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Dan Savage: For Gay Teens, Life 'Gets Better'

Dan Savage is an advice columnist who spawned a worldwide movement after hearing one too many times about anguished gay teens committing suicide. Savage and his husband, Terry Miller, talk about their "It Gets Better" project, which now has over 10,000 video submissions.

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Dan Savage: For Gay Teens, Life 'Gets Better'

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Dan Savage, is pretty famous for his sex advice column, Savage
Love, in which he answers questions from gay, straight, bi and
transgender people. He's becoming equally well-known for co-founding the
It Gets Better Project with his husband, Terry Miller, who is also
joining us.

The project is a collection of videos on their website and YouTube
channel addressed to teenagers who are bullied because they are or are
perceived as gay, lesbian, bi or transgender. On the videos, people
share their own stories of being bullied and then urge teens to hang in
there because things will get better.

Savage and Miller founded the project after reading about two 15-year-
olds who were bullied at school and then hanged themselves. Savage and
Miller made the first video, in which they talked about how they were
bullied in school and how their lives got better, much better. They
found each other, they adopted a son.

When they launched the website, they were hoping to get 100 video
submissions, but the website went viral, and before the end of the first
week, they had 1,000 videos. Now they have a book version of their
project, collecting some of the stories from their website. The book is
titled "It Gets Better: Coming Out, Overcoming Bullying and Creating a
Life Worth Living."

Dan Savage, Terry Miller, welcome to FRESH AIR. Dan, would you explain
what the mission of the It Gets Better Project is?

Mr. DAN SAVAGE (Co-editor, "It Gets Better: Coming Out, Overcoming
Bullying and Creating a Life Worth Living"): We wanted to encourage
lesbian, gay, bi and trans adults to speak to queer youth about our
adult lives, to share really our joy in our adult lives, because I
believe when a 13 or 14 or 15-year-old gay kid kills himself, what he's
saying is that he can't picture a future with enough joy in it to
compensate for pain he's in now.

He's being bullied by his peers, by his family, by his religious
leaders, and you know, watching the suicide crisis unfold last fall, my
husband and I decided that we weren't going to be shamed out of speaking
to LGBT youth anymore.

You know, for a long time any time a gay or lesbian adult tried to reach
out to - because they felt empathy for - a gay kid, we were accused of
recruiting, of being pedophiles.

And there was a sort of learned helplessness in the face of the
persecution of gay and lesbian children on the part of gay and lesbian
adults, where we felt like we couldn't address it, we couldn't talk to
them. And the idea behind the project was for gay adults to talk to
queer kids about our lives, to give them hope for their futures.

GROSS: Of course it's not just gay adults in your book. President
Obama's in there.

Mr. SAVAGE: Yeah, after the project launched, a whole lot of straight
allies jumped in and started recording videos too. And that was welcome.
You know, one of the ways that it gets better for gay kids is that one
day you realize that not all straight people are your enemy.

You know, and for a lot of gay kids - I felt that way when I was 13, 14
years old. I thought all straight people were my enemies. And you know,
my best and closest friends now as a gay adult are straight people,
including other straight parents that my boyfriend and I, my husband and
I - husband in Canada, boyfriend in America - and I have so much in
common with.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SAVAGE: So the videos from straight people - although, you know,
it's controversial because originally we launched the project, we said
this is for LGBT adults to speak to LGBT youth. And then some videos
started coming in from straight people.

And a lot of people really felt ownership over the project and the
campaign from the get-go, and they said: Take these videos down. This is
not what this is about.

And actually we - you know, Terry and I decided we were going to leave
those videos up because that is part of what it's about. One of the ways
it gets better is that straight people get better.

GROSS: Let me just read a sentence from President Obama's entry, to show
how he handled it. He said: I don't know what it's like to be picked on
for being gay, but I do know what it's like growing up feeling that
sometimes you don't belong. It's tough. And of course he goes on.

I'm going to ask each of you to choose a short excerpt from one of the
It Gets Better submissions that really reached you and that you feel
also reached others.

Mr. TERRY MILLER: (Co-editor, "It Gets Better: Coming Out, Overcoming
Bullying and Creating a Life Worth Living"): I love this one. In the
first couple weeks we got a lot of really heartfelt ones from kind of
young adults, not really quite in their, like, major adulthood
(unintelligible) in their 30s.

Like, there were a lot of college students that were writing in to say
sort of how recent it was for them. And this one girl, who it was fairly
recent that she had been bullied or had gone through a hard time.

Her name is Bernet Louis Godette(ph), I think is how she pronounces her
last name. And she writes a great essay about just how your life is
going to get better, how you're going to - you know, she's a female, so
how she's going to get - you're going to girl crushes or - and at one
point she says: Or boys, I guess. I don't know. I haven't really been
paying attention to them, but I guess they're around here.

But think about it this way. Imagine you are a rubber band, and right
now you are pulled taut. You have all this potential energy building up
and you are going to go so far once your potential energy is unleashed
on the world.

I know that sometimes the stretching hurts. It feels like you're going
to break. But please just hold on. You can make it through this, and
once you're let go, you're going to fly so far.

I mean, it's still - I kind of get weepy just reading that because she
really gets the point of how much energy and how much stress – stress is
on a kid, but how great life your life will be once the energy's let go.

GROSS: And Dan, what's your, one of your favorites?

