Gay rights activist Dan Savage brings 'It Gets Better Project' to North Texas

DENTON — Gay activist Dan Savage and Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum have wildly different beliefs, but on the Internet they appear forever tied in a cultural war in which words are the weapons of choice.

Savage is a syndicated sex advice columnist whose anti-bullying campaign is being touted as a positive force for young people in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community. Rick Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, in 2003 likened legalizing gay marriage to endorsing pedophilia and bestiality.

The two became linked when Savage fought back with words, trying to redefine Santorum so he couldn't distance himself from the gay community he had insulted. As a result, the Republican's last name has new meaning on Google. Search for "Santorum," and you'll find a definition dealing with anal sex.

"It's still out there and it is an insanely dirty joke," Savage said in a recent telephone interview with the Star-Telegram. "It is crude. It is vile, as are Santorum's comments about gay people."

This issue is almost 10 years old, but it still surfaces even as Savage does advocacy work and Santorum tries to win a nomination.

Savage is the keynote speaker at the University of North Texas' 12th Equity & Diversity Conference on Tuesday. Savage will discuss his It Gets Better Project, in which young people can find role models via the Internet.

Santorum is working to make gains on the campaign trail. Efforts to reach Santorum's media contact, Matt Beynon, for comment were unsuccessful, but last summer Santorum told radio personality Steve Malzberg that the Google issue was "filth."

"It's offensive beyond, you know, anything that any public figure or anybody in America should tolerate, and the mainstream media laughs about it," Santorum said.

Student reaction

Conservatives at UNT promise to be polite during Savage's visit.

"There are other platforms that we use to promote our political views, and causing a distraction to a guest at our university is not one of them," said Amanda Adamez, president of UNT's College Republicans.

Savage is coming to Red Country when he arrives in Denton County, but several young conservatives said there are a number of reasons he likely won't be greeted with much protest from them. Some said they prefer a debate with no name calling.

Adamez said that they want to be respectful and that Denton isn't like the rest of the county. Many students describe it as a small Austin.

"We know we are a conservative group on a liberal campus," she said.

Additionally, Santorum's political message hasn't really resonated at UNT. She said Savage's fighting words might have fueled their anger more if they had been aimed at Gov. Rick Perry or U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Lake Jackson.

But another issue among some young conservatives is that many know members of the LGBTQ community.

"We are more sensitive to that," Adamez said. "There are people in our lives who we care about who are openly gay."

Codi Knaupp, 19, a transgender junior and vice president of Glad UNT Queer Alliance, said Savage may get more pushback from within the LGBTQ community by those who believe he is transphobic -- having an irrational fear of people who are transgender. A Google search of "Savage and glitter bomb" turns up instances of trans activists showering him with the sparkly stuff to make a point.

Protests are a reality of campus life, Knaupp said, adding that last semester a visit from former Defense Secretary Robert Gates brought an outcry from anti-war activists.

"There are always going to be issues whenever you get anybody to come speak," Knaupp said.

'Very strong example'

Advocates, friends and members of the LGBTQ community in Denton say this issue doesn't overshadow a larger effort to fight for equality and acceptance. They say Savage's visit brings credibility to their commitment on this front.

"I think it is a really good move by the university to get him to come speak to us," Knaupp said. "He has done a lot for the community."

Fort Worth school district Trustee Carlos Vasquez, who is openly gay, said that while Savage's extreme humor is not a tactic he would have used, he understands it, noting that Savage works outside the lines.

"I'm excited that he is at the university," Vasquez said. Uyen Tran-Parsons, UNT's director of multicultural programming, said this year's conference theme is The Power of Peace is the Harmony of Inclusion. Savage was invited because his project speaks directly to young people. Some 350 people have registered for the event, including faculty, staff and area high school students. The conference will include workshops.

Savage and his partner, Terry Miller, put their experiences with bullying on video in 2010 after suicides grabbed nationwide headlines. The message -- that things can get better -- went viral.

Savage said the idea is to create support groups for teens anywhere in the world so they aren't isolated.

"We liked how he took the initiative to put that message out there," Tran-Parsons said. "This is a very strong example of how you can use social media to impact community issues."

Worries that too many young people chose death rather than being bullied prompted Fort Worth Councilman Joel Burns to deliver a 13-minute speech about bullying of gay and lesbian teens. That message went viral too.

Pam Wat, minister at the Denton Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, said that through efforts with the recently created OUTreach Denton youth support group, she sees how Savage's campaign helps. The congregation held a service tied to the movement last year in which members told their coming-out stories.

Despite changes in society, sexual orientation issues are very real for young people who can't find acceptance, she said: "We still have a lot of work to do."

To read more, visit