Sullivan’s Travails
Sullivan’s Travails

by David Ehrenstein


        What you are about to read is not an example of "objective" journalism.   It isn’t "fair and balanced."   It is, however, true.   As a journalist and gay activist I have never made my antipathy to Andrew Sullivan a state secret.   In point of fact, as I have viewed with rising alarm the way this first-rate power-networker and second-rate political commentator has risen to a position of prominence at the New York Times gays of a previous generation—lacking his British accent or reactionary political views—could only dream about.   To be perfectly frank, I have for years longed to see his head on a platter.   (Very Oscar Wilde of me I know, but I’ve always been a classicist at heart.)   Therefore you can imagine my surprise when Sullivan himself turned out to be the waiter serving up this Blue Plate Special.

        About a month ago in a gay internet chatroom called "Datalounge," an anonymous poster reported that Andrew Sullivan—a ceaselessly vocal critic of what he has called the "libidinal pathology" of the male gay community—took out a personal ad on a website for people who want to practice unprotected sex, describing himself as "HIV+ here.   Healthy undetectable."   Ordinarily "Datalounge" offers a setting for a lot of entertainingly silly chit-chat about celebrities.   This was something else entirely.   If this information was true it was explosive.   And if it was being posted in "Datalounge" it was obviously making the rounds elsewhere on the ‘net as well.   And so I began asking other journalist to see if anyone else knew about it—an activity mischaracterized by Inside.com as "shopping the story around."   At that point I had no idea if there was a story.   It was just a rumor.   If true, the story showed Sullivan to be not merely hypocritical (scarcely a new phenomenon among the working press) but potentially dangerous as well.   Therefore I made sure to e-mail him with the "Datalounge" post.   He never replied to me—or any of the other "Dataloungers" or others who had read or heard about the situation.   For days afterwards the internet was atwitter with talk about the tale—whether it was true or not, and what it would mean in either case.   Finally after two weeks or so the other shoe dropped, and Sullivan admitted that the whole thing was true in a piece he posted on his own website entitled "Sexual McCarthyism: An Article No One Should Have to Write."   Defending his AOL adventures Sullivan declared "My mini-celebrity often gets in the way of getting to know someone naturally—and personal ads avoid the whole problem of preconceived notions of who I am and what I'm like.   It's also hard to know whether someone is HIV-positive when you want to date him."   As a friend remarked "Sullivan acts as if he were looking for sensitive young gentlemen to hold hands while tea is served on the verandah."   If so, they’re no likely to be found at "Barebackcity.com" when the specifications of his handle, "HardnSolidDC," indicate "No such thing as too hairy."

        "This seemed to me to be a text-book case, updated for the Internet age: the high-tech lynching of an uppity homo," wailed Sully—evoking his hero Clarence Thomas.   What’s next?   Will Unmerry Andrew "cork-up" and launch into a chorus of "Goin’ To Heaven On a Mule"?   Personally my favorite Al Jolsen number is "You Are Too Beautiful" from Rodgers and Hart’s Hallelujah, I’m a Bum.   But "Jolie" didn’t wear blackface for that one.   And while in "HardnSolidDC" mode Sully indicated "Brothers Welcome," this hasn’t been the case in his recent writings on the worldwide AIDS crisis in which the death and suffering of thousands of Africans are passed over in favor of the plight of the drug companies whose financial "risks" are all-important.   Even more self-serving is his recent TRB column in The New Republic, entitled "Recount," in which he challenges new CDC figures about the rising rates of HIV infection, particularly among young gay African-American men.

        "Brothers Welcome," indeed.

        Outside of that hallowed "mainstream" media realm known as Sullivanville (a suburb of Alphaville) the picture is a lot less rosy.   The AIDS crisis is not only far from over, it may be getting worse.   Having invasive sex—fluid exchange, without condoms—can quite literally kill you.   The documentation of this is exploding in study after study.   Will Sully attack them all?   The argument that his "barebacking" doesn't matter because he was an HIV+ and looking for other HIV+'s to play with (problematic in itself, as his AOL messages were far from picky on that score) doesn't hold water, not just because persons with compromised immune systems are open to all manner of STD’s other than HIV, but because re-infection creating new and tougher strains of HIV is not only possible, it's actually happening—despite Sully’s claims that only a "slim reed" of science is involved.   But I guess we all shouldn't be concerned because, as so many have mouthed so tirelessly "it's his choice."

        But "choice" is not the issue.   And neither is Andrew Sullivan's "right to privacy"—itself a fantasy in that the Supremes in Bowers Vs. Hardwick declared that gays and lesbians have no "right to privacy."   Besides, Andrew Sullivan doesn’t want a "right to privacy."   He wants what all the members of the privileged "Beltway" class to which he aspires have always claimed as their own—the right to secrecy.   And he’s sure to get it from his chief employers, New Republic publisher Martin Peretz and New York Times Magazine editor Adam Moss as they discuss his future work with them.   Whether he will get their continued respect, however, is open to question.

        Well I guess that’s all there is to say at this point.   Michelangelo Signorile in LGNY, and Michael Bronski in The Boston Phoenix have had a go at Sully.   Richard Kim in The Nation tried to mount a partial defense, but gave up halfway through.   By contrast, two articles in the online journal Salon—by Cliff Rothman and Joan Walsh respectively—found reasons to defend Sully from his attackers.   And so did his, obviously confused, supporters at Free Republic and Lucianne.com

        So it’s best, I feel to leave it all with where most of my thoughts begin these days—at the deathbed of Richard Rouilard, the great and fearless editor of The Advocate, who died of AIDS in 1996.   It was late afternoon in May, and I was complaining to him about. . .Andrew Sullivan.   It was a running joke between us in his last years as we talked about all manner of things from Catholic mysticism to Maria Callas to the finer points of Anne Baxter’s performance in The Ten Commandments.

        "Well David," Richard said calmly, all laid out on his bed like he was going to high tea with Edie Wasserman, "Andrew Sullivan is The Voice of Gay America."


        And Richard smiled and began to laugh.   And then I laughed.   And we both laughed and laughed and laughed and laughed.   Then I said "I'll see you tomorrow," and waved to him and left .

        And 24 hours later Richard was dead.

        Five years have passed since that afternoon.   Andrew Sullivan is still alive.

        And so am I.

Copyright © David Ehrenstein, 2001.
All rights reserved.   Reproduction without permission is prohibited.


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