Out on a Limb: Selected Writing 1989–2021 by Andrew Sullivan. Simon & Schuster, 576 pages.
Andrew Sullivan first showed up on my radar in 1991, an innocuous blip that gave no indication of the full-frontal assault about to be launched on the American left. I was working for OutWeek at the time, and I’d been tasked with proofing an interview between a seraphically beautiful young journalist named Maer Roshan and the recently appointed editor in chief of The New Republic (who, if I’m being completely honest, wasn’t so bad-looking himself). The angle was TNR’s first out EIC, but what had the office buzzing was the fact that he was also a self-declared conservative—“a proud Reaganite and Thatcherite,” as Sullivan describes himself in Out on a Limb. I remember poring over Maer’s interview as though it were a Darwinian account of a Galápagos endemism, a flightless cormorant or blue-footed booby, although maybe I should reference Borges’s The Book of Imaginary Beings instead, since on top of everything else Sullivan turned out to be a devout Catholic. The Catholic conservative homosexual: a nebulous shapeshifter distinguished from garden variety bogeymen by its beaded miter, Eton jacket, and leather chaps. With one hand it cuts taxes and runs up huge deficits, with the other it dispenses water-based lubricant and pamphlets extolling the virtue of abstinence before marriage.
Thirty years later my remembered impression is that Sullivan seemed pretty normal, if a little cagey. (Something about a Pet Shop Boys poster in his office? Which I think he offered as proof he was out at work?) Little insight, anyway, into why a twenty-eight-year-old gay man would identify with the homophobic institutions that had allowed the AIDS epidemic to spiral out of control over the previous decade. It wasn’t until 1994 that I began to understand what kind of creature Sullivan really was, when, in his capacity as head of The New Republic, he decided to publish an excerpt from The Bell Curve, Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s scientifically unvetted (and now widely discredited) apologia for white supremacy. Two years later came his infamous essay in The New York Times Magazine on the supposed “end” of the AIDS epidemic, an invitation to apathy so cataclysmic that Sarah Schulman, in The Gentrification of the Mind, identifies it as “Day One of the triumph of gentrified thought.” The subsequent twenty-five years have proven Sullivan a dependable shill for reactionary causes célèbres, whether it’s defending racism and sexism in the name of “science” (“It may be no accident that testosterone-soaked ghettos foster both high levels of crime and high levels of illegitimacy”), opposing hate-crime laws on the grounds that calling someone a “gook” or “n*gg*r” “allows natural tensions to express themselves incrementally,” or undercutting radical LGBTQ activism by insisting that only a $35 marriage license provides “a sense of normality, of human potential, of self-worth—something that my generation never had and that previous generations would have found unimaginable.”
But that was still a few years off. At the time I was less interested in a bangers-and-mash Roy Cohn than in whether or not Maer and Andrew had fucked. I hope they did. No, really, I do. At least then there’d be something about Sullivan I could take pleasure in, if only vicariously.
Bigmouth Strikes Again
Certainly there’s no pleasure in the writing. Zip. Nada. Bupkis. Making your way through the barrage of lies, half-truths, innuendoes, and provocations that characterize this 576-page miscellany of Sullivan’s career has all the appeal of plunging an overfull toilet: you just know shitty water’s going to soak the bathmat. But, hey, I’m a gay man, just like Sullivan. The smell of shit has erotic as well as repugnant associations for me; i.e., the pleasure of smacking a bitch is usually enough to offset the intellectual stink. Usually, I have no more desire to read, say, Ann Coulter, than I do Andrew Sullivan, but Ann Coulter is a cunt and knows she’s a cunt and makes her living being a cunt, and as such the pleasure of calling her a cunt comes with qualm-free, Nicorette-scented indemnity. But Sullivan’s a clever swine (to quote another Anglo-Irish homosexual who’s disappointed us) and like most borderline personalities instinctively wraps his bile in personal misery. He plays the pity card, in other words—like, a lot.
Certainly there’s no pleasure in the writing. Zip. Nada. Bupkis.
