Dan Savage is many thingscolumnist, activist, author, "It Gets Better" co-founder and pundit. However, he'll don another hat when he hosts his HUMP Film Festivalwhich showcases homemade pornlater this week in his hometown of Chicago ( which he frequently visits ).
However, before that event, Savage candidly talked with Windy City Times about a variety of topics, including his first gay bar, his relationship with the transgender communityand his affinity for musical theater. The topic began with the recent passage and signing of the controversial anti-LGBT law in North Carolina.
Windy City Times: The passage of the law in North Carolina is [causing chaos].
Dan Savage: There will be lawsuits. They will pay dearly for whatever they thought they accomplished.
WCT: Apparently, there's never been a bill of this scope. It even reaches beyond the LGBT community and stops cities from increasing the minimum wage.
DS: Yeahit's just appalling.
WCT: Switching gears, you're a Chicago boy. You grew up on which side of the city?
DS: North SideRogers Park.
WCT: What was that like? I didn't move here until the '90s.
DS: [Laughs] Well, Rogers Park was very different than it is now. In the '60s and '70s, [leather bar] Touche was not there. [Both laugh.] It was an Irish Catholic neighborhood on one side and Jewish on the otherbasically, a religious dividing line. Basically, the most important thing to know about someone in Rogers Park was what parish they belonged to. It was a very different time and place.
Things started changing when I was a teenager. There was an influx of new energy, and there were bodegas and taquerias. It was more urban and more exciting.
WCT: I imagine that if there were a Touche there, your childhood could've been quite different.
DS: [Laughs] Well, luckily for me when I was an adolescent, I had a bicycle. Rogers Park might feel like it's far away from Boystownbut it's a pretty quick bike ride. I was always exposed to gay people who were living openly. I would go to Unabridged Bookstore and found my way into the gay neighborhood. I was an older teenager so I wasn't going to bars; I was seeing people who were openly gay and saying, "Hmmm... This is possible for me. This isn't going to be awful. [Laughs] I see happy people and people who are going into bars with their friends and lovers."
People will, because of the "It Gets Better" project, have asked me if I wish there was [such a] project when I was a teenagerand my answer is always "There was one for meall the gay men who were publicly out in Chicago in the '70s and '80s." I have this memory from childhood of going to Water Tower Place with my parents and siblings, and there were these two guys holding hands to buy tickets for the movies. My mother pulled menot my siblings, just metoward her ( so I think she knew ). I then said to myself, "I know what I amand those men are happy."
WCT: You did have that advantage. Growing up in a smaller town in Virginia
DS: So there weren't men holding hands in line at the movie theater?
WCT: No, not too many. So the closest thing people had was drama club in high school.
DS: [Laughs] Which is the original gay-straight alliance. [Interviewer laughs.]
WCT: Right. So it wasn't until I moved to Chicago that I felt the mothership had called me. But do you remember the first gay bar you went to?
DS: Yeah; it was a place called The Bushes, on Halsted. It's not there anymore, and I think it was named in honor of the bushes in Lincoln Park, where people would meet for sex back in the day.
I distinctly remember the first time I walked in those doors. I've described it to people as a passenger airlock, and all that pressure I had [put on myself] was suddenly lifted. That experience of being in a place where everyone was gay and, suddenly, the thing that seemed too important and definitional in every way is the common denominatorand everything else about you is what sets you apart. That was terrifying [laughs] and very freeing to go from my Irish Catholic home and schoolwhere I was hidingto a place where my worries were lifted. It was intoxicating; I felt everything pop.
Kids today with their apps and GrindrI wonder if the experience is as profound for young kids because they have access to these virtual spaces where they can be themselves and interact with others. We only had actual spaces in 1980, when I went to The Bushes.
WCT: On another Chicago-related note, I have to congratulate you on the [ABC] show The Real O'Neals [which is based on an idea by Savage]and I love Martha Plimpton.
DS: Thank you. Martha is great, and so's Noah [Galvin, who plays Kenny, the teen middle child who reveals to his family that he's gay]; I think their relationship is the center of the show. Everybody's great, including Mary [Hollis Inboden, who plays Aunt Jodi], who's a Chicago actress.
I just wished they filmed the show in Chicagobut nobody will spend money to film anything anywhere. L.A. got passed off as Pawnee, Indiana, in the show Parks & Recreation. It's depressing.
Last night's episode [of The Real O'Neals] was about pornography, and there's a scene where a train goes by. I think they're trying to pass it off as the "L," and it's clearly the Los Angeles train system. [Laughs]
WCT: But there are shows filming here, like all the Chicago Fire and P.D., as well as Empire.
DS: Hmmm. I just wishwell, you know. [Laughs] With The Real O'Neals, it's, like, the streets are too wide or the apartment buildings are all wrong. But the important things are the writing and the cast.
WCT: You mentioned pornography a couple minutes agowhich leads me to HUMP. For our readers, could you describe how this event originated?
DS: It started as a jokelike my column started as a joke. But, with HUMP, a co-worker at my home newspaper in Seattle and I joked that we should take a page and call for homemade porn for a festival. We eventually got the publisher to let us do italthough there was a lot of resistance because the publisher didn't think that people would make short porno films starring themselves that would be screened in the city in which they lived. But he was wrong and we got tons of off-the-wall, funny, interesting submissions.
Then, we booked a theater and we wondered if people would come to a movie theater and sit next to strangers in the dark and watch pornographyand the answer was "yes." [Laughs] Every screening sold out, and it was a huge success. Five or six years later, we expanded it to Portland and, now, throughout the country.
