Last fall, several teens across the country committed suicide because they were gay or perceived to be gay. This shocking rash of suicides raised attention about a sobering fact: Gay teens are up to four times as likely to attempt suicide as straight teens, and 9 out of 10 LGBT teens have experienced some sort of harassment in their school, according to The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention hot line for LGBT youth, and the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.
When advice columnist Dan Savage heard about the suicide crisis unfolding, he had an idea: If older gay people offered hope and encouragement to gay teens, the teens would realize that their lives were worth living. So Savage and his husband, Terry Miller, created a YouTube video about their own experiences being bullied as teens, to tell teenagers a simple message about the future: It gets better.
The "It Gets Better" movement, as it's now called, has since received over 10,000 video submissions, including entries from both gay and straight people. President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Anne Hathaway, Sarah Silverman, Tim Gunn, Ellen DeGeneres, Vice President Biden, Ke$ha and the staffs of Google, Facebook and Pixar all have contributed to the project. This month, Savage and Miller published a companion book, It Gets Better: Coming Out, Overcoming Bullying and Creating a Life Worth Living, featuring essays from more than 100 of the video contributors.
In an interview with Fresh Air's Terry Gross, Savage and Miller talk about their marriage, the adoption of their son D.J., the impact their movement has had on teenage bullying, and their own coming out experiences.
Terry Miller's And Dan Savage's Own High School Experiences
Terry Miller is now a stay-at-home father and event promoter living in Seattle. But when he was growing up in Spokane, Wash., he says, high school was rough — really rough. He was teased for how he dressed, how his voice sounded and how he expressed his feelings.
"I couldn't walk down the hall without getting spit at, shoved or pushed around," he says. "At one point I had a pretty bad bullying incident where I was thrown down on some sort of hardened snow in the school parking lot and they shoved my face into it. It was all hardened with rocks from being plowed and it scraped the skin off my face."
Miller's mother went to the school and asked the school counselor what she could do to help him.
"Their response was, 'There's nothing that they could do. If he looks that way, if he talks that way, if he walks that way, there's absolutely nothing they could do to protect me and it was probably just going to happen and that my family should probably just get used to it.' "
His mother was appalled but felt helpless. Miller spent two more years at his high school and found a group of friends who accepted him — but still remembers how the first two years of high school were just horrible.
"When I talked to my mom about this years later — after high school — she just said, 'It was so hard; we didn't know what to say to you,' " he says. "I think if I had come out to my mom or dad at that point, they probably would have worked a little harder to protect me, but I was so ashamed of it too — the hassle I was getting at school, that I just wanted to not live it anymore."
Savage was also bullied but didn't tell his parents what was going on, partly because he didn't want to implicate himself and tell them why he was being bullied. His older brother Billy — who was straight and also viciously bullied in middle school — recently told Dan that there were noticeable differences between the ways they were treated at home.
"He said, 'At the end of the day, I had Mom and Dad and you didn't.' And that really captures the difference between the bullied straight kid and the bullied gay kid," Savage says. "The bullied straight kid goes home to a shoulder to cry on and support and can talk freely about his experience at school and why he's being bullied. I couldn't go home and open up to my parents. I did think about suicide briefly — not because the bullying had gotten so bad, but because I thought that it would be the good Catholic-son thing to do for my parents."
When he was 18, Savage decided to tell his mother that he was gay. She didn't initially accept it.
"She came back and told me she was very upset about this and she didn't want to ever meet a boyfriend of mine and she didn't want me to bring any gay people to the house," he says. "She really wanted to have me but not have that."
Soon after, his mother called her priest, who came over to the Savage house to talk with her about Savage's coming out. His mother told the priest that she wanted to put Savage into therapy and that she was very upset.
"And Father Tom put his hand on my mom's knee and said, 'Judy, I'm gay and it's better this way. It's better for Danny to be out than to live like I've lived.' "
It did not take long for Savage's mother to come around — and joke about Savage's relationship with Miller.
"On her deathbed, in Arizona, we were saying our goodbyes and Terry wasn't there and she looked at me and said, 'You tell Terry that I loved him like a daughter.' "
Miller and Savage are the fathers of a 13-year-old son named D.J. He's in 8th grade, likes skateboarding and has never been harassed for having gay parents.
"If anything, we joke, that we're raising the kid who beat us up in grade school," says Savage. "If he didn't have us for parents — he's a little thuggy snowboarder-skateboarder dude — and I like to think that he's blessed to have us as parents because you can see in him the capacity to be a bully. But he's sensitized to the issue from being from a different kind of family."
Watching D.J. grow up, he says, has made him realize just how much of sexual orientation is hard-wired.
"From the time he was very young, I have been saying, 'Oh my son is straight,' because he is just straight," says Savage. "My mom, when she got over [my being gay] admitted that she kind of thought, all along, that I was gay. I liked to bake and I liked to listen to musicals and for my 13th birthday, I asked my parents for tickets to the Broadway tour of A Chorus Line. That's all I wanted. So I've always known that he's straight."
On President Obama's submission to It Gets Better
Terry: "It's pretty historic that the president of the United States would reach out specifically to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth in any way whatsoever. This is really kind of a historic moment for us."
Dan: "I came out in 1980 right before AIDS hit. And Ronald Reagan couldn't bring himself to say the word AIDS until 1987, after tens of thousands of gay men had already died. For us to go from launching the project and 3.5 weeks later, the president records a video for the It Gets Better campaign to address gay youth suicide? That was amazing."
On straight people participating in It Gets Better
Dan: "When we initially launched the movement, we said, 'This is for LGBT adults to speak to LBGT youth,' and then some videos started coming in from straight people. And a lot of people really felt ownership over the campaign and they said, 'Take these videos down. This is not what this movement is about.' Actually, Terry and I decided we were going to leave those videos up because that's part of what it is about: One of the ways it gets better is that straight people get better."
