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.
For another, despite his hysterical protests to the contrary, Sullivan has made a career out of cultivating this kind of public attention–and this controversy might easily descend into yet another attempt to unravel the mystery behind a man who is already dangerously overexposed. In his books Love Undetectable and Virtually Normal, he displays a remarkable inclination to consider his own experiences, or those of gay men just like him, as representative of gay culture at large (or, alternatively, as the model that all gay people should follow). He drones on and on about his sexual encounters, their beauty and dignity or lack thereof, while creating precious little room for others to participate in such a conversation on their own terms. The most infamous and deadly example of Sullivan’s narcissism is his aforementioned Times story on AIDS, which concluded that because wealthy, white gay men such as himself now had access to vital, life-extending anti-retroviral medications, we have arrived at the “end of the plague.” As we approach the twentieth “anniversary” of AIDS, as the Centers for Disease Control reports that fifteen of every 100 American gay black men contract HIV each year, and as the death toll in Africa rises to genocidal heights while Western pharmaceutical companies withhold drug patents, we might wonder just how good a representative Sullivan is for gay people or people with AIDS. Now, when his sex life becomes the focus of an inquiry he can’t control, he’s eager to play the martyr, going so far as to invoke Clarence Thomas, calling the whole incident the “high-tech lynching of an uppity homo.” Once he was a saint; now he’s a victim–two sides of the same coin, one that in the end isn’t worth much to anyone but Sullivan.
Signorile’s article falls into both of these traps, on the one hand demonstrating a disturbing tendency to conflate promiscuity with irresponsibility and recklessness, and on the other dwelling needlessly on Sullivan’s “complicated” psychology. These are favorite tactics of Signorile, and although it may appear as if he and Sullivan are political opponents, we would do well to remember Michael Warner’s diagnosis in The Nation a few years ago (“A New Gay Stone Wall,” June 14, 1997)–that in the spectrum of gay political thought, of which Signorile and Sullivan are major figures, “the ideas promoted range from right to far right.” Signorile seeks to fuel a sex panic that condemns gay male sexual culture without ever really trying to understand the ways in which gay men negotiate sexual pleasure and self-protection. Sullivan advocates a severely constrained image of normal homosexuality that fits seamlessly into society’s accepted values. He has suggested that, once gays win the legalization of same-sex marriage, along with a few other things (presumably including the right to serve openly in the military), “we should have a party and close down the gay rights movement for good.” However different their motives and strategies, the result is the same: Gay sexual culture becomes the property of a few privileged individuals who fit certain normative notions of sexuality. Anyone who falls outside such boundaries, anyone who might be further marginalized by their race, class, gender or sexual tastes, is not only denied the right to speak from within gay culture but is held responsible for its political failures, diseases and deaths.
And here is where the charge of recklessness and irresponsibility might stick. It’s not so much Sullivan’s sexual practices that are irresponsible but his policing of other people’s sex lives in such a way that preserves his own sexual privilege. In his defense, Sullivan invoked the language of privacy, insisting that his consensual sexual affairs are nobody else’s business. Ideally, they’re not. But when one places Sullivan’s actions in the context of his moralizing politics, it becomes apparent that it’s not privacy that Sullivan wants, but rather secrecy. As Ellen Willis argued regarding the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, invoking privacy in order to defend secrecy is a classic gesture of male sexual privilege. Genuine sexual privacy involves a respect for sexual diversity and militates against the policing of other people’s sex lives, “and when privacy is respected, secrecy is unnecessary.” But since Sullivan has been instrumental in creating a political climate in which sexual privacy doesn’t exist for others, his claim to privacy must be read as a last-ditch effort to maintain sexual secrecy. He wants to enjoy a right that he would readily deny others, and therein lies his real irresponsibility–his absolute failure to articulate a sexual politics that extends beyond his own interests.
As with so many other sex scandals, we’re left with a lot of what ifs. What if at any moment either Signorile or Sullivan had advocated an expansive view of sexual politics? What if they had attempted to build a gay movement that takes to heart feminism’s historical insistence on talking about both sexual freedom and responsibility? What if they had understood the AIDS epidemic as a moment that reveals the deep-seated inequalities in our society, that presents an opportunity for queers to forge alliances with other minorities? What if they had given due respect to the AIDS activists who pioneered the languages of safe sex and AIDS militancy, rather than disparaging them in the most condescending ways? In short, what if they had been that much more generous in their polemics? We might find ourselves in a radically different place. Instead of a defense of sexual secrecy masquerading as a claim to sexual privacy, we might be talking about valuing a wide range of sex publics, such that no one need hide their sexual practices from public view. Instead of a politics of sexual fear and revulsion, we might be building sexual communities, working within them to promote safe sex while respecting sexual freedom. Here’s one of the grave ironies of the Sullivan incident: Because queer publics have been subject to state crackdowns, moralizing campaigns and health scares of the sort gay conservatives have supported, the Internet has become the de facto site for gay cruising–but as a virtual, privatized space, it’s much less open to the kinds of frank, public conversations about pleasure and safety that we so desperately need to be having.
I’m reminded here of gay activist and poet Essex Hemphill’s passage on the political and ethical mandates of the AIDS crisis. “Now we think when we fuck. This nut might kill. This kiss could turn to stone.” For sexual minorities, sexual responsibility has always been about negotiating risk and pleasure, but now the imperative is greater than ever–to think about ourselves and our politics, our joys and dangers, while we think about and have sex. Tragically, we’ve deferred once again an opportunity for public discourse on sexual politics, and instead found ourselves in a dark and sad moment of judgment and shame. That we arrive here in part as a result of both Signorile’s and Sullivan’s previous statements offers little consolation. After all, most of us queers still have to live in it–this world not of our own making.