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Incognito and in Plain Sight: A Conversation With the Other Dan Savage

Living in the digital shadow of a nationally syndicated columnist and TV producer

This is the third installment of a series exploring the concept of the digital doppelgänger, when you share an online identity with someone. Read past installments, including the basics of the phenomenon, here:

It can be trying to have a common name in any context, let alone on the internet. Ask any John Smith or Maria Martinez: Your identity is easier to steal; you probably won’t be remembered in competitive job interviews; people will take your drink at Starbucks. And as this series has shown, it’s even worse when you have the unfortunate privilege of owning your name’s digital real estate.

But it’s another thing entirely to have a common name that’s also famous — and with someone who shares your gender, race, sexual orientation and profession, to boot.

Meet Dan Savage.

No, not the writer, pundit, and LGBTQ activist known for his influential and nationally syndicated sex column “Savage Love” — the other one. Specifically, the other queer white male writer named Dan Savage. Who also happens to have the Dan Savage Gmail address. A 27-year-old native of Shavertown, Pennsylvania, Savage moved to Los Angeles a few years ago, like so many before him, to break into screenwriting. Unlike many, though, he’s done well for himself since, keeping the lights on with rewrite gigs on feature films while working on his own directorial debut with a filmmaking partner.

Still, trying to make a name for yourself when another guy with your name is six steps ahead of you, even dipping his toe into TV these days, can be a pain — even if it does come with a perk here and there. We met up with Dan (or “D. Madison Savage,” as he now prefers to be known professionally these) in West L.A. last week to chat about living in the shadow of a sex columnist, grunge Taylor Swift and the email account that’s become such a wasteland he doesn’t even bother using it anymore.

So how much do you, Dan Savage, have in common with Dan Savage the famous sex columnist?
The weird thing about my experience with having the same name as Dan Savage is this sense of him being always three steps away. You know, first in terms of my coming out as gay, and then in terms of being a writer, then in terms of working in Hollywood. Now Dan Savage has a TV show on ABC, The Real O’Neals. So he’s always like preempting me, like 10 steps ahead. So it’s funny how I’ve felt this sense of like ghost leadership from him. You’re always there, following me around, but I’m technically following you.

He just haunts your life.
Yeah, literally, that’s exactly it: He haunts my life. It’s fucking spooky, like a specter. Dan Savage is always with me. He’s like my guardian angel.

Have you ever met him?
I’ve never met him. It’s like maybe my destiny, to meet him. Just to be like, “I’m Dan Savage too.”

I’m sure he’s met a few.
One day a few years ago, before Facebook tightened up some of its security and privacy settings, I got a group Facebook message with a whole bunch of Dan Savages. There were like 10 of them. One of us rallied us all. Everyone was youngish, somewhere between teenage years to like early 40s, but across all demographics and locations in the world. The guy who sent the message was like, “Hey, fellows.”

That was it?
That was it. Some people left the conversation, some people were like, “Yo, what’s up?” But my response was like, “We’re all gathered here. When are we going to talk about the sex columnist, and what are we going to do about him? This is our chance.” It was like the climate summit in Paris: “It’s now or never.”

I think I realized at that moment that Dan Savage isn’t as famous as he is in certain circles. Among queer people, and writers, and people on the coasts — New York, L.A., San Francisco — we all know who he is, but he’s not that well-known elsewhere. So I realized in that moment, “Am I the only Dan Savage that has a Dan Savage problem?” It was like, “Of course the Dan Savage summit is not convening to deal with this problem, because this Dan Savage is, like, a lumberjack in Nebraska, with three kids.”

Yeah, digital doppelgängers aren’t really a problem for people who don’t give a damn about the internet. Do you get emails meant for the real Dan Savage?
I have. I actually own the Dan Savage Gmail. I got it in the beta-testing phase, when my 14-year-old self was like, “I should corner this market.” I don’t use it, because I realize it’s a more common name than I anticipated, and I feel like it’s my name first and foremost. Like, “How dare anyone have the same name as me?” It’s a weird, primal, even Freudian thing. So I get all sorts of weird emails. They’re actually kind of fascinating, but yes, some of them are addressed to famous Dan Savage.

Dan Savage Prime?
Oh my god, he’s like Dan Savage Alpha.