On the reasoning behind It Gets Better
Dan: "I believe when a 13- or 14- or 15-year-old gay kid kills himself, what he's saying is that he can't picture a future with enough joy in it to compensate for pain he's in now. And watching the suicide crisis unfold last fall, my husband and I decided that we weren't going to be shamed out of speaking to LGBT youth anymore. For a long time when an LGBT adult tried to talk to a gay kid, we were accused of recruiting, of being pedophiles. There was a sort of learned helplessness of the persecution of gay and lesbian children by gay and lesbian adults where we felt like we couldn't address it, like we couldn't talk to them. And the idea behind the project was for gay adults to talk to queer kids about our lives to give them hope for their futures."
On the prevalence of homophobia in today's teenage world
Dan: "When I was a kid, not everybody looked at me and thought, 'Oh, he must be gay because he likes musicals and he's a fairy.' They looked at me and thought, 'Weirdo.' And now they would look at me and think, 'Faggot.' We've also had 20 years of an anti-gay hate campaign waged by the religious right where they've been telling parents who then expose their straight children to this rhetoric that 'gay people are an attack on the family, that they're trying to destroy the family.' And [parents] at the megachurch listen to this stuff and they go to the ballot box and abuse gay and lesbian abstractions with their votes. Their kids go to school on Monday and there's the queer kid or the kid who's perceived to be queer because he's gender-nonconforming in some way. And they feel they have license to attack that kid because that kid attacked them first by simply existing. That's what the religious right has injected into the culture over the past 20 years."
On paranoia in middle and high schools
Dan: "Gay people exist and there are more people aware of our existence. And in middle and high school, there's an awareness that some of us must be gay and we don't know who's gay or how you become gay. A huge part of what animates homophobia among young people is paranoia and fear of their own capacity to be gay themselves. I write [the column] 'Savage Love' and every day I get letters from 14- and 15-year-old boys, primarily, who are worried that they're gay because they don't understand how you get to be gay — how that happens. And in almost all cases, these letters are from boys who are straight — who are not gay — who are not going to be gay. But they believe that gayness is like some sort of cancer and it grows on you if you're not careful and not vigilant. Where do they get that idea that gayness is chosen?"
Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Dan Savage, is pretty famous for his sex advice column, Savage Love, in which he answers questions from gay, straight, bi and transgendered people. He's becoming equally well-known for co-founding the It Gets Better Project with his husband, Terry Miller, who is also joining us.
The project is a collection of videos on their website and YouTube channel addressed to teenagers who are bullied because they are or are perceived as gay, lesbian, bi or transgendered. On the videos, people share their own stories of being bullied and then urge teens to hang in there because things will get better.
Savage and Miller founded the project after reading about two 15-year-olds who were bullied at school and then hanged themselves. Savage and Miller made the first video, in which they talked about how they were bullied in school and how their lives got better, much better. They found each other; they adopted a son.
When they launched the website, they were hoping to get 100 video submissions, but the website went viral, and before the end of the first week, they had 1,000 videos. Now they have a book version of their project, collecting some of the stories from their website. The book is titled "It Gets Better: Coming Out, Overcoming Bullying and Creating a Life Worth Living."
Dan Savage, Terry Miller, welcome to FRESH AIR. Dan, would you explain what the mission of the It Gets Better Project is?
Mr. DAN SAVAGE (Columnist; Co-editor, "It Gets Better: Coming Out, Overcoming Bullying and Creating a Life Worth Living"): We wanted to encourage lesbian, gay, bi and trans adults to speak to queer youth about our adult lives, to share really our joy in our adult lives, because I believe when a 13 or 14 or 15-year-old gay kid kills himself, 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 - if he's being bullied by his peers, by his family, by his religious leaders. And you know, watching the suicide crisis unfold last fall, my husband and I decided that we weren't going to be shamed out of speaking to LGBT youth anymore.
You know, for a long time anytime a gay or lesbian adult tried to reach out to - because they felt empathy for - a gay kid, we were accused of recruiting, of being pedophiles.
And there was sort of a learned helplessness in the face of the persecution of gay and lesbian children on the part of gay and lesbian adults, where we felt like we couldn't address it, we couldn't talk to them. And the idea behind the project was for gay adults to talk to queer kids about our lives, to give them hope for their futures.
GROSS: Of course it's not just gay adults in your book. President Obama's in there.
Mr. SAVAGE: Yeah, after the project launched, a whole lot of straight allies jumped in and started recording videos too. And that was welcome. You know, one of the ways that it gets better for gay kids is that one day you realize that not all straight people are your enemy.
You know, and for a lot of gay kids - I felt that way when I was 13, 14 years old. I thought all straight people were my enemies. And you know, my best and closest friends now as a gay adult are straight people, including other straight parents that my boyfriend and I, my husband and I - husband in Canada, boyfriend in America - and I have so much in common with.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SAVAGE: So the videos from straight people - although, you know, it's controversial because originally we launched the project, we said this is for LGBT adults to speak to LGBT youth. And then some videos started coming in from straight people.
And a lot of people really felt ownership over the project and the campaign from the get-go, and they said: Take these videos down. This is not what this is about.
And actually we - you know, Terry and I decided we were going to leave those videos up because that is part of what it's about. One of the ways it gets better is that straight people get better.
GROSS: Let me just read a sentence from President Obama's entry, to show how he handled it. He said: I don't know what it's like to be picked on for being gay, but I do know what it's like growing up feeling that sometimes you don't belong. It's tough. And of course he goes on.
I'm going to ask each of you to choose a short excerpt from one of the It Gets Better submissions that really reached you and that you feel also reached others.
Mr. TERRY MILLER: (Co-editor, "It Gets Better: Coming Out, Overcoming Bullying and Creating a Life Worth Living"): I love this one. In the first couple weeks we got a lot of really heartfelt ones from kind of young adults, not really quite in their, like, major adulthood yet, I guess like, not in their 30s.