In this case the misery is a fairly typical homophobic childhood. “My otherness didn’t have a name,” he tells us, and though it’s nice to think he’s alluding to Wilde, yet another Irish homosexual who found England untenable, I kind of doubt it. It’s the rare gay man of our generation who can’t identify with the pain of watching a father “break down and weep at the declaration of his son’s sexuality.” A father who was “a near-parody of ‘toxic masculinity,’” a mother “in and out of [psychiatric] hospitals for much of my youth”: How can you blame the kid for falling in love with a grinning idiot like Ronald Reagan, or the Iron Lady herself? I know I did.
I also outgrew it pretty much as soon as I let a guy put his dick in my ass. Sullivan, however, has spent the better part of forty years clinging to fantasies of a rational, compassionate conservatism “dedicated to criticizing liberalism’s failures, engaging with it empirically, and offering practical alternatives to the same problems”—as though this is a thing that has ever existed anywhere in the history of the world. “Economic freedom, smaller government, and personal choice” are the generic qualities he attributes to the political movement that engineered the greatest level of income inequality and worst financial crisis in a century while simultaneously running up the largest deficits in history. Outlawing abortion and homosexual intercourse (not to mention marriage), restricting voting rights to as few non-Republicans (read: non-whites) as possible, compelling prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance in school, ramping up penalties for recreational drug use (another strategy for disenfranchising African Americans), spying on citizens, imprisoning and torturing without trial those it deems its enemies: the lacuna between the policies championed by real-life conservatives and what Sullivan claims to admire about conservatism gapes as wide as Matthias von Fistenberg’s rosebud. But though Sullivan doggedly calls out the inconsistencies between the ideal and the reality, it seems never to have occurred to him in thirty years that perhaps the reality is in fact the ideal, and the ethical conservatives of his imagination are mere Oakeshottian chimeras. (Oakeshott, Michael. Google him, and if you can figure out the appeal, please, fill me in.)
As early as 1998 Sullivan was talking about “a conservatism become puritanism”; in 2005 he detailed the co-optation of the Republican Party by values-oriented Christian fundamentalists, and in 2009 he announced he was “Leaving the Right.” But even after the election of 2016, he persisted in characterizing the ascent of Donald Trump as an aberration whose primary cause lay with a “cultural left” that “overplayed its hand”: “The white working class, having had their morals roundly mocked, their religion deemed primitive, and their economic prospects decimated, now find their very gender and race, indeed the very way they talk about reality, described as a kind of problem for the nation to overcome.” And the solution? “The person best positioned to get us out of this tribal trap would be . . . well . . . bear with me . . . Trump [ellipses in original; stupefied italics mine].” You got it: the same Trump who a few pages earlier had “no concept of a non-zero-sum engagement” should now be expected to follow the model of . . . well . . . bear with me . . . Bill Clinton. Yes, the very man who, in a previous essay, had done “more to give credibility to the far right’s conviction about moral collapse than anyone” is suddenly the sagacious politician who “leveraged the loyalty of Democrats . . . in order to triangulate toward centrist compromises with the GOP.” At the beginning of this book you get the sense that Sullivan’s gaslighting his readers, but the deeper you go you start to wonder if he’s actually gaslighting himself.
The vertigo only intensifies when he writes about Catholicism. “From the beginning,” he says, “my sexuality was part of my faith life, not a revolt against it.” A nice idea, I suppose, though it’s hard to find any evidence for it here. “The Church’s teachings created a dynamic that in practice led not to virtue but to pathology; by requiring the first lie in a human life, which would lead to an entire battery of others, they contorted human beings into caricatures of solitary eccentricity, frustrated bitterness, incapacitating anxiety.” Apologies if I’m being an unsympathetic reader, but this feels less like “part of” than, well, “revolt.” You think you’re witnessing the a-ha moment when he writes, “What finally convinced me of the wrongness of the Church’s teachings was not that they were intellectually so confused, but that in the circumstances of my own life—and of the lives I discovered around me—they seemed so destructive of the possibilities of human love and self-realization.” But it’s another red herring, if not simply a false flag. “To observe these things, to affirm their truth, is not to oppose the Church, but to hope in it, to believe in it as a human institution that is yet the eternal vessel of God’s love.” And in case you’re wondering how that might play out: “As the disabled person reveals to us in negative form the beauty of the fully functioning human body, so the homosexual person might be seen as a natural foil to the heterosexual norm, a variation that does not eclipse the theme, but resonates with it.” Yes, that is an actual sentence that actually appears in an essay about the Catholic Church and homosexuality as a defense of homosexuality. You’d think it would be the most offensive sentence in this book, but you’d be wrong.
