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Andrew Sullivan and the Politics of Privacy
The news that Andrew Sullivan, the openly gay, HIV-positive, conservative, devoutly Catholic, former editor of the New Republic (where he is still a contributing editor) and frequent columnist for the New York Times Magazine, had admitted to cruising gay websites for sex was delicious. The charge that Sullivan, who has long chastised gay men for their “libidinal pathology,” had placed a personal ad on barebackcity. com—a site solely for men looking for partners who will have sex without a condom—was scandalous.
On one level, the Sullivan affair is that familiar right-wing moralist gets his comeuppance story. But it's more. This case raises not only issues of personal hypocrisy, but also complicated ones of sexual responsibility, the right to privacy, and the decline of journalistic ethics. It also raises questions of how honest gay people can be about their lives. That all this should rest on Andrew Sullivan's shoulders may seem unfair, but the irony is that Sullivan didn't get into this mess because of his reckless personal behavior. Sullivan is where he is right now thanks to his reckless professional behavior.
On May 9, an anonymous posting appeared on Datalounge.com, a gossipy gay website, that claimed Sullivan had cruised AOL chat rooms under the name “HardnSolidDC” and that he had placed an ad on barebackcity.com: “DC Male 35 5'9” 198 32w 45c 17a 19” neck big hairy thighs; squatting 8 plates; solid body- builder, 10 percent body-fat; huge shoulders, strong, hairy butt; semi-bearded; into: hairy, endowed, masculine men; always 4.20; vers/top brothers welcome. uncut a plus. Hiv+ here; Healthy undetectable. chem-unfriendly; no such thing as too hairy.”
A week later, LGNY, a Manhattan queer weekly, published a 5,000-word piece on the scandal by noted gay journalist and provocateur Michelangelo Signorile, author, most recently, of Life Outside—The Signorile Report on Gay Men: Sex, Drugs, Muscles, and the Passages of Life. Signorile, a long-time Sullivan critic, based his report on two anonymous sources who claim the ad was placed by Sullivan. But page six of the New York Post wrote about Signorile's article May 30 under the headline “Top Gay Columnists Go To War” and noted that “conservative gay pundit” Sullivan hadn't responded to the Post's requests for comment and had been “uncharacteristically silent” about the matter. That same day, Jim Romenesko linked both the Signorile article and the gossip item on his website, MediaNews.org, all but insuring that everyone in the journalism universe would read Signorile's story.
Later that day, unable to ignore the story any longer, Sullivan posted a 2,500-word response to Signorile's article on his website, “Sexual McCarthyism: An Article No-One Should Have To Write.” In it, Sullivan confirms that he “had an AOL screenname/profile for meeting other gay men.” He also confirms that he “posted an ad some time ago on a site for other gay men devoted to unprotected sex,” though he doesn't confirm that the ad in question was posted. He refuses to say whether or not he regularly engages in unprotected sex. “I have no intention of discussing my sexual life in this respect.” He notes that he tries to “have sex only with other men who are HIV-positive.” He also refers to an incident of unprotected sex, which he describes as “the relief of finally having real sex,” that he wrote about in Love Undetectable: Notes on Friendship, Sex, and Survival. He blasts Signorile for engaging in “blackmail and intimidation” and claims that Signorile's piece “legitimates a sexual McCarthyism I find repugnant and evil.” He laments, “This is what journalism now is.” He also charges, “Gay men now need to know: the Internet is not a safe space. A poisonous segment of the gay activist world is policing it for any deviators from the party line.”
As Bay Windows editor Jeff Epperly, a former Sullivan booster who's since become a critic, noted in a letter to MediaNews.org: “Sullivan has made his career out of being the little snoopy old lady of the gay movement. He writes breathless exposés of certain hedonistic parts of the gay movement even as he attends circuit parties and leather events.” Indeed, Sullivan has become (in addition to his gigs with the New Republic and the Times, Sullivan appears regularly on “Meet the Press” and “Charlie Rose”) the most prominent openly gay spokesperson in the national media.
Throughout his career Sullivan has dismissed most gay politics and activists as idiotic, ill-informed, and pernicious. On every issue but gay marriage, which he supports, Sullivan takes positions contrary to middle of-the-road gay orthodoxy. He opposes hate- crimes legislation and laws against anti-gay discrimination in the public sector; he called the gay movement's organizing in response to Matthew Shepard's murder “a kind of political blackmail”; he continually attacks mainstream gay-rights groups as “leftists”; and, most relevant to the issue at hand, he has widely and very publicly proclaimed that the AIDS epidemic is over.
It's been interesting to note the disconnect between the journalists who've defended Sullivan and readers of MediaNews.org, who overwhelmingly support Signorile for having written the LGNY piece. The defenders have focused almost exclusively on Sullivan's “right to privacy,” while the MediaNews.org readers have focused on Sullivan's perceived hypocrisy.
Not surprisingly, Sullivan has latched onto the privacy argument. “There is no privacy,” he warns readers of his online screed. “You have no right to a personal space.” But what are the boundaries of privacy? A public person's private behavior, from alcoholism to spousal abuse, used to be off limits. It's not anymore. A decade ago the idea of “outing” closeted public officials who supported anti-gay policies seemed outrageous; now it is commonly accepted. To be sure, some of this is done with the highest moral and civic intentions. But other times, given the People-ization of popular culture, the motivation is more prurient. Sullivan made a big mistake when he thought of the Internet as “private” space. Let's face it: when you have accused gay male sexual culture of having “constructed and defended and glorified the abattoirs of the [AIDS] epidemic,” as Sullivan did in Love Undetectable, and when it turns out that you engage in some of the very behavior you've criticized in the past, you are playing a very dangerous game.