Like, there were a lot of college students that were writing in to say sort of how recent it was for them. And this is one girl, who it was fairly recent that she had been bullied or had gone through a hard time.
Her name is Brinae Lois Gaudet, I think is how she pronounces her last name. And she writes a great essay about just how your life is going to get better, how you're going to - you know, she's a female, so how she's going to get - you're going to get girl crushes or - and at one point she says: Or boys, I guess. I don't know. I haven't really been paying attention to them, but I guess they're around here.
But think about it this way. Imagine you are a rubber band, and right now you are pulled taut. You have all this potential energy building up and you are going to go so far once your potential energy is unleashed on the world.
I know that sometimes the stretching hurts. It feels like you're going to break. But please just hold on. You can make it through this, and once you're let go, you're going to fly so far.
I mean, it's still - I kind of get weepy just reading that because she really gets the point of how much energy and how much...
Mr. SAVAGE: Stress.
Mr. MILLER: - stress is on a kid, but how great life your life will be once the energy's let go.
GROSS: And Dan, what's your, one of your favorites?
Mr. SAVAGE: One of my favorites is by a lesbian Latina poet in the Bronx named Gabrielle Rivera, who said - really contradicted the message in a powerful way. She writes: As a gay woman of color, I just want to let the youth know that it kind of doesn't get better.
All these straight, rich celebrities, I'm not even going to name them, they can tell you that it gets better because they've got money and people don't care what they do. They're coming from a good place and stuff, and I appreciate that.
But I'm going to be real because I live this life and I'm not rich and I'm brown, and I probably look like most of you. It doesn't get better, but what happens is this: You get stronger.
And I thought that was so tremendous when I watched Gabrielle Rivera's video because it's really the Latina, lesbian, Bronx way of saying it gets better: You get stronger.
GROSS: And I'm sure there's no way of measuring this exactly, but what impact do you think your It Gets Better Project has had on teenagers who are being bullied because they're gay or lesbian or transgender?
Mr. SAVAGE: We've heard from scores, countless numbers of lesbian, gay, bi, trans teenagers who have watched the videos. As parents - Terry and I have a teenager of our own - some of the most heartbreaking emails have come from parents who knew their kids were being bullied because they were perceived to be gay, whose kids hadn't come out to them yet, who didn't know what to do, and they were able to sit down at the computer with their kids and watch these videos, and their kids took that opportunity to come out to their parents as their parents were demonstrating to them their support.
I've heard from, you know, moms and dads and teenagers all over the country thanking us, and those emails are really heartbreaking to read. And I think particularly one from a girl who tried to come out to her family. She's 15 years old, tried to come out to her family, and they didn't react well.
Forty percent of homeless teenagers are LGBT kids who were thrown out after they came out or were outed. And you know, a huge problem, something that makes the bullying of gay youth very different from the bullying of other kids - and other kids are bullied - is that often the families are active participants in the bullying.
You know, LGBT kids are four times likelier to attempt suicide. If their families reject them or are hostile, they're eight times likelier. And this girl wrote to say that she's 15, she tried to come out. Her parents freaked out, threatened to throw her out of the house, threatened to not let her see her siblings anymore, not pay for her education.
And so she went back in the closet and told them that she made a mistake, that she was just a tomboy and was confused and thought that meant she had to be a lesbian when she grew up but that she was wrong.
And she wrote me to tell me that she was watching the videos, and they were really helping her be strong and filling her with hope that her family could come around, because a lot of the videos, and now the essays in the book, are by people who had - whose families had similar reactions and then came around and are now supportive.
And she wrote to tell me that the videos were keeping her sane and she was watching them in her room at night, under the covers, on her iPad. And so that one email for me really captures the reach and power of this project, that LGBT adults are able to talk to this girl and give her hope for her future and for her family, give her hope that her family will heal, and talk to her whether her parents want us to or not.
GROSS: So you were both bullied to some extent when you were teenagers. Can we hear a little bit of your stories? Terry, do you want to start?
Mr. MILLER: Yeah, I had a really hard time of it. I grew up in Spokane, Washington, which me and my friends used to joke was a great place to leave.
Mr. SAVAGE: A good place to be from, far from.
Mr. MILLER: A good place to be from, far from. And I just, I had a really hard time in high school. I was obviously - I knew sort of in my heart that I was homosexual, that I was gay, but I didn't know how to express it in any other way than, you know, to sort of like look like a punker or a Goth or New Wave or whatever.
And so I caught flak for how I dressed. I caught flak for, you know, how high my voice was perceived to be, for the way I walked, for the way I talked. I mean it was awful.
I couldn't walk down the hall without getting spit at, shoved, pushed around. And at one point I'd had a pretty bad bullying incident where I was thrown down on some sort of hardened snow in the school parking lot and they sort of shoved my face into it, I assume thinking, you know, my face would go into the snow, but it was all hardened with rocks from being plowed recently and iced over. And it sort of just scraped the skin off my face.
And my mother was pretty upset, and she went into the school to ask our school counselor what she should do. And their response was there's nothing that they could do. You know, if he looks that way, if he acts that way, if he talks that way, if he walks that way, there's absolutely nothing they can do to protect me, that it's just going to happen and that my family should probably just get used to it.
GROSS: What was your mother's reaction to that?
Mr. MILLER: I mean, this is Spokane, Washington. So I think she was shocked and a little appalled. But you know, she was also kind of helpless. I mean, here she went to the school and asked them what they could do to protect her son, and they said nothing.
And so, you know, I went through another two years of high school there. And, I mean, it did, gradually got a little better for me. I kind of found my group of peers that were similar, that maybe weren't all gay and lesbian but were, you know, the different kids, the sort of punks and the wavers and the weirdos and, you know, losers.
And we all kind of banded together and we all sort of protected each other in those last couple years of high school. But honestly, the first two years of high school were just horrible for me.
