitions and referrals,’ ” questions about sex and relationships that are now easily answered via Google. “I don’t get those questions anymore, which is a shame, because those were easy columns to write,” he laughs. “All the questions I get now are called situational ethics: This person did this, this person did that, we’re gonna get divorced, who’s right and who’s wrong? You have to come in like Solomon and cut the baby in two, and that requires a lot.”
The effect of social media has also changed his work over the years. Savage often hears from advice-seekers who are being harassed online, which he approaches with a grain of salt. He makes clear that there are people who are in actual danger via social media, so withdrawing from Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram “isn’t a one-size-fits-all prescription.” But Savage emphasizes the importance of knowing when to turn off the phone.
“It’s almost as if we invite people in to our most private moments at all hours to abuse us,” he says. “That engagement is optional. You don’t have to read your [Twitter] mentions. People think that’s not an option.”
Savage admits that he’s a “Twitter addict,” typically posting seven or eight times per day on subjects ranging from political issues to the nuances of relationships. This accessibility is one reason his many fans feel like they know him, and the feeling is clearly mutual: Savage and his readers and listeners commiserate, trade advice, and occasionally spar, like family members at an extremely candid dinner table. (“I wanted you to know that your column means a lot to me, and I love your bluntness, openness, and honesty,” reads a typical letter. “It is comforting to see a pragmatic, funny, and, for the most part, compassionate voice in print nowadays.”)
Savage’s visibility as not only a writer but a commentator and public figure has garnered him acclaim across literary and humanitarian circles. WGBH senior editor Peter Kadzis, who was an editor at the Boston Phoenix in 2004 when the now-defunct alt-weekly started printing Savage’s column, places him in the esteemed company of humorists Fran Lebowitz and David Sedaris.
“It’s an interesting paradox that the 19th-century literary/theatrical art of talking to a paying crowd from a stage — as practiced by Twain and Wilde — is still strong in the digital age,” says Kadzis. The Phoenix picked up Savage’s column, he says, “at a time when he was already a hipster commodity but was still pushing the envelope in terms of audience reach. Savage was offbeat, provocative, and smart — a good combo.”
Savage hopes that solidarity — both among readers and listeners as well as “everything and everyone that has a target painted on their back” — remains strong during the Trump administration. “I’m worried about women’s health care, the ACA [Affordable Care Act],” he says. “We’re being assaulted on so many fronts right now.”
Despite that prospect, Savage relishes the opportunity for togetherness, remembering the AIDS/HIV awareness protests of the ’80s and ’90s as a template.
“There was so much death, there was so much despair, but there was also so much joy and common purpose and so much life in the midst of all of that,” he recalls. “People were just ecstatic to be alive and to have done something.”
That activism, he adds, countered fear with empowerment — another aspect of the era that he believes will continue.
“What do you do when it looks like the whole world is collapsing around you?” he asks. “It doesn’t help to curl up in a ball on the floor. And nobody ever won a battle in the fetal position. You get up and you fight. There’s a kind of joy and camaraderie and closeness when you’re fighting for your life, or your community, or your country, or when you’re fighting to survive.”
This is not a time, in other words, to be tired.