Mr. SAVAGE: One of my favorites is by a lesbian Latino poet in the Bronx
named Gabrielle Rivera(ph), who said - really contradicted the message
in a powerful way. She writes: As a gay woman of color, I just want to
let the youth know that it kind of doesn't get better.

All these straight, rich celebrities, I'm not even going to name them,
they can tell you that it gets better because they've got money and
people don't care what they do. They're coming from a good place and
stuff, and I appreciate that.

But I'm going to be real because I live this life and I'm not rich and
I'm brown, and I probably look like most of you. It doesn't get better,
but what happens is this: You get stronger.

And I thought that was so tremendous when I watched Gabrielle Rivera's
video because it's really the Latino, lesbian, Bronx way of saying it
gets better: You get stronger.

GROSS: And I'm sure there's no way of measuring this exactly, but what
impact do you think your It Gets Better Project has had on teenagers who
are being bullied because they're gay or lesbian or transgender?

Mr. SAVAGE: We've heard from scores, countless numbers of lesbian, gay,
bi, trans teenagers who have watched the videos. As parents - Terry and
I have a teenager of our own - some of the most heartbreaking emails
have come from parents who knew their kids were being bullied because
they were perceived to be gay, whose kids hadn't come out to them yet,
who didn't know what to do, and they were able to sit down at the
computer with their kids and watch these videos, and their kids took
that opportunity to come out to their parents as their parents were
demonstrating to them their support.

I've heard from, you know, moms and dads and teenagers all over the
country thanking us, and those emails are really heartbreaking to read.
And I think particularly one from a girl who tried to come out to her
family. She's 15 years old, tried to come out to her family, and they
didn't react well.

Forty percent of homeless teenagers are LGBT kids who were thrown out
after they came out or were outed. And you know, a huge problem,
something that makes the bullying of gay youth very different from the
bullying of other kids - and other kids are bullied - is that often the
families are active participants in the bullying.

You know, LGBT kids are four times likelier to attempt suicide. If their
families reject them or are hostile, they're eight times likelier. And
this girl wrote to say that she's 15, she tried to come out. Her parents
freaked out, threatened to throw her out of the house, threatened to not
let her see her siblings anymore, not pay for her education.

And so she went back in the closet and told them that she made a
mistake, that she was just a tomboy and was confused and thought that
meant she had to be a lesbian when she grew up but that she was wrong.

And she wrote me to tell me that she was watching the videos, and they
were really helping her be strong and filling her with hope that her
family could come around, because a lot of the videos, and now the
essays in the book, are by people who had - whose families had similar
reactions and then came around and are now supportive.

And she wrote to tell me that the videos were keeping her sane and she
was watching them in her room at night, under the covers, on her iPad.
And so that one email for me really captures the reach and power of this
project, that LGBT adults are able to talk to this girl and give her
hope for her future and for her family, give her hope that her family
will heal, and talk to her whether her parents want us to or not.

GROSS: My guests are Dan Savage and Terry Miller. Their new book, "It
Gets Better," is addressed to gay teens who are bullied. More after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guests are Dan Savage and Terry Miller. Their new book is
called "It Gets Better: Coming Out, Overcoming Bullying and Creating a
Life Worth Living."

So you were both bullied to some extent when you were teenagers. Can we
hear a little bit of your stories? Terry, do you want to start?

Mr. MILLER: Yeah, I had a really hard time of it. I grew up in Spokane,
Washington, which me and my friends used to joke was a great place to
leave.

Mr. SAVAGE: A good place to be from, far from.

Mr. MILLER: A good place to be from, far from. And I just, I had a
really hard time in high school. I was obviously - I knew sort of in my
heart that I was homosexual, that I was gay, but I didn't know how to
express it in any other way than, you know, sort of like look like a
punker or a Goth or New Wave or whatever.

And so I caught flak for how I dressed. I caught flak for, you know, how
high my voice was perceived to be, for the way I walked, for the way I
talked. I mean it was awful.

I couldn't walk down the hall without getting spit at, shoved, pushed
around. And at one point I'd had a pretty bad bullying incident where I
was thrown down on some sort of hardened snow in the school parking lot
and they sort of shoved my face into it, I assume thinking, you know, my
face would go into the snow, but it was all hardened with rocks from
being plowed recently and iced over. And it sort of just scraped the
skin off my face.

And my mother was pretty upset, and she went into the school to ask our
school counselor what she should do. And their response was there's
nothing that they could do. You know, if he looks that way, if he acts
that way, if he talks that way, if he walks that way, there's absolutely
nothing they can do to protect me, that it's just going to happen and
that my family should probably just get used to it.

GROSS: What was your mother's reaction to that?

Mr. MILLER: I mean, this is Spokane, Washington. So I think she was
shocked and a little appalled. But you know, she was also kind of
helpless. I mean, here she went to the school and asked them what they
could do to protect her son, and they said nothing.

And so, you know, I went through another two years of high school there.
And, I mean, it gradually got a little better for me. I kind of found my
group of peers that were similar, that maybe weren't all gay and lesbian
but were, you know, the different kids, the sort of punks and the wavers
and the weirdos and, you know, losers.

And we all kind of banded together and we all sort of protected each
other in those last couple years of high school. But honestly, the first
two years of high school were just horrible for me.