Andrew Sullivan isn’t a conservative, and he isn’t a Catholic either.
But back to that line about self-realization. “To deny lust was one thing; to deny love was another. And to deny love in the context of Christian doctrine seemed particularly perverse.” I started and ended my religious life in Catholicism, with a Dantean journey through the varieties of fundamentalist experience in the middle, and I can tell you that that’s some straight-up sola fide heresy. Although in Sullivan’s case faith might best be described less as belief in the evidence of things not seen than in the opposite of what the evidence shows. “To be gay and to be bourgeois no longer seems such an absurd proposition,” he writes in the first essay in this collection, which makes you wonder if he’d ever actually met a gay person. In the second he singles out Al Sharpton for rebuke in the murder of Yusuf Hawkins while praising the white (and, in Sullivan’s own rendering, pointedly Catholic) Bensonhursters who formed the lynch mob that hunted down and killed sixteen-year-old Hawkins in 1989. “It’s difficult to spend much time in the neighborhood without being more impressed by the honesty with which people discuss their problems and their awkward attempts to deal with them than with the fear and suspicion lurking beneath the surface.” I suppose the stabbing of Al Sharpton in 1991 constituted one of those “awkward attempts.”
Three decades and four hundred pages later he’s still at it. “Transgenderist ideology,” he writes in “The Nature of Sex,” “is indeed a threat to homosexuality, because it is a threat to biological sex as a concept.” “Native Americans had been the first to discover this continent, and, with it, their own sort of American dream—thousands of years before Europeans imagined theirs,” he declares in an essay about the coronavirus pandemic, as if he actually believes the interpolation of a not particularly clever anachronism creates an equivalence between Stone Age nomads wandering into an unpopulated land and the gun-toting, disease-carrying invaders who stole that land from them ten thousand years later. Writing about Dan-el Padilla Peralta, a Dominican-born professor of classics who “came to see the white supremacists’ cooptation of the classics as inextricable from the classics themselves,” Sullivan tells readers that Padilla “refuses to ‘praise the architects of that trauma as having done right by you at the end.’”
This was one of a dozen times my margin note read “Physician, heal thyself.” But there can be no healing when there’s no ability to recognize one’s plight in others, and Sullivan remains resolutely uninterested in any losses but his own. In his mea culpa on the Iraq War, the final note isn’t “the lives lost, the families destroyed, the bodies tortured, the civilization trashed.” That was “bad enough,” sure, “but what was done to America—and the meaning of America—was unforgivable. And for that I will not and should not forgive myself.” That’s right, folks: as many as a million people were killed in a pointless war that Andrew Sullivan hawked like a fishwife for no other reason than his need to punish as many Muslims as possible for 9/11, but what’s important to remember is that he feels really bad about it. When I read this, I was reminded of Edmund Wilson’s reaction to Brideshead Revisited: “The last scenes are extravagantly absurd, with an absurdity that would be worthy of Waugh at his best if it were not—painful to say—meant quite seriously.”
