Andrew Sullivan On His Early Influences (Part Two)
A reader digs up an old interview that Andrew did with Johann Hari in 2012, and it's a very revealing one. This second half is primarily on God and the AIDS crisis.
While Andrew and I wrap up our two-week summer vacation (back on September 10), here is the second half of the very personal interview he did with journalist and friend Johann Hari (who wrote the bestselling books Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs and Lost Connections: Why You’re Depressed and How to Find Hope). To recap, the idea to re-air the 2012 conversation all started with this reader:
I began reading Andrew in the early 2000s, and even though I’m a huge fan, I’ve never heard him systematically discuss his intellectual origins and development. […] I bet your listeners might enjoy hearing Andrew being interviewed thoroughly and in-depth about how he sees the trajectory of his intellectual life. (I know I would.)
That posted email prompted another reader to write in:
[Andrew] did an extensive two-parter with Johann Hari a decade ago, which covers most of the areas that your reader mentions. Johann put this out as his own podcast, which is no longer available online, but I have mp3 copies that I’m happy to share.
A big thanks to our reader for saving the audio files from oblivion! I vividly remember listening to that interview, almost a decade ago, because it was one of the most riveting and revealing conversations I’ve ever heard from Andrew, publicly or privately. Johann has that effect.
You can listen to the second half of the conversation right away in the audio player embedded above, or right below it you can click “Listen in podcast app” — which will connect you to the Dishcast feed. (The first half was posted here.) The second half includes an emotional recounting of Andrew’s best friend Patrick, who perished from AIDS in the middle of the book tour for Virtually Normal, a book he helped edit:
Another part of the conversation tackles the nature of religious fundamentalism and natural law, especially when it comes to sexuality:
For three more clips of Andrew’s conversation with Johann — about two of the earliest influences that made Andrew a conservative; on the genius of his dissertation subject, Michael Oakeshott; and on why true conservatives should want to save the planet from climate change — head to our YouTube page.
In lieu of reader commentary this week, we are trying something different: a transcript of a podcast episode, specifically a July interview that Andrew did on Debra Soh’s podcast, focused on the AIDS crisis and the marriage movement. (We are thinking of making transcripts available for our most popular Dishcast episodes. Unfortunately we we don’t have the staff bandwidth to do every episode, since transcripts are a ton of work, even with auto-transcription tools.) Below is the second half of Andrew’s conversation with Debra, author of The End of Gender: Debunking the Myths about Sex and Identity in Our Society (the first half is here):
Andrew: I could take you to a few leather bars, where it’s probably the last place now in America where raw masculinity can be simply celebrated, where it isn’t complicated. I mean, it’s in the presentation more than in the actual reality, but nonetheless it’s like, “Yay! Men like sex, we’re men, sniff my armpit, look at my back hair, and let’s go for it.
And in a couple of weeks in Provincetown, where I am, we’re going to have Bear Week, which was the moment when a whole bunch of middle-aged overweight, hairy-back dudes who were able to actually be welcomed as integral to gay culture and gay society — which took a while too — instead of all these perfect little muscle bunnies that show up for circuit party.
Debra: When I go to gay bars, it doesn’t matter where I am in the world. Sometimes I’ll go by myself even, just because I’m curious to hang out there — and everyone is always so nice. They’re a little bit concerned. They look at me and think, like, “Why is she here?” But they never ask me, “What are you doing here?” And they never told me to leave. And that’s one thing I love about it.
Andrew: The thing that we are getting a little upset is, um, vast numbers of straight women coming in — especially this bachelorette party thing, where gay male spaces are just overwhelmed by women.
Debra: Yeah that’s a problem. Because they’re disrespectful too. They get really drunk and they’re all over people — don’t do that. Be respectful.
Andrew: We’re like zoo animals to them. And they want their Instagram photos in the cool leather bar. And we’re just like, you’re killing the mood. Like, you know, we don’t want to be mean and tell you to leave, but can’t you see that this is actually a place you might want to respect a little bit? I mean, they had a bachelorette party coming in, they’re playing bareback sex on the screens up there, and they will still sit there with their gin and tonic.