One of the ironies of this affair is that, while Sullivan adamantly claims that his private sex life is “none of your business,” he is one of the most self-referential journalists working today. He inserts himself and his experiences into both opinion and news pieces. Reading Love Undetectable and his other book, Virtually Normal: An Argument About Homosexuality, we find out Sullivan's fears, his childhood, how he prays, and his secret boyhood crushes. There is nothing wrong with writing personally, but Sullivan is prone to writing articles that are derived from (and almost entirely limited to) his own experience, and then passing those experiences off as universal fact.
His (in)famous 1996 New York Times Magazine piece “When Plagues End” purported to chart a momentous cultural shift attributable to the advent of protease inhibitors. “It's over. Believe me. It's over,” he wrote. “When Plagues End” was a moving testament to one man's relief. But as a piece of journalism, it was flawed. First, it acknowledged only briefly that poor people around the world—who constitute more than 75 percent of all AIDS cases— would never have access to these drugs.
Second, it paid no heed to the obvious, and even then indisputable, problems with protease inhibitors. (A terrible irony here is that the Sullivan scandal is blowing up at the 20th anniversary of the AIDS epidemic; the disease has so devastated parts of the world's population, particularly in Africa, that Sullivan's 1996 declaration now seems pathetic.) But the piece was hugely influential. Many AIDS activists today will tell you that “When Plagues End” set a tone in mainstream journalism that allowed reporters to stop dealing seriously with AIDS for several years.
The recklessness that informed “When Plagues End” is evident in much of Sullivan's writing and he makes many of his points by avoiding specifics and relying on often vulgar, if not inaccurate, generalizations. His controversial April 2, 2000, New York Times Magazine piece on testosterone is a good example. Sullivan, who was taking testosterone shots as part of his HIV therapy, celebrated the hormone in a loopy paean riddled with misconstrued or out-of-date information. Internationally known molecular biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling said, “Sullivan so vastly oversimplifies hormone metabolism as to provide a cartoon.” Not to mention that the piece was overtly hostile to feminism. (“As testosterone becomes increasingly available, more is being learned about how men and women are not created equal. So let's accept it and move on.”)
The most damning aspect of Signorile's exposé was the specter of Sullivan regularly having unprotected sex with HIV-positive men—a charge, it must be emphasized, that Sullivan does not confirm in his response to Signorile's article. While it might seem that unprotected sex couldn't put an HIV-positive person at any additional risk, in the past seven years an avalanche of scientific and anecdotal research has shown that reinfection is a serious problem. If an HIV-infected individual becomes infected with different strains of HIV, it can make that person's condition less treatable. Nevertheless, Sullivan dismisses the threat of reinfection in typically glib fashion: “I am aware of this theory and the slim reed of research it is based upon. I have discussed the issue with my doctors.... [B]ut to me, the evidence seems weak and hypothetical.” Once again, Sullivan is shaping and twisting scientific facts and theories to fit his own personal narrative. If you are writing a literary memoir, this may be fine. But if you are one of the few openly gay, openly HIV-positive writers with a national platform, then it's another matter altogether.
Sullivan has repeatedly attacked gay politics for being “victim-based.” How ironic, then, that he now claims to be a victim of, in his words, “the activists.” In his rebuttal to Signorile's piece, Sullivan compares himself to Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas. By paraphrasing Pastor Martin Niemöller's famous quote that begins “First they came for the Communists,” he actually likens himself to the victims of the Nazis. Talk about grandiose.
There's no question that gay people know just how potent sex smears can be. While I'm indulging in some serious schaden- freude right now, I also wonder about the long-term impact this entire blow-up will have. Although revelations about the private sex habits of a public shame-monger are always enlightening, in this case Sullivan isn't likely to be the only one who suffers. The exposure of Sullivan's private habits reinforces the worst stereotypes and preconceptions about gay culture. After all, if Andrew Sullivan is looking to fuck around with strangers on the Internet, then what are all the other queers doing?
There's nothing wrong with looking for sex or love on the Internet; millions of people do it every day. For the most part, the public has a grown-up attitude toward this. But they are far less willing to put up with cheap and easy moralizing, especially of the “do as I say, not as I do” variety.
For much of the gay press and many gay readers, Signorile's LGNY piece was well argued and impassioned, payback for all of Sullivan's slights and perceived abuses. Sullivan is right. This is a political attack. As Sullivan knows —and has used so effectively in his writing—the personal is the political. For the mainstream press this is a defining moment. For the first time in history an openly gay writer has been given prestige and the access to write about gay politics and gay life. That he is an ultra-conservative writer makes perfect sense. But this experiment has come to a crisis because Sullivan's credibility is under attack by his own constituency.
The irony in all of this is that Andrew Sullivan may end up being the victim of his own success. His conservatism and articulated standards of traditional sexual morality made him palatable to the mainstream. Sure he sometimes wrote about having sexual partners, but by his own admission, this was a fall from his higher standards. Andrew Sullivan was the perfect gay for straight people because he admitted that he was less than perfect. Now that he has been forced to admit that he was even worse than less than perfect—that he had the average desires, impulses, fantasies, and even actions as many many gay men—he may have crossed over and become just too gay. Z
Michael Bronski's writings on queer politics as well as culture have appeared in numerous magazines and books.