And this is par for the course in a life that, based on the evidence on offer, has reeled from one soul-saving panacea to another. “Moment[s] of grace,” he calls them: “those precious, rare times when . . . patterns of thought and behavior we have grown accustomed to and at times despaired of suddenly cede to something new and marvelous.” The first marvel was Ronnie and Maggie, the second the HIV treatments that prompted him to declare the premature end of AIDS. But there have been many more—suspiciously many for someone who claims that faith offers him “the only truly reliable elements of direction.” “Depression, once a regular feature of my life,” he tells us after he starts testosterone, “is now a distant memory.” The marginal note here was “Post hoc, ergo propter hoc.” It’s already a bad day when a supposedly intellectual essay has you quoting Aaron Sorkin, but before you know it, Sullivan’s gone down the rabbit hole of “the relatively new science of evolutionary psychology” (the nineties rebrand of tired old social Darwinism) to declare that “we should recognize that affirmative action for women (and men) in all arenas is an inherently utopian project.” When he starts to dabble in the, ahem, “expansion of consciousness,” he finds himself “overwhelmed with the feeling of love for others, for boundless compassion, sometimes almost painful empathy,” which leads to another epiphany: “The child’s wonder, her simple, unfiltered absorption of the world’s mystery and awe: this is what a psychedelic experience can mimic in a way. Unless you are like a child, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” You have to give the man his due: How many other writers would have the balls to cast Jesus as the world’s first pusher?
But of all the life ropes Sullivan flails at, it’s his embrace of bear culture that I find most telling. Far from being simply an opportunity for him to eroticize his “potbelly,” becoming a bear is a way for Sullivan to escape from the “effeminacy of the old-school gay subculture.” “Bears are simply saying that they’re men first and unashamed of it . . . And men are not ‘boys’; they’re not feminized, hairless, fatless icons.” So “it might be asked if bears are a subset of gay culture or simply a culture to themselves . . . Bears might be ‘post-gay’ inasmuch as their fundamental identity is far more complex than any simple expression of their same-sex attraction . . . Bears, after all, are the straight guys in gay culture.”
And there it is: the relentless yearning for what Sullivan calls “assimilation,” which isn’t simply the desire for “normalcy,” for “making homosexuality a nonissue” or “making gay citizens merely and supremely citizens.” It is instead, in some totally fucked-up way, the desire not to be gay.
To Sullivan, gayness only expresses itself in a reactionary manner. “When society tells you that gay men and lesbians are not fully male or female, the response can be to overcompensate with caricatures of each gender or to rebel by blurring gender lines altogether.” Sullivan would have you believe that these “not fully male or female” gay men and lesbians are as distant as the Native Americans who succumbed to European-borne diseases during the Conquest, but the many Catholic essays, as well as his strident insistence that he isn’t one of those “effeminate” gay men, make you realize that he’s—still—talking about himself.
A Bear in Wolf’s Clothing
And as the warped, stunted expression of these wounded psyches, gay culture has no prima facie value, only a kind of secondary gain as a coping strategy for a sexual orientation that he conceives of as a handicap and whose greatest aspiration is to “honor” “heterosexual primacy.” Think whatever you want about the causes and manifestations of gay culture, but the only evidence in these pages of the defensive caricatures and reactionary pathology Sullivan attributes to gay men and women is Sullivan’s writing itself. There’s no there there; there’s only “There, there,” as if Sullivan had to create himself his own parent to make up for the insufficient models life provided him; to coo to his isolated inner child, so blinded by—pain? ambition? they’re pretty much indistinguishable here—that he doesn’t realize his alienation stems from wanting to belong to clubs whose members hate him not for what he says or what he does but for what he is.
To Sullivan, gayness only expresses itself in a reactionary manner.
Recall Sullivan’s father, described in 1993 as breaking down when Sullivan came out. The incident is contrasted with “mass advertising” that “explicitly cater[s] to an openly gay audience” to emphasize the progress that’s occurred in Sullivan’s lifetime: from familial rejection as a young man to widespread market visibility in the space of perhaps a decade. Twenty-eight years later Sullivan revisits the incident in the collection’s final essay, but this time the spin is a little different (by which I mean diametrically opposed to the original telling):
When I came out to him, he suddenly bent down and sobbed. I was shocked and confused. My dad never cried. I asked him again and again why he was weeping, even as I was relieved he hadn’t thrown a punch. And after a while, he looked up and said something I will never forget: “I’m crying because of all you must have gone through growing up, and I never did anything to help you.”
