Dan Savage Takes ‘It Gets Better’ to MTV — and May Have a Deal for Santorum (Video)

Dan Savage's sex advice column "Savage Love" started as a lark but turned him into a champion of gay rights. An MTV special on the "It Gets Better Project" airs tonight

Dan Savage has offered hundreds of thousands of words of advice since he began his "Savage Love" column two decades ago. But the most important are these three:

It gets better.

Savage and his husband, Terry Miller, recorded an online video with that simple message in September 2010 in response to suicides by bullied gay teens. Whoever you are, they promised scared, isolated kids, your life will be better once you finish high school. They talked about their own bullying in school, coming out to their families, and how much love and acceptance eventually came into their lives.

(Pictured: Dan Savage, left, and Terry Miller. Photo courtesy of MTV.)

Since that video, thousands of people, from kids in small towns to movie stars — to President Obama — have recorded their own messages for the It Gets Better Project. Tonight, the message goes even wider with an MTV special.

Also read: Googling Santorum Leads to Nationwide Ewwwwws

When Savage started his column in 1991 — it has since led to books, an absurdly addictive podcast, and an advice show, "Savage U," soon to debut on MTV — he was just trying to make people laugh. But his directness and comic delivery soon made him a champion for gay adoptions, marriage equality, and other human rights issues in need of a passionate, eloquent, and often hilarious spokesman.

Much of his comedy comes from skewering right-wing opponents: He orchestrated the Google problem that still stains Rick Santorum's name after the then-senator, in 2004, compared homosexuality to bestiality.

We talked to Savage about the MTV special, the "It Gets Better" video he rejected, and the deal he might make with Santorum if he wins the presidency and calls to ask for his name back.

"But there's not going to be a President Santorum," Savage said at the end of our interview. "Don't scare me like that. And if there is a President Santorum, he's going to have to call me in Canada, because that's where I'll have emigrated before Inauguration Day."

When you started a sex advice column, did you have any idea you might someday — not to overstate it — help kids find a will to live?
I didn't. When I started the column it was really kind of a lark. And when I started the column I wasn't giving advice to gay people. The joke for the first six to eight months was a gay guy giving advice on straight sex and pretending to be as disgusted by straight sex as so many straight people feel compelled to claim to be about gay sex. But then as the questions kept coming in, there were real questions, real problems, people were in real trouble. So then I sort of backed into having to give a shit. And having to really give advice. And it's become my accidental career.

So you didn't set out to change the world, exactly.
I was an activist a long time ago. In college I did queer activism, I was in ACT UP a million years ago. But I've always felt ever since that first year of the column that "Savage Love" was my activism now. Nothing undoes someone's homophobia more effectively than knowing someone who's gay, and for a lot of straight people, I'm the gay guy they know.

And a lot of young gay people respond to my voice too, because I don't come across like I'm whiny. But I'm human. I was bullied too. And I can speak to their pain and where they're just coming out, because I don’t think any adult ever forgets what that was like. And I always wanted to help.

You and Terry originally did another "It Gets Better" video before the one that started the movement. Why didn't you use it?
We did a whole other video and then watched it and thought, any kid who isn't suicidal before he watches this video is gonna be suicidal after he watches this video. The mistake we made in that first video is we talked for 15 minutes about the bullying we endured and what that was like. And then we spoke for a minute about our lives now, and our joy. And that's backwards. A bullied queer kid knows what it's like to be bullied. They know. We need to share our lives with them now, explain how we got from there to here, to illuminate the path for them.

You know, I'm [raised] Catholic. We don't talk about the good things in life because God overhears you and takes them away.

One of your favorite moments in the special is a young lesbian named Vanessa confronting her mother about accepting her.
In a lot of coming out stories, fictional and non-fictional, people come out to their families and they're accepted. They're not thrown out, but the acceptance is conditional and tentative. And what comes after that is usually another big talk, and there's a breakthrough and that is captured in the kitchen with that mom and her daughter in a way that I've never seen that captured before. That moment where there's a breakthrough and the parent, as the mom says, begins to dream a new dream for their child. And that's so beautiful.

Watch Vanessa and her mother:

And I think that's giving kids new hope for their families. I was accepted conditionally for a while with my family, and it was really painful. And my family broke through and came around and learned to accept me for who I was, not to love despite some parts of who I was.

We're getting to a new place where kids come out and expect their families to support them. And that's different. We used to come out and expect to lose the love and support of our families. And I think increasingly moms and dads need to worry about their gay kids rejecting them and not the other way around. They have treat their kids with love and respect. They command it.

I'm legally required to ask at least one question about Rick Santorum, so here it is: It's Inauguration Day 2013, and he's now President Santorum. He comes to you saying if you help with his Google problem, he'll do something for you in exchange. What would you ask for? You've said previously that he would have to give $5 million to support marriage equality.
I said that as a joke and I think I have to stop saying that joke lest it look like I'm extorting maybe the Republican nominee. Um, you know, it's too late. The cat's out of the bag. There's no undefining the word. People use santorum every day in reference to the new definition in its proper context. I can pull down the website tomorrow and it's not going to end Rick Santorum's definition problem.

We could make peace maybe if what we've come to expect under Republican presidents — if there's no rollbacks of rights we’ve achieved. Santorum's out there threatening to write an anti-gay marriage amendment to the U.S. Constitution. He wants to reinstate Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Maybe we could achieve peace if he just agreed that during his presidency there would be no progress, but no regress either. And then maybe we could make nice and attempt to re- redefine santorum.

It Gets Better airs at 11 ET/PT tonight on MTV.

Watch Dan and Terry's video: