A Sex Advice Columnist Says Unions Are Great

Sex advice columnist and podcaster Dan Savage has supported unions and working people for pretty much his entire adult life. He has talked about how union contracts were an important first place for sexual equality wins — where gay couples won health care and retirement benefits and other basic protections offered for years to heterosexual married couples.

Robert Struckman: Thanks for talking, Dan. I’m going to start with a question that should take you back into the past. What was the worst job you ever had?

Dan Savage: [Laughs] Which one? I’ve had all kinds of worst jobs. I’ve washed dishes. I waited tables. I shucked oysters at an oyster bar. It was a working class oyster bar. In Seattle when you say a working class sea food restaurant, they think you’re crazy, but Chicago has these dives where it’s just the bare bones and nothing works, and that’s how they keep the prices down. I worked my way through college with any number of jobs. I was even a runner at the Chicago [Mercantile] Exchange. That was a terrible job. When we first started The Stranger, it was three years before we got paid. I washed dishes and waited tables and wrote theater reviews to pay the rent.

RS: You wrote theater reviews?

When I came along in 1980, there wasn’t much else for an out gay man to do. I couldn’t be a doctor or a lawyer. I thought I’d write reviews in Chicago all my life. Even after The Stranger was able to pay, the column was only about 20 percent of my job. I wrote reviews and edited. The column didn’t start to earn money until much later.

RS: How did you come up with the idea for a sex advice column?

DS: I never thought the column would be much of anything. When we first came up with the idea, it was to be an advice column about straight sex for straight men and women from a gay man. We thought it would be funny, and have the same tone about gay sex that Dear Abbey had about gay sex, like she would only touch it with gloves on, going, “Ewww.”

RS: I don’t recall when I first heard you talk about unions and the workplace as key places for activists to seek and find justice, but it was a long time ago. You have been way ahead of the curve. What are the roots of that idea for you?

DS: After college, I worked a few years and then went to Europe. When I say that, people think, Oh you must have had rich parents. That’s not the case. I come from a working class family. My dad was a policeman. He was in the police union. Now he’s a Republican, retired in Arizona. I went to Europe by scraping together enough money for a plane ticket, a one-way ticket to Germany. I worked there, and lived there as an ex-pat and almost stayed there. When I came back, that’s when I found my way to Seattle.

The labor movement should do what Israel does, the way every Jewish teenager gets a chance to go to Israel to see it all first-hand. You should send every teenager to Europe to see how it doesn’t matter what you do…. You can work in a coffee shop and still have access to healthcare… no… more than access… you have healthcare. You can see a dentist if your teeth hurt. You can take paid time off when you have a child. You don’t have to work when you’re sick.

When I saw what they have there, I learned that the difference is unions. Because then you come back here, and you see people suffering needlessly. I used to say this. I should have written about it, because people will say I’m just jumping on the bandwagon, but I used to say, “Why do people who put parts together on a manufacturing assembly line make $30 an hour when somebody working an assembly line in McDonald’s only gets minimum wage? It’s just a different assembly line, a profitable one, too.”

RS: What are insights into workplace organizing that we might draw from the gay rights movement?

DS: I think today’s movement for workers’ rights is built on the success of the gay rights movement, not consciously. We knew we had to take on our fights in a few big cities, where our numbers were large enough for the politicians to need our votes. I call it the Urban Archipelago. We started to win at the local level, and that built momentum. I think you’re already seeing this kind of success with cities passing higher minimum wages like in Los Angeles and San Francisco and Sea-Tac and Seattle. If you’re going to make it so none of us can have unions, we’re going to give everybody higher pay. Keep winning where you can.

RS: Dan, it’s so great talking to you. Thank you for taking the time.

DS: Thanks for reaching out, and please tell President Trumka how much I admire him. He is one of the most important voices in America, because he can talk to people like my father, and they listen to him. Please pass on my regards.