Mr. SAVAGE: And, you know, a detail about that incident was, as with
many gay kids who are bullied, you know, I was bullied and I didn't tell
my parents what was going on because I didn't want to implicate myself.
I didn't want to tell them what I was being bullied about.

And so I couldn't even talk to them about it. And it was Terry's music
teacher, who Terry was on his way to a music lesson, who looked at his
face and called his mother and said: You've got to do something about
this. Because Terry hadn't even told his parents how bad it was getting
at school.

And honestly, like, you know, when I talked to my mom about this years
later, after high school, she just said: Oh, you know, it was just - it
was so hard. We didn't know what to say to you. And you know, I think if
I had come out to my mom or my dad at that point, I would have - they
probably would have worked a little harder to protect me.

But I was so ashamed of it too, you know, the hassle I was getting at
school. I just - I wanted to sort of not, you know, not live it anymore.

GROSS: So you were getting bullied at school. You knew you were gay but
couldn't say anything, even to your parents. Your parents kind of knew
you were gay but couldn't say anything to you?

Mr. MILLER: Yeah, it's complicated. My dad at the time was going through
a bout with liver cancer. And it was just a couple of years before he
passed away. So you know, he was in hospice care a lot and had a liver
transplant and was very ill for a long time before he passed away.

And it was just sort of - I didn't want to be another stressful thing
that my, you know, that my parents had to deal with. I really wanted to
stay strong for them. So I tried to keep those things as far away from
my family as I could because I just wanted, you know, my dad to have a
sort of happy last couple years of his life.

GROSS: Yeah, well, that's a really awful feeling, I'd imagine, when the
essence - part of the essence of who you are is a stressful thing that
shouldn't be introduced.

Mr. MILLER: Yeah, and it's - you know, after my dad passed away, I did
have a talk with my mom about some things, some funny things my dad said
to me. Like I would go and visit my father and he would say: How did you
- you know, how did you get to Spokane from Seattle? And I'd say: Oh, I
drove my friend's car. And he'd say things like: Was it a pink Cadillac?
You know, sort of - you know, it was like obvious to me that he knew.

Like now I'm like: Oh my God, my dad totally knew I was gay.

Mr. SAVAGE: He was asking you...

Mr. MILLER: He was asking me to come out to him, you know. And I just
was so, you know, still so ashamed from just living in Spokane and
feeling that way that I still couldn't get up the courage to come out to
my dad before he passed away. And that's the one regret of my life, that
I wish I would've had that kind of closure in my life with my dad.

GROSS: Yeah. Dan, what about your stories of being bullied?

Mr. SAVAGE: I was, you know, my parents were very Catholic. My dad was a
Catholic deacon. My mom was a Catholic lay minister. I went to the
seminary for high school.

And I was bullied mostly in middle school, in sixth, seventh, eighth
grade. And it was bad, but it wasn't that bad. Ironically, when the
project started, I called my older brother Billy, who's straight, to
tell him that despite the fact that we were launching this campaign to
address anti-gay bullying in schools, I remembered that he had it worse.

He was bullied, viciously bullied, in the same school, same middle
school that I attended at the same time. We were very close in age. And
he had it much, much worse than I did. And he said something very smart.

You know (unintelligible) Billy - I remember how bad it was for you.
Don't think I don't remember that straight kids get bullied too. And he
said: Yeah, but at the end of the day, I had mom and dad, and you
didn't.

And that really captures the difference for the bullied straight kid
versus the bullied gay kid, is that the bullied straight kid goes home
to a shoulder to cry on and support and can talk freely about his
experience, bullying at school and why he's being bullied. And Billy was
being bullied for being smart.

And I couldn't go home and open up to my parents. I did think about
suicide briefly, not because the bullying had gotten so bad but because
I thought that that would be the good Catholic son thing to do for my
parents.

GROSS: Wow, that - to protect them?

Mr. SAVAGE: Yeah, that it would be easier for them to bury a kid than
have a kid come out.

GROSS: So Terry, your parents were Christian, right?

Mr. MILLER: Yeah, I went to a conservative Christian middle school,
elementary and middle school. And when it came time for high school, I
just - I mean, obviously I'm gay, you know. I felt really cramped in
that environment and I wanted to take classes that were a little more
open, you know, literature classes and humanities classes that my
conservative Christian school wasn't offering.

So I decided to go to the public school. And in a way that was great. I
mean, I got to take those classes, and I had a much better learning - I
had a really - I had a much better education, but you know, it really
kind of trapped me in this way where I was sort of stuck with all these
bullies.

GROSS: Since your mother was Christian, did that have an impact on her
ability to accept that you were gay?

Mr. MILLER: You know, I don't think it did. My parents were
Episcopalians, and...

Mr. SAVAGE: Which my grandmother said were Catholics who go to hell.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLER: So I mean, as it is, the Episcopal Church is fairly liberal.
And all of the priests at our church in Spokane, St. Andrews, were
fairly liberal. One after the next, they were all pretty, you know, nice
people.

In fact, after I came out, the priest - and left Spokane and moved to
Seattle - the priest that was at the church once gave a sermon about
accepting gays and lesbians into the church. And my mom was so shocked.
But she said it went over really well at the church, so...

Mr. SAVAGE: I have an interesting story about a priest too, if you want
to hear it.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. SAVAGE: You know, when I came out to my mom - and I had a similar
experience with Terry, where I was ready to come out when I was 16 years
old, and I really needed my family's support and needed to stop hiding.

