Why Sontag Didn't Want to Come Out: Her Words
By Brendan Lemon
Not long after the unauthorized biography Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon by Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock was published in 2000, I ran into Sontag'one of America's leading intellectuals, who died on December 28th'at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I asked her if she would agree to an interview with me that touched on various issues in the book, including her sexuality. I thought she might be open to such a discussion'she hadn't been before'because Joan Acocella's profile of her had just come out in The New Yorker, in which Sontag went on record as saying that she had had relationships with both women and men. Sontag didn't name any of them. She certainly didn't name the photographer Annie Leibovitz, the person whom many writers, since Sontag's death, have said should have been mentioned as a partner in her New York Times obituary, even though Sontag tended to describe their relationship as that of 'close friends.'
At the theater that night, Sontag told me to call her the next day. I did. On the phone, she said she didn't want to do an on-the-record interview about the biography, about which she didn't disclose if she had read or not but which she called 'regrettable.' Mostly, we talked about what we had seen at BAM'a production directed by Ingmar Bergman. We did, however, eventually drift into sexuality; I had just become editor of Out, and, in a characteristic display of her ability to engage you (she was the most insatiably curious person I've ever met, seductively so), here's the gist. The following is quoted directly from my journal entry for the day.
She said that she couldn't understand why anyone would be interested in her sexuality except as 'gossip.' She said that as a 'living, breathing human being' she had had affairs with both men and women, mostly men before age 40, women after. Nothing about that seemed remarkable to her. I told her that she was being disingenuous, that she was a prominent public person, especially in New York, and that, of course, people, gay men and lesbians in particular, being among her most passionate admirers, looked to her for leadership in the areas of literature, culture, and politics. In America, gay people were constantly being targeted by politicians, and that the more prominent people who came out, and who attacked the attackers, the better.
She said that she 'didn't feel comfortable' as a spokesperson for gay issues. There were plenty of people who 'bravely occupied that niche' and she had always supported them. I questioned whether she had 'always' supported them. I argued that she shouldn't think of coming out and of speaking up about sexuality as a narrow matter of private life but as part of her larger interest in human freedom. 'How can you say you're interested in liberty,' I asked, 'and be so reticent about asserting your own?' She got angry, started doing what she did incomparably well: deflating an argument. I got angry, too, so most of what she said about 'identity politics' and 'a freedom more universal than particular' was lost on me. It all seemed utterly French, and not in a good way.
When she had finished, I decided, what the hell, to get sentimental. I told her that as a high-school student growing up in a small Midwestern town I had felt isolated because of the things I was interested in. I said that her writing had made me feel less alone. I asked: Don't you feel that your ability to awaken people's passions would be increased if you came out'it would give gay and lesbian readers another powerful thing to connect to?
She said she was happy her books had been a lifeline to me. (It got emotional at that point.) But that it was more important for her to awaken people's political and intellectual passions than those concerning sexuality. If she could animate the former, then the latter would take care of itself. I asked if her unwillingness to come out was a generational thing. You may be onto something there, she responded, continuing, 'I grew up in a time when the modus operandi was the 'open secret.' I'm used to that, and quite OK with it. Intellectually, I know why I haven't spoken more about my sexuality, but I do wonder if I haven't repressed something there to my detriment.' (Sontag touched on this subject'the psychology of repression and its relation to pathology'in an eloquent passage of Illness as Metaphor.) She added, 'Maybe I could have given comfort to some people if I had dealt with the subject of my private sexuality more, but it's never been my prime mission to give comfort, unless somebody's in drastic need. I'd rather give pleasure, or shake things up.'
I said all this would make for a fascinating essay, and that it was too bad she had never written it. She said she doubted she would ever take up this topic.
'Compared to the work, who cares about the biography?'
'Oh, everybody,' I replied.
I told her again that she was underestimating her influence, and taking the easy way out'no small irony for someone who had long championed the Difficult. She laughed, and the change of mood allowed us to engage in the very thing she had criticized in the Rollyson and Paddock book: gossip. Among the names mentioned: Mark Morris ('he's getting fatter'), Salman Rushdie, Tina Brown ('Talk's trashy'), David Rieff, Edmund White, Toni Morrison ('seriously overrated'), Carlos Fuentes, Bill Clinton ('Rwanda'disgraceful'). We spoke for a long while about the Yugoslavian writer Danilo Kis, whom we had both known and whose work we both admired. And, of course, there was talk of Annie Leibovitz.