Andrew Sullivan On His Early Influences (Part One)
A reader digs up an old interview that Andrew did with Johann Hari in 2012, and it's a very revealing one.
This fortnight, while Andrew and I are on our annual Dishcation in August, we are airing a two-part interview of Andrew from 2012, conducted by the journalist Johann Hari (author of 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). The idea to re-air the interview 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 know bits and pieces of the story — a provincial kid, debated at Oxford, proud Tory and Reagan supporter, came to the States, courted controversy at The New Republic, was a pioneering supporter of gay marriage, supported the Iraq War and lived to regret it, and so on. But 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.) Another impetus for this suggestion is that I recently enjoyed listening to Glenn Loury do something like this on his own podcast. I loved it and learned a lot.
That posted email prompted another reader to write in:
One of your readers suggested that Andrew do an in-depth interview about his early life, his intellectual influences, etc. I listened to his interview with Giles Fraser, which was interesting, but he also did a more 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.
Even Johann doesn’t have the audio files anymore, so a big thanks to our reader for saving them from oblivion! I vividly remember listening to that interview, almost a decade ago, because it was one of the most revealing conversations I’ve ever heard of Andrew (and I’ve known him a long time). Johann has a real knack for allowing people to reveal themselves.
You can listen to the episode 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 second half of the interview will air next Friday. Update: here.) For three clips of Andrew’s conversation with Johann — on 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 over to our YouTube page.
In lieu of reader commentary this week, we are trying something different: a transcript of a podcast episode, specifically an interview that Andrew did last month on Debra Soh’s podcast, focused on the AIDS crisis and the marriage movement. We may start making transcripts available for our most popular Dishcast episodes, rather than all of the episodes, because we don’t have the staff bandwidth right now, and transcripts are a lot of work. Let us know if you think they would be particularly useful, or if you have any ideas in general about the Dishcast: firstname.lastname@example.org. For now, we hope you get some value from the transcript below, which gets very personal about Andrew and his friends who suffered during the AIDS crisis.
Debra: I want to start by saying thank you so much for agreeing to do this. It’s really an honor for me to get to talk with you, especially about this subject.
I guess I’ll explain to listeners what got me interested in wanting to do this episode. So my audience knows I’m straight, but I grew up in the gay community. When I was younger all my friends were gay men, and I really do credit them for helping me become the woman I am. I’m very proud of that. I love them so much, and I don’t feel there’s enough of a discussion about the AIDS crisis and what happened in the ‘80s and ‘90s. I feel like there needs to be more education about it, and I admire how open you’ve been about what you’ve been through. And I get so many questions from my audience, because I have a lot of young gay men in my audience, and they ask me about dating and sex, just like everyone does, but specifically in the context of this history and how to go about safer sex practices. So that’s what brought me to you.
Andrew: I’m delighted to answer any questions or engage in various reminiscences, as you please.
Debra: I want to start with a bit of a broader question in terms of coming out, because some of my audience, they live in parts of the world where it’s not acceptable to be gay, unfortunately, or they come from families where their families don’t accept them. What was it like for you when you were coming out? And also, what advice would you have for them?
Andrew: Well, I came out in the ‘80s, and I was a gay boy entirely surrounded by straight people — the complete inverse of you. And I love them all. I never heard the word “homosexual” ever. I never heard any discussion of it. I never heard anything on the radio. It was never discussed in our house. All I knew: it was so awful that you couldn’t even mention it. And if you brought it up, it would immediately mean that you were gay, because who else would bring up such an appalling subject? I know it’s hard for kids today to understand that this was the atmosphere I grew up in. And it was not that long ago. I’m not that old.
And so coming out was terrifying. I didn’t come out until I was in my early twenties and I had left England and arrived in America. I was able to sort of catch some of the extraordinary shifts in gay culture in the ‘80s, in Boston, and then in Washington, DC, and came out like that.
