Sunday, June 2, 2013

Sanity ("American Savage" by Dan Savage)

Dan Savage saved my life.

Until I was seventeen years old, the only openly gay people I knew of beyond fictitious characters in the books I read were stereotypical TV queens:  Paul Lynde, Charles Nelson Reilly, Alan Sues...all of them on reruns. And while I relished those short 22 minutes I spent watching them wisecrack with other game-show panelists and skit-show performers--after all, any gay role models were better than no gay role model--they existed in a time and place I didn't. They were from Hollywood in the 1970s, where they were protected from the 99% of the country that was comfortable laughing with them--or at them--but not living down the street from people like them. There, in the glitzy sound studios and down the gated boulevards, they could wear their strange clothes, speak in sly innuendo, and be out with a wink-wink if not an overt statement to that effect without fear of repercussion; they wore their sexual orientations on their sleeves. For most of my young life I didn't know much about being gay, especially growing up in small-town Wisconsin--there was no Facebook, no YouTube, no LOGO or Glee or It Gets Better--but I did know one thing:  I wasn't like them.*

Unfortunately for me, that meant I had no guide for how I was supposed to live my life. If every gay person I knew of was a flamboyant, limp-wristed, lispy master of puns--even on TV shows from decades ago--and I wasn't any of those things, how should I have acted? What should I wear? Did I have to like Madonna? What exactly did a gay person do with their life if they weren't destined for Los Angeles? What I was looking for was confirmation--from anyone, anywhere--that I could still grow up to be a normal person and live a normal life, that I didn't need to memorize show tunes, deck myself out in blazing fabrics, or haunt disgusting gay bars for companionship. I wasn't the first gay kid to grow up in my small town, I knew that, but the gay kids who came before me did what every small-town gay kid does:  they graduated and got the hell out of there, hopefully to somewhere nicer. And once they were gone, they stayed gone. That was great for them, but that left me--and kids like me--growing up without someone there to tell us it would be okay, that there was hope.

When you're stuck somewhere you don't belong without any sense of hope, unable to be yourself and with no guidance or support from those around you, you tend to ease the pain in any way you can find. A lucky few are able to channel their anguish and pain into positive endeavors: they find refuge in art, writing, music, community service. But for others, the only refuge is self-destructive:  they drink, smoke, or do drugs; they sleep around; they become sullen, withdrawn, and depressed. I found solace and comfort in food. Compared to the other options, I suppose it was the best possible crutch--after all, no one crashes their car into a tree because they've eaten too many Big Macs that night, and to my knowledge no one's ever contracted an STD through Diet Coke and Twinkies--but looking back, all that eating had an affect beyond my diet. Finally, I looked on the outside the way I felt on the inside--disgusting, strange, unlovable--as though I were using my physical appearance as a fortress against ever having to deal with who I was. After all, it doesn't matter what your sexual orientation is if no one will ever find you attractive anyway. The more I ate, the more weight I gained, and the more I gained the worse I felt about how I looked...which meant I had to eat even more to feel better about myself, even momentarily. It was a sick cycle, and I was in the middle of it.

The end of high school alleviated the pain somewhat--I began coming out to people, first to friends and eventually my parents--but I still couldn't resolve my own issues, and the eating continued. Gay marriage had become legal in Massachusetts a week before I'd graduated from high school, and there were finally more positive portrayals of gay men and women in popular culture--as well as even more stereotypical ones, especially Queer Eye for the Straight Guy--but none of them were the kind I was looking for:  a gay person who lived in a boring house in a boring city and worked at a boring job while dealing with the same boring problems every other adults has to deal with. No clubs, no parades, no snark, no fashion emergencies...just, boring.

