Sullivan on the Barebacking Story

Nathan Newman nathan at
Wed May 30 18:06:50 PDT 2001

I think Sullivan is mostly a big politically, but the following article is right, and I think pretty reasonable on the whole issue of sex and AIDS. I think the whole incident is pretty disgusting and shameful for those who promoted it and the media that reported it- Nathan Newman

---- Sexual McCarthyism: An article no-one should have to write. Source: Published: May 30, 2001

The fact that I am writing this sentence is surreal. The background is pretty simple. A while back, a gossip thread began on a gay chat-site which claimed that two unnamed people had engaged in some sort of "sting operation" to expose details of my sex life. These anonymous posters claimed that I had an alias AOL screen-name which I used to meet men, and that I had once posted a personal ad on a website dedicated to unprotected sex. These rumors were then used by several politically hostile activist-writers, who openly avowed a hatred for me, to target me for alleged hypocrisy. The tenor of the thread, apart from its melodrama, can only be described as malicious. I haven't read much of it for obvious reasons. Individuals vied with one another to write an early obit of me, excoriate me for my political views, despise me for writing anything constructive about president Bush, and expostulate about any conceivable sexual permutation that could be gleaned from the alleged ads. I will quote only one source from this thread to give you a flavor. It's directed by one of the contributors to one of the instigators: "Really bring Sullivan down like only you can. Destroy him in every way, ruin him financially, make him commit suicide or something, this hypocrite has to be brought down."

This sounds somewhat extreme to most ears but it is something I have become used to now for the better part of a decade as I have offended some of the orthodoxies of gay politics. Here is a short blurb from an email sent me recently: "Everyone knows what a hypocrite you are, from your sexual behavior - care to talk about your pronouncements about barebacking, you fucking liar? This also applies to your pronouncements about your supposedly getting HIV from oral sex. You are a fucking joke of the highest order. And I think it's time that some newspaper took you to task for your lies." From a crank? No, this email was sent to me by the editor of Bay Windows, Boston's leading gay paper. Michelangelo Signorile, the author of this week's cover-story on me in a New York gay paper, LGNY, sent me an instant message two weeks ago, telling me that I should think twice before I "attack gay people" again if I wanted my private life to remain private. I think a fair assessment of these tactics would be blackmail and intimidation. I ignored them as I have learned to ignore most such threats over the years. To answer them is to give legitimacy to the very premises of their argument: that the most intensely personal details of someone's private life can and should be used for political purposes. The truth is: no-one's legal, consensual, adult private life should be plundered and exposed for political purposes.

I ignored the requests for comment because there was nothing to comment on. The only sources presented were anonymous. In so far as these anonymous sources claimed to have met me in a gym to confirm my identity, I can only say I have no memory of any meeting of that kind with anyone. So I was asked to confirm a story presented anonymously, the only salient details of which I believed to be untrue. Why should I answer? I waited for someone with an actual name to come forward and accuse me of something with evidence. Nothing. Mere anonymous rumors.

Why should anyone in public life be forced to respond to such things? What, after all, was McCarthyism? In the history books, it is described as a method of political intimidation where someone is accused of something allegedly shameful, not told who his accusers are, and forced to respond. This seemed to me to be a text-book case, updated for the Internet age: the high-tech lynching of an uppity homo. The only shred of credibility to the story was the columnist who championed it, Michelangelo Signorile, a man who has waged a vicious vendetta against me for the better part of a decade for reasons only he can explain. I felt then and I feel now that any response to this kind of thing legitimates a sexual McCarthyism I find repugnant and evil. This is not just about me. Millions of people, gay and straight and bisexual, use the Internet to chat, meet, hook up, find dates, and on and on. Many of them value its privacy and anonymity ­ qualities that are particularly cherished by gay people often hounded for their sex lives, and threatened with exposure, blackmail or petty gossip on a daily basis. Many of them use the web as a way to explore fantasies and fears as well as find simple company and solace. These 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. First, they came for the closeted and outed them. Then they came for openly gay people who had sex lives they deemed hypocritical. Then they came for openly gay people of whom they merely disapproved or disliked, and used that as an excuse to raid their private lives for anything that could be used to embarrass them. The rationale is simple. There is no privacy. You have no right to a personal space. If you do not toe the party-line, or if you simply rub one of the activists up the wrong way, you risk being outed in the most personal manner imaginable.

These tactics, however, didn't seem to alarm much of the gay media. A small New York gay paper, LGNY, ran the story under Signorile's by-line, again with anonymous sourcing. I had assumed that no responsible paper would publish something based on this sourcing, citing anonymous personal ads that no longer existed, if they ever did, ads that could have been put up and taken down by literally anyone in a matter of seconds. There was and is no way that the details of this story could have been reliably checked. But the paper, LGNY, published anyway. Yesterday, I arrived back from the holiday weekend to calls from several media outlets and a posting on Jim Romanesko's MediaNews website, one of my favorites, and a site that made many of my professional peers, including my boss, aware of the rumors. This morning, the New York Post has run a lead item, after a perfunctory phone call to ask me if there was any truth to the story. This is what journalism now is. More inaccuracies and salacious misrepresentations have followed. I now sadly have no alternative but to respond to the accusations, which are as misleading as they are malicious.

It is true that I had an AOL screenname/profile for meeting other gay men. It is true that I posted an ad some time ago on a site for other gay men devoted to unprotected sex. Both personal ads were anonymous; both were designed to find and possibly meet other gay men who are HIV-positive. The motive for doing so was simple. For a few years now, I have tried to date and have sex only with other men who are HIV-positive. I am scared of infecting HIV-negative men; and I believe that sticking to men who are HIV-positive is one step I can take to avoid contributing to this epidemic. I have never hidden this fact; indeed, as Signorile was forced to concede, I have even written about it in my last book, where I describe the relief of finally having real sex with an old friend who was also HIV-positive. Hypocrisy? When I have written about it in a publicly available book, published five years ago? Has any other openly gay man actually written about their own unprotected sex so explicitly? The hypocrisy charge, as even Signorile concedes, is ludicrous.

Why would I pick personal ads rather than just meeting someone in a regular fashion? Because, oddly enough, it's hard for me to meet men easily. 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. To be honest, I got tired of waiting for a second date to ask the question about HIV status, only to go back to square one. I found that putting on my AOL profile that I was HIV-positive was a way to get past all that. Even Signorile concedes that I was as open about my HIV status in these ads as I could be. The reason I posted an ad on the second website was because an HIV-positive friend of mine told me he'd met some cool HIV-positive guys from there. I figured what the heck and filled out the form and posted the ad. (In the process, it seems that I have accidentally outed myself as bisexual. I must have checked the wrong box by mistake.) In retrospect, I should have realized that the lurid nature of the site could be used against me and fueled any number of crazy scenarios in some people's minds. (Signorile has even openly speculated I have been involved in bisexual orgies!) I was naïve and foolish in this respect, but since the ad was completely anonymous, I thought I was secure from mischief. I'm not a paranoid person. I was also under the mistaken impression that privacy still existed.

This is the extent of my alleged sinfulness, the sole reason for the publication of intimate details of my private life. The question I am required to answer is: is this reckless? The answer is an unambiguous no. I don't think it's reckless to entertain Internet fantasies using an anonymous ad. It's a lot safer than non-Internet sex and millions of people do it all the time. I also don't think it's reckless if you are HIV-positive to seek other HIV-positive men to date or have sex with ­ and to be open about your status while you do so. I don't think there are many people in America who are more open about having HIV than I am. I didn't have to disclose my infection publicly five years ago. I did it to help myself and others. To make absolutely sure there was no misunderstanding, as Signorile concedes, I was quite clear in the ads that I was HIV-positive seeking other HIV-positive men. If every man with HIV followed these rules, we'd have far less HIV infection. For this, I am deemed reckless. The only thing reckless about this entire affair is the "journalism."

What about "reinfection"? Signorile argues that it is possible for someone to be "reinfected" with HIV, generating new strains that could possibly worsen or possibly ameliorate your health. I am aware of this theory and the slim reed of research it is based upon. I have discussed the issue with my doctors, and my current boyfriend and my last boyfriend, both of whom are HIV-positive. Again, there is space for disagreement about this question, but to me, the evidence seems weak and hypothetical. But whatever the genuine, scientific issue here, the question of whether to abandon condoms in sex between two self-disclosed HIV-positive people is a decision for those two people alone in private. It is no-one else's business. No-one's. I have no intention of discussing my sexual life in this respect, but I would strongly defend the right of adult people with HIV to make their own decisions on this basis. I certainly see no reason why an outsider has any right to attempt to expose such private matters in order to try to subject another person to ridicule and shame. It is a tactic worthy of J Edgar Hoover. It is deeply, deeply homophobic. It is abhorrent in a free society with any pretense to a zone of privacy for people, or any respect and compassion for people living and dealing with HIV.

But in the most important respect, this story is not about me. I know I'm not a hypocrite. Anyone who has bothered to read my writing with any care knows that as well. I know I'm not a moralizer. Anyone who has ever frequented this website will know that much. But even if I were a hypocrite and moralizer, that still wouldn't justify this kind of journalism. I am not an elected official. I have broken no laws. I have told no lies. I have voluntarily exposed my private life in often painful measure in my writing to advance what I hope is greater understanding of homosexuality, and HIV. I am not an angel, but I have never pretended to be one. What possible justification is there for removing the last shred of privacy I have? To be sure, I have opinions with which many people disagree and which I express with as much pungency as I can. But if that is the standard for violating the most intimate details of someone's sexual life, then who is now safe? Where will they stop? What standards are left? This "story" was fomented clearly by malice. It was spread anonymously. It was propagated by someone who made no pretense about his political loathing of me, and who has devoted a large part of his career to attacking me. It had and has no named sources and did not even rest in the end on some alleged hypocrisy. Yet within a couple of weeks of anonymous Internet gossip, it is in the mainstream press and I am required to respond. Something is rotten here. Privacy, simply put, is under siege.

One last thing. If these activists believe that they can intimidate me from writing and thinking freely, they are mistaken. I know they do not represent most gay people or even most gay activists. But their malice is real and their intolerance is as great ­ perhaps greater ­ than anything on the far right. I wish I didn't have to respond to them at such length, but in the end I had little choice. If I didn't, any member of a minority who dares to think for himself or herself will be fair game in the future.

This is the last I will say or write on this subject, so save your media calls and emails. I think I have addressed all the salient appropriate questions about public issues of privacy and sex. I see no reason to say anything more. If you are a reporter and want a quote from me about the details of my sex life, feel free to use the following: "It is none of your business."

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