Debra: It’s weird. I feel it’s changed, because when I used to go, I’d be the only straight person there. Now when I go out, it’s weird to see — you see a younger generation of straight kids there, and I’m like, this is crazy.
Andrew: Well you take the word “queer”, which is now integrated into the LGBTQIA+ thing.
Debra: Yeah, like I always say, I don’t like that word.
Andrew: You can be definitely be straight and queer, you just dye your hair blue. And then when they do surveys of LGBTQIA+ people, we don’t know if that’s gay people or if it’s straight people in a mood. And my view is that you can call yourself whatever you want. You can have whatever sex you want. I’m a total “live and let live” person.
But at some point language must mean something. And if the gay rights movement is essentially a movement of straight people, some gay people, lots of trans people, fighting on around questions of race and gender and deconstructing society and dismantling sexual norms and dismantling the sexual binary, then I don’t have a place in that movement. I’ve left it. I think a lot of gay men are just like, “We’re done.”
The left elite that controls the media, that insists and controls the image of homosexuals so that we are always queer, always left, in which none of that diversity is ever explained. I mean, they are brilliant at promoting narratives that are not truth. So for example, we are constantly told that Stonewall was started and led by trans women of color, and that if it weren’t for trans women of color, we would have no rights. This is absolutely untrue. You only have to look at the photos. You only have to read the histories. It’s completely outrageously untrue. And yet now it is repeated ad nauseam.
Debra: Well, it’s like you’re saying, because you can’t tell the younger generation, they just rewrite the history and they don’t know.
Andrew: They’re going to write white gay men out of the entire history of the gay rights movement. They will not mention people like me. They will not mention anybody who played a part in the marriage movement. For example, we are, I mean, I’m particularly non grata, you know, I’ve never been given a single recognition by the gay community to any of the work I’ve ever done, because I’m not a left-liberal.
Debra: That’s sad. That’s wrong. How did you deal with — you’ve gotten abuse from all over the political spectrum since disclosing your status as being HIV positive. What helped you manage and get through that? Because those attacks have been very personal.
Andrew: Yeah, well, HIV led me to be subject to deportation for 19 years, which was a very frightening place to be in. And it’s lovely to hear left-wing progressives tell me they wish I’d been deported. The truth is you accept in some ways — and I learned this very early — when I was out as the editor of The New Republic. I was the only out journalist in Washington. I was only 26, but I was the only out one. So I was very prominent at the very beginning. And because of that, and a lot of fuss was made about me, I was supposed to represent everybody gay. Of course I didn’t. I said “I don’t, and I’m not going to, and I’m going to pursue my own view of the world.” And that was just not allowed, because I did not fit in to the existing left-power framework within the gay rights movement. I was basically ignored or attacked.
But you get through it because you know what you’re doing is in good faith. You’ve actually made a difference. You can see exactly the arguments that you helped frame and create — they came to win the argument. You can see how in that fight for marriage equality, liberalism worked, in as much as I went and talked to anybody from the fundamentalist right to the crazy left. I talked to anybody. I went to Christian churches, I went to Catholic colleges. I had a policy of never turning down an invite, which is what you do if you really want to get your message out there, if you really want to talk. And that included countless TV and radio stuff. And then when I did an anthology on marriage, I actually included all the major arguments against it, which is unimaginable today. You would have a book that would sell, that would have different views of the same thing.
Debra: You’re triggering.
Andrew: Yeah, but we knew, I knew, that we had stronger arguments. I wanted them out there in public against the other arguments. I thought we would win if we just kept at it. And because so many other gay people saw this, they also began to come out and they also talked about marriage and they also talked about their own relationships. And the truth is that, when you see that happening and when you know that you played any part in someone’s wedding day, and you can see how healing that is to people, their families, their sense of self-esteem, their integration into culture — who gives a damn if I’m called a white supremacist on an hourly basis, because I’m not.