Mr. SAVAGE: And, you know, a detail about that incident was, as with many gay kids who are bullied, you know, I was bullied and I didn't tell my parents what was going on because I didn't want to implicate myself. I didn't want to tell them what I was being bullied about.
And so I couldn't even talk to them about it. And it was Terry's music teacher, who Terry was on his way to a music lesson, who looked at his face and called his mother and said: You've got to do something about this. Because Terry hadn't even told his parents how bad it was getting at school.
Mr. MILLER: And honestly, like, you know, when I talked to my mom about this years later, after high school, she just said: Oh, you know, it was just - it was so hard. We didn't know what to say to you. And you know, I think if I had come out to my mom or my dad at that point, I would have -they probably would have worked a little harder to protect me.
But I was so ashamed of it too, you know, the hassle I was getting at school. I just - I wanted to sort of not, you know, not live it anymore.
GROSS: So you were getting bullied at school. You knew you were gay but couldn't say anything, even to your parents. Your parents kind of knew you were gay but couldn't say anything to you?
Mr. MILLER: Yeah, my - it's complicated. My dad at the time was going through a bout with liver cancer. And it was just a couple of years before he passed away. So you know, he was in hospice care a lot and had a liver transplant and was very ill for a long time before he passed away.
And it was just sort of - I didn't want to be another stressful thing that my, you know, that my parents had to deal with. I really wanted to stay strong for them. So I tried to keep those things as far away from my family as I could because I just wanted, you know, my dad to have a sort of happy last couple years of his life.
GROSS: Yeah, well, that's a really awful feeling, I'd imagine, when the essence - part of the essence of who you are is a stressful thing that shouldn't be introduced.
Mr. MILLER: Yeah, and it's - you know, after my dad passed away, I did have a talk with my mom about some things, some funny things my dad said to me. Like I would go and visit my father and he would say: How did you - you know, how did you get to Spokane from Seattle? And I'd say: Oh, I drove my friend's car. And he'd say things like: Was it a pink Cadillac? You know, sort of - you know, it was like obvious to me that he knew.
Like now I'm like: Oh my God, my dad totally knew I was gay.
Mr. SAVAGE: He was asking you to come out to him...
Mr. MILLER: He was asking me to come out to him, you know. And I just was so, you know, still so ashamed from just living in Spokane and feeling that way that I still couldn't get up the courage to come out to my dad before he passed away. And that's the one regret of my life, that I wish I would've had that kind of closure in my life with my dad.
GROSS: Yeah. Dan, what about your stories of being bullied?
Mr. SAVAGE: I was, you know, my parents were very Catholic. My dad was a Catholic deacon. My mom was a Catholic lay minister. I went to the seminary for high school.
And I was bullied mostly in middle school, in sixth, seventh, eighth grade. And it was bad, but it wasn't that bad. Ironically, when the project started, I called my older brother Billy, who's straight, to tell him that despite the fact that we were launching this campaign to address anti-gay bullying in schools, I remembered that he had it worse.
He was bullied, viciously bullied, in the same school, same middle school that I attended at the same time. We were very close in age. And he had it much, much worse than I did. And he said something very smart.
You know, I'd said, Billy - I remember how bad it was for you. Don't think I don't remember that straight kids get bullied too. And he said: Yeah, but at the end of the day, I had Mom and Dad, and you didn't.
And that really captures the difference for the bullied straight kid versus the bullied gay kid, is that the bullied straight kid goes home to a shoulder to cry on and support and can talk freely about his experience with bullying at school and why he's being bullied. And Billy was being bullied for being smart.
And I couldn't go home and open up to my parents. I did think about suicide briefly, not because the bullying had gotten so bad but because I thought that that would be the good Catholic son thing to do for my parents.
GROSS: Wow, that - to protect them?
Mr. SAVAGE: Yeah, that it would be easier for them to bury a kid than have a kid come out.
GROSS: So Terry, your parents were Christian, right?
Mr. MILLER: Yeah, I went to a conservative Christian middle school, elementary and middle school. And when it came time for high school, I just - I mean, obviously I'm gay, you know. I felt really cramped in that environment and I wanted to take classes that were a little more open, you know, literature classes and humanities classes that my conservative Christian school wasn't offering.
So I decided to go to the public school. And in a way that was great. I mean, I got to take those classes, and I had a much better learning - I had a really - I had a much better education, but you know, it really kind of trapped me in this way where I was sort of stuck with all these bullies.
GROSS: Since your mother was Christian, did that have an impact on her ability to accept that you were gay?
Mr. MILLER: You know, I don't think it did. My parents were Episcopalians, and...
Mr. SAVAGE: Which my grandmother said were Catholics who go to hell. That's an Episcopalian.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MILLER: So I mean, as it is, the Episcopal Church is fairly liberal. And all of the priests at our church in Spokane, St. Andrews, were fairly liberal. One after the next, they were all pretty, you know, nice people.
In fact, after I came out, the priest - and left Spokane and moved to Seattle - the priest that was at the church once gave a sermon about accepting gays and lesbians into the church. And my mom was so shocked. But she said it went over really well at the church, so...
Mr. SAVAGE: I have an interesting story about a priest too, if you want to hear it.
Mr. SAVAGE: You know, when I came out to my mom - and I had a similar experience with Terry, where I was ready to come out when I was 16 years old, and I really needed my family's support and needed to stop hiding.
And I put it off for a couple of years because suddenly my dad left my mother, and I didn't want to pile on. I didn't want to walk into my mom's bedroom and say: Oh, hey, crying lady on the bed, this'll take your mind off the divorce.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SAVAGE: So I waited until I was 18 to come out to her. And when I did, she - you know, my mom was terrific and a wonderful woman. And she - you know, she said, she told me a joke, which was, you know, very my family. She said: Oh, I kind of know. And did you hear the one about the two men who attacked a woman in Lincoln Park? Which was kind of the gay neighborhood at the time in Chicago. And I was like: No, Mom, I hadn't heard that one. She said: One held her down. The other did her hair.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SAVAGE: And then she had her crisis in the following days, where she came back to me and said she was very upset about this and she didn't want any - didn't want to ever meet a boyfriend of mine. She didn't want me to bring any gay people to the house. She really wanted to have me but not have that.