And then, one summer, I found myself opening an Amazon package with two books written by the same man:  The Kid and The Commitment, both by Dan Savage. I'd been a fan of Savage since I was 17 and found my first copy of The Onion. Savage, who'd grown up in Chicago and lived in Seattle at the time, dispensed no-holds-barred sex advice to anyone who wrote in--straight, gay, bi, pan, asexual, trans; single, engaged, married, divorced; teenager, college student, middle-aged, retired--and about any topic, much of which couldn't be printed in any other newspaper. I'd always enjoyed his advice, his sense of humor, his love of common sense and reason over sentimentality and canned responses...but until his two books arrived, I'd never thought of him as anything other than another far-flung gay man whose life had little to offer my own.

Then I read The Kid. On a porch. In one sitting. When I finished the sun was beginning to set, so I moved indoors and read The Commitment, again in one sitting. By the time I finished that book, it was already midnight--or close to it--and I was flabbergasted. I'd spent the last 5 to 10 years of my life looking for this exact thing--the story of a gay man who, despite his ridiculous job, lived one of the most boringly normal lives imaginable--and now, suddenly, I'd found it almost by accident.

And so I read The Commitment again. Savage's life was filled with outrageous letters from his readers, sure, but otherwise his life was dominated by his long-time boyfriend, their adopted son, tiresome family trips, diaper rash, wedding expos, a meddlesome mother, articles in The New York Times, cake, bars, hypocritical religious figures, buying a other words, boring adult things. It was all there, in black ink on white paper:  I could be gay and lead the same kind of life my parents led. Hell, I could be all of that and still have time to have a little weirdness in my life, too. It was the closes thing to a revelation I could've had.

My outlook changed in that instant. I began exercising, eating right, looking at myself and the world in a much more positive light. Over the next year I dropped almost 100 pounds; all the foods I'd seen as a refuge when I was younger--potato chips, cookies, soda, candy, donuts--were gone from my diet, to the point where even looking at a donut now makes me slightly nauseous.** They no longer hold any power over me, and the rush I used to get from emptying a bag of chips is now the same rush I get from biking 40 miles across Northern Wisconsin or hiking 20 miles through a national forest. I own a juicer, dehydrator, and food processor, have started growing my own vegetables, and walk to work instead of driving. I don't know where I'd be now--or where I would have ended up--had it not been for those two books, or if I'd ever found the strength to make those life changes on my own. All I know is that I'd probably be unhappy, I'd probably be filled with the same amount of self-loathing that I was filled with in high school, and I'd certainly still be overweight, if not climbing towards morbid obese and maybe even diabetes. But I'm not--I'm better now.

And all it took was two books.

Savage begins his newest book, American Savage, with a story about his mother, a woman whose fierce independence and outspokenness is clearly alive and well in Savage himself, and his love for her is unfaltering. He writers about coming out to her and her subsequent ultimatum to the extended family, how her Catholic devotion didn't mean strict allegiance, and the ways in which she spoke about prayer to the unpraying. The story isn't new--it appeared in a slightly different form on NPR's This American Life a few years ago--but it's refreshing nonetheless to see Savage write about something so personal, which is where he's always at his best. There are other moments like this throughout the book--his dinner with Brian Brown, which inconveniences his son and angers his husband; being walked out on high school journalism students for speaking honestly about the Bible--and those are the moments in American Savage that are its most memorable and endearing.
The rest of American Savage is filled with essays about a slew of different topics, some religious and some political--Obamacare, guns, abstinence education, the pope--and all of them dripping with Savage's usual cynicism, sarcasm, and utter devotion to reason. American Savage is a good book, without a doubt--again, I read it in one sitting--and some of the chapters, particularly those that break down the religious justifications for hating LGBT people--spoiler: they're all bullshit--are worth the price alone. But--and this may just be my personal bias towards his other two books, or perhaps it's because I've now been following Savage's work for over a decade--American Savage feels a little less complete than his other two. Still, a book by Dan Savage, even one filled with diatribes against the status quo, is still better than most of the books out there right now. Hell, it might just save someone's life. 

*Savage, as I would learn much later, had a similar experience growing up, though his unshakable albatross was a stereotypical gay character on Barney Miller.

**Full disclosure:  I still eat cookies and candy, but only occasionally, and always in moderation followed by exercise. I'm only human, after all, and being healthy doesn't necessarily mean being miserable.