Mark Oppenheimer on Dan Savage

Dan Savage is not indie, but he’s always done things his own way. That’s why we love him at IndieReader.  From his Savage Love advice column to his “It Gets Better” anti-bullying campaign, Savage has become a distinct American voice and a pivotal figure in LGBTQ history.

Dan Savage: The First Gay Celebrity, written by Mark Oppenheimer, is an inside look at Savage’s life, from his Catholic-school days, Chicago upbringing, to his current days.

Mark Oppenheimer is also the author of Wisenheimer: A Childhood Subject to Debate. He writes a biweekly column about religion for The New York Times, and is a writer for The New York Times Magazine, Slate, Mother Jones, Tablet, The Forward, and many other publications. Oppenheimer lives with his wife, daughters, and dogs in the Westville neighborhood of New Haven, Connecticut.

IndieReader got to ask Oppenheimer about his relationship with Savage, going the self-publishing route, and his non-indie affiliation.

Loren Kleinman: I have to admit, I am a huge fan of Dan Savage. He heightened my understanding of relationships, especially in his short bit about the “price of admission.” I have a lot of respect for him. Why write about Dan Savage? Who’s listening?

Mark Oppenheimer: Well that’s the interesting thing, the “who’s listening.” I discovered that Savage has several different audiences, who don’t necessarily know each other, or know about his many lives. There are a ton of people who know him just as the guy from This American Life — they don’t even know he writes a sex column! And then there are millions who know “It Gets Better” but don’t know that he writes or does radio. And then some people know the Savage Love column but not his other work. So it was fun to pull the pieces together.

LK: Talk about the title. Why do you consider Savage the “first gay celebrity”?

MO: Dan Savage is our most famous gay who, for his entire adult life and rise to fame, has always been out of the closet. The others, like Ellen, Barney Frank, Anderson Cooper, etc., got famous while closeted. I guess Doogie Howser has been out for most of his adult life. Andrew Sullivan…but he is not famous in the same way. In terms of national mega-recognizability, Savage is the first to be lifelong-gay-famous (if I may coin a term).

LK: Do you think the public idolizes Savage for his no nonsense approach to love and sex? Is there anything wrong with idolization?

MO: I don’t think he is idolized. On much of the right, he is loathed. But I have been amazed how many people — especially straight women — have told me that his advice has improved their relationships. Even changed their lives.

LK: Strangely, Savage, founder of the ‘It Gets Better’ project, was accused of bullying after a speech to high school journalists in Seattle. Savage said, “We can learn to ignore the bulls— in the Bible about gay people… the same way we have learned to ignore the bulls— in the Bible about shellfish, about slavery, about dinner, about farming, about menstruation, about virginity, about masturbation. We ignore bulls— in the Bible about all sorts of things.” About 30 students and advisers left the room and Savage reacted by saying: “It’s funny, as someone who is the receiving end of beatings that are justified by the Bible, how pansy-assed some people react when you push back.”  Do you think his rant makes him a hypocrite or a rebel, someone that stands up for what he believes in despite the backlash?

MO: I think there are legitimate criticisms of Savage, but this is not one of them. A public speaker cannot bully a large audience. Not in the vernacular, idiomatic sense of the word as we’ve been using it. He could harangue them, and he could certainly offend them — but is he doing the same thing to them that a gang of straight kids does, repeatedly, over a year, to a terrorized gay boy?

LK: Was it easy to market a book about Savage?

MO: No, it wasn’t easy. I mean, it was easy on the web. But it wasn’t easy with a lot of the mainstream print media. They thought I had already written the one article (my cover story in the Times Magazine) that anyone needed on Savage.

LK: I often think that Savage’s commentary and advice is not so much directed to gay or straight people as much as it is directed toward encouraging people to be true to themselves. I’m not sure if we’re honest with ourselves all the time. Perhaps we let too much outside noise filter into our daily decisions rather than doing what we feel is the right thing to do, and maybe that outside noise has not been so supportive of getting in touch with our true self. I think Savage, for the most part, lives in a way that is true, and that’s what makes him so accessible. The truth hurts, but brings us closer to reality. Do you think Savage is committed to sharing his truths? Why should we care?

MO: I do think Savage has a gift for candor, but of course all public people are in part marketing a persona. They have to, because the only way their marriages or parenting selves could work successfully is to have a sphere of privacy. I am sure there is a Dan Savage whom his husband and son (and friends, and coworkers) know but whom his fans don’t. There has to be.

LK: You write for The New York Times. Do you consider the fact that you self-published a subversive act? Why not pick a traditional publisher?

MO: With this length, I had to self-publish. Who runs 12,000-word pieces? The New Yorker or Vanity Fair, but only sometimes. But basically nobody else.

LK: Do you consider yourself indie?

MO: No. I am very square.

LK: Is Savage indie?

MO: No. He is hopelessly bourgeois.

LK: What do you and Savage have in common? Are you both in search of truth? If so, what truth?

MO: We both really love our children. I relate to him as a husband, as a dad, and as a writer. And I do find that somehow I am drawn, as a journalist, to people raised Catholic. There is no part of me that wants to be Catholic, but I am fascinated by their ambivalent relationships to their faith, or ex-faith, perhaps because there is something Jewish about it.

Thanks Mark!

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