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Advice columnist Dan Savage reaches out to gay teens in South Florida with 'It Gets Better' message

BY STEVE ROTHAUS, srothaus@MiamiHerald.com

Savage Love sex advice columnist Dan Savage doesn’t consider himself a journalist or gay activist.

“I’m very bad at forming coalitions. I’m very bad at holding my tongue,” he says. “I’m very bad in activist circles and environments.”

For a nonactivist, Savage has done a remarkable job of rallying millions to combat bullying and gay-youth suicide.

Since September, his It Gets Better Project has spawned about 10,000 videos — including one by the president of the United States — that have been viewed nearly 30 million times on YouTube and other websites. The video in which Savage and his husband, Terry Miller, talk about their painful childhoods and happy adult lives accounts for nearly 1.3 million viewings alone.

Savage, 46, the internationally syndicated “gay Ann Landers,” as he has called himself, gives a public lecture Saturday night at Broward Center for the Performing Arts, the finale of ArtExplosion, the 11th International LGBT Arts Festival. Last month, he appeared before hundreds of students at Florida International University’s Biscayne Bay Campus.

“The way he speaks to people is really relatable and honest. He talks past all the bull and gets to the point. That’s why people listen to him,” says Brandon Campbell, a gay 18-year-old from Kendall who heard Savage at FIU.

“It’s inspiring. It’s about time. With all the media and society that looks down on this community …we need someone to tell everyone it gets better.”

Savage launched his campaign after Justin Aaberg, 15, hanged himself last July in Minnesota and Billy Lucas, 15, hanged himself two months later in Indiana.

“I was just stewing on the kids, and the reaction you always have as a gay adult is ‘I wish I could have talked to that kid,’ to have been able to tell him it gets better,” Savage said in an interview.

“When a 15-year-old or a 13-year-old kills himself because he is gay, what he’s saying is that he can’t picture a future with enough joy in it to compensate for the pain he’s in now, to make enduring this and getting through it worth it.

“We gay adults know adult gay life is pretty awesome. You don’t have to be Ellen, to be rich and famous. You don’t have to be a porn star Adonis. You can have a totally wonderful, rewarding adult gay life.

“A lot of gay kids don’t know that. You wish you could tell him that it gets better and that was the phrase rattling around in my head.”

The Internet has made it possible for older gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people to safely speak to younger generations.

“If gay adults reach out to gay children, we’re accused of being pederasts and pedophiles and recruiting, so we don’t’ talk to them,” Savage says.

“And then it just occurred to me ... that I was waiting for permission that in the YouTube-Facebook-Twitter era I no longer needed, and that we could make a video and encourage other people to make videos, and use my column and my podcast to get my audience to kick it off to talk to these kids directly and to let them know that, indeed, it does get better.”

A few teachers and guidance counselors have told Savage some of the videos are too adult for young ears.

“There are some we put up that people thought that we should take off our site because they acknowledge sex. I’m sorry, but sex is one of the ways it gets better. As an adult, it’s something to look forward to. And it’s a huge part of gay life and it’s usually risky for a lot of young gay males. They need to know how to navigate it,” Savage says.

“There are videos up by the president of the United States, the prime minister of Great Britain. There are videos up by drag queens and porn stars. Well, some kids want to grow up to be president and some kids want to grow up to be a fabulous drag queen. The drag-queen kids want to hear from the drag queen and the politico kids want to hear from the president. And I thought they both belonged.”

Savage says he and Miller, whom he married six years ago in Vancouver, B.C., “got grief” over their own video.

“We told our ‘how we met story’ which involved gay men flirting. I was in a bar and I saw this insanely beautiful, long-haired boy dancing and I kept nudging my drag-queen pal and saying, ‘Look at that guy, he’s beautiful.’ And then he came over to us to get his coat out of coat check,” Savage says.

“My drag-queen pal said, ‘Tell him, say something to him.’ And I looked at him and said, ‘You have a pretty mouth.’ And he looked at me to say the better to eat you with.’ And we’re still together 16 years later.”

The couple are raising an adopted son.

The videos are far-reaching, and Savage has no control over what’s online. Next month, Dutton will publish It Gets Better: Coming Out, Overcoming Bullying, and Creating a Life Worth Living, a compilation of essays inspired by the video project that he and Miller edited.

Gay teens are much less likely than straight ones to confide in their families about being bullied, Savage says.

“We’re isolated in this way, where we’re often being bullied — and not just by our peers at school but by our parents at home, by preachers on Sunday — and we don’t have a support system,” Savage says.

“Often the first place as a young gay person you get grief for gender nonconformity is home. Even if your family might be supportive, you have memories from when you were 5, 6, 7 about being picked on by your parents or bullied by your parents or your siblings about being a little sissy.

“You can’t come home and say you’re getting this grief at school, for this stuff you guys are giving me grief for. ‘Help!’ When you’re 14, 15 years old and it turns out you are gay and you’re going through puberty, you don’t want to draw your family’s attention to your sexuality by talking about being bullied for being gay at school.”

Savage recommends The Trevor Project to gay adolescents and teens.

“It’s a crisis line for LGBT kids who are thinking about suicide. It also runs message boards. … It’s a safe place for kids, for gay kids to be online where they’re not going to be preyed upon.”

He advises young people to think carefully before coming out.

“My advice to 13-, 14-, 15-year-olds isn’t ‘Oh, come out to your families, it’s going to be beautiful.’ You have to look at your family and really think about how they’ll react.

“If you think that they’ll react positively, come out to them. If you think that they might not react positively, if you know they won’t, don’t come out to them. Wait. Lean on your friends, look for a teacher at school who you feel will be supportive and have your back, maybe talk to that teacher, talk to your friends. Find support online.”

Young people who are rejected by their families because of their sexual orientation are eight times likelier to attempt suicide than nongay kids, Savage says.

The Chicago native began his column 20 years ago in The Stranger, a Seattle alternative newspaper. Gay people have made many social and political strides since then, he says, and LGBT youth today have much to look forward to.

“When I came out and told my parents I was gay, I was telling my Catholic parents not just that I was attracted to boys, I was telling them that I would never get married, never have children, I would have a really marginal professional life and career. I could never be a Marine,” Savage says.

“And now, here we are 25 years later, 30 years later, and I’m married and I have a child. I have a great job and now I can be a Marine. Yeah, things have gotten a lot better. Not that I want to be a Marine.”

IF YOU GO

Dan Savage speaks at 8 p.m. Saturday at Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Tickets $25 and $35 at 954-462-0222 or http://www.browardcenter.org/artexplosiondansavage.

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