I had never really said I was straight, ever, but I was asked outright when I was at Oxford, because I was president of the Oxford Union — the newspaper asked me, in 1981, “are you gay?” And I was like, “I have great relations with the men and women.” That was my only — I couldn’t, I wasn’t going to be drawn.
But after that I came out and almost immediately told everybody — except my family. And eventually I had to go back and deal with them. Do you want me to tell you about that process?
Debra: Yeah, please do.
Andrew: I grew up in a Catholic family, with a strictly Catholic mother and grandmother, so I was brought up very profoundly within that tradition. So obviously that was a big worry for me.
And secondly, my dad was the captain of the town rugby team. He was an athlete in school. He was the jockiest jock. He was the guy that all the guys used to hang out with. He was such a stereotypical male, and my brother and sister were like, “Please don’t talk about it, don’t tell Dad,” because they were terrified of his reaction. Apparently they had attempted to raise the possibility once, and my father had said at the time, “If he ever tells that to me, he’ll never be in this house again.”
So I was terrified. But at that point, I was sort of part of the ‘80s revival of being proudly gay, even as we were surrounded by the beginnings of this horrible epidemic. And so I was like, I’m going to do it anyway.
So I asked both my parents down to sit together in the living room and I was going to tell them something. And they were “What?!” I don’t normally ask them both to sit down. The usual means of communication was I would tell my mother something, she would then tell my father. And then if my father had anything to say, he would come back behind my mother — a fairly traditional kind of household in that respect.
Anyway, I sat them down and I said, “I’ve come here to tell you I’m gay.” My mother said, “What?” I said, “I’m gay.” And she said, “What does that mean?” And I said, “I’m a homosexual. I always have been, I always will be. And I’m happy.” And she said, “Oh my God, I better go make a cup of tea” — which is what every English person does when the shit really does hit the fan.
So she disappeared from the room, leaving me with my father.
And suddenly he was bent double. I could see his shoulders shaking a little bit. And I realized he was sobbing. And I’d never seen my father cry before. It was basically unknown.
I didn’t know what to do. But I said, “Dad, stop crying. There’s no need to cry. I’m okay. I’m okay.” But he kept on. And I said to him, eventually, “Well, can you tell me why you’re crying? And I can address that.”
He looked up at that point and said, “I’m crying because of everything you must’ve gone through when you were growing up. And I never did anything to help you.”
At that point I broke down. My father totally rose to the occasion. And since then he was rock solid — until he died last year — in my defense, and his pride in me as a gay person.
My mother had a lot of issues about it, almost entirely because of the church, and she was never really comfortable. Because she felt it was going to — she had such hopes. I was the first kid in the family to go to college, and I had gotten into Oxford and then Harvard. And then I was going to throw it all away, by being gay? Why would you do that?
I remember my first book, Virtually Normal, which was a case for marriage equality. After it came out, I said to my mother, “What did you think?” And she said, “Well, I didn’t really read it. I just want you to write a real book about a real subject, that isn’t stigmatizing to you and peripheral to normal good people.” At which point I kind of sighed and gave up — but she’s still, I mean, she’s still alive. And she loves me enormously. And only a few times did she drive me completely crazy.
One of those times was in the epidemic, when my closest friend and I found out six weeks apart from each other that we were both positive. My friend died two years later, in an absolutely grotesque way. And at one point, when I was really, really in the dumps about it, because I’d just come from him, and he was basically a pile of bones, and in so much pain, and he couldn’t keep anything down and shat himself on the floor. This is a 31-year-old man.
And I said to my mom, “I don’t know how much more I can do this.” And I was also a volunteer; I was nursing someone else to death at the same time, as a buddy. And my mother said, “Oh, Andrew, I wish you weren’t gay. If you weren’t gay, you wouldn’t have to deal with all of this.”
And I said to my mom, “You know what, I’m going to put the phone down. If that’s all you can say — you wish that I weren’t me — at a moment when I need your support, because so many of my friends are in extreme crisis …”
She didn’t know at the time that I had it too. I kept it from them.