And also the truth is, the gay community, the people I know and love around me, we have a lovely relationship. And your friendships and you — you rely on that. And gay people, most of us, we’re not that political. I come to Provincetown. This is my 26th season here. And all the people I know, know me as me — not as this writer or this other stuff. With that kind of friendship network and support network, you can get through most things.
Debra: Yeah, because you know who you are, and people who love you know who you are.
Andrew: I think the thing is to believe that you don’t care what anybody says about you, as long as it isn’t true. Now, if it’s true you should listen, to figure out what you’ve done wrong. But if it’s really not true, I mean, if they start calling you a white supremacist, as they do on — you know, literally every other tweet I’m called this — there’s nothing you could do about that. It’s their problem, not yours. I mean, they’re projecting on to you all these insecurities that are pretty obvious.
And I learned from the beginning too, when I was the only openly gay person out there, the number of gay people who reached out to me and wanted me to be their idol or their representative, and I couldn’t be — I learned slowly over a few years to erect a boundary so that I wasn’t so emotionally vulnerable to all of that.
But it hurts, it has always hurt. Of course it hurts you. I don’t want to get to a point where it doesn’t hurt. I just want to get to resilience. And also the thing about AIDS, and watching, you know, half your friendship network die, and contemplating your own death as you saw them die, because you knew you were going to go through the same thing — it’s liberating. I mean, I thought I would have a few years to live. Why fuck with the bullshit when you’re going to die in a few years? Why not tell the truth? The book Virtually Normal? I wrote that because I thought I was going to die and I wanted to write something now, to leave behind, so the arguments for marriage equality, which were otherwise not being made, could be done definitively. And I could leave that behind.
And I wrote in the preface — dated it to the date of my seroconversion as a memory to myself — that this is why I wrote this book. So I think when gay people come out, first of all, they risk a lot. Or they think they’re risking a lot, and that’s liberating truth. And I think to face mortality young gives you this sense of perspective.
I’ll give you a tiny little anecdote. After I got into all that mess by publishing a symposium on The Bell Curve — which you weren’t supposed to talk about, let alone debate — but I’d published a symposium, a piece from the book and 13 criticisms of it. And it was a huge fuss. And I nearly lost my job. It was besieged within the office. I upset a lot of people.
At some point, Charles Murray said, “Well let’s go out and have a dinner, I’ll take you out to dinner to thank you for this.” And at some point he said to me, “This must be a really life-changing moment for you.” And I said to him, “It isn’t. You don’t know this, but let me tell you now: I’m dying of AIDS, and half my friends are. I’m in a crisis. This [the Bell Curve controversy] is not a crisis. This is a tempest of ideas and slurs and stigmas and realities and debates, but it’s not for me a major life event.”
So there’s a certain liberation in having survived. And I think Churchill said there’s nothing more exhilarating than being shot at but not being hit. And I think the fact is, I’m still here, I’m still dodging the bullets.
I do want to say, though, I hope you don’t mind me doing this: Next month my collection is coming out, which has all those early gay essays. I wrote about AIDS and the early arguments of marriage equality, all chronological. So you can see how the arguments developed over time.
Debra: Listeners can’t see that Andrew held up his forthcoming book. So where can they get your book?
Andrew: On Amazon, where you can pre-order on Amazon, if you want. It’s called “Out On a Limb: Selected Writing 1989 to 2021.” And it’s basically a greatest hits. Hitchens did his collection then dropped dead within a couple of years. So I hope it’s not going to happen to me.
There is something wonderfully liberating about facing mortality when you’re very young and living through it, and the knowledge that that’s always there. And I’m still a Catholic. So for me, the truth matters. And people used to ask me, “Like, how can you be openly gay and Catholic?” And my response was always, “Don’t you understand: I’m openly gay because I’m Catholic, because the church taught me to tell the truth as a core virtue. I am not lying to you. You were asking me to lie about myself. I will not do that. That is not actually the Christian thing to do.”
