The Fruits of His Labors

I've seen Andrew Sullivan working out at my gym, but I had no idea how well his training regimen was going until I saw the April edition of POZ, the lifestyle mag on "health, hope, and HIV," as its slogan goes. His hair cropped close and his pecs puffed out, Sullivan smiles above the headline "Mr. Right." An admirer of his writing and thinking, I was hoping to see more of Sullivan after he left the New Republic last year. This isn't quite what I imagined.

But in an interview conducted by ACT UP founder and agitprop master Larry Kramer, Sullivan reveals more than just a scattering of chest hairs. One expects the two writers' interplay to crackle in a Rush Limbaugh-meets-Angela Davis sort of way. As recently as last month's issue of POZ, Kramer put Sullivan on a list of "smart people who should know better" (a deeply weird list that also included Ted Kennedy and Barbra Streisand). And of course, one of Sullivan's first attention-grabbing articles for TNR was a 1990 cover story called "Gay Life, Gay Death," in which he said ACT UP was "high on power." After its publication, Sullivan became the most visible and rigorous gay critic of leftism.

After years of screeching at people like Sullivan, however, Kramer now seems to want to understand them. For his part, Sullivan has lately attacked more fellow conservatives than radicals. Surprisingly, Sullivan also seems to trust Kramer on a human level—he aches that Washington is "a vicious town" and admits that, "at some deep level" he's also angry about AIDS (though not ready to make a career of his anger, as Kramer has).

Perhaps most important, Sullivan divulges for the first time how he contracted HIV—"almost certainly" via oral sex. "Of course, people look at you and they think, 'Poor love, she's completely in denial,'" Sullivan tells Kramer. But he swears he had no unprotected anal sex—not even any oral sex to ejaculation—for five years before he tested positive. He got HIV "through pre-cum," he says in the interview, "which is why it was so stunning for me to find out."

Sullivan said last week from his Northwest Washington apartment that Kramer "dragged" the details of his HIV infection out of him with persistent questioning. "How much more invasive can this get?" Sullivan asked. Still, his waiver of privacy may be salutary because many gay men (at least, most gay men I know), still have unprotected oral sex. Now that one of the country's most visible seropositive gay men is willing to talk publicly about the potential dangers of oral sex, flavored condoms may actually catch on.

Is the Blade Cutting It? More than 300 people—including many gays and lesbians—met in Laurel, Md., last month for a national conference on "gender variants"—people who feel their biological

gender isn't quite right. Longtime gay-rights activist and author Leslie Feinberg gave a keynote address, and organizers say the conference was one of the largest of its kind ever. But the Washington Blade—"The Gay Weekly of the Nation's Capital"—didn't send so much as an intern to the event.

Interested Washingtonians could read about it in the Baltimore Gay Paper, however. BGP, as it's called, began widespread distribution in Washington for the first time last month, and it ran a long story on the gender-variants' conference in its March 7 edition. About 2,000 copies of the twice-monthly BGP are now available at 28 Washington locations.

BGP acting editor Darren Kissinger says the paper isn't soliciting ads in D.C. because it doesn't want to spark an ad war with the Blade. Rather, he says the paper decided to expand to the District because Washingtonians have long complained to BGP editors that the Blade doesn't cover low-to-the-ground community events.

"Particularly, some of the sports teams there and the leather community there have wanted to read our sports coverage, and we have a leather column in our issues," Kissinger says. "The Blade does such a nice job of covering the political scene, but my impression is that some of the community events don't get coverage."

Indeed, BGP is tapping deep feelings against the Blade among gays who view Washington's premier gay publication as too snobby, too political, and, well, too lesbian. As a prominent member of a leather organization puts it: "The Blade covers lesbian events fantastically. It covers political problems excellently. And if that was what the gay community was entirely composed of, that would be fine. That's one thing I enjoy about the BGP. They cover the entire community, not just the so-called 'politically correct.'"

The Blade covered the Mid-Atlantic Leather Weekend this year only after weekend organizers pressured its editors in a meeting mediated by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. Members of the leather group Brother Help Thyself have said the Blade rarely writes about the organization, even though it's one of the oldest AIDS fund-raising groups in Washington.

