UNPROTECTED SEX. BIG, hairy thighs. Right-wing hypocrisy. What more could a sex scandal need? The news that Andrew Sullivan — the openly gay and HIV-positive, Tory conservative, devoutly Catholic former editor of the New Republic (where he is still a contributing editor) and frequent columnist for the New York Times Magazine — had admitted to cruising gay Web sites for sex was, well, delicious. The charge that Sullivan, who has long chastised gay men for their “libidinal pathology,” had placed a personal ad on barebackcity.com — a site solely for men looking for partners who will fuck without a condom — was, well, scandalous.
On one level, the Sullivan affair is that familiar right-wing-moralist-gets-his-comeuppance story. But it’s also more. This case raises not only issues of personal hypocrisy, but also complicated ones of sexual responsibility, the right to privacy, and the decline of journalistic ethics. And it raises questions of how honest gay people can be about their lives. That all this should rest on Andrew Sullivan’s shoulders may seem unfair. But the irony is that Sullivan didn’t get into this mess because of his reckless personal behavior. No, Sullivan is where he is right now thanks to his reckless professional behavior. But before we get to that, some background.
On May 9, an anonymous posting appeared on Datalounge.com, a gossipy gay Web site, that claimed Sullivan had cruised AOL chat rooms under the name “HardnSolidDC” and that he had placed the following ad on barebackcity.com: “DC Male 35 5’9” 198 32w 45c 17a 19neck big hairy thighs; squatting 8 plates. solid bodybuilder, 10 percent body-fat; huge shoulders, strong, hairy b*tt; semi-bearded. into: hairy, endowed, masculine men. always 4.20. vers/top brothers welcome. uncut a plus. Hiv+ here. Healthy undetectable. chem-unfriendly; no such thing as too hairy.” The posting spread across the Internet like small-town gossip about a knocked-up prom queen. A week later, LGNY, a Manhattan queer weekly, published a 5000-word piece on the scandal by noted gay journalist and provocateur Michelangelo Signorile, who is the author, most recently, of Life Outside — The Signorile Report on Gay Men: Sex, Drugs, Muscles, and the Passages of Life (HarperCollins, 1997).
The piece was problematic — Signorile, a long-time Sullivan critic, based his report on two anonymous sources who claim the ad was, indeed, placed by Sullivan. But Page Six of the New York Post wrote about Signorile’s article May 30 under the headline top gay columnists go to war and noted that “conservative gay pundit” Sullivan hadn’t responded to the Post’s requests for comment and had been “uncharacteristically silent” about the matter. That same day, Jim Romenesko linked both the Signorile article and the gossip item on his Web site MediaNews.org, all but insuring, as Inside.com columnist Seth Mnookin later pointed out, that everyone in the journalism universe would read Signorile’s story.
Later that same day, unable to ignore the story any longer, Sullivan posted a 2500-word response to Signorile’s article on his Web site, www.andrewsullivan.com: “Sexual McCarthyism: An Article No-One Should Have To Write.” In it, Sullivan confirms that he “had an AOL screenname/profile for meeting other gay men.” He also confirms that he “posted an ad some time ago on a site for other gay men devoted to unprotected sex,” though he doesn’t confirm that the ad in question was posted on barebackcity.com. He refuses to say whether or not he regularly engages in unprotected sex — “I have no intention of discussing my sexual life in this respect” — but notes that he tries to “have sex only with other men who are HIV-positive.” And he also refers to an incident of unprotected sex — which he describes as “the relief of finally having real sex” — that he wrote about in Love Undetectable: Notes on Friendship, Sex, and Survival (Knopf, 1998). He blasts Signorile for engaging in “blackmail and intimidation” and claims that Signorile’s piece “legitimates a sexual McCarthyism I find repugnant and evil.” He laments that “this is what journalism now is.” He also charges that “gay men now need to know: the Internet is not a safe space. A poisonous segment of the gay activist world is policing it for any deviators from the party line.”
So why is this news? Well, let’s see. As Bay Windows editor Jeff Epperly, a former Sullivan booster who’s since become a critic, noted in a letter to MediaNews.org: “Sullivan has made his career out of being the little snoopy old lady of the gay movement. He writes breathless exposés of certain hedonistic parts of the gay movement even as he attends circuit parties and leather events.” Indeed, Sullivan has leveraged his high profile in the media (in addition to his gigs with the New Republic and the Times, Sullivan appears regularly on Meet the Press and Charlie Rose) to become the most prominent openly gay spokesperson in the national media. That’s not to say that Sullivan asked to be the highest-profile gay person in Washington’s intellectual circles, or that he sought such standing at all. But it doesn’t change the fact that he is. And throughout his career Sullivan has dismissed most gay politics and activists as idiotic, ill-informed, and pernicious. On every issue but gay marriage — which he supports — Sullivan takes positions contrary to middle-of-the-road gay orthodoxy: he opposes hate-crimes legislation and laws against anti-gay discrimination in the public sector; he called the gay movement’s organizing in response to Matthew Shepard’s murder “a kind of political blackmail”; he continually attacks mainstream gay-rights groups as “leftists,” which betrays an ignorance of the meaning of the word; and, most relevant to the issue at hand, he has widely and very publicly proclaimed that the AIDS epidemic is over.
So word that Sullivan engages in the very behavior he’s built a career on criticizing is certainly news.