And so the conflicts, they are not as profound as you might otherwise think. And the truth is, actually, from the very get-go, the first time I realized I had this magic stick and it would give me all sorts of … whatever. I hate to say, but it’s true, I, um —
Debra: It’s a sex podcast. You can talk about your magic stick all you want.
Andrew: Well I’m talking about when I turned 13, 14, and I was like, “This is awesome. This can’t be wrong.” Obviously it’s not wrong. It’s happening spontaneously to me. I mean, I didn’t choose it, obviously. It’s not wrong. And there’s so much of it at the time, that how on earth am I supposed to save this up for one woman every year? I’m like no, it’s not happening. I had real wrestling with the arguments — though I also try to wrestle them to earth — but I’ve never had much sexual shame.
Debra: That’s amazing. So before I let you go, what advice would you have for young gay men who may have concerns about how to approach sex and dating?
Andrew: The idea that I’m giving advice to people, on dating, is quite bizarre. I’m in no a position to advise anyone. What I would say this is: You are lucky enough to have been born when all the major gay rights have been established. You’re the luckiest generation of gay people ever in the history of mankind. It has never been a better place to be gay than now in America.
So live your lives, live them fully. Don’t be obsessed about this subject. Be yourself and also know that finding the right partner, the right person to be with you in that journey, is incredibly important. It doesn’t mean you can’t have sex, or you can’t date and do all sorts of things. But at some point that’s going to matter — choose wisely, if you can.
But you don’t have to be political the way we had to be political. You don’t have to be an activist in the way that we had to be an activist — because we had to get to a point of equality. Now we’re there. There is a range of possibilities for you. And do not believe that a gay person is somehow restricted in the areas they can live and act and work in anyway whatsoever. Do not believe that being gay is somehow incompatible with being a construction worker or an airplane pilot or any of the other — don’t buy into any of the sexist stereotypes that want to turn gay men into women, or lesbians into men.
Your job is to show what gay people can do. What we can give back to our society. And we have over the centuries done so much in terms of creating educational environments, in creating artistic achievements, and intellectual development — in the arts and the sciences. I mean, you have Alan Turing, who created the computer, as your idol. And he did that while he was being imprisoned for being gay and chemically castrated to prevent him being gay. And he invented the computer while he was doing that.
So my point is, you have no excuse. Go out there and forge your own lives, obey no rules — as opposed to what you’re supposed to do. We can create a really wonderful gay future, and we can contribute — as we did to your life, Debra, as those men did for your life. We can be emblems of integrity and we can be emblems of responsibility. And we can be part of giving back, which is the most rewarding thing.
So I’m more interested in what we can make of gay culture and of gay existence now, more than constantly worrying about oppression. The truth is — I hate to tell you this — but you’re not really that oppressed. And certainly if you think of any other gay human being who’s ever lived, you are certainly not that oppressed. When I was in my twenties, it was a crime for me to have sex with another dude in my bed, my own bedroom. So don’t talk to me about oppression. You have no idea. A lot of it’s in your own heads. Go be the people you always wanted to be and be proudly gay alongside it. And don’t listen to anybody telling you any rules about what gay people can be or should be.
Debra: Alright, Andrew, thank you so much.
Andrew: Oh Debra, that was lovely. Thank you so much for asking me. You know, the thing about this, we don’t have our own children. There are many of us in my generation that look to the young now and see them treating us as if we were dinosaurs who really need to be relegated to the past. And they don’t know what we did for them, or the toll it took on so many, and the agony that it created. And sometimes that amnesia hurts a lot.
Maybe one of the things we also need to work on as gay men is building more relationships across the generations, so we can make sure that these stories, and this history, and this enormously transformative period can be conveyed. But we are unfortunately very age stratified. And the ability of older men to talk to younger men is not as strong as it might be. You know, we fought for the right for you to piss your life away in a dance club, if you want to. So that’s great! Go ahead, but have a thought for second of the people older than you, who went through the equivalent of a war and are veterans of that war and deserve a little bit of the respect that veterans of such wars tend to get. So thank you, Debra.
Debra: Thank you.