And she called a priest, a friend of the family. And my family was so Catholic and so involved in the Catholic Church that priests made house calls. So my mom called a priest, and he came running.
And my mom sat with Father Tom, who I'm eternally indebted to, on the porch swing at our house, and said that I had come out and she was very upset and wanted to get me into therapy. And Father Tom put his hand on my mom's knee and said: Judy, I'm gay. And it's better this way. It's better for Danny to be out than to live like I've lived.
Mr. MILLER: And to put a real end on that story, Dan's mom really came around. She is a saint, she was a saint. She was a beautiful woman, and she was like a mother to me.
Mr. SAVAGE: When my mom was - but she still had a sense of humor. On her deathbed, in Arizona, just a horrible day, we were saying our goodbyes. And Terry wasn't there because we didn't expect that this was it. I had gone down to see her because she was sick. And she looked at me and said: You tell Terry that I loved him like a daughter.
GROSS: Oh, that's so great. I'm going to ask you a question that might sound incredibly naive. But why do you think so many teenagers are still so homophobic, considering how many people are out now, how many celebrities are out now, how many people in popular culture are out now? I mean, it's just so much more commonplace than it was when you were growing up.
Mr. SAVAGE: And that's actually kind of made it worse.
Mr. SAVAGE: In a way, when I was a kid, you know, not everybody looked at me in sixth grade and thought: Oh, he must be gay because he likes musicals and he's arty and airy-fairy. They looked at me and thought weirdo. And now you look at - they would look at me and think faggot and come after me for that reason, or more intensely.
We've also had 20 years of an anti-gay hate campaign waged by the religious right, where they've been telling parents, who then expose their straight children to this rhetoric, that gay people are an existential threat to the family, are an attack on the family, trying to destroy the family.
And then, you know, mom and dad at the mega-church, they listen to this stuff. They go to the ballot box and abuse gay and lesbian abstractions with their votes.
Their kids go to school on Monday, and there's the queer kid, or the kid who's perceived to be queer because he's gender non-conforming in some way. And they feel they have license to attack that kid because that kid attacked them first by simply existing. That's what the religious right has really injected into the culture over the last 20 years, since I was in school.
You could fly under the radar a little bit when I was in school and be a weirdo without a girlfriend or any apparent interest in girls and not have the assumption automatically be that you must be one of those gays who's trying to destroy the family.
GROSS: Now Dan, as you put it earlier, you're married in Canada and boyfriends in... (Chuckling) ...in the U.S. So I guess you had to go...
Mr. SAVAGE: Which we've actually turned into an acronym, husband in Canada, HIC, boyfriend in America, BIA, so he's my HICBIA now.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: That's because you couldn't get married in America?
Mr. SAVAGE: Well, we live in Washington state, where we can get domestic partnered. But no, we can't get married. And, of course, the federal government doesn't recognize any same-sex marriages even in states where same-sex marriage is legal.
GROSS: You are parents. You have adopted a son who is a teenager now?
Mr. MILLER: Yeah, he just turned 13.
Mr. SAVAGE: It feels like he turned 13 about 10 years ago, but...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SAVAGE: ...just officially turned 13.
GROSS: So has he been bullied for being the son of gay parents?
Mr. MILLER: No - not at all. I mean we've sent him to the - I mean he's been lucky enough to be sent to some pretty liberal private schools in Seattle and where they have, you know, social justice programs, you know, in elementary school and he's had it pretty good, I think.
Mr. SAVAGE: If anything, you know, we joke that we're raising the kid who beat us up in grade school.
Mr. MILLER: Yeah.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SAVAGE: You know, if he didn't have us for parents he, you know, he's a little straight kind of thuggy snowboarder-skateboarder dude. And, you know, I like to think that he's blessed to have us as parents because you could see in him the capacity to actually be a bully. But he's sensitized to the issue by dint of, you know, being from a different kind of family.
GROSS: So watching him mature and reach the early stages of sexuality, has it made you reflect on whether sexual orientation...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SAVAGE: (Unintelligible).
GROSS: ...is like wired or not?
Mr. SAVAGE: Oh my God, yeah, it's totally wired. In the, you know, from the time he was very young I have been saying oh, my son is straight because he just, just was straight. Just as, you know, my mom after she got over it, admitted that she kind of thought maybe all along that I was gay. I was, you know, I liked to bake and I liked to stay home and I liked listening to musicals. And then, you know, for my 13th birthday I asked my parents for tickets to the Broadway tour of "A Chorus Line." That's all I wanted.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SAVAGE: And the fact that they couldn't deduce from just that alone that I might be a 'mo. And so I've always sort of known that he was straight. And some people have said oh, how can you know and you shouldn't say that. Well, you just know when you're a parent. You kind of just know.
Mr. MILLER: It's funny because we used to joke. He, you know, he got this, of course, when he was young this absolute fear of all things feminine. And, you know, like I hate girls. I hate girls, you know, like all little boys say, and we'd be like that is proof that you are going to grow up straight.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MILLER: Like any child that hates a girl at this age is going to love them later on in life.
Mr. SAVAGE: Well, that was actually a funny moment for us, because, you know, the religious right says that, you know, gay people shouldn't be allowed to adopt because our children will want to, you know, emulate us and adopt our sexuality, be homosexuals. And, you know, my parents were straight and as hard as I tried to be straight I couldn't. So that didn't work for me.
And what's funny is, you know, when he was seven, eight, nine years old he insisted that he was going to be gay when he grows up. He wanted to be like us because it meant you get to live with your best friend and there are no girls around.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SAVAGE: And he didn't like girls. And we pulled out Terry's photo album from when he was a child and showed him Terry's - ninth birthday party?