And I put it off for a couple of years because suddenly my dad left my
mother, and I didn't want to pile on. I didn't want to walk into my
mom's bedroom and say: Oh, hey, crying lady on the bed, this'll take
your mind off the divorce.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SAVAGE: So I waited until I was 18 to come out to her. And when I
did, she - you know, my mom was terrific and a wonderful woman. And she
- you know, she said, she told me a joke, which was, you know, very my
family. She said: Oh, I kind of know. And did you hear the one about the
two men who attacked a woman in Lincoln Park? Which was kind of the gay
neighborhood at the time in Chicago. And I was like: No, Mom, I haven't
heard that one. She said: One held her down. The other did her hair.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SAVAGE: And then she had her crisis in the following days, where she
came back to me and said she was very upset about this and she didn't
want any - didn't want to ever meet a boyfriend of mine. She didn't want
me to bring any gay people to the house. She really wanted to have me
but not have that.

And she called a priest, a friend of the family. And my family was so
Catholic and so involved in the Catholic Church that priests made house
calls. So my called a priest, and he came running.

And my mom sat with Father Tom, who I'm eternally indebted to, on the
porch swing at our house, and said that I had come out and she was very
upset and wanted to get me into therapy. And Father Tom put his hand on
my mom's knee and said: Judy, I'm gay, and it's better this way. It's
better for Danny to be out than to live like I've lived.

Mr. MILLER: And to put a real end on that story, Dan's mom really came
around. She is a saint, she was a saint. She was a beautiful woman, and
she was like a mother to me.

Mr. SAVAGE: When my mom was - but she still had a sense of humor. On her
death bed, in Arizona, just a horrible day, we were saying our goodbyes.
And Terry wasn't there because we didn't expect that this was it. I had
gone down to see her because she was sick. And she looked at me and
said: You tell Terry that I loved him like a daughter.

GROSS: Oh, that's so great. I'm going to ask you a question that might
sound incredibly naïve. But why do you think so many teenagers are still
so homophobic, considering how many people are out now, how many
celebrities are out now, how many people in popular culture are out now?
I mean, it's just so much more commonplace than it was when you were
growing up.

Mr. SAVAGE: And that's actually kind of made it worse.

GROSS: Why?

Mr. SAVAGE: In a way, when I was a kid, you know, not everybody looked
at me in sixth grade and thought: Oh, he must be gay because he likes
musicals and he's art and airy-fairy. They looked at me and thought
weirdo. And now you look at - they would look at me and think faggot and
come after me for that reason, or more intensely.

We've also had 20 years of an anti-gay hate campaign waged by the
religious right, where they've been telling parents, who then expose
their straight children to this rhetoric, that gay people are an
existential threat to the family, are an attack on the family, trying to
destroy the family.

And then, you know, mom and dad at the mega-church, they listen to this
stuff. They go to the ballot box and abuse gay and lesbian abstractions
with their votes.

Their kids go to school on Monday, and there's the queer kid, or the kid
who's perceived to be queer because he's gender non-conforming in some
way. And they feel they have license to attack that kid because that kid
attacked them first by simply existing. That's what the religious right
has really injected into the culture over the last 20 years, since I was
in school.

You could fly under the radar a little bit when I was in school and be a
weirdo without a girlfriend or any apparent interest in girls and not
have the assumption automatically be that you must be one of those gays
who's trying to destroy the family.

GROSS: Dan Savage and Terry Miller's new book is called "It Gets
Better." They'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry
Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Dan Savage and Terry
Miller. They co-founded the It Gets Better Project last year in response
to news reports about teenagers who had committed suicide after being
bullied in high school because they were gay or perceived as gay.

The project is a collection of YouTube videos addressed to gay teens in
which adults - mostly gay and lesbian adults - talk about how they were
bullied in school but things got better, so hang in there. Now Savage
and Miller have collected some of those stories in a new book called "It
Gets Better." Dan Savage also writes the sex advice column Savage Love.
Savage and Miller were bullied in high school but their lives got much
better.

Now Dan, as you put it earlier, you're married in Canada and boyfriends
in...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...in the U.S. So I guess you had to go...

Mr. SAVAGE: Which we've actually turned into an acronym, husband in
Canada, HIC, boyfriend in America, BIA, so he's my HICBIA.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's because you couldn't get married in America?

Mr. SAVAGE: Well, we live in Washington state, where we can get domestic
partnered. But no, we can't get married. And, of course, the federal
government doesn't recognize any same-sex marriages even in states where
same-sex marriage is legal.

GROSS: You are parents. You have adopted a son who is a teenager now?

Mr. MILLER: Yeah, he just turned 13.

Mr. SAVAGE: It feels like he turned 13 about 10 years ago, so...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SAVAGE: ...he's officially turned 13.

GROSS: So has he been bullied for being the son of gay parents?

Mr. MILLER: No - not at all. I mean we've sent him to the – I mean he's
been lucky enough to be sent to some pretty liberal private schools in
Seattle and where they have, you know, social justice programs, you
know, in elementary school and he's had it pretty good, I think.

Mr. SAVAGE: If anything, you know, we joke that we're raising the kid
who beat us up in grade school.

