Drinking with Sex Writer and Activist Dan Savage

While on tour for his porn festival HUMP!, sex columnist and activist Dan Savage takes time to talk candidly about politics, Mai Tais, his annual Christmas party and, of course, sex.

“Lemme run upstairs and get a pot cookie first,” says sex columnist, political firebrand and occasional cannabis advocate Dan Savage—only to think better of it. We’re in the lobby of the Roxie, the oldest theater in San Francisco. Savage is in town for the HUMP! Tour, the traveling version of his amateur porn festival. Every single screening is sold out. It’s 8:45 p.m. and he’s just finished his audience introduction, cautioning theatergoers (with the help of his “mean lesbian boss”) not to take their cell phones out while watching a dozen short films in which a karaoke party leads to a shower orgy and a vagina plays the French horn. HUMP!’s diverse DIY erotica binds its captive audience together with the experience of watching things they’d never choose to see on their own.

This is Savage’s first stop on this leg of the tour. He’s recently been ill with the flu, so the boss (who is really his assistant) warns that he “might just have tea.” But being sick hasn’t affected his infamous candor; he openly offers the fact that he travels with edibles in states where marijuana’s not yet legal.

With a further admonition from his assistant to be back by 10:15 p.m., we jaywalk across 16th Street to ABV, a dim, upscale cocktail bar that embodies the nouveau Mission full of tech and start-up nerds. It’s been an uncommonly good day on the internet, with net neutrality announced in the morning, a headline of escaped llamas in the afternoon and a disturbing epistemological crisis over the color of a dress in the evening. The bar’s atmosphere is jovial.

Savage asks for a “fruity rum drink, like a Mai Tai”—something his husband Terry makes for him at home in Seattle, along with Pisco Sours. (When they’re not drinking Champagne, their house staple, that is.) He tells me a bit about their eclectic party habits, including an annual holiday open house.

“We’ve been doing it on Christmas Day for ten years. We buy a case of really good Champagne, serve it in cheap jam jars and all the neighbors come.” By “neighbors,” Savage means a mix of porn stars, dominatrices, drag queens and their Catholic neighbors and children. It’s these sorts of juxtapositions—kinky lesbian porn and yuppie crowds; adult movie stars and diocese members—that characterize Savage’s entire career. Although after a decade, guests know what they’re getting into.

“I went through a Lillet period,” he says, commenting on my gold-colored drink, which is actually mezcal with Curaçao and bitters. But before I can correct him, I sense people hovering behind us. Half public figure, half crusader, Savage has stirred controversy with a critical mass on both sides of the aisle. Conservative students regularly walk out on his lectures, and he’s been glitter-bombed by left-wing activists who have accused him of being transphobic.

The bartender steers him toward a Lands End (Jamaican rum, lemon and raspberry gum), which appears to pass muster. “I went through a Lillet period,” he says, commenting on my gold-colored drink, which is actually mezcal with Curaçao and bitters. But before I can correct him, I sense people hovering behind us. Savage returns the gazes with a friendly wave.

His is a curious threshold of celebrity, having most recently penetrated mainstream consciousness with “It Gets Better,” his LGBT youth advocacy project, which went viral several times over. Half public figure, half crusader, Savage has stirred controversy with a critical mass on both sides of the aisle. Conservative students regularly walk out on his lectures, and he’s been glitter-bombed by left-wing activists who have accused him of being transphobic.

In keeping with his paradoxical image, he’s appeared on the Colbert Report several times including the star-studded finale, which featured everyone from Bill DeBlasio to Big Bird to Pussy Riot. But before his notoriety, there was “Savage Love,” the regular sex column he began writing for Seattle’s alt-weekly, The Stranger, in 1991. But in spite of 20-plus years as a public figure, Dan Savage continues to move with ease throughout circles where his name recognition approaches 100 percent.

And surprisingly, he still bangs out a fair number of “Savage Love” columns while sitting in bars. I ask him if it’s difficult to get things done when people inevitably want to say hello. He explains that Seattle is a small town where he’s simply a “piddling, minor, local celebrity—plus I go like this,” he says, pulling his hoodie up and mimicking typing. He looks like the Unabomber in profile, pecking away at an imaginary laptop.

“When we were looking for our house, there had to be at least three bars” between it and his office at The Stranger, where he’s currently the editorial director. He explains that he doesn’t drive, and while walking home from work, he “[needs] a drink in the afternoon.” He says the bartenders at his regular spots know to shoo any potential pests away.

As if on cue, an attractive woman taps Savage on the shoulder. She’s bought him a shot (which he politely declines), but gives her a full explanation, citing his flu and the drink already in front of him. Though visibly crestfallen, she takes it in stride and then downs both shots herself.

Since sex—in all its variety—is what brought him to San Francisco, it was only a matter of time before Savage’s thoughts head in that direction. Two-thirds into his Mai Tai facsimile, he asks me to turn my recorder off for a second. The second lasts for several minutes until we’ve begun comparing photos from our phones. And in a moment of fanboy weakness, I confess that I’ve been reading “Savage Love” since I was a virgin.

“Yeah, but that could be yesterday, for all I know,” he says.

“You were licking Gary Bauer’s doorknobs then,” I say, referring to his attempt to derail the homophobic evangelical’s 2000 presidential campaign. The sex talk melts into a political discussion, and things turn serious as he reflects on Texas state legislator Debbie Riddle, who’s proposed testing the chromosomal gender of everyone who wants to use a Texas public bathroom. While witty and warm, Savage is not without a righteous streak, something required to balance political advocacy and with BDSM evangelism.

Transphobia, the Duggars, Rick Santorum—it all works Savage up quite a bit, but invariably the talk returns to sex, the subject that obsesses both him and his nemeses, albeit on opposite ends of the spectrum. We discuss kinks and fetishes, hookup sites and being “monogam-ish,” until our glasses are empty. Then he excuses himself to walk across the street, get back up on stage and talk to a house full of strangers about the porn they just watched as a group.

Peter Lawrence Kane's work has appeared in SF Weekly, Salon, VICE, MSN and The Bold Italic. A native New Yorker based in San Francisco, he's aiming to visit every national park by age 40.

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