And so I said to her, “When you figure out why that is so horrible, what you just said to me, you can call me back.” It took a few months.
That was the worst moment, because I just felt no one was there for me. And no one was. I mean, they didn’t understand. They just didn’t understand. We were living — I said this in an essay I wrote — like medievals among moderns.
The COVID fatality rate, I think, is 0.1%, or something like that. Or not quite that low, but somewhere below 1%. HIV back then was a hundred percent fatal. Everyone died. It was not a matter of if; it was just a matter of when and how.
And the way people died … it’s very hard to convey to people. It was not an easy death. It was a long, terrible series of nightmares. There was toxoplasmosis. Your immune system collapses. And after it collapses, below a certain point, other kinds of infections can come in, ones that normally your body would easily repel. But when they’re not repelled, they can take over your body.
So for example, cryptosporidium, which is a little, little bug in the water that everybody drinks. But with people with AIDS, it just started to take over their gut and their stomachs. And so it ate all the food they tried to eat, before they did. So they started to become like skeletons.
Or they would wake up one morning and a bug called toxoplasmosis might’ve gotten into their brain. A friend of mine literally woke up one morning and couldn’t tie his shoelaces, and didn’t know why
Or cytomegalovirus — a friend of mine who was a photographer slowly, slowly went blind. At one point he had to have injections directly into his eyeballs. And I said to him, “I couldn’t, I could not look at a needle come right into my eye. How did you do it?” He said — I’ll never forget this — “because I want to see.”
And pneumonia, pneumocystis, KS — Kaposi sarcoma — causes lesions all over you. Neuropathy — that was was huge. The man I volunteered for, to help him die, if you so much as brushed his feet with the sheet, he would scream in agony. And he was propped up on a couch day and night with gray liquid spurting uncontrollably out of his butthole. The sheer indignity of people.
On top of the physical agony, they were unrecognizable. Their bodies were completely contorted. They were destroyed. They couldn’t see, they couldn’t breathe. They couldn’t eat. And you never knew what next was coming.
I went once to a hospital ward and saw — this was the early part of the epidemic — people were still being sequestered into one ward, where the bodies were taken and put into black plastic bags, kept outside, quarantined. This was an AIDS ward. And my buddy who died — he used to be a big bodybuilder, but now he was 90 pounds at most. And next to him was a hospital bed, with the curtain drawn around it. From within it, I heard someone singing a pop song. I said to Joe, my friend, “Well, at least someone here is happy, you know, keeping their spirits up.” And he said, “Oh no, no. He died this morning. That’s his boyfriend singing. They’ve been together for 10 years. And he’s been barred. He’s been thrown out of their apartment. He’s been barred from the funeral. And that’s their song, that they sang. It was the song that was playing when they met, and this is the last place he’ll really be able to feel some physical contact with the husband who had just passed away. And the nurses can’t bring themselves to tell him to leave.”
So it was not just the physical agony. It was the horrible stigma, the way in which people were treated, the indignity that they faced. And of course witnessing that, as I did, and many other instances of this, and also witnessing couples whose husbands were just magnificent in terms of sticking with people forever, you realize, I realized, that that must never ever happen again.
And so that was the origin of the marriage equality movement. That’s the only thing that will stop this, and we will make sure it happens, and we will do so in honor of the dead. And that’s why we did it. And so the AIDS crisis was also as crucible for action.
Debra: Would progress have been quicker, had being gay not been so stigmatized? Because homosexuality had only been taken out of the DSM less than a decade before the crisis began. You talk about the stigmatization. And I was reading about how, even in some cases, families couldn't bury their sons because again, the stigma around it, and also in some cases, funeral homes didn't even want to have the bodies there. So how do you think it might've been different if there was more acceptance of gay people?
