Dan Savage explores gay marriage, but keeps his own union under wraps
Safety is Savage’s message, and it’s easier to be safe when you know all the facts; shame, secrets, and shabby behavior are this writer’s bugaboos. Though he’s supportive of most so-called deviant sexualities, Savage is unafraid of calling a jerk a jerk. Or a Santorum a Santorum—it’s actually Savage’s bracing dose of political critique amidst all the lonelyhearts begging affirmation that makes his column such a riot.
His urgent mix of the sexual and the political also reminds us that tolerance and diversity are freedoms that a host of right-wing pundits are eager to steal away. There are more important things to worry over other than dildos and body hair removal.
Savage, who also edits the Seattle newspaper The Stranger, has more recently extended his talents to writing books. His last, "The Kid," a memoir about adopting a child with partner Terry Miller, was warmly received. Earlier this summer I heard an excerpt on public radio from his latest tome, "The Commitment: Love, Sex, Marriage, and My Family," and was impressed by the delicacy of his approach to the gay marriage debate. He didn’t rant about right-wing hypocrisy or lampoon gay and lesbian couples spending thousands on ceremonies more appropriate to a debutante. He didn’t roll his eyes at radical queers who reject gay marriage as a capitulation to heterosexual patriarchy.
The story was not only charming, but also thought-provoking. A six-year-old with no political ax to grind, armed only with the struggle to reconcile his need for security and his fear of social rejection, was in some ways more insightful than any talking head, renegade mayor, or federal appeals court judge. Kudos to Savage or the radio editor who carved that jewel out of "The Commitment," because the remainder of the book, though always entertaining, is often as obvious and glib as that excerpt was graceful.
Savage has a natural feel for how to wrap a personal narrative around a political debate to make the medicine go down easy. The main tension in "The Commitment" arises from the conflict between the anti-gay-marriage ideologues—whose arguments Savage periodically introduces and then rebuts—and Savage’s mother, who insists that DJ needs the security that marriage can provide. By any logic, the couple should marry: Savage can piss off red-staters and placate his mother in one grand gesture.
The trouble? Savage and Miller don’t want to get hitched. To Savage’s mother’s great distress, Miller would rather the couple get tattoos than celebrate nuptials.
The set-up is perfect, the material rich. DJ and Savage’s mother, with whom he fights a epistolary war of cut-out newspaper clippings, emerge as especially delightful characters. What’s not to love? One problem—and rabid fans of David Sedaris might disagree with me on this issue—is tone. Though Savage is a natural writer—warm, fluent, funny, with a knack for setting up a scene—here he’s a bit like the stand-up comic who’s grown so enamored with his own routine he doesn’t realize it’s gone stale.
"My boyfriend, rather hilariously, says he doesn’t want to get married because—and I quote—’I don’t want to act like straight people.’ I believe the first time he made this comment he was folding my laundry, balancing our baby on his hip, and stirring a pot of grits on the stove."
The story is not unfunny, but the irony’s contrived.
Savage’s main resistance to getting married stems from a fear of "jinxing" his 10-year relationship with Miller. And from what he reveals of the partnership, his insecurity is hardly surprising. What’s infuriating about this book is that he refuses to face that insecurity. Savage keeps insisting that he and Miller are the most stable couple he knows, that they continue to have mind-blowingly hot sex, and are demonstrably affectionate without, heaven forbid, being too lovey-dovey Savage admits that he and his partner are secretly "straighter than most straight couples." But in fact, their relationship reads like something out of Updike or Cheever—not just conservative but retrograde.
The broad strokes are a cliché—Savage works long hours to bring home the bacon for his younger trophy boy "wife," who doesn’t work. "I’m one of those insanely fortunate people who somehow managed to fall in love with… my physical ideal," Savage writes, in his creepy, my-life-is-perfect mode. "He has my fantasy man’s build, hair color, eye color, cheekbones, and, er, other physical attributes." This emphasis on the physical may be why Miller comes across more like a cipher than a character—and why Savage doesn’t seem to respect him much outside of the bedroom. Savage has accused Miller of being a golddigger. ("If I were a golddigger, honey… I could get a guy with a lot more gold," Miller shoots back.) Elsewhere, he’s referred to as a "kept boy" (not by Savage, yet he reproduces the slur.)
Of Miller’s proposal that Savage take an extra two weeks off work so they can drive across country to a family reunion, Savage snipes, "Two weeks off, four weeks off—what’s the difference? When you’ve spent the last 250 weeks off, it doesn’t seem like a lot to ask."
And once the couple have decided to capitulate to at least a party celebrating their 10th anniversary, Savage says, "There’s nothing [Miller] loves more than spending money, and he had never realized how much could be spent on a single wedding."
Savage’s willingness to reveal his most appalling thoughts takes guts. But he shows no awareness he’s a cad. It’s revelation without reflection.
Other complaints: Savage gives little play—theoretical or anecdotal—to the question of whether lesbians face different marriage issues than gay men; in fact, his lack of interest in women borders uncomfortably on misogyny: "I tend not to notice women, attractive or not; it’s as though they’re pixelated, like the bad guys on ‘Cops.’"
Still, I can’t write off "The Commitment." The chapter on monogamy and gay relationships is compelling. Theoretically, Savage and Miller have an open relationship; in practice they’re more or less faithful: "We told our friends that we regarded three-ways the same way Bill Clinton regarded abortion—it’s best when they’re safe, legal, and rare."
And as in Sedaris’ writing, many of the set pieces, especially those from childhood, are a stitch.
But by the end of the book, I was rolling my eyes with the rest of Savage’s friends and families. Get married already! Maybe the inevitable divorce will provide ballast to Savage’s subsequent and, I hope, more searching work.