So, a few days ago Dan Savage tweeted thusly:

Here at The Castle Of Eros I was all like “ZOMG! It’s a bit of a drive but that’s actually a place we could get to!”

Alert readers already know that The Nymph and I spend more time than we’d like living buried fairly deep in red-state Heck. (Red-state “Heck” is distinguished from red-state “Hell” in the following way: it’s not “red-state Hell” unless you’re stuck there forever. Or, so I keep telling myself.) Anyway, we’re there (“temporarily”, he reminded himself) because of a complex and unremarkable web of family obligations and economic necessities. This too shall pass.

If you’ve spent any time yourself in red-state Heck, you’ll understand that the economic hollowing-out of rural America has left it a fairly desolate cultural wasteland of aging depopulated small towns, badly-run fast food franchises, decaying main streets, dollar stores, and 70-year-old ranchers in white pickups with hay spikes. Drive through it in any direction, from any small-town origin, and about every 40 minutes, you’ll come upon a bigger town with more fast food, a few complexes of chain hotels and big box stores, maybe a six-screen movie theater, and (most assuredly) a Walmart. For real diversity of choice in shopping, dining, or entertainment, you have to drive to the “the city”, which will be two or three hours away on average. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a few choices about which “the city” to go to; perhaps a genuine metropolis three hours one way, a university town two or three hours the other way, and a couple of regional centers of trade and commerce at similar distances in differing directions. But no matter what, if you want to do or see anything that isn’t a franchised or corporate-packaged experience, or eat anything that hasn’t been deep fried, you’d best put forty bucks worth of gas in your vehicle, download some podcasts to your digital media player of choice, and settle in for some serious driving. (Trust me, you’ll need the MP3 player; your car radio will offer you ClearChannel Top 40, “classic” country, preaching, or conservative talk radio. You pick.)

After a while, you get used to it. It’s a lifestyle like any other. But still, when news comes that a fun awesome sex-positive speaker like Dan Savage — somebody I’ve been laughing with and linking to and admiring and reading and listening to for a decade — is coming to speak in one of your not-so-local “the city” potential day-trip excursion destinations, it’s pretty astonishing.

So I mentioned it to The Nymph. And she said, instantly “We’re totally going.” Which is what I thought she’d say.

And so: go we did. Yesterday we got an early start, did a bunch of driving, stopped at an Indian casino for the “free” soda pop and the clean bathrooms, and eventually found ourselves in the substantial college town of Norman Oklahoma. After a very nice meal at a Thai restaurant we quite like (don’t miss the fresh spring roll appetizers, they are delightfully un-fried, and you have no idea how rare that is in these parts) we found ourselves at the event venue. We were at least an hour early (you have to leave time for contingencies when you’re driving vast distances) and the huge ballroom was mostly empty, with perhaps 50 people in a room with a thousand empty chairs. But then the organizers cleared the room to do some extra setup, so we found ourselves at the head of a rapidly-forming line outside. Which was when I had time to say this:

It was a fun line and a fun crowd, refreshingly different from the aging ranchers and surly disaffected rural youth that I encounter more often in my daily life. It was a young (mostly college-age) crowd, alternative, gay, political — just about what you’d expect from college fans of Dan Savage. A few folks were working the line for signatures on various petitions, I saw a lot of political tee-shirts one does not usually see in red-state America, and the conversation was boisterous and hilarious; one young lady was laughingly insisting that when she’s hospitalized she always demands at least fifty percent “gay blood” in her transfusions so she doesn’t get “diluted by straight people.” And then I saw the “Eat Pussy: It Has More Calories Than You Think” shirt…

So we were having a good time chillin’ in the line, The Nymph was chatting with one of the signature-gatherers, and I was fiddling with Twitter. I was feeling good about life and then I started to laugh, because Violet Blue replied in my Twitter feed with this:

To understand why I was laughing, you have to understand that I once (long ago) lived in San Francisco and I still miss the place. I don’t think I’d actually want to live there (big cities tend to be too big for me after awhile) but it can’t be beat for a city full of fun things to do, great places to eat, and (especially) cool people organizing and attending awesome events. For as long as I’ve known Violet online (more than ten years) and seen her blog posts and tweets about the fun/cool stuff that happens to her, I’ve been jealous of her location. A week rarely passes when she doesn’t post or tweet something that makes me groan and think “Gawd I miss San Francisco!” And now she’s jealous of me, for an event I’m attending here in deepest red-state Heck? Mark your calendars people, this won’t be happening again any time soon!

