Dan Savage Keynotes ALA Conference with Message of Positive Subversion

June 24, 2011

Activist writer Dan Savage keynoted the ALA Annual Conference in New Orleans today by explaining how his new book, It Gets Better, was inspired by a rash of suicides by gay teens who commit suicide because they cannot picture a future that would be good enough to make up for the pain they are in now.

“It’s a real honor to be here and a thrill,” Savage said of speaking to an audience of librarians, because It Gets Better “at its heart it’s about access to information.” He explained that the entire “It Gets Better” project started because of Billy Lucas, a 15-year-old high school student in Indiana who committed suicide after being taunted by his classmates for being gay. “I wish I had known you, Billy,” he said, “and been able to tell you that things get better.” Savage talked about his own coming out nearly 30 years ago and how “things have gotten so much better for LGBT people in this country and in many parts of the world.” When he told his Catholic parents about his sexual orientation, he said, it conjured up “mental images it took them years to get over”—that he would never be married, never be a father, and never be a Marine. Now, he declared, “Here we are 30 years later, and I am married, and I am a father, and now I can be a Marine.”

Savage said that he realized he would never be invited to speak to the parents of children who most need to hear the “It Gets Better” message, so he had to figure out a way to reach them. Many religious conservatives advise the parents of LGBT kids to reject them, to be hostile, and to do the things that put them at risk for suicide. They need to know that they have a future and their future can be joyful if they can get through this part of their lives, he said.

Savage noted that at some point he realized he could use videos and his syndicated advice column and podcasts to represent the gay community. Things have gotten better, he said, noting that he may be able to legally marry his life partner in New York soon, “although we do enjoy the premarital sex we get to have, depending on where we are,” he joked.

Many kids get bullied for race, class, religion, Savage said, but “they go home to their parents and see that you can get through it.” Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender teens “go home to parents who are not any of those things, and they are afraid.” Some 40% of homeless teenagers are kids who were kicked out after they came out to their families, he said.

“My husband is a very private person who made the very silly mistake of marrying a memoirist,” Savage said, but he agreed to participate in “It Gets Better” because he too was bullied. “When his parents went to the school and begged the school to do something about the physical violence that Terry was being subjected to in his school, the principal looked at Terry’s parents and said, ‘Well, if he is going to act that way, walk that way, talk that way,  there’s nothing we can do to protect your ’son.’” The idea for the “It Gets Better” project is rooted in Savage’s Catholic upbringing, which taught that “if God overhears you talking about your joy, he’ll take it away.” He realized that gay youth didn’t need to hear stories about bullying, they needed to hear about life beyond.

Savage said, “I’m a print guy and I think books are magic.” Not all kids have access to the internet, he observed, and not all gay kids can risk creating “an incriminating browser history that might bring more bullying on their heads.” His reasons for doing a book based on the “It Gets Better” project, he added, are that he wanted to challenge school libraries and to get schools to change their policies to “zero tolerance for bullying.” He recalled his early venturing into a branch of the Chicago Public Library and taking a book from the shelf on sexuality and returning it to some other place so he could read it again and not have to “risk being seen with the gay books twice.” Savage wanted to emphasize the “subversiveness that librarians have,” he said, “making information available to people can put you in a high-fire position, because there are other people out there who do not want everyone to have access to the facts or the information they need.”

Savage said that librarians can help shatter forever the old idea of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in this country, the idea that “you are ours to torture until you’re 18, and once you’re 18 you can do what you want.” The one thing that gay adults cannot do is talk to the kids that some people are still torturing. If you do, they are “going to accuse you of being pedophiles, of trying to seduce them into the homosexual lifestyle, of trying to seduce our children.” Savage said he is no longer waiting for an invitation. Likewise, “librarians put books into people’s hands whether other people want them to have those particular books or not because that is your job and responsibility.”

“We will never get permission to talk to a 15-year-old lesbian whose family is hostile,” Savage said. “We are giving her hope.” So many videos created for the “It Gets Better” project were created by people whose parents were hostile, he noted. What his efforts promise is that “we are talking to your kids whether or not you realize right now that you want us to; one day you will thank us for talking to your kids at a time when they needed to hear from us and you were failing them.”

The Opening General Session was moderated by ALA President Roberta Stevens, who noted that the American Library Association was the first major convention to return to New Orleans in 2006 after the ravages of Hurricane Katrina. ALA also raised a half-million dollars for libraries, and the libraries are coming back, she said. “New and better libraries have already been built in many locations, [and] last year FEMA finally recognized that libraries and library workers are essential.”

Representing the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Jill Nishi announced, to cheers and applause, that the foundation was pledging $300,000 to the ALA Spectrum Scholarship Program to support ongoing efforts for groups that are underrepresented in the field today. Past ALA president Betty Turock, who initiated the Spectrum program, encouraged continued giving to match the Gates gift.

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu called the Gates Foundation’s contribution to Spectrum and the city’s recovery from Katrina “spectacular.” Of ALA he said, “You gave us great hope and faith by coming here and being part of the rebuilding. You are physically sitting in one of the great resurrections that America has seen in a long, long time. This is not the city she was, but the city she wants to be.” You are looking at a people who have completely reorganized themselves, he said. “We have because we had to.” Landrieu talked about the progress the city has made, especially the rebuilding of its libraries, which “became the places, the lifelines where people could go to stay connected to their families, to the federal government.” Libraries moved to the forefront of recovery, he said. “We know now that they are the community centers of their neighborhood. The hub will be our libraries. Thirteen have already opened, and none of that would have happened without your support. Libraries will let New Orleans be smart again, be competitive and make everyone want to come to New Orleans.”

Awards presented at the opening session included:

  • The Freedom to Read Foundation’s Roll of Honor Award to Christopher Finan, president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression.
  • ALTAFF’s Trustee Citation, presented to Rose Mosley, trustee of Maywood (Ill.) Public Library, and posthumously to Dave Hargett, trustee of Fountaindale Public Library in Bolingbrook, Illinois.
  • The ALA President’s Award for Advocacy, awarded to the New Jersey State Library in recognition of its statewide advocacy campaign.
  • Honorary Membership, the Association’s highest honor, was presented to Yohannes Gebregeorgis for lifetime achievement in building libraries for the children of Ethiopia.

The session ended with a ribbon cutting for the exhibits opening. The auditorium was packed, and cheers for Dan Savage continued as attendees rushed to the exits for his book signing.