Andrew: You know, I’ve thought about that. And the truth is, I think it didn’t make that much difference to the trajectory of the epidemic. It made a huge difference to how gay people, gay men, were treated in that epidemic. And it had a huge impact on our radicalization and attempt to rebuild a future that granted us formal equality.
But the truth is, the only way to stop the virus — apart from safer sex, which we could do ourselves — it turned out a very sophisticated set of therapies were truly on the cutting edge of research, helped in part by a big leap in computer technology, as well as massive investment by pharmaceutical companies that were attempting to find for the first time in human history a medicine that could stall a retro virus — a very, very smart virus that situated itself into your DNA and replicated there.
It was really, I think, all about getting there quickly. And it really was a miracle that we got it by 1996, which is when there first started to be human trials. And so when I asked myself, how could that have been sped up when you look at the way in which technology was evolving to make those breakthroughs possible? I don’t think a huge amount.
I think that a better, less brutally homophobic society would have done, would be to — first of all, notice this quickly and see it as huge story — and then develop treatments for the various opportunistic infections that were actually killing people, even as they tried the extraordinarily difficult process of isolating the virus, because we had no idea what it was. It took time. And then of course, to start testing possible combinations of drugs that might prevent it.
I wish you could say, “Oh, if we had only been more enlightened, we would have immediately jumped to attention and gotten a cure within five years, and all these people wouldn’t have died. The truth is that the technology wasn’t there, the science wasn’t there yet, the computer graphics that we were able to model the precise shape of proteins that would come into a precise niche in a particular cell to block the transmission. It was a huge medical advance. And as late as 1995, we were being told it wasn’t working. It was a huge shock when suddenly the drugs started to work in combination with, because when the protease inhibitors were tested by themselves, they didn’t do everything they could have done. It turned out it was the added arm of protease inhibitors that rendered the entire combination therapy — the cocktail — viable. And by the time we really knew the disease was at large, it was already too late. It has a 10-year latency period. You don’t notice for about a decade.
Of course at the beginning, there was a huge fight in the gay community about shutting the bathhouses, taking this seriously. There was a huge battle and, and men — great man, like Randy Shilts, God rest his soul — really fought that battle and won. But he was targeted as a right-wing fascist by left-wing gays. So that’s the other thing that was true: we weren’t all united. We were fighting each other at the same time as the disease, rather viciously. I’ve never experienced the kind of hostility from other gay men than I did during that period.
Debra: Why is it that some gay men were saying that the bath houses shouldn’t be closed? Is it this sense that the virus wasn’t that serious of a thing to be afraid of?
Andrew: It was more that the extraordinary trajectory of the gay rights movement. There was the beginning in the 1950s and ‘60s, the real pioneers, people like Frank Kameny, arguing for civil rights for homosexuals, walking in front of the White House in the 1950s, the first person who was fired in a security clearance for being gay and sued the federal government in the 1950s to say, “reinstate me, a real hero.”
But then there was this merger with the ‘60s counterculture, and then it exploded with Stonewall. There really was this culture of sexual free expression, which became a symbol of liberation. And people just didn’t want to be told that their liberation was at an end, and the institutions that represented that liberation they clung to — however irrationally, however bizarrely.
And it was not yet known for sure how this virus was contracted. Although it seemed pretty obvious you don’t want to be having unprotected anal sex if you don’t want to get this. And so that was the reason: there were political and cultural reasons to resist closing the bathhouses. And once again, it was a battle between the center-right of the gays and the left of the gays. And it’s been a continuing internal battle that is never really explained in the mainstream media, or even detailed.
Debra: Yeah, I think that’s something that people don’t realize — that I’ve heard people say they don’t even like using the term “gay community” because it’s not homogeneous. And that you can’t really say that by being gay, everybody thinks the same way. And even for myself, for a long time, I foolishly thought, “If you’re gay, you’re liberal.” And it wasn’t really until I became a journalist that I realized, no, you can be conservative and gay too.
