On the night of May 8 in the UWM Union Ballroom, Dan Savage presented “Savage Love Live” to hundreds of students and faculty. Savage’s frank, humorous tone was evident while he advocated for sex toys, non-monogamy, and LGBT rights.
The event was coordinated by both the Peer Health Advocates and the LGBT Center. UWM has a long history of inviting a diverse group of speakers to present to students. This particular presentation is a stark contrast to the recent visit by Karl Rove. Rove is notorious for his conservative values and for his support of anti-gay legislation. Both presentations were supported, in part, by student segregated fees. Savage was the second most expensive speaker in recent UWM history.
“We’re an institution of higher education so one of our mantras is academic freedom: so people being able to speak and say and study what they want,” said Warren Scherer of the LGBT Center.
Junior Mary Shippee appreciates this academic freedom. She says Savage’s topics are relevant to her and her peers.
“The cornerstone of our relationship is discussing our sex lives and our relationships with each other,” Shippe said.
Savage is a controversial speaker both because of his chosen topics, and because of his highly liberal perspective. In his weekly advice column “Savage Love,” ( link to http://www.thestranger.com/seattle/SavageLove?oid=8308624) Savage answers questions about sex, sexuality, and relationships in extensive, sometimes graphic detail. Savage also uses the column as a platform to discuss his views about politics, Christianity, and monogamy. He discusses the same topics at his live events, using the same obscene language.
“I get sort of tourettes-y in front of a crowd and I get swear-y, but I like swear words. I use them all the time in my writing,” Savage said.
Scherer said that despite Savage’s profanity use, the university placed no limits on his presentation.
“Sometimes the language that Dan uses, people find offensive, but I mean, that could be said about a number of speakers who are brought to campus,” Scherer said.
Junior Emily Christensen wasn’t bothered by Savage’s language. She commends his discussions about sex.
“I think there’s a big stigma in society today where it’s a taboo subject. And to approach it with humor and information is really important,” Christensen said.
“Monogamy is a trial and a chore…and a joy!”
Savage’s opinion about marriage and monogamy is often a point of contention. Though he has advocated for non-monogamy, Savage does not suggest that it’s right for all couples. During the live question and answer session, he addressed the question of and older lesbian couple that was experiencing a decline in their sex lives.
To answer this question, Savage cited sexual research that suggests that men are more likely than women to be aroused by a familiar partner. Savage suggested that a non-monogamous relationship agreement could be one effective solution to this couple’s problem. He then used their relationship troubles as a spring board to discuss the larger topic.
“It’s a terrible thing we’ve done to our relationships where we’ve put at the center of them this lie that is destructive. Where you both have to pretend that neither of you is ever interested in *expletive* anybody else but each other. That’s an unsustainable lie,” said Savage.
Savage regularly uses his relationship with his “husband-in-Canada/boyfriend-in-the-United-States” Terry Miller as an example of the success of non-traditional commitment. He does not describe his relationship with Miller as non-monogamous, but jokingly says they are “monogamish.”
Freshman Lilia Banrevy attended the show after reading Savage’s column for many years. She says she believes that Savage does not expect or intend to please everyone with his views.
“He would probably understand that some things might not be agreed with in a large crowd of people,” Banrevy said.
While answering another anonymous question, Savage also used his relationship to denounce the idea of fate. An audience member submitted a question in which she expressed happiness with her relationship, but concern that her partner wasn’t “the one.”
“There is no ‘one,’” said Savage, “there’s a .64 that you round up to one.”
He then said playfully that he was fortunate to find a .82 in Terry and, with self-deprecation, said he considers himself only a .42.
“Religion and LGBT does coexist.”
Just as Savage describes his relationship with an “-ish” disclaimer, he identifies himself as a cultural-Catholic, as opposed to a religious Catholic. He grew up in a Catholic household and attended a seminary preparatory school. At the event, Savage expressed frustration with Christians who prevent LGBT people from achieving full civil equality and social acceptance. In his column, Savage divides these Christians into two groups.
The first group he identifies as “loud, aggressive, and hypocritical right-wing “Christian” *expletive*” He says they are loud because of media attention and aggressive because they actively seek to deny LGBT civil rights. Savage calls them hypocritical for using the bible to justify their opposition to gay marriage, while ignoring the bible’s opposition to other sexual activities.
“Bigotry with a religious justification is the problem, is the block that’s in the way. I believe that religious people can have their faith and can think we’re going to hell and sign off on our full civil equality and not abuse us,” said Savage.
The second group he identifies as “NALTs…not all like that,” liberal Christians who defend themselves against comparisons to conservative Christians by saying, “We’re not all like that.” Savage says their passive nature enables aggressive Christians to “hijack” the religion.
“All LGBT people of faith or of no faith want is the same deal the Jews have, and the yoga instructors, and the atheists, which is full civil equality. And if we go to hell after death that’s on us,” said Savage.
After the show, one audience member approached Savage to discuss religion further. The young man explained that he was a Christian with LGBT friends who had come out in their religious groups. Savage responded to the young man that while some LGBT people remain in religious groups, others find fault and leave.
Audience members represented various religious and non-religious backgrounds, as well as a variety of ages and ethnicities. When a fire alarm sounded, there was immediately speculation that someone had intentionally pulled the alarm. The alarm was eventually determined to be false. Savage used the opportunity to joke.
“You think somebody stormed out in a huff, who was pro-monogamy, and decided to yank the alarms so that they could stop the talk?” Savage said, smiling.
It Gets Better
Savage addressed the elephant in the room. After a series of gay-bullying suicides last year, the topic of sexual tolerance was garnering attention on college campuses across the nation. At the live event, Savage explained how bullying effects gay youth differently than straight youth.
“Gay kids, gay adults, and gay teenagers are likelier to attempt suicide, likelier to smoke, likelier to have substance abuse issues, likelier to abuse themselves with hyper-sexual, promiscuous behavior. And that self-destructiveness doesn’t come from nowhere,” said Savage.
Savage says that unlike straight youth, LGBT youth don’t have access to stable and successful role models with the same sexual orientation.
“Adult gay- lesbian-bi-trans people, we are not allowed to talk to gay-lesbian-bi-trans kids. And when we want to, or when we try to, we are accused of being pedophiles, accused of attempting to recruit children into the gay lifestyle,” said Savage.
Savage told the audience that he worried he would never be able to reach LGBT youth. But he found a solution.
“It occurred to me that in the YouTube era I was waiting for permission that I no longer needed,” Savage said.
Savage and Miller created a video to inform LGBT youth that, as one Savage reader wrote, “it gets better.” Since then, over 10,000 video essays have been submitted to the campaign, and they videos have been viewed over 40 million times. Savage says the project has accomplished two goals: saving lives and destroying the old order. He said, with modesty, that he no longer feels he and Miller can claim ownership of the project.
“We shot the starting gun, everyone else came and ran the race,” Savage said.