The Real Andrew Sullivan Scandal


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.

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.

Reporters who visited his Web site at the height of the scandal were greeted with the following comment: If you “want a quote from me about the details of my sex life, feel free to use the following: ‘It is none of your business.’ ” Sullivan is right about that. His sex life is not the issue. The real scandal is why he is America’s most prominent gay writer.

Not long ago, it was impossible to imagine a gay columnist at America’s paper of record. The Times was legendary for its cold shoulder to gay activists, and its city room was considered hell on homosexual reporters. But the paper has changed dramatically. Gay men rank among its most influential staffers, and its coverage has been instrumental in the progress of gay rights. So it wasn’t entirely a surprise when a gay writer was given a prime slot at the Times magazine in 1998. But why this gay writer?

Imagine Ward Connerly, the black opponent of affirmative action—or a scathing antifeminist like Katie Roiphe—getting a column on race or women’s issues in the Times. Yet when it comes to gays, the more “politically incorrect” you are—and the more cutting toward queer culture—the farther you get in the liberal media.

Consider Camille Paglia, the attack dyke who graces the virtual pages of Salon. Not many people hold Matthew Shepard responsible for the torture he suffered, but Paglia has. Not many columnists refer to fragile men as “sissies,” but Paglia does. Not many people still think gay men are shaped by “some protracted childhood trauma [that] has overwhelmed nature’s pleasure-giving hormonal promptings,” but Paglia believes precisely that. Her pronouncement is the premise of Christian corrective therapy. Yet her throwback persona is precisely what makes her a draw. Like Sullivan, Paglia relies on gay-culture bashing to certify herself as an independent thinker. And like Sullivan, she thrives on the sexual backlash.

These gayocons stand outside the tradition of queer humanism that runs from Oscar Wilde and E.M. Forster to James Baldwin, Tennessee Williams, and Allen Ginsberg. The moral core of this lineage—its compassion, its critique of power, its respect for the sexual—still informs queer culture. It is gay liberation. But this sensibility is barely visible in the liberal media. (You have to read the radical press to find the real thing.) What has emerged instead reflects the uneasiness that remains about gay coverage, even as genteel acceptance has replaced active abhorrence. No matter how secure we may feel, the fact is that gay people live in a halfway house at best. We are out on parole.

The anxieties created by this uncertain status are felt by gays and straights alike. They are expressed in the Sullivan-Paglia persona. These writers have the moral flexibility, the self-satisfaction, and the style—charm laced with cruelty—that the times demand.

Why are attack queers so appealing to straight liberals? The fact is that launching an attack on gay “orthodoxies” is the surest route to celebrity for a homosexual thinker. Anyone who breaks with the movement is called courageous; anyone who mocks queer mores is seen as a true individual. In reality, writers like Paglia and Sullivan are reassuring rogues, affirming the biases that straights dare not admit they hold. Revulsion at gay sexuality remains imbedded in the liberal mind. Attack queers speak to that hidden loathing, expressing their audience’s forbidden feelings. They are as nasty as straight liberals wanna be.

None of this would be an issue if the liberal media presented a full range of gay and lesbian writing. Sullivan’s secret sex life wouldn’t be such a story if he weren’t the head house-homo. But the same system that empowers him also limits the number of queer voices in the mainstream media. Voltaire once said about experimenting with homosexuality, “Once, a philosopher; twice, a pervert.” So it is in the liberal press: Once a queer columnist has been hired, the quota is filled; to bring on a second or a third risks being too close for comfort.

On the road to freedom, every step is a transition. The time may come when it isn’t necessary for openly gay writers to devour their own in order to find a place in the sun. But before that can occur, liberals will have to examine the reasons why they take such delight in attack queers. As things stand, it’s easier for editors to close ranks around the designated deviant than to consider the reasons for his rise. And easier for activists to attack the king of the mountain than to ask why the slope is so steep.

Research: Ben Silverbush