Mr. MILLER: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SAVAGE: But, you know, if he didn't have us for parents he, you
know, he's a little straight kind of thuggy snowboarder-skateboarder
dude. And, you know, I like to think that he's blessed to have us as
parents because you could see in him the capacity to actually be a
bully. But he's sensitized to the issue by dent of, you know, being from
a different kind of family.

GROSS: So watching him mature and reach the early stages of sexuality,
has it made you reflect on whether sexual orientation...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SAVAGE: (Unintelligible).

GROSS: ...is like wired or not?

Mr. SAVAGE: Oh my God, yeah, it's totally wired. In the, you know, from
the time he was very young I have been saying oh, my son is straight
because he just was straight. Just as, you know, my mom after she got
over it, admitted that she kind of thought maybe all along that I was
gay. I was, you know, I liked to bake and I liked to stay home and I
liked listening to musicals. And then, you know, for my 13th birthday I
asked my parents for tickets to the Broadway tour of "A Chorus Line."
That's all I wanted.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SAVAGE: And the fact that they couldn't deduce from just that alone
that I might be a mo. And so I've always sort of known that he was
straight. And some people have said oh, how can you know and you
shouldn't say that. Well, you just know when you're a parent. You kind
of just know.

Mr. MILLER: It's funny because we used to joke. He, you know, you got
this, of course, when he was young this absolute fear of all things
feminine. And, you know, like I hate girls. I hate girls, you know, like
all little boys say and we'd be like that is proof that you are going to
grow up straight.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLER: Like any child that hates a girl at this age is going to
love them later on in life.

Mr. SAVAGE: Well, that was actually a funny moment for us, because, you
know, the religious right says that, you know, gay people shouldn't be
allowed to adopt because our children will want to, you know, emulate us
and adopt our sexuality, be homosexuals. And, you know, my parents were
straight and as hard as I tried to be straight I couldn't. So that
didn't work for me.

And what's funny is, you know, when he was seven, eight, nine years old
he insisted that he was going to be gay when he grows up. He wanted to
be like us because it meant you get to live with your best friend and
there are no girls around.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SAVAGE: And he didn't like girls. And we pulled out Terry's photo
album from when he was a child and showed him Terry's ninth birthday
party?

Mr. MILLER: Yeah, like my ninth or 10th birthday party in which I'm
sitting at the head of the table and there's eight girls sitting at the
table.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MILLER: Not a single boy at this birthday party. And there's my
parents kind of sitting in the background looking like, oh my God,
you're kidding.

Mr. SAVAGE: Which is like Terry's equivalent of the tickets to "A Chorus
Line."

Mr. MILLER: Yeah.

Mr. SAVAGE: Like, they didn't know?

Mr. MILLER: And we're like look, if you really want to be gay this is
what it's going to be like and he was like, all right, you're right. I'm
straight. I'm not going to be gay. Cool, Dad.

GROSS: Now did you both always want to be parents?

Mr. SAVAGE: You know, I'm old. You know one of the great pains for my
mom when I came out was that I wasn't going to be a parent. You know,
really when I came out in 1980, what you were saying when you opened
your mouth and said I'm gay to mom and dad was, in addition to I'm going
to kiss boys now, was that I will never be a parent. I will never be
married. I'll never be a Marine.

And it's really remarkable how much has changed in the course of just my
life. You know, here we are 30 years later and I am married and I am a
parent and now I could be a Marine if I wanted to. I don't want to.

GROSS: But you're not.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SAVAGE: I don't want to be a Marine. The rest of it I'm up for. So
yeah, it wasn't that I always pictured myself as being a parent because
what I did when I was coming out in 1980 was I said I'm walking away
from these things, these possibilities, family and marriage, because I
can't fake it. I can't lie to a woman all my life and I wanted to live
with some integrity.

And then in the course of my life, as more gay people came out, as the
gay and lesbian civil rights movement advanced, as AIDS humanized us in
the eyes of so many people by showing that, you know, that we suffer
too, more became possible and then marriage and family reentered the
picture for me.

GROSS: So once marriage and family reentered the picture and you knew
that you could adopt a child, did you know you wanted to do it?

Mr. SAVAGE: Yeah. I knew I wanted to do it when I met Terry.

Mr. MILLER: Yeah. I didn't know I wanted to do it yet. I mean I've
always liked children.

Mr. SAVAGE: He's still on the fence.

Mr. MILLER: I love kids. Our friends who have kids, I am like favorite
uncle and babysitter number one, because I love our friends' babies.

Mr. SAVAGE: And kids love him because he is a Muppet.

Mr. MILLER: And kids love – yeah, I look like a - to them I look like a
giant Muppet. I have a big mouth and shaggy blond hair and...

Mr. SAVAGE: He looks like Janice from the Muppets.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLER: That's what Dan always says. I don't think so. But I mean
but I - when Dan was coming out how he thought he was giving up all this
stuff. I didn't even know you could find love when you were coming out
of the closet. I mean there were no role models when I grew up of, you
know, long-term gay relationships. I thought that being gay was going to
mean that, you know, I would basically have a string of, you know, sort
of midterm relationships, you know, two to three years where I would
never find, you know, a love of my life. And, you know, once that
happened, it became much easier to imagine all the other things that can
come along.

