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Long leafy streets of single-family homes line Seattle’s Capitol Hill. Dan Savage opens the door to his prairie box-style house before I knock — long windows that flank the entry hall have revealed my approach. The radical political commentator and outspoken sex advice columnist offers me tea as we walk into his kitchen, a country chic blend, with a farmhouse sink and thick wood slab counter. “I can’t make coffee,” he confesses, which is fine as neither of us drinks it. Seattle is known for its coffee and particularly as the home of Starbucks.
For the past quarter of a century he has written the Savage Love column — syndicated in 50 publications across the US and Canada — which blends biting humour with practical advice. He also hosts the popular Savage Lovecast podcast.
“The mail I would get when I first started writing the column was ‘this is what I want to do, and I’m so worried it’s not normal’.” He rarely gets that question any more and attributes that to people realising “you can’t judge normal on discrete interests and acts. When it comes to culture, politics, breakfast — variance has always been the norm.” He believes the same to be true of our most intimate desires and a study last month conducted by the Journal of Sex Research in Quebec supports that claim, finding that almost half of more than 1,000 people surveyed expressed interest in at least one sexual activity deemed anomalous.
Savage, 51, has coined many phrases to help people communicate these desires, the most popular being “GGG” — which stands for “good, giving and game” — that signals sexual openness to potential partners. He has often said that gay people are better at pleasing their partners because they have to keep talking after they get to “yes”, while straight people often default to a single act. These conversations not only cement consent but also reveal the “single act” desire to be a myth.
Savage is also a go-to expert for many US cable news shows and he has a knack for dismantling dangerous ideas with quick sound bites. During a recent appearance on MSNBC’s All In with Chris Hayes, he responded to a suggestion that disappointed supporters of Bernie Sanders might vote for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, pointing out that “the lesser of two evils is less evil”. On Twitter, he encourages provocative acts of protest. “Trans people should start dropping off jars filled with their urine at @PatMcCroryNC’s office so his staff can oversee its safe disposal,” he tweeted last month to his quarter of a million followers after McCrory, governor of North Carolina, signed a bill that forces transgender people to use bathrooms that do not align with their gender identity.
In 2003, when then US senator Rick Santorum likened homosexuality to bestiality, a reader of the Savage Love column suggested that his last name be renamed for a sex act. Savage put it to his readers, whittled down 3,000 suggestions to a handful and then let his readers vote. To this day, a Google search of the word “Santorum” reveals the extent of Savage’s victory. It has even been credited with helping to tank the senator’s recent presidential campaign.
A sign reading “Google Santorum” sits on the living room bookshelf. Savage wore the same phrase on a T-shirt when he received a special achievement Webby Award in 2011 for the It Gets Better viral video campaign, which he created with his husband, Terry Miller, 45, to give LGBT youth hope in the face of bullying.
On air, he speaks fast, opening his podcast with a topical, often political, rant on issues that impact sexual freedom. As he talks about the mementos and artefacts that dot his cosy home, however, his voice is softer and he smiles frequently. “Everything that’s cluttered over the mantel in the living room reminds me of a time, place or thing I would forget if it wasn’t sitting there.” Two tiny bottles of brandy, bought on a trip to communist Hungary during the 1980s, sit at one end, while a statue of the Virgin Mary sits at the other. “That’s the Mary that my mother put on the back of the toilet so we would remember to put the seat down. My mother was a devout Catholic, but she had a sense of humour about how you could leverage the downward glancing glare of the mother of God to your advantage in the pee wars with your sons.” This design quirk appears in the pilot episode of the ABC series The Real O’Neals, which is very loosely based on Savage’s experiences growing up gay and Catholic in Chicago.
He identifies as being “culturally Catholic” and among his possessions are awards given to sex advice pioneer Ann Landers, including one from Pope Paul VI.
On another shelf, neat stacks of hotel room card keys are piled high. These are the only souvenirs he takes from his frequent travels. “They tell me where I’ve been.” A hospital menu his mother received after being taken off life support in 2008 is tucked on a nearby shelf next to photos of his 18-year-old son, DJ. “The menu was for April Fools’ Day, so the universe played a tiny joke on my mother on her way out.” Most of his furniture comes from previous generations. “After my mother died, I walked into the living room and there was the chair that she was sitting in when she learnt to read, and my own son sat in it when he was learning to read.”
The dining room contains a mounted buffalo head that was a Christmas gift from Miller. “I don’t know my great grandparents’ names, but that’s their table. Six generations including my son have had Christmas dinner at that table.” The table also hosted a debate on marriage equality in 2012 with prominent anti-gay marriage activist Brian Brown. “He wanted me to fill an auditorium of angry queer people who would boo and hiss, so he could say, ‘look who the really intolerant people are.’ I’m not as dumb as he thinks I am, so I [suggested] my dining room table after dinner to deny him the optics of being the oppressed one.”
Savage doesn’t like dogs but there are two poodles in the house that belong to Miller. One thing he talks a lot about on his podcast are the “prices of admission” you have to pay be with someone.
Above the dining table, three paintings of children, who look like they hold dark secrets behind their vacant stares, hang on the wall. They are not family portraits but a few of Savage’s many junk store finds. “I hid in antique stores in our neighbourhood, not wanting to play with others as an isolated gay kid . . . Everywhere I’ve lived, I’ve made the walls look like this.”
This is particularly true of a wall in his breakfast room, which is cluttered with a variety of framed pictures. A cruise certificate for a local resident hangs in a corner. “Anita Hunter went around the world on a cruise in 1948, and the captain signed this for her. There’s a tiny swastika in the border of nation flags. They obviously printed these in the ’30s or ’40s before the end of the war, and the swastika was not yet toxic enough to discard them.”
As a self-described hoarder, Savage can’t imagine parting with any of these items, including a tin of Dr Wernet’s Powder from the medicine cabinet of his fourth-grade home. “You know how I like old worn things around me,” he jokes to Miller of their 21-year relationship. “I’m a long-term relationship type. Not just with him but with everything.”
Photographs: Matt Lutton