So pretty soon they opened the doors and we all filed in. The room filled with astonishing speed, the thousand chairs all soon had asses in them, and they started bringing in more chairs. Then they announced standing room in the back, and by the time people stopped milling around, there had to be at least 1100 seated people and another 200 or so standing. It was a packed house by any definition.

Then Dan came bouncing in with his trademark energy. He was there to talk about his It Gets Better project, especially the history of it and how it took off. As always Dan was passionate and funny and engaging — the kind of speaker who could earn his appearance fee if you drew an essay topic from a hat and handed it to him on the podium and said “Go, talk about this for an hour!”

Unfortunately the lighting was bad, so my best cellphone pic of him is this blurry monstrosity:

Dan Savage

Someone else at the event tweeted these; they’re better.

Aside: I had to laugh at the young lady from the Student Activities Council who introduced Dan. He’s many things, and “relationship advice columnist” is not precisely wrong … but she was strangely prim about it, and I suspected her of being unable or unwilling to say the word “sex” (as in “sex columnist”) in front of a large crowd.

Dan’s talk was a good time. The thing that struck me most strongly about it was his explanation about the way the It Gets Better project broke down a barrier I never even knew existed. Before he got the idea to do a video project that relied on the internet for actually reaching his target audience of bullied gay youth, he was fretting because he felt somebody needed to reach out and tell these kids that it gets better, but he knew that neither he (nor anybody else in the gay community) could ever get permission to talk to them directly. No high school would let him in to speak, no homophobic parent would sign the permission slip, there just seemed to be no way to get the message out. And I was nodding along with this, thinking “Dan’s pretty direct, he talks openly about sex, no high school would dare allow that.”

Which means that I was completely missing the point.

What I didn’t know (or “sort of” knew but never actually had to think about) is that gay adults in particular do not have social permission to talk to American teens. It’s not a “don’t talk about sex” thing; it’s directed at adult gays and it’s a “don’t talk to our teens at all or we’ll accuse you of recruiting and/or pedophilia.” It’s something I sort of knew, but I never understood how strong the taboo was and I had never had reason to consider how frustrating it must have been to big-hearted activists like Dan.

Of course, YouTube blew all that shit completely out of the water, with a little help from Dan Savage and a lot more from the people he could reach through his column and his podcast and his media appearances and his speaking gigs. It wasn’t so much that the adult gatekeepers suddenly vanished — that had happened years earlier while almost nobody noticed — as that Dan suddenly realized that he didn’t have to ask anybody for permission to talk to distressed gay kids. All he needed was that realization, plus a bit of his renowned memetic engineering genius, and the rest is triumphant life-saving history.

After his prepared remarks, Dan took questions from the audience. These were sometimes unintentionally hilarious (for instance, the one from the self-described Republican woman who challenged Dan because she felt “bullied” by his rough-and-tumble political remarks) but each one gave Dan an opportunity to deliver a bit more of his trademarked high-energy sex-positive speechifying. I found myself in awe at his public speaking skills. It’s not easy to take random questions from an audience and deliver brief, coherent, and entertaining answers. Dan’s a skilled professional at it, and it’s a joy to watch.

Afterwards Dan was doing book signings and perhaps some meet-and-greet, but with the room so full, we figured we’d never make it to the head of the line. My ability to tolerate noisy crowds is limited, and we were facing a long and dark drive through what can sometimes feel like endless pastures full of leaping nocturnal deer, so we regretfully decided to bail. The book signing lines stretched out of the room and up and down two stairwells by the time we left, and it looked like it was going to be a zoo for however long Dan was staying. So, home we went.

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