Up, up and away. Hivster’s Interview with Dan Savage.
In physics the shortest distance from point A to point B is, of course, a straight line.
Something tells me, Dan Savage’s line isn’t straight. Its trajectory, however, is definitely up.
A budding advice columnist in 1991, Dan’s stature since has continued to grow. Most recently, he started an international video campaign to prevent gay teen suicide, “It Gets Better.” Maybe you’ve heard of it?
He currently awaits the first-airing of his new show on MTV, “Savage U” all the while continuing his busy efforts as the Editor-in-Chief of The Stranger.
Nonetheless, he found time to share his feelings about his current success, the current state of HIV prevention campaigns and how his attitudes have changed during his two decade life in the public spotlight.
Brad Crelia: First off, thank you for the “It Gets Better” campaign. Does its success surprise you?
Dan Savage: Honestly, I expected the project to be a “success.” Before we launched the project—before Terry and I sat down to make the first “It Gets Better” video—I bounced the idea off some smart, media-savvy, connected activists and friends, and they all told me it was a good idea and predicted that it would be embraced by the LGBT community. But, I only expected a modest success. We hoped to get a hundred videos, maybe two hundred. We wanted to have a real diversity of voices and life experiences, videos for LGBT youth from LGBT adults (and some by youth themselves) from all walks of life, all races, all religious traditions, and all classes.
I certainly didn’t expect, when we were sitting down at Smith to record our video, that four weeks later we’d get a call from the White House letting us know that the president had made a video, or that six months later there would be It Gets Better projects being launched in other countries all over the world.
BC: The White House invited you to a conference on preventing bullying in March, but six months prior you were pretty livid in your criticism of the White House, “if you’re not going to keep your promises or do what you can to make it better…then you could at least have the simple human decency to shut the fuck up.” How was your experience at the conference and what do you think of the Obama Administration now?
DS: I think the Democrats — not just the Dems in the White House, but the whole Democratic establishment — realized, after the mid-term elections last fall, that they had to start delivering on their promises to the gay community. The gay vote is bigger than the Jewish vote; it’s certainly bigger than the Miami Cuban vote. We’re a large Dem constituency and for a long time it was enough for a Democrat just to say “gay” out loud, or deliver a speech to a gay group. It was enough to make promises during elections that you ran from after you were sworn in. But that changed last year. Dems looked at falling donations from gay groups and donors and the large jump in the percentage of the gay vote going to Republicans.
They realized that they couldn’t take us for granted anymore.
And 2012 may be close and they need us — they need our money, and our votes and they need our enthusiasm. And, they realized looking at the 2010 midterm elections that promises and cocktail parties and symbolic gestures weren’t enough to fire up the queers in the Dem base anymore. And they started to deliver: DADT repeal, dropping the DOMA appeal, making anti-bullying efforts a priority.
So right now I’m pro-Obama, and I’m pro because now they’re delivering. But they’re delivering because we made it quite clear to them — GetEqual, gay bloggers, disappointed gay donors — that we had to see some results, tangible change, or it could hurt ‘em in 2012. And they delivered, finally, some… what was it? Oh, yeah: some change we could believe in.
BC: To change the subject a bit, could you clarify your opinion on HIV as an epidemic? Is HIV no longer crisis? Not just here in America but around the world?
DS: The AIDS crisis is over, the AIDS epidemic continues. We need a vaccine, we need a cure. People are still getting infected, people are still dying. But the crisis stage of the epidemic was the first decade — it was characterized by panic, fear, ignorance. It was the time when no one knew what was killing gay men, or how AIDS was transmitted – the years when there was no treatment, when gay communities and groups and the whole culture was responding — not always positively, not always constructively — to something new and terrifying. The crisis was the panic stage.
But a panic is not sustainable over the long haul. We learned more about AIDS, we learned how to prevent its spread, treatments and drugs were developed that improved and extended the lives of people with HIV. Now, we live with an epidemic but we don’t live with that constant, nagging fear. We don’t live in a state of panic. We’re not in crisis mode anymore. And that’s good.
I came out in 1981. I lived through those crisis years, and it was hell. We’re living through a very different stage of the epidemic now.
The late gay men’s health crusader Eric Rofes wrote about the difference between crisis and epidemic. I recommend his book Dry Bones Breathe.
BC: You’ve previously suggested that a program modeled similarly to child support as a “surefire way to curb unsafe sex…” Making someone who’s HIV+ pay the medical expenses of the person they infect. Could you speak to that a bit, I like the idea but wonder if it is something that could be actually implemented?
DS: No, something like that could not actually be implemented — it’s logistically and practically impossible. And I wasn’t entirely serious when I wrote that. I was engaging in a little hyperbole borne of my feelings of frustration with the behavior of some gay men and the refusal of other gay men to hold the bad actors in our own community responsible for their behavior, for the damage they’re doing to their own community, to their “tribe,” as Rofes described us.
I want to see gay men take more responsibility — for themselves, for their own choices. But we also need to recognize our responsibility to each other. It’s not enough to say, as some men will say, “If he lets me fuck him without a condom, that’s his choice, I’m not responsible for his choices.” I think that’s selfish, self-serving, sociopathic garbage. And it makes me angry, and I have a column, and sometimes I sit down and bang out a column when I’m angry and…
BC:You’ve stated, “I’m sorry, but I’m always suspicious when supposed experts at places like GMHC point to their “longstanding HIV prevention work” when they condemn new, novel, or shocking efforts to reach out to/smack some sense into gay men. Fact is what we’re doing now—those longstanding HIV prevention efforts—are not working. I personally agree that the “longstanding HIV prevention work” isn’t working, but I wonder what you suggest young gay men do in regards to prevention?
DS: HIV [prevention campaigns] are fatally compromised, terribly conflicted. They seems designed, first and foremost, to avoid making the already HIV+ guys feel bad about being positive. That fear—that this, that, or the other HIV education campaign might stigmatize having HIV and hurt the feelings of guys who have HIV — is paralyzing and it leads to neutered, ineffective, flaccid campaigns. They can’t say, “Don’t get HIV! It’s life-altering, it’s hard!” and “HIV is not big deal! You’ll be fine! Guys with HIV are living wonderful, rewarding lives!” at the same time.
Here’s what young gay men need to do in regards to prevention: avoid meth and people who use meth. Don’t have anal sex on the first date—anal isn’t for hookups and it’s not for strangers. The more people you have sex with, the greater your risk of acquiring HIV. One of the biggest and oldest HIV prevention half truths — one I bought into once upon time — is that it doesn’t matter how many people you have sex with, it only matters how you’re having sex. If you’re being “safe,” if you’re using condoms—well, gee! Fuck a million guys! Nothing to worry about!
Sorry, but if you’re having tons of sex — even if you’re using condoms — with tons of guys, your odds of winding up in bed with someone who isn’t careful about keeping that condom on, or is capable of removing it, goes way, way up. Tons of anonymous sex and online hookups? By definition you’re having going to be having sex with people who don’t care about you — they don’t know you! — and you can’t expect that those guys, guys who don’t know and don’t care about you, to look out for your sexual safety or, in some cases, to give two shits about keeping that condom on, using it correctly.
Straight people need to have more sex, and more sex partners, than they do. Gay people need to have fewer sex partners than we can. There’s a balance. We need to find it.
Buy Dan Savage’s latest “It Get’s Better” on Amazon.com,
proceeds to benefit organizations that help LGBT youths.
Photos VIA: Christopher Staton and kelly O