The Real Andrew Sullivan Scandal

His Private Life Is None of Our Business. His Public Life Certainly Is.

Andrew Sullivan, the premier gay writer at The New York Times, was about to speak on "The Emasculation of Gay Politics." He would take questions afterward "about any public issue," the man who introduced him announced. The chuckling audience knew what that meant. They had come to this June 7 lecture not just because of Sullivan and his topic but because of the scandal that surrounds him.

It all began in April, when Sullivan published a mocking account of his recent visit to San Francisco. "The streets were dotted with the usual hairy-backed homos," he had snarked. "I saw one hirsute fellow dressed from head to toe in flamingo motifs." Wandering into a gay bar, he recoiled: "Rarely have I seen such a scary crowd. Gay life in the rest of the U.S. is increasingly suburban, mainstream, assimilable. Here in the belly of the beast, Village People look-alikes predominate, and sex is still central to the culture. . . . I'd go nuts if I had to live here full time."

This was classic Sullivan, right down to the contempt for what he calls the "libidinal pathology" of gay sexual culture. He considers gay marriage the only healthy alternative to "a life of meaningless promiscuity followed by eternal damnation." He has hectored gay men for their obsession with "manic muscle factories," and written at length about the need for "responsibility" in the age of AIDS. But thanks to the outing squad, we now know that this gay moralist is guilty of the same sins he disses others for committing.

Illustration by Gary Aagaard

Using the screen name RawMuscleGlutes, Sullivan posted on a site for bare backers (the heroic term for gay men who have sex without condoms). He was seeking partners for unsafe anal and oral intercourse. Sullivan revealed that he was HIV-positive and stated his preference for men who are "poz," but he also indicated an interest in "bi scenes," groups, parties, orgies, and "gang bangs." This hardly fit the gay ideal Sullivan had created in his book Virtually Normal. In fact, RawMuscleGlutes is just the sort of "pathological" creature who raises Sullivan's wrath. Hypocrisy has always been a rationale for outing, and it's the justification for a group of gay journalists who teamed up with the tabs to expose him.

After word of Sullivan's online escapades lit up a gay chat room last month, David Ehrenstein, a chronicler of the Hollywood closet, passed the dish around. A judicious item appeared in Michael Musto's Village Voice column, and the story soon spread to Page Six of the New York Post. But the main mover was Michelangelo Signorile, the self-proclaimed inventor of outing. (See sidebar, "Sexual Squealing.") In a lengthy exposé that ran in the local gay paper LGNY, he skewered Sullivan for engaging in "a classic 'do as I say, not as I do' argument." Signorile's timing couldn't have been better. Every June some gay shock-horror grips the tabloids in time for Pride Week. This year's scandal is Sullivan's sex life.

For an openly gay writer, Sullivan has a very high profile, with columns in the Times and The New Republic (where he was once the editor). This gadfly gay conservative is no stranger to controversy, but he knows how to turn adversity to his advantage. At the Times lecture, he made the most of his latest brush with martyrdom. Despite the advisory against questions about his private life, Sullivan repeatedly alluded to the bare-backing furor in his remarks. It was like watching a pumped-up Saint Sebastian shoot the arrows while posing as their target.

After exhorting his audience to reject the "gay victim" myth, Sullivan cast himself as a victim of the left. "They are exactly the same as the far right," he said. "They'll try and get you by any means they can." Never mind that his tormentors bear about the same relationship to the left as Geraldo Rivera does. Never mind the hardcore lavender lefties who have defended Sullivan's right to sexual privacy. "In finding him a sinner," writes The Nation's Richard Kim, "we don't challenge the moralizing, normalizing values that Sullivan espouses. We just relocate ourselves, temporarily, on the other end of the finger."

The Times lecture was an excellent occasion to sample Sullivan's contradictions. He has always depended on the amnesia of his audience to cover his tracks. You might never know from his libertarian stance that he opposes abortion rights, or from his embrace of civil rights that he published excerpts from Charles Murray's racist tract, The Bell Curve, on his watch at The New Republic. Tonight, Sullivan pleaded for gay solidarity ("We need each other's support; we do not need to tear each other down") and then complained that all the major gay organizations are run by women. He endorsed antidiscrimination laws, though he once declared that after gays win the right to marry and serve in the military, "we should throw a big party and close down the gay rights movement for good." He rhapsodized about leather bars, though he once called joints that cater to such fetishes "abattoirs of AIDS." And in the evening's most bizarre moment, he urged his audience to reject hate-crime laws and arm themselves instead. To support his point, he cited Martin Luther King as an advocate of armed self-defense. This is the sort of reckless reasoning that has made Sullivan a star.

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