And then, you know, when Dan sort of brought up adoption because he was
in a place of creating a baby with some lesbians and that kind of fell
through, you know, we kind of thought about adoption and we decided oh
what the hell. This seems fun. This won't be controversial at all. So,
yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: My guests are Dan Savage and Terry Miller. Their new book "It
Gets Better" is a collection of personal essays about being bullied in
high school addressed to gay teens who are bullied, telling them it gets
better. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guests are Dan Savage, who writes the sex advice column Savage
Love, and his husband Terry Miller. Savage and Miller have a new book
called "It Gets Better: Coming Out, Overcoming Bullying, and Creating a
Life Worth Living." When we left off we were talking about adopting
their son.

GROSS: So your son's mother was - had troubles with drugs and alcohol
and was basically like a street kid?

Mr. SAVAGE: Yeah.

Mr. MILLER: Yes. We - in Seattle, we used to call them gutter punks. You
know, it's a street kid. They live on the streets, they, you know, they
all shack up in a single house but, you know, every day they're out
spare changing and sort of grimy...

Mr. SAVAGE: They call them crusties now.

Mr. MILLER: Yeah, they call them crusties now but oh, back in our day
they called them gutter punks.

Mr. SAVAGE: They called themselves gutter punks. It's not insulting.

Mr. MILLER: They called themselves gutter punks Yes. It's not insulting
them. I mean that's what they kind of called themselves, the gutter
punks.

GROSS: So how did you find her? I mean obviously not through an adoption
agency.

Mr. SAVAGE: Yeah...

Mr. MILLER: Yeah. Actually through an adoption agency.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SAVAGE: We went...

GROSS: Seriously?

Mr. SAVAGE: Yeah. We went through an adoption agency in Portland,
Oregon, called Open Adoption and Family Services and they sort of
invented open adoption, which is where the birth mom chooses the family
the child is placed with.

And our birth mom, Melissa, had been in Seattle and then gone down to
Portland and discovered she was pregnant. And through a friend, who had
placed a child for adoption through this agency, she found her way to
the agency.

She knew she couldn't parent. She'd had a friend who had a baby on the
street that then was taken from her and a closed adoption was done where
she wouldn't have any contact with the child. And Melissa went to the
agency and saw our profile in the book of, you know, want to be parents
and picked us.

And we were shocked. When we went into it we were told, you know, the
agency had never done a placement for a male couple. We went to a
seminar the agency hosts and they brought in some birth parents to talk
about what informed their choice and every one of them said a good
Christian home, and so we sat there feeling very conspicuous at that
moment. Not that there aren't gay Christians out there. There are, but
we're perceived as being sort of anti-Christians.

And we were told, you know, the outside, the wait is 18 months usually,
nine months to 18 months is the wait. They had people wait as long as
three, four, five years. And so they said bank on five years or seven
years. And so we filled out all the paperwork and got it all in and
looked at each other and went okay, so about the time the baby comes we
will have been together eight, nine years.

Mr. MILLER: Yeah. Let's go to Europe.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SAVAGE: It sounds perfect.

Mr. MILLER: Let's take a vacation now. We just finished the paperwork.

Mr. SAVAGE: And four weeks later we had a baby.

GROSS: Wow. So were you concerned that because your baby's mother used
drugs and drank a lot that there might be, that your baby might have
cognitive problems?

Mr. SAVAGE: We were and we looked into that and...

Mr. MILLER: We had a great doctor at the University of Washington who
helped us with issues of potential FAS and any...

Mr. SAVAGE: Fetal alcohol effect.

Mr. MILLER: Yeah, fetal alcohol effect.

Mr. SAVAGE: And what we learned from her was that a lot of the dangers
of moderate alcohol consumption during pregnancy are overstated to scare
pregnant women away from alcohol and you don't really need to scare
responsible people away from alcohol when they're pregnant and
irresponsible people you can't scare away from alcohol when they're
pregnant.

And to our birth mother's, in defense of Melissa, she was drinking and
using drugs until the second she realized she was pregnant and then she
stopped everything cold turkey, which is remarkable for a homeless
street kid...

GROSS: Oh. Oh. Right.

Mr. SAVAGE: When people are cold and wet and living on the streets,
alcohol is one where you keep warm and drugs is one way you fall asleep,
and she was as responsible as she could possibly be in her
circumstances.

You know, we just somebody did a musical adaptation of the book I wrote
about adopting our son in which they left it unclear whether Melissa had
stopped using drugs and alcohol when she found out she was pregnant and
we went absolutely ballistic because Melissa...

GROSS: Because you wanted it to be clear that she did.

Mr. SAVAGE: Yeah. Melissa was a good, and is still, she's still a part
of DJ's life. She comes to see us. They talk on the phone. She was then
and is now a good and responsible mom.

GROSS: You're comfortable with that, with her maintaining a presence in
your son's life?

Mr. SAVAGE: Yeah.

Mr. MILLER: They're so alike it's totally bizarre.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLER: Like, sometimes he'll say something like, you know, he
doesn't want to do that or he'll do some inflection of tone or give us a
look and it's like, oh my God.

Mr. SAVAGE: It's Melissa.

Mr. MILLER: That's Melissa looking right at us saying that.

Mr. SAVAGE: So it's been a real boon to know his mom because we can see
so much of her character in him and it's helped us be his parents.

GROSS: What's she doing now 13 years after she was a gutter punk who was
pregnant with the boy who became your son?

