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Sunday, July 21, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Northwest People

Savage Success -- Seattle's Latest Cultural Export: A Gay Advice Columnist Who Offends Nearly Everyone

Hey Dan:

What gives? Since you hit town five years ago you've managed to offend every brigade in the cultural wars: Catholics, closeted gays, Pat Robertson, bisexuals, lesbians, Miss Manners, AIDS charities and at least half the breeders who write in to you.

Aren't you the guy whose more tempered descriptions of Republicans include the phrases hate-mongering, gay-bashing and neo-fascist? Didn't you nearly get beat up for comparing part of a woman's anatomy to a canned ham dropped from a great height?

Now, I pick up my copy of Newsweek and there you are, named as one of 30 prominent Seattle movers and shakers. Right there with Norm Rice, Bill Gates and all those other folks in suits and Gortex parkas. What does this say about American values? And aren't you just a little bit horrified at the thought? - Befuddled

DAN SAVAGE IS A BIG GUY AND AN even bigger gal.

On the basement stage at Capitol Hill's Temple de Hirsch Sinai, Savage goes 6-foot-4 or better in his spiked heels. This being Armed Services Night at the monthly "Gay Bingo" game he emcees for an AIDS support group, Savage is dressed in a slinky olive-drab dress slit up the side. Pinned to his auburn wig is a WAC cap with a shiny faux-gold oak cluster. A ravishing fantasy? Maybe, maybe not. Tottering across the stage in heels, he also resembles a swaying skyscraper wrapped in rayon.

They never called out the numbers quite like this at St. Ignatius Cathedral on Chicago's North Side, where Savage learned his bingo.

He taunts a muscular woman firefighter into arm wrestling on the floor. He works the kids like a ward politician. "Are you hoping that baby grows up to be a lesbian?" he asks two women at a front table. Told their child is a boy, Savage doesn't falter. "Oh, I thought it was a lesbian baby because it was dressed in all those ill-fitting sweat clothes."

Seattle's deputy mayor presents him with a sequined t-shirt as thanks for his support of the ill-fated Commons park. "Lord knows gay people are in favor of green space," he gushes. "We use Volunteer Park at all hours."

Chicken Soup Brigade, sponsor of Gay Bingo, gets letters from gay people scolding Savage for belittling straights. Men protest his stereotyping of lesbians. Democrats complain that he's mean to Republicans. It's also true that Gay Bingo is one of the hottest tickets in town - all 520 seats sold out since Savage first took the stage three years ago.

In New York, Savage might have been another outrageous voice lost in the noise. Seattle, Savage moans, is by contrast so polite and sensitive that gay Christian groups outnumber gay bars.

That made the city a perfect launching pad for a former seminary student who declares himself an "unreconstructed commie" on matters of religion, a left-wing gay provocateur who recently joined the Republican party to subvert it, and a foul-mouthed drag-queen sex-advice columnist who has readers address him as "Hey, faggot."

His "Savage Love" advice column deserves much credit for the success of the five-year-old Stranger, an irreverent Capitol Hill weekly for which he is associate editor. Savage has his own theater troupe and a call-in radio show. Like double-tall skinnies and grunge, he is now a Northwest export - his column syndicated weekly to 700,000 readers in 16 alternative papers nationwide, including biggies like New York's Village Voice and the Chicago Reader. This fall, he will begin a book on sex and politics in America, part of a two-book deal with Dutton Signet.

Savage's guy wardrobe still consists of jeans, t-shirts and baseball caps. But he's moved from a closet-sized room at the William Tell Hotel to a Capitol Hill condo of his own.

And in the normally buttoned-down world of Seattle gay politics, Savage the Phenomenon has become Savage the Player on matters like election strategy.

Savage's explanation for how all this came to be is quite plausible.

"Sex - abortion, birth control, divorce, AIDS, gay marriages - is the story of the millennium. But we get newspapers that write about sex in language that won't offend a 5-year-old," he says. In Seattle, "nobody talks about this stuff the way I do."

Rarely is Savage so understated.

A FEW MONTHS BACK, AN INDIGNANT reader asked where Savage got off telling heterosexuals how to run their love lives.

"Well, by simple virtue of being gay," Savage answered. "To understand who I am and why I am, I've had to confront issues of sexuality - hetero and homo - on a level that you haven't. For straight people, sexuality is a simple matter of fact. But for queers, sexuality is the $64,000 question, the central question of our existence (beginning with `Why me, God,') and thus our primary obsession. We have to find answers or go nuts."

Actually, Savage acquired his newspaper pulpit with slightly less psycho-drama. When one of his co-workers in a Madison, Wis., video store was leaving town to help start the Stranger, Savage suggested a smart-mouthed sex columnist was just what the paper needed. He was hired for $12 a column. His qualifications were a sense of theater and political gamesmanship, honed while working in Europe's experimental theater scene and with the militant gay-rights group, ACT-UP.

