For writer and activist Dan Savage, the problem with religion and the LGBT community starts with sex.
“If you get between someone’s spiritual self and their sexual desires, you can control that person,” Savage said in a Wednesday speech to about 600 people at the University of Utah. The sex and relationship advice columnist and founder of the It Gets Better Project, an outreach to gay teens, constructed his talk as a question-and-answer session. He offered advice, some unprintable, on everything from performing sex acts to Russia’s anti-gay propaganda law.
Savage was making his first appearance here since 2008, when he boycotted Utah in response to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ role in passing Proposition 8, California’s short-lived ban on gay marriage.
“We’ve seen the Mormon church call off its dogs in marriage equality,” he said in an interview before his speech. But he didn’t exempt the Salt Lake City-based LDS Church from his take on religion and sexuality, noting that sex has been around a lot longer than the Mormon church.
“Sex is for pleasure,” he said, “and the Mormon church has always taken the position that sex is for creating more worshipful, zombie-eyed followers for Jesus.”
The LDS hierarchy teaches, in its instructions for local leaders, that “sexual relations within marriage are divinely approved not only for the purpose of procreation, but also as a way of expressing love and strengthening emotional and spiritual bonds between husband and wife.”
For Savage, who doesn’t mince words or avoid controversy, religion can coexist with the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community.
“I don’t want to get into an argument with your private theology,” he said, pointing out that the LDS Church teaches members to shun tea and coffee, but doesn’t outlaw coffee shops.
“We want the same deal that Coke and Starbucks have,” he said. (Colas with caffeine are not forbidden by the church).
Savage took his social critique beyond Utah’s borders, describing how Russia’s recent anti-gay propaganda law is part of an oppressive atmosphere for LGBT people. He said the law was written in such a broad way that it is illegal to be “out” as a gay person.
With gay characters making inroads into popular culture in recent decades, Savage was asked whether there should be a Saturday morning cartoon character who is gay.
“Yeah! A significant percentage of those kids are going to be queer,” he said, “and they need to know there is a place for them.”
The speech drew a group of protesters who say Savage has made hurtful remarks in the guise of comedy, especially about people who identify as transgender.
For his part, Savage said that while some 10-year-old writings could be “problematic,” he is not transphobic.
But Merissa Nakamura, a U. student and director of social justice for the Asian-American student association, wasn’t satisfied with that explanation, or with Savage during his speech advising parents of gay children to simply move out of rural areas. That’s counsel many families can’t afford to take.
“Who does it ‘get better’ for?” she asked. “I want him to do better.”