In 1993 Sullivan needed a bad father to show the world how homophobia had hurt him; in 2021 he needed a good father to show how homosexuality and the “traditional” family aren’t incompatible. One of these characterizations is false, as pure a demonstration of Janet Malcolm’s famous maxim about journalism as you’ll ever find, but that isn’t what’s most interesting here. Just as Sullivan had to transform his father’s initial rejection into acceptance, so, too, does he have to pretend that there exists a benignant version of conservatism and the Catholic Church, as if their hierarchies of right and wrong, us and them, saved and damned, aren’t the point of these institutions, and can only be overcome via a reformation on the scale of, well, the Reformation. Which is to say: the man who cast himself as the enemy of postmodern moral relativity, the man who insists on orthodox standards that transcend culture and history with the fervor of a latter-day Aquinas, is actually a Luther manqué, a failed revolutionary who lost his war because he could never admit who his enemy was.
Which is to say: Andrew Sullivan isn’t a conservative, and he isn’t a Catholic either.
Catholics don’t get to cherry-pick their doctrine, and neither do conservatives. I’m not suggesting that either is a static phenomenon or that individuals don’t forge their own relationships to them, but you can only reform an institution so much before you’re forced to admit you’ve made something new. There’s a reason why the followers of Jesus stopped calling themselves Jews, after all, even as they retained many of the same tenets, or why former members of the Whig and Free Soil parties started calling themselves Republicans. Alas, Sullivan’s innovations are not so high-minded. You could call him a libertarian or a church of one, but both denominations require some kind of philosophical consistency, and the only through line in Out on a Limb is Sullivan’s refusal to acknowledge that his oppressors are conservatives and Catholics and not liberals and (Sarah Schulman again) “out gays.” It’s Sullivan and not his father who comes across as the parody of toxic masculinity, Sullivan the quintessential manbaby who hopes that if he talks about his own marginalization loud enough it’ll distract people from the fact that he’s claimed far more than his share of the world’s attention and resources. The man living through a pandemic that’s killed more than four million people worldwide and felt the need to reassure readers that it “probably” won’t claim the seven hundred thousand American lives AIDS did (because only American lives matter, and American deaths) has given us five hundred pages revealing not just his inability to see the world, but his insatiable contempt for anyone who dares to point it out, let alone suggest that it can be improved—which just happens to be his life’s work. Hello, Oedipus? It’s the Fates calling. The criminal you’re looking for is yourself.
All of this has a Forsterian quality, in the sense that E.M. Forster understood that his worldview was inextricably defined by heteronormative English values he didn’t have the strength to reject. Forster at least recognized his own weakness and, rather than defend the indefensible, lapsed into public silence. But Sullivan’s need to sell the world a set of eternal truths that conveniently affirm not just his right to love but his potbellied lovability has resulted in thirty years of cognitive dissonance: a string of meticulous yet vapid mea culpas for the inextricable bigotry of the very institutions that he holds up as models for moral society, punctuated by “I, too” appeals for sympathy over trauma he seems to think was visited on him out of the blue.
Seen in this light, his relentless attacks on American liberals—the people who, after all, made it possible for him to come out and speak in public without feeling like he was risking his career or his freedom or his life, and secured his beloved marriage equality besides—make way more sense. Liberals poke holes in Sullivan’s fantasies, and as such they’re a convenient proxy for his real enemy. A double proxy, really, for the conservative establishment and Catholic church that make him feel less than, which are in turn scrims for the thing that, according to everything he’s told us over the past thirty-two years, he finds truly intolerable, the one thing that he indisputably is: a cock-obsessed cum-guzzling homosexual who (as he informed potential partners on barebackcity, though not readers of Out on a Limb) craves “one-on-ones, three-ways, groups, parties, orgies and gang bangs.”
Huh. I guess there’s something I like about him after all.