The exception, of course, is on the subject of gay rights and gay marriage. Here, though he still has legions of detractors—take a peek, if you have the stomach for it, at Dale Peck’s scrupulously unhinged review in the Baffler—Sullivan was a courageous and forceful voice at a time when, for example, President Reagan’s communications director called AIDS “nature’s revenge on gay men”; when Republican senators routinely and publicly referred to homosexuals as moral degenerates; when HIV-positive foreigners were banned from traveling to the United States; and so on. For someone of my generation, born too late to remember the worst of the AIDS epidemic, raised in a milieu where being gay seemed about as exotic as being left-handed, it takes some effort to imagine what life was like for gay men in the 1980s and early 1990s, especially those raised in conservative religious communities. To this reader—a prosaically heterosexual and tacitly left-wing atheist—Sullivan’s early writings on these issues movingly bridge that imaginative gap. His voice is anguished, alarmed, and searching. Here is a writer trying to make sense of the morass of his own conflicting feelings about the politics of a global pandemic, the clash between his faith and his sexuality, and the sudden, unwelcome presence of potentially imminent death. In “Gay Life, Gay Death: The Siege of a Subculture,” he writes:
Largely invisible and almost incomprehensible to outsiders, gay men and their families now live lives alien to modernity’s rhythms. Death is ubiquitous. Friends and lovers die with random, rapid consistency. Time horizons shorten. Death is mentionable again. Indeed, it is unavoidable. Gay men now live essentially as medieval among moderns: habituated in a world of health, besieged by death in the midst of oblivious life.
What’s more, for all the racial controversies to which Sullivan seems shackled—largely due to the self-imposed albatross that was publishing the 1994 New Republic cover story by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein adapted from The Bell Curve, their book about race and I.Q.—he is admirably sensitive to the specific and widely neglected suffering of Black and Hispanic gays during the AIDS crisis—a neglect often visited on these populations by the overwhelmingly white AIDS activist groups, whose hypocrisy Sullivan rightly deplores: quick to condemn homphobia in the broader culture, they were circumspectly silent on homophobia within minority communities.
The fact that Sullivan, a conservative and a Roman Catholic, has often fallen afoul of his fellow gay-rights activists only serves to make these early writings more interesting, at least from a human standpoint. (Contradictions are always more interesting than resolutions.) So while I can’t say I found him particularly convincing, I was nevertheless moved by Sullivan’s depiction of being a Catholic who discovered he was gay—and by the difficult negotiation this discovery necessitated. In “Alone Again, Naturally,” easily one of his finest essays, Sullivan writes:
Because it was something I was deeply ashamed of, I felt obliged to confront it; but because it was also something inextricable—even then—from the core of my existence, it felt natural to enlist God’s help rather than his judgment in grappling with it. There was, of course, considerable tension in this balance of alliance and rejection; but there was also something quite natural about it, an accurate reflection of anyone’s compromised relationship with what he or she hazards to be the divine.
Out on a Limb, with its 576 pages, bristles with plenty of other passions and considerations: a reflection on the term “bear” in gay culture; an impassioned defense of the psychedelic drug LSD; a thoughtfully provocative essay questioning our assumptions about hate; a mawkish, dew-eyed elegy for Princess Diana; an account of Sullivan’s Bush-era defection from the Right. There is plenty to quarrel with, as you would expect, but there is also a good deal to appreciate. Most of that, however, is confined to the first fourth of this book, or up until about the late 1990s—which is telling, as it happens, for being around the time a new form of writing begins to emerge, a garrulously democratic and insistently populist form. I mean, of course, the weblog.
In a 2008 essay for the Atlantic extolling the virtues of blogging, Sullivan defines the form as “the spontaneous expression of instant thought,” which may well be a useful definition, except that what Sullivan takes to be the form’s supposed virtues are really its worst flaws: the “colloquial, unfinished tone”; the urge “not to think too hard before writing”; the intoxicating freedom that is “like taking a narcotic.” This sounds less like a definition of a style of writing than a fairly accurate summation of Donald Trump’s confiscated Twitter account. Sullivan admits as much: the key to understanding blogs, Matt Drudge once explained to him, is to realize that it’s a broadcast, not a publication—a remark Sullivan, damningly, offers without further comment.
He does admit to some of the form’s limitations, of course. He knows that blogging cannot replace or rival the depth of understanding the time writing, and reading, an essay affords. He even suggests that the rise and spread of blogging will make us appreciate traditional print media more, rather as a family might tearfully gather around old photos of a terminally ill grandparent. Weirdly, he goes on to enlist Montaigne as some sort of ancestral blogger. “Montaigne,” Sullivan writes, “also peppered his essays with myriads of what bloggers would call external links.” I confess I’m not really sure what he means. Montaigne, needless to say, wasn’t writing with an internet connection that gave him instant access to his readers, nor did he rely on those readers to supply him with hyperlinks or dole out swift and intemperate correctives. No, the great Frenchman wrote in willed self-isolation, sequestered from the cacophony of the modern world in his inherited citadel, and didn’t publish the first edition of his Essais until 1580, almost a decade after his retirement from public life.