The son of a Chicago cop, Savage attended a preparatory high school for the priesthood. In his retelling, the school was filled with a homoerotic air that included swimming classes in the nude and priests whose only duty was paddling unruly young men. There were clues he wouldn't fit in, such as a story he wrote imagining himself the first teenage pope, dressed in sandals and shorts, giving the Vatican's riches to the poor.

Around that time, the Chicago archdiocese featured the Savage family in a film about Catholic life. In the ensuing years, his parents' marriage broke up, one brother got a divorce, another a vasectomy. Dan created "Savage Love," a confession booth where the form of instruction is this: We all come from dysfunctional families. Quit whining and get over it.

His family did. Both his parents have appeared on Savage's radio show. Judy Savage Sobeisk talks with pride of her son's success and outspokenness, though she wishes he'd clean up his language: "Dan is so well-spoken, but I've learned a lot more about anal sex than I need to know." While devout in his rejection of religion, Savage has cluttered his condo with Catholic kitsch: his grandfather's rosary collection, statues of the Madonna, a Virgin Mary clock.

The private Savage, 31, is disarmingly likable. He's polite and a bit shy. A history buff, he is a voracious reader. While he advises young men looking for their first boyfriend to sneak into gay bars with a fake ID, Savage has been in a monogamous relationship for nearly two years. Big chunks of his time are taken up with gay community causes.

In its push for legal protections, the gay-civil-rights movement has stressed a simple message to heterosexuals: We're your neighbors, your fellow taxpayers, your fellow PTA members. We're just like you.

Savage, by contrast, puts the whole question of who's who and what's what into a Waring blender.

He started writing "Savage Love" under his own name while still living in Wisconsin. When he moved to Seattle a few months later, afraid that a disgruntled reader might pop him in the nose, he began living under an assumed name, Keenan Hollhaan. He began doing drag not out of proclivity, but as a disguise.

His theater troupe, Greek Active, performs classics with castings that twist gender like strands of DNA. In his adaptation of Lillian Hellman's "The Children's Hour," Savage cast lesbians in the role of the students at a Southern school - and male drag queens in the role of the teachers accused of being lesbians by those students.

Each week, Savage gets nearly 150 letters. More than half of them are from heterosexuals, a.k.a. "breeders." For straight audiences, he is a translator of gay culture. At the same time, he delights in playing the outrageously out gay man ministering to and often magnifying the sexual anxieties of straight guys.

"I wanted a column that would be really mean to heterosexuals. That treats straights the way advice columnists always treated gay men," he joked to a recent audience of 200 Central Washington University students in Ellensburg.

"A lot of what I do in my column is talk straight men down. Every straight man in the country, as far as I'm concerned, is Karen Black in the movie `Airport' at the wheels of a plane with the front sheared off of it. He doesn't know what to do."

IT'S NATURAL TO ASSUME that a columnist with the audacity to ask People for Ethical Treatment of Animals how they feel about bestiality is an "anything goes" kind of guy.

The secret of Savage's success is the opposite: He remains as breathtakingly judgmental about right and wrong as any of those he lampoons as flag-waving, Bible-thumping right-wingers.

"Savage Love" is tough love. Lenny Bruce meets Ann Landers. He calls his readers obscene names. He encourages women to be as sexually selfish as men and accuses bisexuals of being homophobes.

To a woman who kept writing letters to someone spurning her advances: "Outside of the movies, no one is the least bit attracted to obsessive-compulsive psychopaths." To a reader who complained Savage was too rough on a confused young gay man: "Hordes of cry-babies in the closet stay put out of sheer cowardice and it is not my job to pat their pointy heads and coo `Everything will be all right once you join a support group.' "

Savage's raw talk is more than titillating shock talk, though. Dressed as talk-show host Sally Jesse Raphael, he drew hundreds to safe-sex forums put on by the Gay City Health Project, formed to battle an upswing in AIDS among young gay men. Savage, AIDS educators say, reaches a younger audience turned off by more traditional outreach efforts.

Savage's outlandish suggestions and harsh putdowns make some therapists wince. Malcolm McKay of the Seattle Institute for Sex Therapy credits Savage for bringing conversation about sex out of the closet and delivering sound scientific information, but says, "What really fascinates me about Dan is how incredibly moralistic he is. If you're really confused and looking for a place to turn for help, Dan's not the place to go."

Savage prides himself on delivering the kind of frank, kitchen-table wisdom he devoutly read as a kid from fellow Chicagoan Ann Landers - as if Landers ever got a letter from a guy attracted to amputees. Savage did. Nurturing as much common sense as possible in that situation, Savage warned the man that no one would understand his fetish, and a person wouldn't appreciate being loved for not having a limb any more than for simply being blonde.

"I read her all the time as a kid. I really feel like I know Ann Landers," says Savage. "I think people feel the same thing about me. People write both of us, because they perceive they like us as people."

There is something to that theory.

