Uncle Andrew's cabin

Why is a moralizing, self-centered Tory named Andrew Sullivan speaking for gay Americans?

By Peter Kurth

Published November 30, 1998 5:00PM (EST)

When the history of gay life in the 20th century is finally written, a small chapter might be devoted to explaining how an overgrown schoolboy and Tory moralist named Andrew Sullivan managed to emerge as the most prominent voice of the gay rights movement in America; how, in fact, the whole issue of gay liberation was hijacked in the wake of the AIDS epidemic by a band of reactionary, middle-class gay commentators in a dither over "gay promiscuity," urging marriage and monogamy on their wayward brothers and decrying "the cult of masculinity" as the source of all evil in homosexual life.

If it sounds schizophrenic, it is. The famously conservative, famously English, famously Catholic Sullivan first made a name for himself in 1991 as the openly gay editor of the New Republic, at a time when British editors were thought by American magazines to be essential to the production of "buzz." In a tenure that reflected nothing so much as a lack of coherent vision, Sullivan won plaudits from the chic and trendy for "pushing the envelope" at TNR, and round condemnation from almost everyone else for his role in wrecking what had once been a respected American institution. When he resigned his position in 1996, at the same time disclosing that he was HIV-positive and on treatment with protease inhibitors, Sullivan announced that he was "not stepping down because I'm sick and going away and dying." Far from it. Responding well to combination therapy, with a sudden reprieve from almost certain death, he embarked on what he plainly sees as a holy mission, arguing for the complete assimilation of gays and lesbians into American life while chastising male homosexuals for their hedonism, their immaturity and their persistence in regarding themselves as "different" from everyone else.

"The one thing I insist upon," Sullivan declared, "is that [homosexuality] should not be determinative ... This is the argument of my life, and I have to win it." Already at the New Republic and in his first book, "Virtually Normal: An Argument About Homosexuality" (1995), Sullivan was blaring the assimilationist horn, outraging gay activists with his purportedly "post-ideological" insistence that "being gay isn't about sex as such" and his sophistic efforts to reconcile his Catholic faith with the unconquerable demands of his libido. Like many Catholics, Sullivan is an expert at putting his thoughts into separate boxes, embracing the central mystery and seductive trappings of his faith -- "the crisply starched vestments that I prepared for the priest in the sacristy, the grimy dark wood we gripped in the pews" -- while banishing Catholicism's odious position on homosexuality to the realm of informed debate.

"It matters to me what the Vatican thinks," Sullivan has said, "even if I disagree with it. I don't like stylizing institutions into enemies." He is noteworthy also for his insistence that homophobia in the mass of humanity is "natural" rather than bigoted, and that government should take no action whatsoever on gay issues apart from ending its own discrimination against gays and lesbians by granting them open access to the military and full marriage rights, thus paving the way, through some miraculous trickle-down effect, for complete acceptance of gays by society at large. No further legislation, Sullivan thinks, would be needed.

For Sullivan, marriage -- legal, state-sanctioned, church-blessed marriage -- is "the deepest means for the liberation of homosexuals, providing them with the only avenue for sexual and emotional development that can integrate them as equal human beings and remove from them the hideous historic option of choosing between their joy and their dignity." Or, as he says in reference to himself, between "a life of suffering or a life of meaningless promiscuity followed by eternal damnation." So sold is Sullivan on the most repressive of all social institutions that he actually delights in the prospect of becoming "banal," arguing that "what we need is a Christian ethic for how to live one's life as a homosexual," and that "what is valuable is not sexual gratification but informing sexual desire with love and commitment."

What's changed in Sullivan's work since he left the New Republic is not his belief that marriage will save the fallen, but the rock on which he has built his vision of a new gay identity -- "the end of AIDS," as he boldly declared it in a 1996 cover story for the New York Times Magazine. Sullivan's notorious tract, in which he visited a gay "circuit" party at the Roseland Ballroom in New York and barely survived the assault on his sensibilities, raised a storm of protest in the gay community and among AIDS professionals and activists, with its insistence that "AIDS is over" and its horrified commentary on what Sullivan calls the "libidinal pathology" of gay life.

