Michelangelo Signorile is a bit of a careerist. That may explain why, in the first paragraph of his Sullivan exposé, Signorile mentions his own appearance on 60 Minutes and plugs his most recent book. Still, he makes a passionate case for invading Sullivan’s privacy.
From his powerful perch, Sullivan has done great damage to AIDS-prevention efforts, most notoriously in a 1996 Times magazine cover story called “When Plagues End.” Sullivan’s ecstatic account of new HIV treatments virtually ignored their ghastly, sometimes deadly, side effects. By discounting the likelihood that these treatments will fail over time, he fed the denial that, most experts contend, is contributing to the rise in HIV infections among young gay men. What’s more, Sullivan all but dismissed the possibility that positive men who have unsafe sex are opening themselves and their partners to reinfection, perhaps with a super-strain of HIV. The danger that such strains will spread in the gay community, making treatment impossible, is Signorile’s most compelling reason for exposing Sullivan.
Of course, back when Signorile was outing celebrities, his targets didn’t have to pose a clear and present danger; just being closeted and famous was enough of an outrage. Now, the search-and-destroy mission has an urgent social purpose, but its real effect is to further widen the outing net. After all, if risky behavior is the standard for exposure, why shouldn’t the names of every known sex pig be published in the gay press? That’s precisely what newspaper editors did, and sometimes still do, in the name of decency, especially in the South: They print the names—and pictures, if possible—of gay men arrested under the sodomy laws for having consensual sex.
But isn’t Sullivan a public figure? Isn’t his private life a key to understanding the duplicity that colors his work? Wasn’t it right to expose Henry Hyde as an adulterer during the impeachment imbroglio? Wouldn’t it have been appropriate to out Roy Cohn, who was instrumental in Joseph McCarthy’s antigay crusade?
Yes in both cases, since Hyde is a politician and Cohn was a politician’s counsel. Their actions directly affected our lives. (McCarthy’s witch hunt cost thousands of gay federal workers their jobs.) This is the reason politicians are granted scant protection by libel laws. But Sullivan is a writer whose power lies in his ability to persuade. It may be true that his opinions are dangerous, but the proper response to bad speech is more speech, as the civil libertarians say. In other words: argument, not character assassination. If Signorile’s standard prevails, any writer whose ideas run counter to some righteously held conviction might be targeted for surveillance. The result would be a chilling of the heated and often brilliant debate over how gay people live.
There has always been an authoritarian agenda in Signorile’s outing jihads. By using activism to rehabilitate gossip, journalists like him validate the collapse of privacy—and this is also a clear and present danger. We live in a society where race-car driver Dale Earnhardt’s widow had to litigate to keep his autopsy photos out of sight. Less famous folks are subject to seeing their loved one’s corpse on reality TV. Uninvited photos of people on the toilet circulate online. This is why sexual squealing should give us pause. Sullivan may be a hypocrite whose contempt masks self-loathing. He may be in denial about AIDS. But he knows a slippery slope when he sees one—and he is right to argue that “no one’s legal, consensual, adult private life should be plundered and exposed for political purposes.”
Unfortunately, Sullivan himself has dabbled in crypto-outing. In one of his more puckish Times columns, he named names—including Ed Koch and Ricky Martin—in the process of chiding celebrities who “play Kinda Ask, Sorta Tell” about their sexuality. Hypocrisy is the hallmark of this writer’s work. He had no problem with the men who plundered Bill Clinton’s private life for political purposes; indeed, he lambasted Clinton for his “sexual recklessness.” What goes around comes around, as the snap queens say.
Richard Goldstein explains the real Andrew Sullivan scandal.