Mr. SAVAGE: She lives in a big house with a bunch of other retired
homeless gutter punks in the South and every year they travel up to
Maine and do cranberry bogging for a few months and camp, save up all
their money and then they go home and enjoy themselves for seven, eight
months for the rest of the year. And you know, they host other folks who
are on that sort of crusty circuit moving around the country and they
listen to music and she has a very sort of satisfying life.

GROSS: Now you've written that there was a period when you used to carry
your son's adoption certificate with you because a lot of times people
wouldn't believe he was really your son and they assumed you must be
kidnapping him or something. So...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SAVAGE: Well, the problem was we were really torn about what to give
him for a last name. Was it going to be my last name, Terry's last name,
a hyphenate and we had decided on Darrell(ph) for Terry's late father
and Jude for my mother, Judith, so he would be DJ, And we couldn't
decide on the last and we had so bonded with Melissa at the hospital and
during the, you know, the four weeks while she was still pregnant where
we got to know her that we decided to give him his mother's last name.

And that was a beautiful gesture and we didn't think through the
consequences, which included - you know, for two men to try to get on an
airplane with an infant that doesn't have their last name, either of
their last names, was kind of complicated. So there was a while there
where, you know, any time we were getting on an airplane or going up to
Canada and crossing a border, we carried his original birth certificate,
his adoption birth certificate, his adoption decree, a letter from our
lawyer.

Mr. MILLER: Yeah, still to this day when we go, when we come back from
Canada - we go to Canada every year for a vacation - when we come back
from Canada, the United States Border Patrol are just...

Mr. SAVAGE: Beastly.

Mr. MILLER: Beastly to us. They always make him roll down his window and
they always, you know, give him 10 questions. Are these your real dads?
What are their names? How long have you been with them? I mean just
everything.

Mr. SAVAGE: It's funny to, you know, we drive up to Canada to go
snowboarding. Our kid's a snowboarder. Every winter we go. It's not cold
and wet enough in Seattle so we head north.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SAVAGE: And he, you know, we drive up to the Canadian customs and
they rolled down the window and they look and there's two adult men and
a boy in the back seat. Sometimes a couple boys, because we'll bring
friends of DJ's up for the vacation. And they'll say what's your
relationship? And Terry will say that's my husband, that's our son. And
the Canadian customs guy will hand us back our passports and say welcome
to Canada. Yeah, damn right. Welcome to Canada. And then we'll be coming
back and we'll roll down the window and Terry will say that's my
boyfriend. That's our adopted son. And we've had border guards look at
DJ, make eye contact with DJ and scoff, and look him and go pfff in our
faces.

GROSS: What's your son's reaction to being questioned like you described
he sometimes is? Is he straightforward in his answers? Is he sarcastic?

Mr. MILLER: Yeah, we put the fear of God into him about getting stopped
at the border so he's always very polite and gives them a straight
answer, always tells the truth. You know, we're always like this is
about getting into Canada and going snowboarding. So...

Mr. SAVAGE: Don't be a goof.

Mr. MILLER: Don't be a goof. You've got to be honest and you have to be
alert and answer their questions completely.

GROSS: My guests are Terry Miller and Dan Savage. Their new book, "It
Gets Better," is a collection of personal essays about being bullied in
high school, addressed to gay teens who are bullied, telling them things
get better.

More after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guests are Dan Savage, who writes the sex advice column Savage
Love, and his husband, Terry Miller. Savage and Miller have a new book
called "It Gets Better: Coming Out, Overcoming Bullying, and Creating a
Life Worth Living."

Dan, something that you wrote about marriage. You said, I think it's
going to take three or four generations of gay people being able to get
married before it starts feeling like we're just aping a heterosexual
institution.

What feels heterosexual about the institution of marriage?

Mr. SAVAGE: The trappings. You know, people who are against gay marriage
talk about gay people wanting to redefine marriage. The irony is that
straight people have redefined marriage to a point where you can't
logically make a case for excluding same-sex couples from it. It's no
longer a gendered institution. It's the, you know, union of two legally
autonomous individuals and there isn't a male role and a female role.
There's just - and it's whatever they say it is. It can be monogamous or
not, for life or not. There could be children or not. It can be a
religious ceremony or not. It's entirely up to them. And - but the
trappings, everything built around it, is still gendered. It's sort of
still this gendered echo. You know, dad giving away the daughter at the
altar to the man – to the groom – is, you know, that is about - harkens
back to when marriage was a property transaction and it was one man
gifting the property of his daughter to another man when she then became
the property known as his wife.

And so there's a lot of, you know, and I think that's interesting and I
don't think as same-sex couples that we should discount its meaning and
symbolism to straight people. It's just that that's not necessarily
going to speak to me as a gay person. It's going to take time for us,
for same-sex couples, to find a way to make meaningful rituals for
ourselves without just sort of carbon copying these rituals.

You know, when you see two lesbians at the altar in huge, you know,
Princess Di wedding gowns, I look at that and think there needs to be
two grooms up there. It just - it looks wrong, even to me as, you know,
a gay guy who is married to another dude. I look at that and think,
well, that's kind of off. And so that's what I mean when I say, you
know, it's going to take some time for gay people to live in this
institution before we find a way for it not to feel like a borrowed
garment.

GROSS: Why did you want to get married?