"Some of them glided past, intent on some imminent conquest," Sullivan wrote of the men at Roseland, "others stumbled toward me, eyes glazed, bodies stooped in a kind of morbid stupor, staring at the floor or into space; others still stood in corners, chatting, socializing, their arms draped around each other, a banal familiarity belying the truly bizarre scene around them ... Beyond, a mass of men danced the early morning through, strobe lights occasionally glinting off the assorted deltoids, traps, lats, and other muscle groups."

From this "conflicting puzzle of impulses" Sullivan emerged with a
theory, arguing that the apparent resurgence of promiscuity, drug abuse, quick affairs and shattered lives in the gay community is a symptom of mass denial, "the need to find some solidarity among the loss," as Sullivan sees it, "to assert some crazed physicality against the threat of sickness, to release some of the toxins built up over a decade [sic] of constant stress. Beyond everything" -- and this is Sullivan's central point -- "the desire to banish the memories that will not be banished, to shuck off -- if only till the morning -- the maturity that plague had brutally imposed." Where AIDS once equaled death, Sullivan says, it now demands "responsibility," clean living, and an end to empty, meaningless sex.

"The meeting of two human beings in a sexual encounter can never be a neutral or casual phenomenon," Sullivan explains, despite all evidence that, indeed, it can. What Sullivan means is that sex shouldn't be casual, that gay men's marginalization from traditional society has trained them in "appearances" and "deceit," that promiscuity is always pathological, and that there are upright citizens in those nasty dancing bodies just yearning to bust out. In the Gospel According to Andrew, "maturity" is needed not only to stop the spread of HIV, but for gay men to realize their full potential as humans and children of God.

Despite heated criticism from AIDS treatment and prevention workers, and despite CDC figures that show the rate of HIV infection among gay men is neither higher nor lower than it was, Sullivan found support for his position from a handful of conservative gay pundits, all of them white, all of them male, thumping and braying about the dangers of sex and the glories of matrimony. That marriage has never put a dent in the promiscuous nature of men is of no concern to the "neo-culturalists," as they like to call themselves. Bruce Bawer, Gabriel Rotello, Michelangelo Signorile, and the inevitable Larry Kramer have, with Sullivan and a few others, secured a virtual lock on gay commentary in the American media, appearing with depressing regularity on talk shows and op-ed pages, spinning out books and magazine articles in what amounts to an incessant rant about the crippled psyches and empty lives of male homosexuals. Bawer is the author of "A Place at the Table," one of the first pleas for mainstream acceptance in exchange for the marriage vow. The icy Rotello argued in "Sexual Ecology" that unsafe sex among urban gay men is still firing the AIDS epidemic, and called for a "new taboo" on anal sex. Signorile is a pumped-up, heartthrob columnist for Out magazine, widely remembered as the father of "outing" in the media but currently clean as a whistle. And Kramer is Kramer, still screaming, "We're dying! We're dying!" but shifting the blame for the holocaust from society at large to gay men themselves (and angrily parting company with Sullivan on the end-of-AIDS idea).

Now, in "Love Undetectable: Notes on Friendship, Sex, and Survival," Sullivan returns to the field, in what is partly an expansion of his Times Magazine piece, partly a rumination on the roots of homosexuality and partly an Augustinian-style confession that closes with a paean to friendship. As a confession, "Love Undetectable" is scarcely open to criticism, exalted though it is and sentimental to the core. Sullivan is given to the pious revelation. He doubts the goodness of God on the beach at Cape Cod, then realizes that this is when his faith matters most. He hears his friends say, "Andrew, Andrew," when they learn about his HIV infection, then opens the Bible at random to that passage where Jesus admonishes Martha of Bethany -- "Martha, Martha" -- in "one of those many details that convince me that so much of the Bible is true."

"It is not simply the tone of love," writes Sullivan, "it is the tone of friendship, an unmistakable tone, a tone that I did not only recognize but suddenly, heartbreakingly, knew." The virtues of friendship over sexual and romantic love are a new kick for Sullivan, who pointed out recently on "Good Morning America" that "family is great, but what did Jesus do? He left his family and hung out with 12 friends ... We always hear the great phrase from the Gospels, 'Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends' ... It's not lay down his life for humanity, or for this, that and the other, but for his friends" -- a nifty escape hatch for a man who writes about AIDS as if he and his friends were the only ones who ever had it.

