On Friday, June 24, 2011 – my first day upon arriving in New Orleans for our annual conference – I had the pleasure of interviewing Dan Savage by phone, who was also in New Orleans to deliver the conference’s keynote speech.
Tracy Nectoux: Thank you for agreeing to interview with me.
Dan Savage: Well, of course.
Nectoux: When you were growing up, especially when you came to understand that you were gay, how often did you use libraries?
Savage: I think that for a lot of gay adults, particularly those of my generation – pre-Internet, coming of age – there were two important resources, and one was the library. There was the Chicago Public Library branch about three blocks from my house, and I was one of those kids who would take any book that I could find on sexuality and homosexuality out from the spot where it was shelved and bring it to some distant spot in the library and read it there and then abandon it there. So when librarians talk about finding the gay and the sex books all over the place, but never checked out, I was part of that problem [laughs].
And then there were, of course, the used bookstores, who had a lot of books on sexuality. And also, magazine shops for porn [laughs]. Unabridged Bookstore on the North side of Chicago – I would often stand around in their porn section and read their porn.
Nectoux: Was the library a comfort to you, or was it a source of trauma? I know that people of our generation, sometimes we’d go into the library and find books that tell us we’re “wrong,” especially in the 70s and 80s.
Savage: I did find that; I found Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask), by David Reuben, which is a terrible book. It paints a horrible picture of gay people, a horribly inaccurate picture of gay people. But for some reason I was lucky. I had some sort of – I think, thanks to my mom – genetic, built-in, cast-iron bullshit detectors, and I just didn’t believe him. I read what he wrote about gay people and what I took away wasn’t, “Oh my God, gay people are like this”; instead, I took away, “Gay people are out there and this guy got it wrong. These can’t be the only gay people out there.” So even some of the negative things I read kind of gave me hope.
Nectoux: You say this about religion a lot too: It didn’t lead you to self-hatred, but rather to think, “This is bullshit.”
Savage: Yeah, I talk to a lot of gay people, and sometimes I want to break gay people into two camps: the ones who grew up thinking, “There is something wrong with me,” and the ones who grew up thinking, “There’s something wrong with everybody else,” and lucky for me I was in the latter camp.
Nectoux: How often do you, Terry, and DJ use libraries now? Are they still important institutions for research and enjoyment?
Savage: When DJ was younger we used to go to the library on Vashon Island and Puget Sound, the King County Library. We used that library frequently when DJ was young. But I use the downtown library in Seattle as a hidey-hole to write. And I can access the Internet – there’s wifi there, of course. But DJ’s 13 years old and libraries are like zoos [laughs]. You go to them quite a bit when you’re young, and then not so much in adolescence, and then you find yourself back in them later in life, when you get to high school and college. I travel a lot to universities and so I often go to libraries, particularly rare books sections in university libraries.
Nectoux: Most librarians were enormously excited about the It Gets Better Project’s push to get your book into libraries, where you asked people to buy the book and donate it to their cities’ school libraries. From what I can see, the reaction from libraries has been nothing but positive. Has it been as successful as it looks to be from my end? And have you had any challenges?
Savage: We haven’t had any challenges; we haven’t had any books returned or rejected. I think that’s either a really good sign, or perhaps some school librarians in particular parts of the country will look at our website and see that the ACLU is one of our partners and they just don’t want to mess with us. We know that about 1,500 books have been ordered through the website. We do know that we’ve heard from scores of people who bought the book themselves and just walked it into their middle and high school libraries on their own. We know that the number of books that have been donated to libraries is very high. So far it’s been seamless.
And we know from the orders that it’s not just books going to libraries in Chelsea and Boys Town, Chicago and San Francisco. These books are going to Nebraska and rural Pennsylvania and Texas, and there have been no rejections or refusals.
Nectoux: Originally, you and Terry used the Internet to get your message to LGBT teens, because that was – at the time – your only recourse. Using YouTube was the way to get your message out quickly to the kids who needed to hear it, and without being blocked by “concerned adults.”
But now you’ve published this book, as well. As far as libraries go, how do you see the role of print in libraries? Being the old-school, book lover that I am, I love the idea that you first used technology, but then you also wrote an actual book that teens can read as well. Do you still consider the role of print to be important in libraries, both to you and in the lives of gay youth?
Savage: Well, not every gay kid can risk creating incriminating browser history that their parents might stumble over. And not every gay kid has access to the Internet, and YouTube, specifically, is blocked in a lot of schools because they don’t want kids to hang around all day watching dog farting videos. And I’m old-school like you are and I think books are magic. They’ll sometimes end up in the right place at the right time … all unexpectedly, people will stumble over just the book they need to read. I guess that’s the operating intention of the Gideon Society and now me, which is why I wanted to do a book – so that we’d be reaching kids on all fronts. There’s also going to be a TV show on a network that appeals to the demographic we’re trying to reach.
We’re trying to reach kids wherever they are, wherever we can get at them, and kids are in schools and kids are in libraries often, whether they want to be there or not, and gay kids are often looking for information in a library setting, and may be more motivated to do so than straight kids might be because gay kids have questions that they need answered: “Why am I this way,” and “Am I all alone,” and “What’s my future going to be like.” And we wanted to draw a line in the sand and say, “Alright, schools, you say you’re against bullying of LGBT kids, and you want to do something for these kids, put this book on the shelf. We dare you.” And they’ve been doing it.
One of the things I respect about the GLBT Round Table and one of the reasons I’m part of it is that we’re some of the few librarians left that are still encouraging people to read books, actual books. So while I love the original genius of the It Gets Better Project, I especially love that you put it in book form.
Savage: Libraries aren’t hostile to technology; for a lot of people, their Internet access is at the library. But I’m a dead tree fan. I look at trees and I just see books to be.
Nectoux: [Laughing] And of course, it’s crucial for libraries to have computers that don’t block websites.
Savage: No censorship. Throwing the occasional perv out of the library is the price we should be willing to pay for uncensored and open access for everyone.
Savage: Librarians rock. There were two people gay guys my age encountered when they first began looking for information, and often it was the guy who sold you the dirty magazine at the newsstand even though you were probably too young to have one, and he didn’t judge you or make a face. And also, very often, it was the librarian who found the book for you that you needed and didn’t judge you, or make a face to make you feel terrible, or call your parents. My library was three blocks from my house; I believe the librarians knew who my parents were, and they kept my confidence, and that saves lives.
Nectoux: That’s so good to hear. And it’s still happening; we’re still doing it, especially us in the round table; we’re still insisting on it.
And it looks like our time is up. I’m looking forward to seeing you and Terry tonight!
Savage: Awesome, but it’s just going to be me; Terry is in New York.
Nectoux: Oh. Terry won’t be there? Well, damn, forget it then. What’s the point?
Savage: Yeah, Terry’s the hot one. He’s the one people want to see.
Nectoux: Thank you very much, Dan. Speak well tonight and safe travels to New York.
Savage: Thank you.
Photo of Dan Savage by Christopher Staton. Used with permission.
Tracy Nectoux is a Cataloger and Quality Control Specialist for the Illinois Newspaper Project at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
She is the Reviews Editor for the GLBT Round Table Newsletter.