Mr. MILLER: Yeah, like my ninth or 10th birthday party in which I'm sitting at the head of the table and there's eight girls sitting at the table.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MILLER: Not a single boy at this birthday party. And there's my parents kind of sitting in the background looking like, oh my God, you're kidding.
Mr. SAVAGE: Which is like Terry's equivalent of the tickets to "A Chorus Line."
Mr. MILLER: Yeah.
Mr. SAVAGE: Like, they didn't know?
Mr. MILLER: And we're like look, if you really want to be gay this is what it's going to be like and he was like, all right, you're right. I'm straight. I'm not going to be gay. It's cool, Dad.
GROSS: Now did you both always want to be parents?
Mr. SAVAGE: You know, I'm old. You know one of the great pains for my mom when I came out was that I wasn't going to be a parent. You know, really when I came out in 1980, what you were saying when you opened your mouth and said I'm gay to mom and dad was, in addition to I'm going to kiss boys now, was that I will never be a parent. I will never be married. I'll never be a Marine.
And it's really remarkable how much has changed in the course of just my life. You know, here we are 30 years later and I am married and I am a parent and now I could be a Marine if I wanted to. I don't want to.
GROSS: But you're not.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SAVAGE: I don't want to be a Marine. The rest of it I'm up for. So yeah, it wasn't that I always pictured myself as being a parent because what I did when I was coming out in 1980 was I said I'm walking away from these things, these possibilities, family and marriage, because I can't fake it. I can't lie to a woman all my life and I wanted to live with some integrity.
And then in the course of my life, as more gay people came out, as the gay and lesbian civil rights movement advanced, as AIDS humanized us in the eyes of so many people by showing that, you know, that we suffer too, more became possible and then marriage and family reentered the picture for me.
GROSS: So once marriage and family reentered the picture and you knew that you could adopt a child, did you know you wanted to do it?
Mr. SAVAGE: Yeah. I knew I wanted to do it when I met Terry.
Mr. MILLER: Yeah. I didn't know I wanted to do it yet. I mean I've always liked children.
Mr. SAVAGE: He's still on the fence.
Mr. MILLER: I love kids. Our friends who have kids, I am like favorite uncle and babysitter number one, because I love our friends' babies.
Mr. SAVAGE: And kids love him because he is a Muppet.
Mr. MILLER: And kids love me - yeah, I look like a - to them I look like a giant Muppet. I have a big mouth and shaggy blond hair and...
Mr. SAVAGE: He looks like Janice from the Muppets.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MILLER: That's what Dan always says. I don't think so. But I mean but I - when Dan was coming out, how he thought he was giving up all this stuff. I didn't even know you could find love when you were coming out of the closet. I mean there were no role models when I grew up of, you know, long-term gay relationships. I thought that being gay was going to mean that, you know, I would basically have a string of, you know, sort of midterm relationships, you know, two to three years where I would never find, you know, a love of my life. And, you know, once that happened, it became much easier to imagine all the other things that can come along.
And then, you know, when Dan sort of brought up adoption because he was in a place of creating a baby with some lesbians and that kind of fell through, you know, we kind of thought about adoption and we decided oh what the hell. This seems fun. This won't be controversial at all. So, yeah.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: So your son's mother was - had troubles with drugs and alcohol and was basically like a street kid?
Mr. SAVAGE: Yeah.
Mr. MILLER: Yes. We - in Seattle at least, we called them gutter punks. You know, it's a street kid. They live on the streets, they, you know, they all shack up in a single house but, you know, every day they're out spare-changing and sort of grimy...
Mr. SAVAGE: They call them crusties now.
Mr. MILLER: Yeah, they call them crusties now but oh, back in our day they called them gutter punks.
Mr. SAVAGE: They called themselves gutter punks. We're not insulting them.
Mr. MILLER: They called themselves gutter punks Yes. It's not insulting them. I mean that's what they kind of called themselves, the gutter punks.
GROSS: So how did you find her? I mean obviously not through an adoption agency.
Mr. SAVAGE: Yeah...
Mr. MILLER: Yeah. Actually through an adoption agency.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SAVAGE: We went...
Mr. SAVAGE: Yeah. We went through an adoption agency in Portland, Oregon, called Open Adoption and Family Services and they sort of invented open adoption, which is where the birth mom chooses the family the child is placed with.
And our birth mom, Melissa, had been in Seattle and then gone down to Portland and discovered she was pregnant. And through a friend, who had placed a child for adoption through this agency, she found her way to the agency.
She knew she couldn't parent. She'd had a friend who had a baby on the street that then was taken from her and a closed adoption was done where she wouldn't have any contact with the child. And Melissa went to the agency and saw our profile in the book of, you know, wannabe parents and picked us.
And we were shocked. When we went into it we were told, you know, the agency had never done a placement for a male couple. We went to a seminar the agency hosts and they brought in some birth parents to talk about what informed their choice and every one of them said a good Christian home, and so we sat there feeling very conspicuous at that moment. Not that there aren't gay Christians out there. There are, but we're perceived as being sort of anti-Christians.
And we were told, you know, the outside, the wait is 18 months usually, nine months to 18 months is the wait. They'd had people wait as long as three, four, five years. And so they said bank on five years or seven years. And so we filled out all the paperwork and got it all in and looked at each other and went okay, so about the time the baby comes we will have been together eight, nine years.
Mr. MILLER: Yeah. Let's go to Europe.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SAVAGE: It sounds perfect.
Mr. MILLER: Let's take a vacation now. We just finished the paperwork.
Mr. SAVAGE: And four weeks later we had a baby.
GROSS: Wow. So were you concerned that because your baby's mother used drugs and drank a lot, that there might be, that your baby might have cognitive problems?
Mr. SAVAGE: We were, and we looked into that and...
Mr. MILLER: We found a great doctor at the University of Washington who helped us with issues of potential FAS and any...
