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

Terry Miller (left) and Dan Savage. Savage writes the weekly syndicated sex advice column "Savage Love."
Kelly O.
Dutton Adult
Terry Miller (left) and Dan Savage. Savage writes the weekly syndicated sex advice column "Savage Love."

Last fall, several teens across the country committed suicide because they were gay or perceived to be gay. This shocking rash of suicides raised attention about a sobering fact: Gay teens are up to four times as likely to attempt suicide as straight teens, and 9 out of 10 LGBT teens have experienced some sort of harassment in their school, according to The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention hot line for LGBT youth, and the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.

When advice columnist Dan Savage heard about the suicide crisis unfolding, he had an idea: If older gay people offered hope and encouragement to gay teens, the teens would realize that their lives were worth living. So Savage and his husband, Terry Miller, created a YouTube video about their own experiences being bullied as teens, to tell teenagers a simple message about the future: It gets better.

The "It Gets Better" movement, as it's now called, has since received over 10,000 video submissions, including entries from both gay and straight people. President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Anne Hathaway, Sarah Silverman, Tim Gunn, Ellen DeGeneres, Vice President Biden, Ke$ha and the staffs of Google, Facebook and Pixar all have contributed to the project. This month, Savage and Miller published a companion book, It Gets Better: Coming Out, Overcoming Bullying and Creating a Life Worth Living, featuring essays from more than 100 of the video contributors.

In an interview with Fresh Air's Terry Gross, Savage and Miller talk about their marriage, the adoption of their son D.J., the impact their movement has had on teenage bullying, and their own coming out experiences.

Terry Miller's And Dan Savage's Own High School Experiences

Terry Miller is now a stay-at-home father and event promoter living in Seattle. But when he was growing up in Spokane, Wash., he says, high school was rough — really rough. He was teased for how he dressed, how his voice sounded and how he expressed his feelings.

"I couldn't walk down the hall without getting spit at, shoved or pushed around," he says. "At one point I had a pretty bad bullying incident where I was thrown down on some sort of hardened snow in the school parking lot and they shoved my face into it. It was all hardened with rocks from being plowed and it scraped the skin off my face."

Miller's mother went to the school and asked the school counselor what she could do to help him.

"Their response was, 'There's nothing that they could do. If he looks that way, if he talks that way, if he walks that way, there's absolutely nothing they could do to protect me and it was probably just going to happen and that my family should probably just get used to it.' "

His mother was appalled but felt helpless. Miller spent two more years at his high school and found a group of friends who accepted him — but still remembers how the first two years of high school were just horrible.

"When I talked to my mom about this years later — after high school — she just said, 'It was so hard; we didn't know what to say to you,' " he says. "I think if I had come out to my mom or dad at that point, they probably would have worked a little harder to protect me, but I was so ashamed of it too — the hassle I was getting at school, that I just wanted to not live it anymore."

Savage was also bullied but didn't tell his parents what was going on, partly because he didn't want to implicate himself and tell them why he was being bullied. His older brother Billy — who was straight and also viciously bullied in middle school — recently told Dan that there were noticeable differences between the ways they were treated at home.

"He said, 'At the end of the day, I had Mom and Dad and you didn't.' And that really captures the difference between the bullied straight kid and the bullied gay kid," Savage says. "The bullied straight kid goes home to a shoulder to cry on and support and can talk freely about his experience at school and why he's being bullied. 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 it would be the good Catholic-son thing to do for my parents."

Coming Out

When he was 18, Savage decided to tell his mother that he was gay. She didn't initially accept it.

"She came back and told me she was very upset about this and she didn't want to ever meet a boyfriend of mine and she didn't want me to bring any gay people to the house," he says. "She really wanted to have me but not have that."

Soon after, his mother called her priest, who came over to the Savage house to talk with her about Savage's coming out. His mother told the priest that she wanted to put Savage into therapy and that she was very upset.

"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.' "

It did not take long for Savage's mother to come around — and joke about Savage's relationship with Miller.

"On her deathbed, in Arizona, we were saying our goodbyes and Terry wasn't there and she looked at me and said, 'You tell Terry that I loved him like a daughter.' "

On Parenthood

Miller and Savage are the fathers of a 13-year-old son named D.J. He's in 8th grade, likes skateboarding and has never been harassed for having gay parents.

"If anything, we joke, that we're raising the kid who beat us up in grade school," says Savage. "If he didn't have us for parents — he's a little thuggy snowboarder-skateboarder dude — and I like to think that he's blessed to have us as parents because you can see in him the capacity to be a bully. But he's sensitized to the issue from being from a different kind of family."

Watching D.J. grow up, he says, has made him realize just how much of sexual orientation is hard-wired.

"From the time he was very young, I have been saying, 'Oh my son is straight,' because he is just straight," says Savage. "My mom, when she got over [my being gay] admitted that she kind of thought, all along, that I was gay. I liked to bake and I liked to listen to musicals and for my 13th birthday, I asked my parents for tickets to the Broadway tour of A Chorus Line. That's all I wanted. So I've always known that he's straight."

Interview Highlights

On President Obama's submission to It Gets Better

Terry: "It's pretty historic that the president of the United States would reach out specifically to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth in any way whatsoever. This is really kind of a historic moment for us."

Dan: "I came out in 1980 right before AIDS hit. And Ronald Reagan couldn't bring himself to say the word AIDS until 1987, after tens of thousands of gay men had already died. For us to go from launching the project and 3.5 weeks later, the president records a video for the It Gets Better campaign to address gay youth suicide? That was amazing."

On straight people participating in It Gets Better

Dan: "When we initially launched the movement, we said, 'This is for LGBT adults to speak to LBGT youth,' and then some videos started coming in from straight people. And a lot of people really felt ownership over the campaign and they said, 'Take these videos down. This is not what this movement is about.' Actually, Terry and I decided we were going to leave those videos up because that's part of what it is about: One of the ways it gets better is that straight people get better."

On the reasoning behind It Gets Better

Dan: "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. And 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. For a long time when an LGBT adult tried to talk to a gay kid, we were accused of recruiting, of being pedophiles. There was a sort of learned helplessness of the persecution of gay and lesbian children by gay and lesbian adults where we felt like we couldn't address it, like 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."

On the prevalence of homophobia in today's teenage world

Dan: "When I was a kid, not everybody looked at me and thought, 'Oh, he must be gay because he likes musicals and he's a fairy.' They looked at me and thought, 'Weirdo.' And now they would look at me and think, 'Faggot.' 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 attack on the family, that they're trying to destroy the family.' And [parents] at the megachurch listen to this stuff and 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-nonconforming 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 injected into the culture over the past 20 years."

On paranoia in middle and high schools

Dan: "Gay people exist and there are more people aware of our existence. And in middle and high school, there's an awareness that some of us must be gay and we don't know who's gay or how you become gay. A huge part of what animates homophobia among young people is paranoia and fear of their own capacity to be gay themselves. I write [the column] 'Savage Love' and every day I get letters from 14- and 15-year-old boys, primarily, who are worried that they're gay because they don't understand how you get to be gay — how that happens. And in almost all cases, these letters are from boys who are straight — who are not gay — who are not going to be gay. But they believe that gayness is like some sort of cancer and it grows on you if you're not careful and not vigilant. Where do they get that idea that gayness is chosen?"

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.