Andrew: Almost a third of us voted for Trump last year. Now a third is not the same as the African-American community, or even the Jewish community in terms of Democratic Party support. The Democrats got the lowest-ever share of the gay vote last time around. So that’s interesting, but also it makes sense simply because, you know, as I’ve said before, gay people aren’t invented under a gooseberry bush in San Francisco and then unleashed across the nation to ensure that your interior design is perfect and your dinner parties are very well attended and very amusing to attend.
Gay people are born randomly. We’re the only minority that’s born randomly to the majority. So we all grow up in straight contexts, almost all of us. I mean you didn’t, Deborah, but obviously you’re an exception to this. Certainly most gay kids, they're born in Arkansas and Texas — in the reddest of red states — they’re born seeking to be soldiers, doctors, lawyers, construction — there is a vast array of different kinds. And because we just sprinkled randomly through the population, and because we are not with other gays for at least, you know, a good couple of decades, usually there’s no community in that sense.
And there’s also because we don’t have our own children. We can’t transmit the historical knowledge of the community to the next generation in a way that, for example, Jewish parents can talk about the Holocaust, or black parents can talk about the experiences of African-Americans in America, or Asian parents can talk about internment, as well as good stories of success. We don’t have kids. We can’t tell them that. They are being born to straight all the time. And some of those straight people are hyper liberal. Some of them are hyper conservative, and their gay sons and daughters can react or can conform or not conform.
And that was the first thing I knew. The first time I went into a gay bar — to be honest with you, I was like, Jesus, I was expecting something completely out of RuPaul’s drag race, or some sort of leather festival. But no, there were all these bloody normal people hanging around dancing. They come from all walks of life, seem very straightforward. You’d never guess they were gay outside of this place.
And I was like “Blimey! Who’s been lying to me all these years?” It kept me from coming out and it’s still true.
Like there’s a way in which, I mean, I've gotten mad and I shouldn’t, because it's pointless, but the mainstream media will distort the reality of gay people in grotesque ways. And you would think, first of all, that there are only trans women of color in the gay rights movement. And you’d also think that we’re all queer, even though a hefty proportion hate that word. That, you know, we’re all obviously lefty and that we’re on board with the new alphabet movement, which is less a gay rights movement than it is at this point a trans movement allied with a racial justice movement, which is utterly unrecognizable as the gay rights movement was in the ‘80s, ‘90s, and even the first decade of the 21st Century. Gay men are no longer really regarded as part of this movement.
Debra: Well, you guys are — gay men or just white men now, even if you’re not —
Andrew: Well we’re the oppressors, if we’re white. And you know, the number of white gay men that are now allowed to represent, uh, the 2SLGBTIAQ+ community is vanishingly small. And most of these organizations now condemn a white male power, which includes the gays. Meanwhile, financially, a lot of these movements are funded by white gay men. At some point, somebody is going to say, “Why am I spending money to be told I don’t really belong in my own community?”
Or we’re told, like lesbians are told, for example, that if those of us who support civil rights for transgender people and are thrilled by Bostock — the decision that basically put transgender people in the Civil Rights Act, and I’m very proud of that and want to support that and believe in transgender rights — nonetheless, if we say that we don’t want to have sex with someone presenting as a man, who has a vagina, we are bigots, we are transphobes. Because the core reality now of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community, so to speak, is that the core element is not sex — biological sex — which I think of as foundational to the definition of homosexuality. I mean, it’s the attraction of one sex to the same sex, right? Because we used to call it same-sex marriage.
Now it is gender identity, which trumps that. So if you have all the biological capacities of one individual and you’ve transitioned, you are now a male. And if you are gay and not attracted to that male, you’re obviously excluding trans men from your dating or sexual pool. And that is offensive and bigoted.
And so we’ve come full circle. I, at the beginning of the movement, was told by lots of right-wing church ladies, “You just haven’t met the right lady yet.” And now I’m being told, “You haven’t met the right person with a vagina yet.”
