Sullivan on the Barebacking Story

Seth Ackerman sackerman at
Wed May 30 18:38:06 PDT 2001

Unusually cogent and eloquent. What exactly was the point of "exposing" Sullivan's sex life again?

> ----------
> From: Nathan Newman[SMTP:nathan at]
> Reply To: lbo-talk at
> Sent: Wednesday, May 30, 2001 9:06 PM
> To: lbo-Talk at
> Subject: Sullivan on the Barebacking Story
> 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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