Mr. SAVAGE: For the same reason everybody else wants to get married. I
love this man and, you know, we adopted first. We became parents first
and married later. And, you know, to a certain extent I want to be
married because I want to have the same rights and privileges and
protections that any other couple enjoys and the same social status that
any other couple enjoys. And those things are important. You know, I
want to be able to go to Terry's bedside in a medical emergency.

That was driven home for us - I had a medical crisis on an airplane
where I was carried off an airplane during the SARS epidemic. I'm sure
everyone around me was thrilled that I was passing out on the airplane.
And Terry was able to make medical decisions for me and be at my bedside
and make really crucial medical decisions for me that, you know, had the
hospital staff insisted on finding my legal next of kin could have
delayed the care that I needed and imperiled my life. And after that was
all over, we realized, well, that was just their choice. They didn't
have to do that, that they could've insisted, that they allowed Terry to
make - they treated him as my spouse because they felt like it, not
because they had to, and that really drove home for both of us the
importance, you know, as we grow older and as we are together longer and
as we're parents, the importance of really the legal protections of
marriage and being able to decide who your next of kin is.

GROSS: But because you can't be legally married in Washington, the state
where you live, you're married in Canada, which that marriage is not
recognized where you actually live, you don't really have those legal
protections in spite of your marriage.

Mr. SAVAGE: No, we don't. But one of the ways gays and lesbians have
really changed the culture is by living the way we want to live despite
the impediments that are thrown in our way. People used to say that, you
know, gay people couldn't be out. We came out. They said we couldn't
form lasting relationships. We did. They said we couldn't parent. We
parent. We parent really well. All the studies show that our kids are
just as happy, healthy and well-adjusted, just as likely to be straight.
And people are saying that gay people can't marry and gay people are
marrying anyway. We're closer to legal gay marriage because gay people
are marrying whether our marriages are recognized now or not.

GROSS: So this gets back to talking about parent earlier. Dan, I read,
and tell me if this is right, that your father had been a homicide cop
in a gay neighborhood in Chicago?

Mr. SAVAGE: Yeah. My dad was a Chicago cop. Cracked heads at the '68
Democratic National Convention and became a homicide detective in Area 6
on the North Side of Chicago, which was the gay neighborhood in the '60s
and '70s, when he was a homicide detective, was his beat. And so my dad
knew gay people. He knew gay murderers and he knew gay corpses.

GROSS: Do you think that had an effect on your feelings about what it
meant to be gay, or your parents?

Mr. SAVAGE: Definitely. It definitely did. You know, at that time, '60s
and early '70s, the gay people who were out tended to be gay people who
couldn't hide or had been outed in some brutal way and really
traumatized and, you know, those were the gay people my dad knew and he
felt that he needed to protect his three sons from. My dad agreed with
Anita Bryant in the '70s that gay people shouldn't be allowed to teach.
And he - you know, I remember very distinctly being very young and
listening to my dad and mom and their friends argue about, or talk about
- none of them was really in disagreement - that gay people were a
threat to the family, a threat to children. Even then.

The rhetoric wasn't as heated or shot through the culture as it is now,
but even then, you know, my dad thought gay people were a threat to the
family for the reasons that Jerry Falwell and Anita Bryant were saying
at the time, that, you know, gay people didn't start families, gay
people didn't get married. Gay people didn't contribute economically,
was my dad's feeling. They didn't, you know, buy washing machines. Every
time Terry and I have bought a washing machine, that listening to my
father saying that gay people don't buy washing machines plays in my
head.

GROSS: So your parents were divorced when you came out?

Mr. SAVAGE: My parents divorced a couple of years before I came out. My
dad left my mom.

GROSS: So what was his reaction when you came out?

Mr. SAVAGE: I waited a very long time. I was very afraid of my dad,
really afraid to come out to him because of things he'd said. And, you
know, I understand what my parents were doing. They thought it was the
responsible thing to do. They believed, because that was, you know,
people's understanding of homosexuality was really not very advanced.
They believed that, you know, it was something that you might, you know,
slip into and, you know, they perceived that I was a little kind of
fairy boy and they needed to nudge me away from it and that was
responsible, loving thing to do, and that's what they tried to do.

And, you know, so my relationship with my dad was really strained, and
that didn't make me gay. My relationship with my dad was strained
because I was gay and he perceived it and wanted to encourage me not to
be gay. And so I waited till I was at college and I think 20 or 21
before I came out to my dad, and he was the last to know and he was hurt
that he was the last to know. He was hurt that I was afraid to tell him.

GROSS: Was he okay with it, with being...

Mr. SAVAGE: Oh yeah. Oh yeah, he's totally fine with it. He kind of goes
out of his way to be extra fine with it to compensate sometimes.

GROSS: Dan Savage, Terry Miller, it's been great to talk with both of
you. Thank you very much.

Mr. SAVAGE: Thank you, Terry.

Mr. MILLER: Thank you.

GROSS: Dan Savage and Terry Miller have a new book called "It Gets
Better: Coming Out, Overcoming Bullying, and Creating a Life Worth
Living." The stories in the book are adopted from the videos on their
"It Gets Better" website and YouTube channel, addressed to gay teens who
are bullied. You can watch "It Gets Better" videos by Savage and Miller,
Tim Gunn, the cast of "Glee," President Obama and others on our website,
freshair.npr.org, where you can also read an excerpt of the new book and
find links to resources about dealing with bullying.
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