With Dan Savage, It Doesn't Get Better

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Dan Savage has a santorum problem. Yes, santorum with a small s.

As many people, probably too many people, know, Dan Savage is a popular gay sex advice columnist. He is also a libertine who maintains a constant state of free-floating apoplexy.

His enemies, of course: people who question the value of contraception, the Catholic Church, Christians in general, Republicans. You know the drill. An angry sexual zealot.

A couple years ago, Savage wanted to attack Rick Santorum because Santorum is pro-life and opposes gay marriage. Savage created a neologism, "santorum." The new definition: "The frothy mix of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the byproduct of anal sex." So when people googled "Santorum," they would get the definition for santorum.

This prank was considered a hilarious victory over Santorum and uptight conservatives everywhere. Andrew Sullivan swam in it, so to speak, as did other members of the self-hating left. But it wasn't a victory. In fact, santorum has been deeply damaging to the gay community, for literal and figurative reasons.

In the last 30 years or so, gay people have gained wide acceptance in society. Gay marriage is legal in several states, and anyone who suggests that sex between two people of the same sex is different from sex between heterosexuals is quickly shut down and deported to an asylum. Yes some of it is PC nonsense and even totalitarian, but it is also a good thing that gay people are not mocked and beaten up to the extent that they used to be.

Savage's santorum prank sets all of that progress back.

When I was growing up in the 1970s, gay people, at least among the Irish Catholics I knew, were still largely thought of as perverts who constantly thought about sex. They weren't just people who wanted to have sex with people who looked like them; they thought about it constantly. It didn't help that, as the film Gay Sex in the 70s depicts, the gay bathhouse scene in places like New York was animalistic.

Actually, it was worse than that, as animals move on after they mate. Gay Sex in the 70s is a Dantesque descent into pathology. In certain places in New York there would literally be hundreds of men having sex with multiple anonymous partners.

When the human body is abused in such a way, disease is bound to follow. Yet AIDS, for all its devastation, also created a powerful community of love and even responsibility in the gay community. There is an incredibly poignant moment in Gay Sex in the 70s in which an older gay man thinks back about how people rallied to each other during the plaque. "Maybe something good came out of it," he said. "It taught us to treat each other like human beings instead of body parts."


In 1981, right around the time that AIDS was starting, Gore Vidal, the great author and gay activist, wrote a powerful piece called "Pink Triangle and Yellow Star." In it Vidal aimed to settle some scores, particularly against some conservative thinkers who were appalled by "the boys on the beach" -- the gay scene on Fire Island.

The names of the conservatives Vidal attacked aren't relevant; they are decent people who didn't deserve it. Furthermore, Vidal's piece reeked of anti-Semitism and hatred for Christians.

But amid the rage were small insights. "A racial or religious or tribal identity is a kind of fact," Vidal wrote. "Although sexual preference is an even more powerful fact, it is not one that creates any particular social or cultural or religious bond between those so-minded." Furthermore, Vidal claimed that there are no such thing as homosexual or hetrosexual people; there are simply homosexual or heterosexual acts. He also disarmed his opponents by noting that gays are indeed a certain way, "except, of course, for when they are not."

Vidal was saying a couple interesting things. He was saying that a true community can't be formed simply based on sexual acts. He was also saying that no one has an ironclad sexual identity, that sexuality is more of a scale: some people are extremely hetero, your Chuck Norrises, while others are less so. On the other end of the spectrum is someone who is extremely gay -- say, Dan Savage.

I disagree with Vidal that that there is no such thing as hetero and homo. But there is a little truth in his model is rationally applied. Basic observation reveals that some people have different levels of sexual attraction and drive than others.

A few years after Vidal's essay was published in 1981, I worked in a record store in Washington, D.C., in a largely gay section of town. It was there that I realized that Vidal was right. Gay people do love dancing and crochet and Judy Garland -- except, of course, when they don't. I was surrounded by gay co-workers, and they were all individuals. This was in the 80s, when AIDS was very new and very deadly, and I saw the transition that the man in Gay Sex in the 70s had talked about. A lot of the sub-human behavior was out.

One of the great albums of the time, and one that was played in the store, was The The's Infected. The lyrics of the title track are still powerful:

I can't give you up, till I've got more than enough.
So infect me with your love--
Nurse me into sickness. Nurse me back to health.
Endow me with the gifts--of the man made world.

When desire becomes an illness instead of a joy,
And guilt a necessity that's gotta be destroyed.

Take me by the hands and walk me to the end of the pier.
Run your fingers through my hair,
and tell me what I wanna hear--
Will lies become truths in this face of fading youth
from my scrotum to your womb, --your cradle to my tomb.

Now enter Dan Savage -- and "santorum." What has Savage accomplished by this?

It took me a few years, a job with a lot of gay people, and an essay by Gore Vidal to disabuse myself of the notion I learned as a kid that gay people, especially gay men, are people who think constantly about sex, often filthy unhealthy forms of sex, and that they have no impulse control. I learned that gay people are just like everyone else.

Yet the visibility, indeed the celebration, of Dan Savage in the media and the culture -- not to mention his demented and dehumanizing sex column -- has brought back that old stereotype.

In the late 19th Century in New York, the Irish, my ancestors, were known for being a bunch of dirty drunken brawlers. It took years, even decades of assimilation into the culture to get over that reputation. During the Civil Rights era a great emphasis was put on blacks, by other blacks, to dress and act responsibly. Each one was told they were representing their race.

You might say in the wake of AIDS and greater acceptance, gays are faced with a similar moment. The Irish learned to settle disputes by gaining political power. Blacks entered every field and profession and continue to do so -- not to mention creating timeless works of artistic genius. Gay people are getting married, living with AIDS, and becoming more and more acceptable to neighbors.

And here come hysteric Dan Savage and his "santorum." It's like he's stuck on Fire Island in 1972. And by reenforcing the stereotype about the perverse gay man who reduces every human interaction, indeed every single thing, to sex, by fighting filthy instead of fair, he sets his own cause back.

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