Blade publisher Don Michaels and senior editor Lisa Keen said this week they had never heard of the Laurel gender-variants' conference, but Keen says the Blade has sent reporters "to the Mid-Atlantic Leather thing" in the past. Michaels says the Blade covers mostly "hard news"—stories that involve conflict and powerful Washington figures. "This is the nation's capital, and we're here, and a lot of the news [from] Capitol Hill and the national gay groups affects many gay people," he says.

The Blade is choosy about applying the hard-news standard, however. Its reporters cover some local gay groups—particularly the Metropolitan Community Churches—very closely, and leave others to the weekly calendars. Two years ago, Transgender Nation protested the Blade's slights outside the paper's U Street NW offices. "They've been better since then," says Transgender Nation member Jessica Xavier.

The trouble with the Blade's self-image as a national player is that the 28-year-old paper has a smaller staff than many community papers. Only four full-time reporters appear on the masthead, yet they must write about the city, the region, and federal Washington. Much of Keen's time is spent traveling to report on high-profile events—to Vancouver's AIDS conference last year, for instance, and to Los Angeles this month for a lesbian "gala" where k.d. lang kissed Ellen DeGeneres. ("Oh, what a night!" Keen wrote breathlessly.)

Keen notes that she personally paid for her trip to L.A., but the paper paid for the Vancouver trip. To devote so much time to prominent stories already fully covered by truly national publications slices mightily into the resources the Blade can devote to its hometown.

The result is not only less local coverage but sloppy reporting and hasty, windy writing. In the current issue, for example, reporter Wendy Johnson has a front-page article about a hate-crime report that she admits in the article she wasn't able to obtain "by deadline." But one might forgive Johnson—she had to write four other articles for the same issue. All Blade reporters file multiple articles each week, many of them lousy with bureaucratic terminology, simple he said/she said reporting, and other crutches reporters use when they are short on time.

But even infinite resources wouldn't fix the Blade's most troublesome shortcoming—its profound identity crisis. Part political pamphlet, part traditional newspaper, the Blade capitalizes "gay" and "lesbian" and yet quotes anti-gay bigots without calling them anti-gay bigots. The March 7 issue leads with an article about "ex-gays" who want to help other gays "heal" their homosexual disease. But does anybody really believe that Blade editors consider these ex-gays—sorry, ex-Gays—to be anything but confused megaChristians? The paper's patina of objectivity is really just a symptom of its desire to become a New York Times of gay journalism—but a curious Times, one that, say, capitalizes "liberal." Blade reporters and editors don't know whether they want to be part of the gay establishment or part of the news establishment.

Most other gay publications—certainly BGP, but even glossies like the Advocate and Out—opt for the former. Though unsatisfying, that position is at least intellectually honest. "I don't think there's another gay weekly that does what we do," says Michaels. Maybe there's a good reason for that.

A Big Victory for a Little Bar Rag Last year, after the Washington Post reported that Loudoun County gym teacher Jeffrey Dion Bruton and gay porn star Ty Fox were, in fact, the same person, Bruton disappeared. When Bruton resurfaced last month as a dancer at Wet, a Southeast Washington gay bar, reporters scrambled to interview him about his new life. He turned everyone down except MW (the letters stand for Metro Weekly), an entertainment guide distributed in gay bars.

In an interview that appeared in last week's issue, Bruton reveals that he thought his porn videos would only be distributed by mail order, so he never expected anyone in Loudoun to see them—least of all his wife, who sought a divorce. He also says the Post destroyed his life and nearly drove him to suicide. "The Post was trying to sell papers," he says in the interview.

Though Bruton probably chose MW because he could count on its Q-and-A format to tell his version of events, the interview was a coup for the young publication. Editor Randy Shulman started MW three weeks after a similar publication folded in 1994 and has been struggling for ad dollars and credibility ever since.

At first, Shulman ran mostly gossip and snapshots, but today MW is an established part of the interview circuit for stars in gay-themed movies and plays. (Shulman—who's always got a camera and notebook on hand—has interviewed actors Kenneth Branagh and Patrick Stewart, among others.) He's also running syndicated columns by writers like gay scientist Simon LeVay. And the paper just underwent a needed redesign.

"Financially, I'll be honest with you: This is a very hard business," Shulman says. He hopes to be able to pay his writers more in the short run, and in the long term? "My dream is to one day be franchised throughout different cities. I want this to be the guideline of all future bar rags."

—John Cloud

E-mail Paper Trail at dcarr@washcp.com or call (202) 332-2100.

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