Like many a preacher and politician before him, Andrew Sullivan, the neoconservative gay pundit, was caught with his pants down. The story goes like this: Some time ago, Sullivan, who is HIV positive, took out an anonymous personal ad on a website called Barebackcity.com, which advertises itself as the “one stop source for bareback [i.e., unprotected anal] sex.” He listed himself under the screen name “RawMuscleGlutes,” posted two headless photographs, and solicited bareback sex, preferably (although he did not say only) with other HIV-positive men. He also indicated an interest in “bi-scenes, one-on-ones, three-ways, groups, parties, orgies and gang bangs,” but not in “fats and fems.” Sullivan’s identity was discovered by other visitors to the site, possibly by someone with whom he had a sexual encounter. The story simmered on gay Internet bulletin boards before breaking last week in the pages of LGNY in an article written by Michelangelo Signorile, the gay columnist who came to fame during the whole “outing” controversy a decade ago and who has recently called upon health officials to shut down gay bath houses to reduce unsafe sex. Sullivan confirmed the substance of Signorile’s account in a response he posted last Thursday to his own website (Andrewsullivan.com) titled “Sexual McCarthyism: An Article No One Should Have to Write.”
Of course, in and of itself, what Sullivan did wasn’t so unusual. Countless individuals (gays and straights, men and women) have unprotected sex all the time. When such stories become news, they’re usually about members of society who are already demonized–“vampires” like New York’s Nushawn Williams, an African-American man who was said to have “knowingly and willfully” spread AIDS to “innocent victims.” In contrast, Sullivan disclosed his HIV status from the start, and no one, not even Signorile, has alleged that Sullivan deliberately sought to infect his sex partners. As Sullivan noted in his own defense, anything that may have happened was a “legal, consensual, adult, private” affair, and if we were living in a culture that valued sexual diversity, that allowed open and frequent discussion of sexual freedom and responsibility, he would not have been subject to this kind of sensationalistic coverage.
But we don’t. We live in a culture that is all too ready to pathologize sex in any form that isn’t monogamy, and of this tendency, Sullivan is guiltier than most. So the story has come to revolve around Andrew Sullivan’s consummate hypocrisy.
And not without good reason. Sullivan was the editor of The New Republic during its most reactionary days, the writer who from his perch of smug privilege announced the end of the AIDS epidemic in a 1996 New York Times Magazine article, a proclamation that has proved fatally premature for most of the world. He has made a career out of disparaging gay activists for their radical “liberationist” agenda, attacked gay male culture for its “libidinal pathology” and queer politics for its “psychological violence.” As the self-appointed champion of gay marriage, fidelity and “normal” homosexuals, Sullivan has railed against the “sexual pathologies that plague homosexuals,” lambasted the “cartoonish, buffoonish similarity” of gay male bodies made in “manic muscle factories” and analogized unprotected oral sex with murder. As recently as last month, he criticized Bill Clinton for his “sexual recklessness” and “oblivious, careening narcissism.” So there is a certain satisfaction, I suppose, in catching Sullivan, the moralist, in a moment of deep hypocrisy, in finding out that he never had any intention of adhering to the standards by which he has so often judged others.
But we queers and leftists should pause before we nail Sullivan to his own cross.
For one thing, if we delight in discovering that Sullivan the moralist doesn’t follow his own prescriptions, we need to ask whether excoriating him for his hypocrisy risks reaffirming those very moral standards. In finding him a sinner, do we end up concurring with Sullivan’s original understanding of sin–if only to turn the tables on him? In doing so, we don’t challenge the moralizing, normalizing values that Sullivan espouses. We just relocate ourselves, temporarily, on the other end of the finger.