Monday, March 10, 2008

Family man

I've really enjoyed Dan Savage's appearances on Real Time with Bill Maher. His reports from the presidential campaign trail have been funny and brimming with insight. Savage, who is editorial director for the Seattle weekly The Stranger, also has a syndicated sex-advice column, called Savage Love. And he's written several books, so I thought I'd check them out.

I started with The Kid, Savage's account of trying to adopt a baby with his boyfriend, Terry Miller. (Boyfriend is his word, not mine. Savage doesn't like the the term partner. "It's just so ... genderless,'' he says). Then I moved to The Commitment, in which Savage uses the occasion of his and Terry's 10th anniversary to ruminate on love and marriage and relationships.

They're both great reads. Savage is a terrific writer - just as witty and sharp as he is on Bill Maher's show. He's especially adept at skewering the hatemongers, deftly pointing out the disconnects in their bigoted attitudes toward gay families and relationships. He has a dry, self-deprecating sense of humor and writes with incredible warmth and honesty.

I liked The Kid a bit more than The Commitment, although I recommend both of them. They're the kind of books you want to read quickly because they're so good, but you don't want to read quickly because you don't want them to end.

The Kid
is more of a straightforward, linear story, as we follow Dan and Terry through the adoption process. Whether you're gay or straight, it's a journey riddled with frustration and anxiety. Savage handles it with a great deal of humor, compassion and poignancy.

For example, he wonders what the other, heterosexual couples must be thinking when Savage and his boyfriend walk into the conference room for a seminar held by the agency they've chosen. They're the last to arrive. "We were also the youngest, the malest, and the gayest."

Savage discusses the difficulty in knowing who exactly does hate you these days, when many people are more careful about hiding their bigotry. It would be much easier he writes, if all the bigots were blue. "We'd know whom we had to fight, and when we had to fight, and, more important, we'd know when we could finally relax."

They've chosen an agency that deals with open adoption, which means the birth mother picks them and maintains some contact with the child. To Savage's amazement, they get picked fairly quickly, by a teenage street punk named Melissa, who'd been turned down by other couples because she'd kept drinking and using drugs during the early stages of her pregnancy.

After some qualms about whether the baby would be healthy, they decide to go ahead with it. The book charts their progress, including their evolving relationship with Melissa, their fear that she'll change her mind about giving up the baby, and their reluctance to tell friends and family for fear of jinxing things. (Savage is the first to admit that he's very superstitious).

The Commitment picks up the story when their son, D.J., is a healthy, active, curious 6-year-old. He clearly loves his dads and they're clearly devoted to him. The three of them are the very picture of a happy, contented family.

There's one passage in particular, when D.J. has an earache in the middle of the night, that really got to me. Savage gets up to give him some medicine and writes about the joy of holding your child in your lap: "the way your child's hand feels resting in your own, the trusting, contented weight of your child sitting on your lap while you read or watch tv."

During the debate over gay marriage in Massachusetts, I had a conversation with a parent who recoiled at having to explain the issue to his young child. When D.J. asks Savage whether he can be gay when he grows up, Savage, who's pretty sure his son is straight, tells him: "It's not a decision you get to make. It's not a decision I got to make. It's a decision your heart makes. ... One day your heart will let you know whether you're going to be the kind of man who falls in love with a woman or a man." Beautiful, succinct, and not at all difficult to explain.

I didn't find The Commitment quite as satisfying because Savage goes off on some philosophical tangents about the meaning of love and the ancient Greeks. Those topics really didn't interest me as much as the story of Savage and his family, and they got a bit tedious. Whereas while I was reading The Kid, I don't think it dragged for a single paragraph.

Perhaps there's simply much more tension with The Kid, as you wonder whether whether Dan and Terry will get a baby, will the baby be healthy, will the birth mother go through with the adoption? (I'd imagine this would be a great book for any prospective parents who are considering open adoption).

But there's still a good, compelling story in The Commitment, as Savage and Terry decide what kind of party to have to celebrate their 10th anniversary, and whether, prodded by Savage's mother, they should go to Canada to get married. (Terry would be satisfied if they each got tattoos, and their son is at first adamantly opposed to their getting married, although if there's cake, he definitely wants a piece).

In The Commitment, Savage writes about his experiences growing up in an Irish Catholic family in Chicago, about the marriages of his parents and grandparents, and about the choices his siblings make. He spends a lot of time discussing gay and straight relationships, monogamy, the wedding industry, the history of putting bride and groom figurines on top of the wedding cake, the opposition to same-sex marriage, and whether gay people who have marriage ceremonies are "acting straight."

When I was reading The Kid, I felt very uncomfortable that Savage used the f-word so freely. Even though he normally employs the slur to describe homophobic attitudes, I didn't like it any more than I would reading a book by an African-American who constantly used the n-word. I'm aware of the argument that when members of minority groups use those slurs they rob the words of their sting. Sorry, I don't buy it. Those words still sting. In The Commitment, Savage seems to use the f-word less frequently, and he still gets his point across.

At their anniversary party, Savage describes the group of friends and relatives, gay and straight, who have gathered to help them celebrate. The scene reminds him of something Andrew Sullivan once said, about social conservatives wanting to devalue the lives of gay people and denigrate their relationships. That strategy, Sullivan said, worked only so long as gay people cooperated, "by staying in the closet, keeping their heads down, playing the euphemism game."

With straight friends and relatives outnumbering gays 5 to 1, Savage realizes that it's not only gay people who refuse to cooperate anymore. "Our straight friends and family members don't want us living in cultural and social limbo anymore either."

Savage is right - we certainly don't want our gay friends and family members living in social and cultural limbo. I wish the part of America that thinks it doesn't know any gay people would read these two books, and maybe begin to understand why.


Tania said...

Thanks for the comment Esther! And I am also very fond of Dan Savage.

Esther said...

You're welcome Tania! I'm glad you're a fan of Dan Savage, too. I think he's great at social and political satire. I just hope he writes more books. I'm reading a third one, "Skipping Towards Gomorrah," now.

And good luck again with your new job at the Museum of Natural History!