"It is true," says Sullivan, in what is arguably the most offensive statement in AIDS literature, "that something profound in the history of AIDS has occurred these last two years. The power of the new treatments and the even greater power of those now in the pipeline are such that a diagnosis of HIV infection in the West is not just different in degree today than, say, 1994. For those who can get medical care, the diagnosis is quite different in kind. It no longer signifies death. It merely signifies illness."

This bald-faced remark, on its merits indefensible, is a slap in the face to anyone living with HIV infection. Nothing about AIDS is "merely" anything, not even the chronic diarrhea and endless fatigue that Sullivan himself reports as a side effect of his toxic medications. Pick his sentences apart and all you see are the disclaimers ("in the West," "for those who can get medical care"). At this writing, some 30 million people around the world are estimated to be infected with HIV, with 40,000 new infections each year in the United States. Sullivan will doubtless be the first to pounce on the recent news that the rate of U.S. AIDS deaths has declined 47 percent in the last 12 months, solely as a consequence of advances in treatment. But since only a handful of people around the world have access to medications, and as no corresponding decline in mortality has been seen outside developed countries, the plague is not only not "over," but is actually soaring ahead. In the United States, women, blacks, IV drug users and the young, whether gay or straight, are increasingly victims of the disease, and there is scarcely an encouraging word to report about community efforts to protect them.

Sullivan acknowledges all this while sticking stubbornly to his point. He never writes a declarative sentence that isn't surrounded by acres of explanation. Yes, he concedes, huge numbers of people will still die from AIDS: "Nothing I am saying here is meant to deny that fact, or to mitigate its awfulness. I am not saying here (nor would I ever say) that some lives are worth more than others, or that some lives are worth more attention than others." On the other hand, in "Love Undetectable," as in all of his work, Sullivan is incapable of imagining the lives of anyone outside his own privileged circle: good, clean, smart, professional, mortgage-paying, dog-owning, safe-sex-practicing white boys, whose stricken hearts and tender embraces have shown them the error of their ways. "Living ... is not about resolution," Sullivan concludes; "it is about the place where plague can't get you."

And that is the heartless ruse at the center of "Love Undetectable." It isn't about AIDS at all. It's only about Andrew. Just as he once called for an end to welfare as a means "to break through this culture of idleness, poverty, illegitimacy, and crime," so he now consigns whole sections of humanity to a permanent netherworld of illness and despair. Everything he says about AIDS is elitist and condescending, from his disclosure to POZ magazine that he "interviewed five doctors" before finding one that suited him -- a luxury denied to the vast majority of people with AIDS -- to his explanation that he contracted the virus "accidentally," not through "reckless behavior" or, God forbid, "unprotected anal sex."

It was Tony Kushner who remarked in this magazine that Andrew Sullivan is "like the E. M. Forster character, Maurice. His homosexuality gave him a streak of decency and compassion that leavened his Thatcherite horseshit, and Catholic horseshit." But with the publication of "Love Undetectable" it's time to end the charade. For Sullivan, decency is only personal. The private is all that matters.

"Charity is the friendship of man for God," Sullivan sniffs, quoting his hero, Thomas Aquinas. We may assume that Sullivan and God have reached some sort of understanding about the dubious company this epidemic has obliged them to keep, and that when Sullivan stands all washed and scrubbed before his Maker at the end of the day, his conscience will be as pure and prissy as his politics are evil and his judgments insulting. Imagine the service he and the rest of his pampered friends might have performed by calling for a moral crusade against AIDS, for sufficient government funding to help the victims of the disease, for a worldwide mobilization of the scientific community in the search for a vaccine, for an end to the obscene profits of the pharmaceutical industry, for corporate donations in the name of humanity, health care for all and a national conversation about homosexuality stripped of fruitless psychologizing and Christian mumbo-jumbo.

But that wouldn't be "responsible." That wouldn't be "mature." That just wouldn't, couldn't be Andrew.

Peter Kurth

Peter Kurth, a regular contributor to Salon Books, is the author of "Isadora: A Sensational Life." He lives in Burlington, Vt.

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