Mr. SAVAGE: Fetal alcohol effect.
Mr. MILLER: Yeah, fetal alcohol effect.
Mr. SAVAGE: And what we learned from her was that a lot of the dangers of moderate alcohol consumption during pregnancy are overstated to scare pregnant women away from alcohol and you don't really need to scare responsible people away from alcohol when they're pregnant and irresponsible people you can't scare away from alcohol when they're pregnant.
And to our birth mother's, in defense of Melissa, she was drinking and using drugs until the second she realized she was pregnant and then she stopped everything cold turkey, which is remarkable for a homeless street kid...
GROSS: Oh. Oh. Right.
Mr. SAVAGE: When people are cold and wet and living on the streets, alcohol is one where you keep warm and drugs is one way you fall asleep, and she was as responsible as she could possibly be in her circumstances.
You know, we just - somebody did a musical adaptation of the book I wrote about adopting our son in which they left it unclear whether Melissa had stopped using drugs and alcohol when she found out she was pregnant and we went absolutely ballistic because Melissa...
GROSS: Because you wanted it to be clear that she did.
Mr. SAVAGE: Yeah. Melissa was a good, and is still, she's still a part of DJ's life. She comes to see us. They talk on the phone. She was then and is now a good and responsible mom.
GROSS: You're comfortable with that, with her maintaining a presence in your son's life?
Mr. SAVAGE: Yeah.
Mr. MILLER: They're so alike it's totally bizarre.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MILLER: Like, sometimes he'll say something like, you know, he doesn't want to do that or he'll do some inflection of tone or give us a look and it's like, oh my God.
Mr. SAVAGE: It's Melissa.
Mr. MILLER: That's Melissa looking right at us saying that.
Mr. SAVAGE: So it's been a real boon to know his mom because we can see so much of her character in him and it's helped us be his parents.
GROSS: What's she doing now, 13 years after she was a gutter punk who was pregnant with the boy who became your son?
Mr. SAVAGE: She lives in a big house with a bunch of other retired homeless gutter punks in the South and every year they travel up to Maine and do cranberry bogging for a few months and camp, save up all their money and then they go home and enjoy themselves for seven, eight months, for the rest of the year. And you know, they host other folks who are on that sort of crusty circuit moving around the country and they listen to music and she has a very sort of satisfying life.
GROSS: Now you've written that there was a period when you used to carry your son's adoption certificate with you because a lot of times people wouldn't believe he was really your son and they assumed you must be kidnapping him or something. So...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SAVAGE: Well, the problem was we were really torn about what to give him for a last name. Was it going to be my last name, Terry's last name, a hyphenate and we had decided on Darrell(ph) for Terry's late father and Jude for my mother, Judith, so he would be DJ. And we couldn't decide on a last name, and we had so bonded with Melissa at the hospital and during the, you know, the four weeks while she was still pregnant where we got to know her that we decided to give him his mother's last name.
And that was a beautiful gesture and we didn't think through the consequences, which included - you know, for two men to try to get on an airplane with an infant that doesn't have their last name, either of their last names, was kind of complicated. So there was a while there where, you know, any time we were getting on an airplane or going up to Canada and crossing a border, we carried his original birth certificate, his adoption birth certificate, his adoption decree, a letter from our lawyer.
Mr. MILLER: Yeah, still to this day when we go, when we come back from Canada - we go to Canada every year for a vacation - when we come back from Canada, the United States Border Patrol are just...
Mr. SAVAGE: Beastly.
Mr. MILLER: Beastly to us. They always make him roll down his window and they always, you know, give him 10 questions. Are these your real dads? What are their names? How long have you been with them? I mean just everything.
Mr. SAVAGE: It's funny to, you know, we drive up to Canada to go snowboarding. Our kid's a snowboarder. Every winter we go. It's not cold and wet enough in Seattle so we head north.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SAVAGE: And he, you know, we drive up to the Canadian customs and they roll down the window and they look and there's two adult men and a boy in the back seat. Sometimes a couple boys, because we'll bring friends of DJ's up for the vacation. And they'll say what's your relationship? And Terry will say that's my husband, that's our son. And the Canadian customs guy will hand us back our passports and say welcome to Canada. Yeah, damn right. Welcome to Canada. And then we'll be coming back and we'll roll down the window and Terry will say that's my boyfriend. That's our adopted son. And we've had border guards look at DJ, make eye contact with DJ and scoff, and look at him and go pfff in our faces.
GROSS: What's your son's reaction to being questioned like you described he sometimes is? Is he straightforward in his answers? Is he sarcastic?
Mr. MILLER: Yeah, we put the fear of God into him about getting stopped at the border so he's always very polite and gives them a straight answer, always tells the truth. You know, we're always like this is about getting into Canada and going snowboarding. So...
Mr. SAVAGE: Please don't be a goof.
Mr. MILLER: Don't be a goof. You've got to be honest and you have to be alert and answer their questions completely.
GROSS: Dan, something that you wrote about marriage. You said, I think it's going to take three or four generations of gay people being able to get married before it starts feeling like we're just aping a heterosexual institution.
What feels heterosexual about the institution of marriage?
Mr. SAVAGE: The trappings. You know, people who are against gay marriage talk about gay people wanting to redefine marriage. The irony is that straight people have redefined marriage to a point where you can't logically make a case for excluding same-sex couples from it. It's no longer a gendered institution. It's the, you know, union of two legally autonomous individuals and there isn't a male role and a female role. There's just - and it's whatever they say it is. It can be monogamous or not, for life or not. There could be children or not. It can be a religious ceremony or not. It's entirely up to them. And - but the trappings, everything built around it, is still gendered. It's sort of still this gendered echo. You know, dad giving away the daughter at the altar to the man - to the groom - is, you know, that is about - harkens back to when marriage was a property transaction and it was one man gifting the property of his daughter to another man when she then became the property known as his wife.
