When sex columnist and activist Dan Savage started his advice column, "Savage Love," he had no idea that his open, straight-talk approach -- enough to probably make Abigail van Buren of "Dear Abby" blush -- would gain such enormous popularity.
"The column started as a joke," he said. "I was going to treat straight people and straight sex with the same contempt and derision that heterosexual advice columnists had always treated gay people and gay sex."
Launched two decades ago, "Savage Love" is an internationally-syndicated column that appears in Seattle's alternative newspaper, "The Stranger." Its success has spun off a podcast, an iPhone app and an iPad app.
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When "The Stranger's" founder, Tim Keck (also the co-founder of "The Onion") suggested Savage be its advice columnist, Savage said he had never written anything before in his life.
"I wanted to write an advice column where I was like, 'Ew, straight sex is icky, and straight people are sick,'" he said. "And I did that for about six months, but then straight people liked the abuse so much they started sending me real questions."
Savage receives thousands of inquiries every week from readers, so to say that he practices "tough love" is an understatement.
"The dirty secret of the advice column business is you're not trying to help anybody," he said. "Because if you were really trying to help someone, you wouldn't publish their problem and you would always answer the letters from the people in the most extreme pain every week, and you don't."
The columnist joked he often uses an acronym he created, "DTMFA," which stands for "Dump The M----r F---er Already," when responding to his fans' questions.
"Half the mail is DTMFA," Savage said.
Despite his no-nonsense, raw approach, Savage said he is very much inspired by the Chicago Sun-Times' iconic advice column, "Ask Ann Landers." He even writes his column from her former desk with her typewriter sitting nearby. Although Savage's views on monogamy couldn't be more opposite, like Landers, he said he wants to save relationships.
"Everyone thinks I'm some sort of crazy sex radical," he said. "Everything I'm talking about I want to see happen, because I want to prevent divorce."
"I tell people, 'Yes, under these circumstances, you should cheat,' and it's almost invariably because if you cheat you can stay married and there's a greater good," Savage added. "Because I think that would be better for your sick and ailing spouse, better for him, for you to get your sexual needs met discreetly and considerately elsewhere, if that's what you must do to stay by his side through this crisis stage."
Dan Savage on Finding 'The One'
The hardest questions to answer, Savage said, were the ones where people ask him about finding their soul mates.
"The 'one'? Oh God, that's an idea that has to be combated," he said. "There's somebody out there for rent for everybody. There is no 'one.' There's a .64, and maybe if you're lucky a .67 [chance] that you round up to one."
Even though Savage has been in a 16-year relationship with his partner, Terry Miller, the co-parent of the teenage son they adopted at birth together, the columnist insisted he doesn't describe Miller as "the one."
"He's the one I settled on," Savage said. "He's the one I picked. He's the one who picked me. He's the one who makes me happier than not. I pay him the compliment of pretending he's the one and he pays me the compliment of pretending I'm the one even though we both know that there is no 'one.'"
Standing Up for LGBT Rights: 'It Gets Better'
Together, Savage and Miller launched the "It Gets Better" project last year, a YouTube channel that hosts video messages of hope for gay teens who are bullied. When Savage first suggested the idea to Miller, he said it was more of a personal project.
"I [wanted] to talk about not just that we were both bullied and we got through it," Savage said, "but [to] talk about our joy and encourage other gay and lesbian and bi-, trans adults to do the same and give these kids hope for their futures."
While they thought they would get around 100 submissions, the project ended up with more than 9,000 videos. Celebrities such as Kathy Griffin and Anne Hathaway, companies such as Google and Gap, politicians such as Hillary Clinton and even President Barack Obama submitted videos.
"The president looked in the camera and said, 'You're not alone. You didn't do anything wrong,'" Savage said. "That's the president of the United States saying to LGBT kids there's something wrong with the people who are telling you there's something wrong with you."
Along the way, Savage and Miller said they've heard some incredible stories from people who said their project had helped them.
"I heard from a lesbian girl the other day whose parents disapprove," Savage said. "She's watching the 'it gets better' videos on her iPhone under her covers at night, so the project has delivered into this girl's home, into her bedroom, these messages that are gonna help her get through this rough period with her family. And that's one way it gets better."
The duo has turned the video messages into a book of essays and stories, also called "It Gets Better," although they said there are still a few faces they want to hear from for the project.
"The pope," Savage said, laughing.
Then, more seriously, Miller added, "We have zero videos from any Republican politicians. There's not one single Republican politician who has gone on video to tell gay, lesbian youth that their lives are valued and that it gets better."
Savage on Mixing Sex and Politics
Not one to hide his political feelings, Savage famously went after former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa. -- now a Republican contender in the 2012 presidential race -- in 2003 after the senator compared homosexuality to "rape" and "bestiality" in an interview.
After one of Savage's readers pointed out to him that the name "Santorum" sounded scientific, even "Latin-y," Savage asked his fans to come up with a definition for the word. An online vote followed. Now, when "Santorum" is Googled, the very graphic, winning definition is the first link to pop up.
Savage said he did it to prove the gay community can "punch back."
Although he receives angry letters sometimes when he mixes his political views into his columns, Savage said it seemed only fair to do so.
"I will leave politics alone when politicians start leaving sex alone," he said.
Although sex is his focus, Savage said his main purpose for writing is to help others, no matter their sexual orientation -- or their sexual problem.
"I go speak at colleges and girls, who they never had an orgasm before, come up and tell me about the column where I walked somebody else who had that problem through how to become orgasmic and that column did it for them," Savage said. "I mean, it's staggering to think I'm a gay man and I give college girls orgasms."