My mistake, technically, you’re the Dan Savage Prime, because you have the Gmail locked down. [Editor’s note: Read our definition of what it means to be the “prime.”] But he makes your life living hell because he’s the more famous one.
Right, so I get correspondence meant for Dan Savage, some of which is like, “You’re going to hell,” and some are, “What the hell should I do?” But then I also get job offers for other Dan Savages, who have applied to jobs and randomly put down the wrong email address, or something. I don’t check that address that much, so I won’t see that someone got offered a job until, like, a year later, and I’ll be just like, “Wrong email… sorry???”

I also realized I have a very common name — but also the name of a very specific person with a very specific line of work. So it goes in two directions.

Extremely general and very specific at the same time. Has that affected your job at all?
Technically, yes. When my friend originally told the producers of this movie that I worked on about me, he said, “My friend Dan Savage helped me out.” They were like, “Wait, the Dan Savage?” He was like, “No, no, the other one.” That was like the second or third time that I’d heard through the grapevine that someone in my industry had mistaken me for him. I realized that I needed to change my name professionally, so I go by D. Madison Savage now. My mom is still like, “Why did you do that?” Madison is her maiden name and my middle name.

But she doesn’t have to deal with the fact that another Dan Savage is several steps ahead of you in your career.
Yeah, and I don’t think when she’s at parties, she’s confronted by the fact that her kid’s name is Dan Savage. Once a weekend, once a week, I have to do my Dan Savage shtick [with strangers]. It’s a nice crutch in some ways, but I’m also like, the joke is over.

I would actually say that Dan Savage is not a celebrity — he’s notable. Because even among people who are plugged in and know who he is, not many know what he looks like, how old he is. They just know that he’s a white gay dude. It’s a similar thing that happened with Sean Lockhart, where he was stripped of his name: The Dan Savage name is what’s famous, not his appearance. So people certainly have confused me for him, but what’s unique about my situation is that I share a name with a writer who could be literally like anybody. Like I once read this thing about a guy, in the UK, like a lumberjack guy, whose name is Taylor Swift. It’s funny because his name is Taylor Swift, and he’s definitely not Taylor Swift. My problem is the exact opposite of that, where it’s like I literally could be Dan Savage.

Have you ever been actually mistaken for him?
Once, I was in Vegas with two friends, and I called down to get a reservation at this fancy restaurant and asked them to put it under my name. Shocker: They thought I was that Dan Savage. The chef brought us out a fancy bottle of wine and started talking to me about how much of a fan he is. He thought Dan Savage was a local Las Vegas writer. I was so bewildered, I just start pretending to have a sex column. They had already opened the wine by the time I realized what was happening, and at that point, it seemed easier not to embarrass the shit out of this man and to simply thank him and let him go.

When did you first discover he existed?
This is a good story, so listen up: I was in sixth grade, computer lab, with my English teacher, Sarah Sailor. Great teacher, great educator. We were learning, as you did in sixth grade when you had to learn how to use computers, how to use Boolean operators, search terms, how to do research. So we were learning the quotation marks and the parenthesis and the addition and subtraction and all that stuff, which I don’t even remember now. So we were all at our hulking dinosaur computers, and there was a giant projector up. It was like projecting Ms. Sailor’s thing. She was teaching us: “Let’s do quotation marks. Let’s search Dan’s name.” So she puts “quote, D-A-N S-A-V-A-G-E, end quote, Google, enter.” And certainly, what comes up is sex columnist Dan Savage. Like, “Should I do anal with my wife?”

Oh my god, that’s so embarrassing.
In high school, everyone would have been like, “Oh that’s funny, Ms. Sailor should be embarrassed.” In middle school, it’s more like, “No, you’re the one we should make fun of, Dan.”

That’s like the nature of middle school: inflicting as much pain upon your classmates as possible.
Completely. I wasn’t out in sixth grade, but here was a gay sex columnist. At that point, I didn’t even know that I was gay, so I was just horrified. I guess the funny thing is now I’m gay. Dan Savage was a step ahead of me, once again.

Devon Maloney is a culture writer living in Los Angeles whose work has appeared in Wired, Vanity Fair, Grantland, Vulture and The Los Angeles Times, among others.