And so there's a lot of, you know, and I think that's interesting and I don't think as same-sex couples that we should discount its meaning and symbolism to straight people. It's just that that's not necessarily going to speak to me as a gay person. It's going to take time for us, for same-sex couples, to find a way to make meaningful rituals for ourselves without just sort of carbon-copying these rituals.
You know, when you see two lesbians at the altar in huge, you know, Princess Di wedding gowns, I look at that and think there needs to be two grooms up there. It just - it looks wrong, even to me as, you know, a gay guy who is married to another dude. I look at that and think, well, that's kind of off. And so that's what I mean when I say, you know, it's going to take some time for gay people to live in this institution before we find a way for it not to feel like a borrowed garment.
GROSS: Why did you want to get married?
Mr. SAVAGE: For the same reason everybody else wants to get married. I love this man and, you know, we adopted first. We became parents first and married later. And, you know, to a certain extent I want to be married because I want to have the same rights and privileges and protections that any other couple enjoys and the same social status that any other couple enjoys. And those things are important. You know, I want to be able to go to Terry's bedside in a medical emergency.
That was driven home for us - I had a medical crisis on an airplane where I was carried off an airplane during the SARS epidemic. I'm sure everyone around me was thrilled that I was passing out on the airplane. And Terry was able to make medical decisions for me and be at my bedside and make really crucial medical decisions for me that, you know, had the hospital staff insisted on finding my legal next of kin could have delayed the care that I needed and imperiled my life. And after that was all over, we realized, well, that was just their choice. They didn't have to do that, that they could've insisted, that they allowed Terry to make - they treated him as my spouse because they felt like it, not because they had to, and that really drove home for both of us the importance, you know, as we grow older and as we are together longer and as we're parents, the importance of really the legal protections of marriage and being able to decide who your next of kin is.
GROSS: But because you can't be legally married in Washington, the state where you live, you're married in Canada, which - that marriage is not recognized where you actually live, you don't really have those legal protections in spite of your marriage.
Mr. SAVAGE: No, we don't. But one of the ways gays and lesbians have really changed the culture is by living the way we want to live despite the impediments that are thrown in our way. People used to say that, you know, gay people couldn't be out. We came out. They said we couldn't form lasting relationships. We did. They said we couldn't parent. We parent. We parent really well. All the studies show that our kids are just as happy, healthy and well-adjusted, just as likely to be straight. And people are saying that gay people can't marry and gay people are marrying anyway. We're closer to legal gay marriage because gay people are marrying whether our marriages are recognized now or not.
GROSS: So this gets back to talking about parents earlier. Dan, I read, and tell me if this is right, that your father had been a homicide cop in a gay neighborhood in Chicago?
Mr. SAVAGE: Yeah. My dad was a Chicago cop. Cracked heads at the '68 Democratic National Convention and became a homicide detective in Area 6 on the North Side of Chicago, which was the gay neighborhood in the '60s and '70s, when he was a homicide detective, was his beat. And so my dad knew gay people. He knew gay murderers and he knew gay corpses.
GROSS: Do you think that had an effect on your feelings about what it meant to be gay, or your parents'?
Mr. SAVAGE: Definitely. It definitely did. You know, at that time, '60s and early '70s, the gay people who were out tended to be gay people who couldn't hide or had been outed in some brutal way and really traumatized and, you know, those were the gay people my dad knew and he felt that he needed to protect his three sons from. My dad agreed with Anita Bryant in the '70s that gay people shouldn't be allowed to teach. And he - you know, I remember very distinctly being very young and listening to my dad and mom and their friends argue about, or talk about - none of them was really in disagreement - that gay people were a threat to the family, a threat to children. Even then.
The rhetoric wasn't as heated or shot through the culture as it is now, but even then, you know, my dad thought gay people were a threat to the family for the reasons that Jerry Falwell and Anita Bryant were saying at the time, that, you know, gay people didn't start families, gay people didn't get married. Gay people didn't contribute economically, was my dad's feeling. They didn't, you know, buy washing machines. Every time Terry and I have bought a washing machine, that listening to my father say that gay people don't buy washing machines plays in my head.
GROSS: So your parents were divorced when you came out?
Mr. SAVAGE: My parents divorced a couple of years before I came out. My dad left my mom.
GROSS: So what was his reaction when you came out?
Mr. SAVAGE: I waited a very long time. I was really afraid of my dad, really afraid to come out to him because of things he'd said. And, you know, I understand what my parents were doing. They thought it was the responsible thing to do. They believed, because that was, you know, people's understanding of homosexuality was really not very advanced. They believed that, you know, it was something that you might, you know, slip into and, you know, they perceived that I was a little kind of fairy boy and they needed to nudge me away from it and that was the responsible, loving thing to do, and that's what they tried to do.
And, you know, so my relationship with my dad was really strained, and that didn't make me gay. My relationship with my dad was strained because I was gay and he perceived it and wanted to encourage me not to be gay. And so I waited till I was at college and I think 20 or 21 before I came out to my dad, and he was the last to know and he was hurt that he was the last to know. He was hurt that I was afraid to tell him.
GROSS: Was he okay with it, with being...
Mr. SAVAGE: Oh yeah. Oh yeah, he's totally fine with it. He kind of goes out of his way to be extra fine with it to compensate sometimes.
GROSS: Dan Savage, Terry Miller, it's been great to talk with both of you. Thank you very much.
Mr. SAVAGE: Thank you, Terry.
Mr. MILLER: Thank you.
GROSS: Dan Savage and Terry Miller have a new book called "It Gets Better: Coming Out, Overcoming Bullying, and Creating a Life Worth Living." The stories in the book are adopted from the videos on their "It Gets Better" website and YouTube channel, addressed to gay teens who are bullied. You can watch "It Gets Better" videos by Savage and Miller, Tim Gunn, the cast of "Glee," President Obama and others on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also read an excerpt of the new book and find links to resources about dealing with bullying. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.