The promise we make to everyone is that they'll be porn stars for the weekend. If HUMP doesn't come to you or you can't make it to HUMP, you can't see [the movies]. They're not anywhere else.
WCT: Because you destroy the submissions, correct?
DS: For the first few years, we'd show the films and bring the tapes on the stage and then destroy them with a hammer. Now, it's all digital so we can't destroy the tapebut, at the end of each festival, we shred all the paperwork and destroy our copies of the films. The filmmakers can release them onto YouTube or XTube.
WCT: How can I phrase this: What films have stood out in your mind over the years?
DS: [Laughs] There are so many! There was one with an anal hook in it that traumatized so many people.
The first ones looked like amateurs who were trying to make commercial pornand those were not the ones audiences responded to. They responded to ones that were really unique, personal, off-the-wall, dirty and sexy.
There are ones that reflect kinks. There was one from a couple years ago called "Go Ahead and Pee"and it featured a woman wearing a green leotard while jumping on a trampoline. A voiceover said, "Go ahead and pee," she did thatand the film ended. People were saying, "That's not porn"but I said, "That's somebody's porn." There was another called "Pie Sluts," in which people were hitting each other in the face with pies and smearing them all over each other. And then there was one called "Anal Alley" in which someone uses a butt plug to knock down bowling pins; I think that one would play well in Chicago, where people like to bowl.
WCT: [Laughs] Wow. I don't know if that's down my alley, no pun intended [Savage laughs]but, as the saying goes, "Everybody's got their something." By the way, have you shown one of yourself?
DS: No. I'm one of those people who's very comfortable with other people's nudity but not my own. I'm very uncomfortable being naked myself, so I haven't been in a HUMP film, although I've written a couple. I'm happy to be nakedjust not in public.
WCT: I wanted to move on to politics, and the presidential race. What do you think of Donald Trump?
DS: I'm really torn. I find him dangerous, but it's satisfying to see the Republican Party hoisted by so many of its own petards at once. Trump is the golem that the Republican Party created. Right now, he's destroying the partyand he's not saying anything the GOP hasn't said. He's just not doing it in code anymore.
On the other hand, if he wins the nomination then the violence we've seen in the primaries is going to be 10 times worse in a general-election campaign. It's going to get ugly, and people could get hurt or killed. Black people, brown people and Muslims are going to get attackedso it concerns me when I see progressives taking too much delight in what a Trump candidacy could do to the GOP. That said, I don't think he can win; but if he gets the nomination AND we have a recession AND we have a terrorist attack in Octoberwho knows? I want there to be a brokered GOP convention and somebody else getting the nomination.
I love what [MSNBC morning host] Joe Scarborough said about Trump: "The GOP realizes that the economy never trickles down. The problem with the Republican Party over the past 30 years is they haven't ... developed a message that appeals to the working-class Americans economically in a way that Donald Trump's does." People are angry and confused. It's a terrifying moment.
WCT: I was wondering if you had heard of Australian politician Bob Day, who recently quoted you in his argument against marriage equality.
DS: Yes, I had. A lot of people here in the United States, where we have marriage equality, attempted to launch the same argumentthat gay people shouldn't marry because gay people aren't monogamous.
It's a place they don't want to go and it's easy to push them out of it because gay male couples are the least likely to be monogamous, straight couples are more likely and lesbian couples are the most likely. So if marriage is based on monogamy, then only lesbians should be allowed to marry.
It's a ridiculous double standard, because you can be married and not monogamous if you're straight. No one says to the Clintons that they're not married. Monogamy is definitional for marriage only if gay people want to be married. Gay people are told that marriage is about monogamy, children and religionbut those are all options when straight people want to marry. It's bullshit, and that argument will go nowhere.
WCT: Where does your relationship stand with the overall transgender community today, given past skirmishes you have had with some transgender activists? What do you think of the push by some gays who have called for a separation of transgender rights from the LGBT movement, including in a recent USA Today column?
DS: I consider myself a trans ally, and feature tons of trans people on my show, which has a large straight and cis listenershippeople who need to hear from trans people, not just about them. [Regarding the proposed separation,] I am emphatically opposed to any effort to "drop the T." Hateful bullshit.
WCT: My last question: Your life is such an open book. Is there a little-known fact about you?
DS: [Laughs] I'm trying to think of one. Usually, people are interested in my sex life, but I don't like to talk about it.
I don't know if it's little-known, but I'm a musical-theater queen. Musicals are my favorite thing ever. I'm coming to Chicago a couple days early because I want to go to Showtunes Night at Sidetrack. I'll drink the boozy slushies and sing along.
WCT: OKtell me three of your favorite musicals.
DS: Oh, my Godjust three? Let's see: Mame, A Little Night Music and South Park: Bigger, Longer and UncutThe Musical, made by Stone and Parker before they did Book of Mormon, which is amazing. South Park is the best movie musical of the last 30 yearsand I say that knowing that Chicago exists. That musical was made for us.
The HUMP! Film Festival will take place at the Music Box Theater, 3733 N. Southport Ave., on April 8-9 with shows at 7 and 9:30 p.m. In addition, on Thursday, April 7, Savage will have a live recording of his podcast "Savage Lovecast" also at the Music Box, starting at 8:30 p.m. Savage will answer sex questions from the audience with some help from other revered freaks and "sexperts."
For an overview of each film and tickets for both events, check out Humpfilmfest.com .