Setting Seattle straight on sex and presidents

LOCAL HEROES : No 26: Dan Savage
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The Independent Online
Most of American politics, Dan Savage explains, boils down to sex. Abortion, gay rights, single mothers on welfare, women's roles, sex education, the whole family values thing - "at bottom it's all about sex".

"It's why Clinton is such a controversial President," he continues, as two elderly women moved away from his table at a Seattle sandwich bar. "You can perceive that this is a man who might actually enjoy sex. Bush and Reagan were sort of sexless. The last president who went for it was Kennedy."

Seattle, the Pacific Rim port a stone's throw from the Canadian border, has earned a reputation in recent years as America's hippest city. Californians have headed there in droves, abandoning perpetual sunshine for weather that is arguably worse than Britain's. Mr Savage dismisses it as provincial and dull. The clubs that gave birth to grunge rock are closed for refurbishment, he says. The cappuccino bars on every corner, in the home city of the Starbucks chain, are becoming passe. Even the heroin scene is overblown, he says.

This spring, however, Newsweek magazine devoted a cover story to the lures of Seattle. It named Dan Savage, sex- advice columnist and drag queen, as one of the city's most influential people, alongside Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates and the Mayor, Norm Rice.

Mr Savage's column, Savage Love, is billed as a gay man's answers to the sex problems of straight people. It appears in a local weekly, the Stranger, and in 16 alternative newspapers nationwide, including the Village Voice in New York, and the Chicago Reader, with a combined readership of over a million. He receives about 150 letters a week, some from as far away as Australia and Israel, and usually addressed: "Hey, Faggot".

Straight people need gays to guide them on non-procreative sex, he says. Straight sex is simply a matter of "put tab A in slot B". Gay men and women by contrast have to address their sexual desires, and how to fulfil them, from an early age.

The Americans' attitude to sex, he says, is both immature and weird. Sex education is taught as biology, all fallopian tubes and urethras, instead of as a pleasurable pursuit. "It's like teaching people how to drive by teaching them the workings of the internal combustion engine," he said. "They take the car out and smash it into a wall."

His column, while mostly unprintable in a family newspaper, and often offensive, is also moralistic. In five years, he boasts, "I have raised a whole generation of young women to insist on their right to orgasm, first."

In a recent Seattle poll he was easily voted the city's favourite columnist. His term for straight people - "breeders" - has entered the local lexicon.

Once a month Mr Savage hosts gay bingo, in drag, for about 500 people, to raise funds for Aids victims. The event has been sold out every evening since he started calling the numbers three years ago.

Seattle's deputy mayor recently presented him with a sequinned T-shirt as thanks for his campaign for a local park. He has a Sunday night radio show, is in demand as a speaker at local universities, and recently signed on with a publisher for a two-book deal on sex and politics.

In New York, the 31-year-old Mr Savage might be lost in the wash. In Seattle, he stands out. The son of a Chicago policeman, from an Irish Catholic family, he once studied for the priesthood and worked for two years in Britain waiting tables.

This spring, Mr Savage joined the local Republican Party. By standing unopposed for the office of Precinct Committee Officer, he found himself a delegate at the county convention on the Pat Buchanan slate. He then hijacked an event that drew 1,600 local Republicans with a string of amendments to write support for same-sex marriage and the repeal of sodomy laws into the party platform, chronicling the ensuing mayhem in his column. "It's how the Christian Right took over the Republican Party," he said. "All they did was just go."

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