And part of me is like, “No, I do not have to defend my sexual orientation.” The whole point of this movement was not to have to defend my sexual orientation. Now I’m being told I can’t own it. I can’t celebrate it because the trans movement has deconstructed sex into gender. And gender means that I don’t have a biological sex. I’m just gendered.
Debra: I have a whole chapter in my book about this — chapter six in The End of Gender — about how lesbians are being told that they should like a penis if someone identifies as female. So you're the perfect person for me to ask this because I've been wondering why is it that these powerful gay men have essentially turned their backs on the movement?
Andrew: Well it’s achieved its objectives. What more does a gay rights movement need to do? We have full civil rights. We have the right to marry. We have anti-discrimination laws for every branch of activity and we have the right to serve our country. If I told someone 20 years ago, that all that would be possible, they’d be like, “Oh, well, we’re done now.” And we are done. What else is there to do?
What happens is that these groups that have existed to do that, they no longer have a reason to exist. So they come up with new reasons and they generate new controversies and they fixate on other questions. So that essentially, we now have a BIPOC trans movement that is operating in the carcass of a gay rights movement. And I don’t think that trans people really have much more to accomplish. I think once you’re in the Civil Rights Act, and once you can get your transition paid for, what we’re talking about now is a few small areas, such as whether children before puberty, especially gender nonconforming kids, have the capability to knowingly consent to permanent, irreversible changes in their body that will prevent them from fully becoming the sex they were born as. And that is a whole other question.
There’s also a whole other question about sports. But these are not big questions, essentially, in terms of how many people they effect. And if you look at the Equality Act, which is what they want to pass, they've been trying to pass this since the 1970s. I mean, I was told I had to wait. I should shut up about marriage until we get that done. Well, if I had, we’d still be waiting.
The Equality Act adds two things. It redefines sex as subordinate to gender, and it eviscerates any rights of religious people to exercise their conscience and say that they don’t want to be involved in anything to do with any particularly substantive gay or transgender issue. Which of course I’m against too.
Debra: It drives me crazy with the kids, because I would think that these men know that those kids were them when they were young. I don't know how they wouldn't, because the research backs that up. I don’t want to go too much in this because my audience has heard me talk about this a million times already. But that’s what upsets me about it.
Andrew: I’ll tell you this from my own experience that I, as a kid, before puberty, I had crushes on other boys. I even had a scrapbook where I would — because there was no porn for us. I didn’t even hear the word “gay”, let alone a picture. And I would cut out of Sunday magazines hot-looking guys and put them in my copy book. And I would draw the men I was attracted to because that’s all I had to go on. And they were dudes, they were definitely dudes. And in fact, they were big hairy dudes, which turned out to be my main predilection in men, as I grew up and grew older. But I didn’t know I was gay. I didn’t know what sex was. You don’t know really what sex was till you go through puberty.
So there was some panic in some ways — that I wasn’t like the other boys. But then puberty happened. I couldn’t have been more psyched to be a man. I suddenly got this amazing 24-hour gift in my crotch. That was something that never stopped giving intense pleasure. It was the best thing that ever happened to me. I wanted to be more male. I actually, at one point was a kid, I poured my mother’s mascara, and I didn’t do my eyebrows, but I tried to get the little boy hairs on my chest to look black, so I could have a hairy chest. I was obsessed with every chest.
Everyone’s different, of course, but I’m concerned that young gay boys who may be gender nonconforming, who may like Barbies, or may have experiments with lots of female activities, I’m concerned they could be pressured into thinking they’re not gay, but that they’re actually girls. And gay men have fought for a long time to be understood as men, not as something other than a man, not as something like a woman. Straight guys sometimes say to me, about me and my husband, “Who’s the girl, who’s the boy?” And I’m like, “You don’t understand. We’re both boys. That’s the point.” That’s more subversive — so much more subversive and so much more shocking to people than the notion that you’ll change your sex and conform to the male/female dynamic.
(The interview continues next week with the second half)