Dan Savage and his family, who live in Seattle, spent much of their long New York weekend in typical tourist fashion. America’s best-known gay sex columnist; his Canadian-law husband, Terry Miller; and their famously adopted 12-year-old son, Daryl Jude, went to Times Square, where DJ, now in a skater phase—flannel jacket, Justin Bieber hair he’s forever flipping out of his eyes—skateboarded between gaggles of fellow tourists. The next day, while Dan worked (this being a business trip), Terry and DJ went to the National Museum of the American Indian. On Monday night, they caught a show. Which is when things got weird.
In 1999, the widely syndicated columnist behind “Savage Love” published a memoir, The Kid, about going through an open adoption with Miller. (They were the first gay-male couple to succeed with their Oregon agency.) In 2005, three young writers decided that that nerve-racking emotional roller coaster would be perfect for a musical (Savage was skeptical), and last week, he and his family watched its premiere at the New Group. “It’s hard to tell with him,” Savage says at intermission, just out of DJ’s earshot. “He said it was weird, and there’s weird-good and weird-weird. I think this was weird-weird. I wish we could all wear burkas tonight.”
Savage sat between DJ and Terry during the first act of the show, which features sex, fighting, DJ’s pointedly smelly birth mother, and several anal-sex innuendos. Every five minutes or so, Savage would turn to one or the other member of his family and whisper, “Are you okay?” They usually said yes. DJ giggled loudly at a teabagging joke, smiled when Miller’s taste in techno music was maligned. And then, during a reenacted visit from the adoption counselor, a dildo fell out of the couch. DJ flung his head back, covered his eyes, and groaned. Savage leaned over and insisted loudly, slowly: “That. Did. Not. Happen.”
Ever since he started “Savage Love,” nineteen years ago, Savage has been an advocate of full disclosure. He still is, when it comes to public discourse, and will carefully explain to you why Elena Kagan should discuss her sexuality. But when he decided to write The Kid, he began a process he could never quite control—the gradual outing of his family, much to their frequent dismay.
Two hours before we’re scheduled to meet, Savage sends an e-mail: “Garbo is up for having dinner with us to prove that this is a marriage and a family, not a hostage situation.” He’s referring to Terry, who is not a recluse; that would make his gig as a club promoter supremely difficult. But he is leery when in Savage’s world. Miller, who has cropped platinum hair, arrives to dinner wearing skinny jeans and a fitted leather jacket. He refuses to be quoted (so does DJ) and mostly just mutters the occasional aside from his corner of the diner booth. At one point, while Savage expounds on the politics of gay marriage, Miller and DJ thumb-wrestle. Miller, who is 39 to Savage’s 45, is often mistaken for DJ’s older brother.
Savage sold musical rights to The Kid without telling Miller, assuming the concept would never get off the ground. They’d already run the gauntlet of three projects based on The Kid—two films and a TV series. Negotiations over an HBO show, meant to air in the prime years of Sex and the City (“They needed two series about sex columnists,” Savage deadpans), were a “horrifying” experience. The TV writers once proposed that, during a scene in which Savage and Miller take DJ’s birth mom out for steak, the Terry character should sneak off for a bathroom quickie with the waiter. Savage countered, “If you wanted to do something really true to gay life, have it come out that I know and I don’t give a shit, because we’re not psycho like straight people are about that shit.”
By the time Savage and Miller came in to see the musical’s read-through, they were nearly burned out on the notion of commercializing their life story. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen two people more nervous,” says director and New Group creative head Scott Elliott. Savage gave them thousands of words of notes (many were used); several of them were protective of DJ and the birth mother. Savage, whose career has vacillated between outrageousness and outrage, found himself fighting to control the flow of information.
Much of this has to do with Miller. “That’s the deal in our relationship,” Savage says. “I talk too much and he is mortified and then I remind him that we live in our house because of my mouth.” Still, even his relatively meager revelations in “Savage Love,” on his blog, and in his podcasts (all for The Stranger, the Seattle alt-weekly where he is editorial director) have brought accusations of exploitation. “If they only knew how much money we’ve walked away from”—for wacky gay-adoption reality shows—“because we won’t exploit [DJ],” says Savage. He’s tried to ensure that a Google Images search for his son yields no results. “I like to get on TV and yell at Michael Steele, but I have no desire to be one of the Housewives of Moron County, and neither does Terry.”
Perhaps reality TV isn’t the right venue for teachable moments that could be easily misconstrued by Savage haters. Like the time 9-year-old DJ, who thought girls were icky, jumped to the conclusion that he must be gay, until Miller showed him a photo of himself, surrounded by girls, on his 10th birthday. “If you liked girls right now,” he said, “that would probably mean you’re gay.”
On the way to the premiere’s after-party at Planet Hollywood in Times Square, DJ emphatically denies he’ll ever come around to liking musicals—even after Savage (who adored them at his age) points out that Green Day has one now. In the glass-walled bar above the movie-kitsch emporium, actors and New Group bigwigs dote on the family. The kid cracks as many smiles as he likely ever has at an evening out with his embarrassing parents. Smiling praise has a way of dragging even shy preteens out of their studied ennui.
“If he hadn’t wanted to be here, we’d be out like a shot,” says Savage. “He’d get sullen, he wouldn’t say a word. If he’d said no, we wouldn’t have come.”
Then it happens. The actors playing Dan and Terry pose with their real doppelgängers before a huddle of photographers—at least one of them a professional. Someone invites DJ into the shot, and he shuffles over. What happened to the fatwa on Googleable images? “It went out the window,” says Savage, resigned but blasé. “You don’t want to be impolite.”