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Dan Savage on helping gay kids, his TV show & his Chicago roots

You're probably familiar with Dan Savage because you—or, OK, "a friend"—has taken advice from his humorous, nationally syndicated sex advice column, "Savage Love." Or perhaps you know Savage from his work as the co-founder of It Gets Better, a video-based project formed in 2009 in response to the suicides of teens who'd been victims of sexual identity-themed bullying.

On Friday, Seattle-based Savage returns to his hometown to join his brother, Northwestern University professor Bill Savage, at the Steppenwolf for Young Adults production of “FML: How Carson McCullers Saved My Life” and participate in a post-show discussion with the audience about bullying and the It Gets Better project.

Savage remembers the time before It Gets Better’s launch when this would have been taboo.

“If we tried to reach out because we empathized and understood and could share our coping mechanisms and how we got through it, we would be accused of being pedophiles and trying to recruit kids to the gay lifestyle,” he told RedEye over the weekend. “Because society wanted to tell itself there was no such thing as gay kids, there were only gay adults—as if we all jumped fully formed out of the backs of gay bars at age twenty-one.”

RedEye talked to Savage about It Gets Better, his soon-to-debut show on MTV, “Savage U,” and his Chicago roots.

FML: How Carson McCullers Saved My Life
Go: 7:30 p.m. Friday at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St.
Tickets: $20 (for play; post-show discussion is free for ticketholders); 312-335-1650;

You’ve gone from being perceived as a funny sex columnist to this giant role model.
[Laughs.] I know! I’m gay Jesus now.

How have your perspectives changed?
David Sedaris writes in his essay for the “It Gets Better” book, that when he was growing up, he was just a weird kid. No one called him gay because no one knew what gay was.

Now, every kid knows what gay is. It’s sort of a double-edge sword. In schools, kids are hyper-vigilant and scrutinizing their peers for evidence of gayness. And if you live in a bigoted community, these straight kids are watching their parents and preachers and teachers beat up gay people rhetorically or at the ballot box. And they feel that they have license then to beat up gay people in schools that they encounter.

There’s been a big, quick expansion of the It Gets Better brand with an hour-long MTV special, an “It Gets Better” tent at Fashion Week—
It gets better! One day you can wear $500 shoes. [Laughs.]

So where would you like to see this expansion going in, say, 10 years?
We want to keep doing outreach. We want to keep raising money. We’ve donated a lot of the money we’ve raised to The Trevor Project and GLSEN and the ACLU. We want to keep doing exactly what we’re doing. But there are kids who are nine years old now who will be fifteen in six years who will need these videos and may not have seen the MTV special—they were too young. We won’t be benefiting from all this free media, so, in four or five years, we’ll need to be doing outreach and some advertising to let these kids know where to find us, where to find these videos.

What are some decisions you’ve made that led to who you are today?
This is the kind of gig that you just fall into. Literally, I met somebody who was moving to Seattle to start a weekly newspaper and I looked at him and said, “Oh, you should have an advice column because everybody reads them.” And he said, “Oh, that’s great advice, you should write it.”

I wasn’t angling for a gig. I had never written anything before in my life—which is evident from the first couple years’ worth of “Savage Love,” if you could read them, which you can’t because I’ve hidden them away forever.

It was a lark. I moved to Seattle with these folks ’cause I had nothing better to do that year and started writing this column for laughs and then it just kind of grew and grew and grew and ate my life—it took over. And I had a theater here in Seattle for awhile and it was pretty successful. But you know, theater in Seattle is like, I don’t know, bobsledding in Jamaica—you can only go so far. And so, it reached a point where I had to choose between my first love, theater, and this crazy, weird, unexpected career.

You started the column in 1991?
Yeah. My column is old enough to drink—unlike most of my readers [laughs].

Speaking of college kids, April 3 marks the premiere of “Savage U” on MTV. How did that come to be?
I did a pilot for HBO and they passed on it, which was good—they were right; it wasn’t what it needed to be. And then we went out and pitched a couple other networks.

And what’s funny is that what we pitched to MTV is not what we’re doing for MTV. We pitched a very different show but we gave them a couple of DVDs of what I do when I go to colleges, where I stand up there at a lectern and take questions anonymously on cards and I read the questions and I answer them. It’s called “Savage Love Live”—universities bring me in basically to undo abstinence education in two hours.

And MTV looked at that and said, “We want to do that.” So that’s what the show is—what I’ve been doing for almost 15 years with these college speaking gigs—MTV just came along for the ride. We booked schools just for the MTV audience and filmed the Qs and As with the crowd and did some one-on-one sex advice interventions with some.

Any Chicago colleges?
We went to UIC! It was actually the very first one we went to.

Do you see any influences from your Chicago roots that affect your attitudes and decisions now?
Absolutely! [Laughs.] Ann Landers was a Midwestern girl and so am I. There’s that kind of Midwestern, no-[BS] way that people in Chicago have of giving you the truth with a little bit of a twinkle in your eye. Even if you’re taking the piss out of somebody, you can have them laughing along with you. And I think that’s kind of a Chicago Catholic thing.

Where do you like to go when you’re back in Chicago?
I love being home—the lake! The lake!

I always go to the Wiener’s Circle for a char Polish, which I love. We go to the Half Shell on Diversey—my family’s been eating there for forty years. My brother waited tables at Shaw’s Crab House to put himself through college and when I’m home, Billy [his brother] and I always go to Shaw’s and have dinner.

When I come home, you know what else I do? I rent a bike and I go all over the lakefront, all over downtown. There’s nothing like those big flat streets, riding a bike through the Loop and downtown into the Southside and back at two o’clock in the morning with everything being deserted. It is a dream.

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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