Sex, Scandal and Andrew Sullivan
Unprotected sex. Big, hairy thighs. Right-wing hypocrisy. What more could a sex scandal need?
The news that Andrew Sullivan -- the openly gay and HIV-positive, Tory 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 Web sites for sex was, well, 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 fuck without a condom -- was, well, scandalous.
On one level, the Sullivan affair is that familiar right-wing-moralist-gets-his-comeuppance story. But it's also 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. And it 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. No, Sullivan is where he is right now thanks to his reckless professional behavior. But before we get to that, some background.
On May 9, an anonymous posting appeared on Datalounge.com, a gossipy gay Web site, that claimed Sullivan had cruised AOL chat rooms under the name "HardnSolidDC" and that he had placed the following ad on barebackcity.com: "DC Male 35 5'9" 198 32w 45c 17a 19neck big hairy thighs; squatting 8 plates. solid bodybuilder, 10 percent body-fat; huge shoulders, strong, hairy b*tt; 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."
The posting spread across the Internet like small-town gossip about a knocked-up prom queen. A week later, LGNY, a Manhattan queer weekly, published a 5000-word piece on the scandal by noted gay journalist and provocateur Michelangelo Signorile, who is the author, most recently, of Life Outside -- The Signorile Report on Gay Men: Sex, Drugs, Muscles, and the Passages of Life (HarperCollins, 1997).
The piece was problematic -- Signorile, a long-time Sullivan critic, based his report on two anonymous sources who claim the ad was, indeed, 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 Web site MediaNews.org, all but insuring, as Inside.com columnist Seth Mnookin later pointed out, that everyone in the journalism universe would read Signorile's story.
Later that same day, unable to ignore the story any longer, Sullivan posted a 2500-word response to Signorile's article on his Web site, www.andrewsullivan.com: "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 on barebackcity.com. 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" -- but notes that he tries to "have sex only with other men who are HIV-positive." And 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 (Knopf, 1998). 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 that "this is what journalism now is." He also charges that "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."
So why is this news? Well, let's see. 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 leveraged his high profile in the media (in addition to his gigs with the New Republic and the Times, Sullivan appears regularly on Meet the Press and Charlie Rose) to become the most prominent openly gay spokesperson in the national media.
That's not to say that Sullivan asked to be the highest-profile gay person in Washington's intellectual circles, or that he sought such standing at all. But it doesn't change the fact that he is. And 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," which betrays an ignorance of the meaning of the word; and, most relevant to the issue at hand, he has widely and very publicly proclaimed that the AIDS epidemic is over.
So word that Sullivan engages in the very behavior he's built a career on criticizing is certainly news.
It's been interesting to note the disconnect between the journalists who've defended Sullivan (Mnookin, Salon news editor Joan Walsh, openly gay culture writer Cliff Rothman, and Southern Voice editor Chris Crain) and readers of MediaNews.org, who overwhelmingly support Signorile for having written the LGNY piece. (Walsh went so far as to say that she was "a little sickened" by the glee with which some posters have reveled in Sullivan's humiliation.) 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 in the wake of Bill and Monica, what are the boundaries of privacy?
Over the past three decades our ideas about what is public and what is private have shifted radically. Bill and Monica couldn't get away with what JFK and Judy Exner or FDR and Lucy Mercer did. A public person's private behavior -- from alcoholism to spousal abuse -- used to be off limits; it's not anymore (hello, Wil Cordero). A decade ago the idea of "outing" closeted public officials who supported anti-gay policies seemed outrageous; now it is commonly accepted (hello, Jim Kolbe). 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. The reality is that the personal lives of public figures are now fair game, especially if those personal lives seem relevant to their public lives and statements.
Sullivan made a big mistake when he thought of the Internet as "private" space. To be sure, you can be anonymous -- or, as the case may be, "HardnSolidDC" -- online, but if someone finds out that you are a conservative journalist who is highly critical of gay-male sexual culture, you make yourself dependent on the kindness of strangers. And strangers don't have any moral mandates to be kind, especially if you've been attacking them viciously in print and on the air for more than a decade. 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 his most recent book, 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. No one should be surprised that some -- no, many -- people find this newsworthy.
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 through Love Undetectable and his other book, Virtually Normal: An Argument About Homosexuality (Vintage, 1995), we find out about Sullivan's fears, his childhood, how he prays, and his secret boyhood crushes, often in near-swooning-schoolgirl style. 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. Personal and eloquently argued, "When Plagues End" was a moving testament to one man's relief. But as a piece of journalism, it was deeply 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. He is compulsively readable, and almost always engaging. But he is partial to sweeping statements that make little sense. And he makes many of his points by avoiding specifics and relying on often vulgar, if not inaccurate, generalizations. (Take this, from Love Undetectable: "The landscape of gay [male] life is, indeed, almost a painting in testosterone.")
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 piece generated an avalanche of letters. There's no question that Sullivan is great at stirring up controversy -- but at what cost?
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 -- and very dangerous -- 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."
My point here isn't that Sullivan and his partners may be making dangerous health decisions -- that, as Sullivan notes, is a private decision and one that he has discussed "with my doctors, and my current boyfriend and my last boyfriend, both of whom are HIV-positive" -- but that, 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 from which to write about AIDS and influence current debate, then it's another matter altogether.
It's important to keep one thing in mind that many mainstream commentators on the Sullivan scandal have missed: what goes around comes around. Sullivan's complaint that he is being treated unfairly probably sounds very different to mainstream commentators than it does to those of us in the gay community that he has derided for years. Sullivan has repeatedly attacked gay politics for being "victim-based." How ironic, then, that he now claims to be a victim himself -- of, in his words, "the activists." Indeed, in his rebuttal to Signorile's piece, Sullivan compares himself to Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas (which shows you who his heroes are). And 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. Sullivan also says that he is not paranoid, but it's a stretch to believe that. And today, June 7, he is scheduled to give a talk on "The Emasculation of Gay Politics" as part of the New York Times speaker series. A descriptive blurb in an ad promoting the talk notes that Sullivan will delve into how "the gay community joined the victimology bandwagon" and how "New Left feminism changed forever a kind of gay politics." Is Sullivan always thinking about his genitals?
Look, there's no question that gay people know more than any other group just how potent sex smears can be. And while I'm indulging in some serious schadenfreude 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 merely reinforces the worst stereotypes and preconceptions about gay culture -- yes, the very same culture that Sullivan has spent so much time criticizing. After all, if Andrew Sullivan, 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, or a good fuck on the Internet; millions of people do it every day. And for the most part, the public has a grown-up attitude toward this. Americans now comprehend the endless fallibility of human behavior better than they ever did -- for instance, most people didn't think Bill Clinton did anything wrong (although Sullivan, in last week's London Times, was still ranting about his behavior). 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.
The least of Andrew Sullivan's problems is that his private sex life has become "news." Maybe Sullivan would feel a little bit different about the gay community if he could put himself in the shoes of the legions of gay men and lesbians who've lost their jobs or their children because their private sex habits became public. In other words, things could be worse.
Michael Bronski can be reached at