On love and marriage and why monogamy is bad for you
Dan Savage - advice columnist, author, provocateur and parent, among other things - learnt to stop mincing words a long time ago.
Growing up in Chicago in the 1960s and '70s, the product of a family enthusiastic in its Catholicism, there came a time when the boy they called Danny had something to say. He'd thought about it a lot, and then he finally said it. In the process he learnt that when it comes to thinking and talking about life - the forces that shape us, and the shapes we're forced to fit - he had a talent for navigating the more complicated byways of the human head and heart.
That first brave conversation, 31 years ago, was always bound to leave a mark; it does on almost everyone who has it or hears it. "Coming out is a process, as they say," Savage says. "I came out to myself at 14, 15, came out to a few friends at 16 as bisexual, I was about to come out to my parents when my parents [separated] ... my dad left my mum and I actually waited a couple of years longer before I came out to my mother because I just didn't feel like she could take those two blows at once and survive."
But once he'd crossed that final frontier, there was no stopping him. Out to the world, he left by the wayside the faith he'd been raised in. He went to college, studying theatre and history. It wasn't until he was almost 30, in the early 1990s, that the voice found its first major public platform - as an advice columnist for The Stranger, a new alternative weekly in Seattle - but since then it has rarely been quieted.
He's written six books; he co-founded a theatre company; he's a prominent American voice on some of the major social issues of the times, from abortion to gay marriage; and, with husband Terry Miller, in 2010 he created one of the most potent media projects of the age, the anti-bullying It Gets Better initiative, a video-driven concept with a powerful message that attracted even US President Barack Obama to the cause.
He still writes the advice column that started it all, Savage Love, now syndicated around the world and also available in podcast form.
Whatever the platform or outlet, the voice is bold, blunt, often contrary, always challenging - as it has been since he first spoke up for himself as a teenager, when he found himself and lost his religion. "I'm grateful for my sexuality bringing me into conflict with my faith. It makes you think, without my sexuality I might have just coasted along." He talks of "all that shit poured into my head" as a kid - "exclusionary, judgey, condemnatory crap". As we said, Savage doesn't mince his words, as Australian audiences are about to find out up close for the first time.
The Festival of Dangerous Ideas, a Sydney event with a one-day Melbourne sideshow on November 3, is still a week away. He is not yet in the country, but Savage has his ideas about the country he's coming to, and on the phone to Fairfax Media he happily accepts the invitation to share them. They are based on impressions - he's been here only once, and that was a holiday 20 years ago - but Savage is skilled at making his impressions of those impressions count.
The times here would seem to suit him, given that a bunch of his favourite topics - gay rights, sexism and, courtesy of the new incumbent of The Lodge, Catholicism - feature prominently in national debate.
"Australia, my impression is it's a little schizoid considering the Prime Minister you dudes just elected down there," he says. "The gulf between very liberal laws on prostitution and other sexual-related matters and then there's this kind of instinctual, knee-jerk conservatism when it comes to marriage equality."
That Australia would be "the last country in the Anglosphere to legalise marriage equality" baffles him. "Australia's looking a little bit like you guys got the Puritans and we got the convicts; it's the wrong way round."
He knows of Tony Abbott and knows he's a political conservative, and for Savage that is enough to warrant withdrawing any thought of giving the new PM the benefit of the doubt: "All I've seen is that one video where your former prime minister beat the shit out of him during question time, that was delicious."
I bring him up to speed on some curiosities of the Australian moment that have escaped him, among them that the new US ambassador to Australia is a gay man with a husband - their union recognised by US law but not here. "That's too bad," Savage says. "I look forward to him meeting your new Prime Minister at a state function and introducing his husband in America, boyfriend in Australia."
On the same theme, he learns of Abbott's family conflict on marriage equality, and files it away as just another example of a leader choosing political convenience over doing the right thing. Remember George Bush snr, he says, whose nominating convention in 1988 was a festival of public homophobia; then last month the Republican former president was a witness at the nuptials of a lesbian couple. "This motherf---er Abbott", Savage says, will no doubt also see the light and support his sister's right to marry - when he no longer needs the votes of bigots to win power.
None of this is to suggest Savage has been invited to Australia to hold forth on local politics, or even on the subject of gay marriage, an issue about which he is deeply passionate. He is coming instead to share with the festival his views on monogamy, but inevitably these issues are all of a piece - marriage, its rules, its relation to religion - and Savage dismantles with relish the conventions that govern their debate.
On marriage, for starters he contends that it is straight people who have dramatically changed the nature of the institution, and that arguments against same-sex unions are often based on notions of tradition that have long since been abandoned by heterosexuals.
"There's a reluctance on the part of many straight people to acknowledge how they have changed marriage," he says.
"[This] shit that we [gay people] want to redefine marriage - no, no, no. There's this kind of nostalgia in some ways for gender roles and their legal expression. Marriage used to be a very gendered institution and it was very unfavourable for women and straight people eventually rejected that and re-created, redefined marriage to be the legal union of two autonomous people. Allowing same-sex couples to marry really does force straight people to confront what marriage is - not for us, but for them."
Those old gender norms, he says, are now "optional", yet outdated traditions are the go-to argument of opponents of same-sex marriage. "Straight people," Savage says, "want gay people to marry in 1813 and they get to marry in 2013."
But when it comes to monogamy - the focus of his Australian speeches - Savage argues that in redefining the old rules of marriage, this is one area where change has not gone far enough. He believes sexual fidelity as a social norm is not merely old-fashioned but is actively damaging to relationships and the individuals within them.
A dangerous idea? It may be billed as such, but Savage seems equal parts amused and bemused that his views could be regarded that way.
"Some of the things I say about monogamy are regarded as dangerous," he says. "But I actually think the attitudes we hold about monogamy and the importance we place on it is more dangerous, is doing more damage, is harming marriages, is leading to more divorces than anything I've ever recommended that people do or think."
He insists he is not in favour of a sexual free-for-all for committed partners. Indeed, he has coined a word, monogamish, which is how he describes his marriage to Terry Miller. (The couple were married in Canada in 2005, and again in the US when Washington state legalised same-sex unions in 2012. They have an adopted son.)
"We were monogamous for four or five years and not monogamous for 15 years," Savage says. "We're blissfully happy and we still have sex all the time with each other. I coined the term for our marriage, monogamish, [because] we were so much more monogamous than not."
But it is common sense, not his own marriage, that Savage holds out as the basis for his views. "We tell people that humans are naturally monogamous and [it's not] true. We know that in most serious long-term relationships, 60 per cent of the men in them will cheat, 40 per cent of the women ... and we pound it into people's heads that if there's infidelity you must end the marriage, that the marriage is destroyed.
"It's saying that one blow-job on a business trip should be given more weight and consideration and more importance should be attached to it than the 25 years you've spent together, the kids you're raising together, the property you own together, the history you have together, the affection you still have for each other - all of that must be discarded. All of that weighs less on the scales."
The default position should be reversed, he argues. "It should be, 'We'll get through this,' not divorce as the default."
And the result? "It's going to save marriage, it's going to make marriage better and stronger," Savage declares.
And that, right there, is where listening to Dan Savage not mince words on life and love can lead you: from radical idea to conservative outcome, with human nature as your ever fallible guide. Dangerous? Some may think so, but you'd be mad not to buckle up and take the ride.
Dan Savage is at Melbourne's Princess Theatre on Sunday, November 3, for the Pop-Up Festival of Dangerous Ideas, presented by the Wheeler Centre and the Sydney Opera House. Bookings wheelercentre.com