During his two-hour talk in Ellensburg, audience members grew open enough to toss him questions about outing, dental dams, anal sex, the piercing of male body parts and whether straight men picked him up. Afterwards, while he went inside another room to shed his dress and makeup, a tall woman waited patiently in the hallway with her boyfriend. When Savage emerged 20 minutes later, she told him she could never find clothes that fit her 6-foot frame. "Where," she asked, "do you get your dresses?"

Savage listened sympathetically. Then he let her in on his secret: Nordstrom's Rack.

AS A GRENADE LAUNCHER in the cultural wars, Savage has proven himself a masterful self-promoter. This spring, he got himself elected as a Pat Buchanan delegate to the King County GOP Convention. It provided fodder for several biting "GOP Journey" columns, let Savage don an "Ellen Craswell for Governor" hat, and landed his name in daily newspapers.

The mischief certainly didn't sway the party's debate on gay rights. And supporters of Craswell, a Christian conservative, aren't the types who write letters of complaints about Savage. Most, he figures, don't know who he is.

Within the gay community, Savage's role is more complicated.

When "Savage Love" began running in a San Francisco alternative paper, it drew noisy protests from gay activists there. The column, they charged, dredged up old stereotypes about promiscuous gay life. The Village Voice deletes the "Hey faggot" salutation when it runs the column.

Critics say Savage's forays into watchdog journalism, where he's lashed out at some of the gay community's most prominent institutions, have too often deteriorated into misinformed personal attacks.

Savage last year called for "heads to roll" at Hands Off Washington after it pushed the idea of a statewide pro-gay-rights ballot initiative. The idea fizzled after Savage wrote that such an initiative was unwinnable and would set back gay-rights legislation in Olympia for decades. The harshness of his attacks caused such a bitter rift that some Hands Off Leaders skipped an annual gay political dinner because Savage emceed it.

"When 90 percent of the time you're being outrageously funny and suddenly you do these political diatribes, its fair to ask, `Is this about Dan or about the gay community?' " says Ken Vincent, a radio journalist long active in gay politics. The question is important, says Vincent, because Savage is often portrayed as the voice of the gay community. "And there are very few ways Dan Savage represents me."

Savage's admirers, though, are plentiful. Not surprisingly, his popularity coincides with growing challenges - anti-gay-rights ballot measures, federal legislation banning same-sex marriages - to two decades of gains by gay activists.

"It's therapeutic to have someone say out loud what privately you really think," says Carol Sterling, a prominent lesbian political figure and friend of Savage's. A lot of people admire Savage, she says, "because he's out there fighting back in public."

At 31, Savage straddles two generations of the gay-rights movement.

He came out just as gays were winning once-unimaginable social tolerance in places like Seattle's Capitol Hill - and just as AIDS began casting its deadly pall. His first lover and countless friends have died of the disease.

But his personal experience with gay-bashing consists of having a knife - a butter knife - thrown harmlessly at him by drunk teenagers. Like many gay men his age, Savage came out without the prolonged private torment of an earlier generation.

"I think one of the reasons I'm popular is that I rarely assume the victim's posture," says Savage. "The religious right is correct when they say the gay-rights movement is a movement searching for approval. I don't think I need the approval of Ellen Craswell."

A FEW YEARS AGO, SAVAGE wouldn't have allowed this magazine to photograph him except in drag. Now, he's started making public appearances as Dan Savage the man, in part because he's bored with drag, in part because he doesn't need it to draw an audience. Though he still has to borrow dress shirts, Savage now gets invited to sit-down dinner parties when prominent gay political figures are in town.

Readers of The Weekly - Seattle's more mainstream alternative paper - recently voted Savage their favorite columnist, top nondaily newspaper reporter, and second-best public-radio personality. A few months earlier, Savage also made a Weekly list of folks that we've heard enough from.

The challenge for Savage will be keeping an edge after being discovered by Newsweek and the other mainstream media, and now that he's received nearly every imaginable question about bedroom practices. With success, the shifting roles of sex guru, entertainer, journalist and political activist have grown more muddled.

"I have a responsibility to remain irresponsible," says Savage. In the thicket of sexuality and politics he thrashes around in, that's not always easy.

One recent evening, Savage was sitting in a University District sound studio as his raucous Sunday night call-in radio on KCMU was winding toward its 1 a.m. exit. His baseball cap was pushed back on his head. The exhaustion in his face made him look younger and more innocent as he ranted about Bill Clinton's duplicity in signing an anti-gay marriage bill, reminding listeners that "it's not us ruining American families. We don't get divorced." It being late, he quickly dispatched a throaty 30-something woman and her weekly progress report on experiments with her young "sex slave.

Then a woman named Jane dialed in. As she spilled out her story of contracting AIDS after being raped by her husband's best friend, Savage instantly turned sober. He offered encouragement about medical advances in AIDS and urged her to level with her husband.

He prodded her to do one other thing - call a rape counselor and the police. "This is just some dumb, jokey call-in sex-advice program, if you know what I mean," he reminded her.

Jim Simon is a Seattle Times staff reporter. His e-mail address is jsim-new@seatimes.com Gary Settle is the photographer for Pacific Magazine.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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