Dan Savage: Humanist of the Year

Last week I had the privilege of introducing Dan Savage at a banquet honoring him as 2013 Humanist of the Year.

Previous winners of this award include Gloria Steinem, Kurt Vonnegut, Jonas Salk, Margaret Sanger, and Buckminster Fuller. Why does Dan deserve to be part of this group?

“Please keep it to 5 minutes,” I was helpfully told. So I decided to answer this question using Dan’s own words, from his books, columns, and speeches.

His discussion of bisexuality as a transition strategy for gay people is full of compassion—and challenges the common idea that only bad people lie. When he first came out,

“I told my friends I was bisexual because I was afraid. I didn’t think they could handle the truth, and I knew that I couldn’t handle living without friends. So I lied.”

Dan explains that bisexual people don’t lie about being bisexual (although some do allow others to think they’re gay or straight); some gay people lie about being bisexual as part of their coming out strategy. Although Dan has been vilified as “bi-phobic” for this politically incorrect but accurate description of reality (including by an audience member during the banquet Q/A), it stands as an important contribution to our understanding of the coming out process (and, unintentionally, of the politics surrounding sexual orientation).

Dan’s work redefines our culture’s narrative around monogamy:

“If you’ve been with someone for 20 or 30 years and your spouse only cheats on you once or twice, your spouse is good at monogamy. Not bad at it, good at it.”

Dan notes that “We should place a higher value on marital stability than on marital monogamy,” a position that would save a lot of good, albeit imperfect, marriages (is there any other kind of good marriage?). In fact, he takes marriage so seriously that he sees cheating as a strategy some good people use to stay married:

“If someone truly loves their spouse, has kids, has tried couples counseling, an endocrinologist and a shrink…I believe it’s better to cheat than to leave.”

Finally, he observes that advice columnists are too eager to punish those who lose interest in a partner but want to stay married:

“This guy doesn’t find his wife attractive anymore. So he loses desire—no affair, just loses desire because he wants to stay with her. And I’m supposed to criticize him? Some things—love, devotion, loyalty—are more important than sex.”

If the American profession of marriage counseling were to consider Dan’s ideas, we’d have more sophisticated marriages, fewer divorces, and more sexually satisfied people. Marriage counselors would have to grow up, too, which may explain the profession’s instinctive resistance.

Dan has spent many years in the struggle for marriage equality. When then-Senator Rick Santorum famously compared same-gender marriage to bestiality and pedophilia, Dan and his readers redefined “santorum” as “The frothy mix of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the byproduct of anal sex.”

For ten years, this has been the first definition that comes up when someone Googles “santorum.” More importantly, Google helpfully explains that the definition originated “After Santorum made statements equating homosexuality with bestiality and pedophilia…” This will be on the internet, of course, until the end of time—certainly during 2016, when Mr. Santorum expects to run for president. It’s hard to think of a more effective anti-defamation tool.

In response to a series of suicides by tormented gay teens, Dan and his husband Terry started the “It Gets Better Project.” They made a video discussing their own experiences of being horribly bullied as teens, noting that their lives got much better in adulthood.

When Dan and Terry invited others to make similar videos, they received 100,000 entries—including videos by Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Ellen DeGeneres, Suze Orman, and Joe Jonas. Viewed over 50,000,000 times, the videos continue to give hope to gay and other bullied or self-tormenting teens. And they continue to undermine the historic narrative that bullying is cool, inevitable, or ultimately benign.

Coming full circle, I quoted Dan describing his adolescent struggle with the contrast between his upbringing in Catholicism and the growing awareness of his own homosexuality.

“My intuitive sense that the Church was wrong about homosexuality—and me—led me to wonder what else the Church might be wrong about: Virgin births, maybe? Resurrection? It didn’t take long to arrive at the biggest doubt of all: the existence of God.”

And that’s what makes Humanism the most dangerous idea on Earth: its call for everyone to think rationally, challenge conventional wisdom, live ethically, and oppose traditional restraints on the integrity of human thought, emotion, and identity. Dan has consistently embodied the Humanist ethic, supporting his millions of readers in living more moral, more human lives.

And that’s why Dan Savage was honored as 2013 Humanist of the Year.

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