unprotected sex. big, hairy thighs. Right-wing hypocrisy. What more could a sex scandal need?News that Andrew Sullivan -- the openly gay and HIV-positive, 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 delicious. Having chastised gay men for their "libidinal pathology," he had now been accused of placing a personal ad on barebackcity.com -- a site for men looking for partners who'll fuck without a condom.
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. Sullivan posted a 2,500-word response 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 screen-name/profile for meeting other gay men." He also confirms 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 (Random House, 1998).
So why is this news? 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) to become the most prominent openly gay spokesperson. He dismisses 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; he called the gay movement's organizing in response to Matthew Shepard's murder "a kind of political blackmail"; and, most relevant to the issue at hand, he has proclaimed that the AIDS epidemic is over.
Not surprisingly, Sullivan has latched onto the privacy argument. "There is no privacy," he warns readers of his online screed. "You have no right to a personal space."
But he made a big mistake when he thought of the Internet as private space. To be sure, you can be anonymous -- or, as the case may be, "HardnSolidDC" -- online, but if someone finds out that you are a conservative journalist who is highly critical of gay-male sexual culture, you make yourself dependent on the kindness of strangers. And strangers don't have any moral mandates to be kind, especially if you've been attacking them viciously for more than a decade.
One of the ironies of this affair is that while Sullivan adamantly claims that his private sex life is "none of your business," he is one of the most self-referential journalists working today. Reading through Love Undetectable and his other book, Virtually Normal: An Argument About Homosexuality, we find out about his fears, childhood and secret boyhood crushes.
There is nothing wrong with writing personally, but Sullivan is prone to writing articles that are almost entirely limited to his own experiences, and then passing those experiences off as universal fact. His (in)famous 1996 New York Times Magazine piece, When Plagues End, purported to chart a momentous shift attributable to the advent of protease inhibitors. "It's over. Believe me. It's over," he wrote.
Personal and eloquently argued, When Plagues End was a moving testament to one man's relief. But as a piece of journalism it was deeply flawed. First, it acknowledged only briefly that poor people around the world -- who constitute more than 75 per cent of all AIDS cases -- would never have access to these drugs. Second, it paid no heed to the obvious, and even then indisputable, problems with protease inhibitors.
But the piece was hugely influential: many AIDS activists today will tell you that When Plagues End set a tone in mainstream journalism that allowed reporters to stop dealing seriously with AIDS for several years.
The most damning aspect of this exposé was the spectre of Sullivan regularly having unprotected sex with HIV-positive men -- a charge, it must be emphasized, that Sullivan does not confirm. While it might seem that unprotected sex couldn't put an HIV-positive person at any additional risk, an avalanche of scientific and anecdotal research has shown that reinfection is a serious problem. If an HIV-infected individual becomes infected with different strains of HIV, it can make that person's condition less treatable. Sullivan dismisses the threat of reinfection in typically glib fashion.
"I am aware of this theory and the slim reed of research it is based upon. I have discussed the issue with my doctors.... [B]ut to me, the evidence seems weak and hypothetical."
Once again, Sullivan is twisting scientific facts to fit his own personal narrative. If you are writing a literary memoir, this may be fine. But if you are one of the few openly gay, openly HIV-positive writers with a national platform, it's another matter.
From the Boston Phoenix