Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Susan Sontag and a Case of Curious Silence


THE INNING OF SONTAG: I have to say I'm amazed at the fact that almost all the obituaries for Susan Sontag omitted her primary, longtime relationship with Annie Leibovitz, the photographer. Of 315 articles in Nexis, only 29 mention Leibovitz, and most of them referred merely to their joint projects. Leibovitz was unmentioned as a survivor in the NYT and Washington Post. It's striking how even allegedly liberal outlets routinely excise the homosexual dimension from many people's lives - even from someone dead. But perhaps it is reflective of Sontag's own notions of privacy and identity. She championed many causes in her day, but the gay civil rights movement was oddly not prominent among them.

MORE ON SONTAG: I'm not the only one to notice how the big media has essentially lied by omission about Susan Sontag's life. An op-ed in today's L.A. Times notes the following: An unauthorized biography written by Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock and published by W.W. Norton in 2000, reports that Sontag was, for seven years, the companion of the great American playwright Maria Irene Fornes (in Sontag's introduction to the collected works of Fornes, she writes about them living together). She also had a relationship with the renowned choreographer Lucinda Childs. And, most recently, Sontag lived, on and off, with Leibovitz.

Even Hitchens mentions only her ex-husband. Privacy? From a woman who detailed every aspect of her own illnesses? From someone whose best work is redolent with homosexual themes? But, of course, Sontag understood that her lesbianism might limit her appeal in a homophobic culture - even on the extreme left, where she comfortably lived for decades. That was her prerogative. But that's no reason for the media to perpetuate untruths after her death. And it's certainly reason to review her own record in confronting injustice. Just as she once defended the persecution of gay people in Castro's Cuba, she ducked one of the burning civil rights struggles of her time at home. But she was on the left. So no one criticized.

DE-GAYING SONTAG: Here's Daniel Okrent's defense of why the New York Times omitted the fact that Susan Sontag was a lesbian: Spurred by challenges and queries from several readers, I looked into the charge that The Times had willfully suppressed information about Susan Sontag's relationship with Annie Leibovitz. My inquiry indicates that the subject was in fact discussed before publication of the Sontag obituary, but that The Times could find no authoritative source who could confirm any details of a relationship. According to obituaries editor Chuck Strum, "It might have been helpful if The Times could have found a way to acknowledge the existence of a widespread impression that Susan Sontag and Annie Leibovitz were more than just casual friends. But absent any clarifying statements from either party over the years, and no such
corroboration from people close to her, we felt it was impossible to write anything conclusive about their relationship and remain fair to both of them." Ms. Leibovitz would not discuss the subject with The Times, and Ms. Sontag's son, David Rieff, declined to confirm any details about the relationship. Some might say that such safely accurate phrases as "Ms. Sontag had a long relationship with Annie Leibovitz" would have sufficed, but I think anything like that would not only bear the unpleasant aroma of euphemism, but would also seem leering or coy. Additionally, irrespective of the details of this
particular situation, it's fair to ask whether intimate information about the private lives of people who wish to keep those lives private is fair game for newspapers. I would personally hope not. The closet remains intact. Privacy? Sontag informed the world about her cancers and even an abortion. And her relationships with several women were not state secrets. Recall also that Sontag's career took off with her rightly celebrated essay on camp, an essay that she would had a hard time writing without intimate familiarity with gay
life and culture. The golden rule here is to ask what the NYT would have done if Sontag had lived with a man for a couple of decades on and off, and had written essays on various aspects of sex, love and heterosexuality. Do you think they would have never mentioned her actual love life? Or if she had had serious relationships with a variety of male artists and thinkers, some of whom had influenced her work. Would this be regarded as an invasion of her privacy? The question answers itself.

from the LA Times:

Susan Sontag and a Case of Curious Silence By Patrick Moore, Patrick Moore is the author of "Beyond Shame:Reclaiming the Abandoned History of Radical Gay Sexuality" (Beacon Press, 2004).

On Dec. 29, 2004, major gay and lesbian news organizations announced that "lesbian writer Susan Sontag" had died. In its obituary of Sontag, the New York Daily News wrote, "Famed photographer Annie Leibovitz had been her longtime companion."

On Dec. 29, 2004, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times reported Sontag's death on their front pages, with more stories inside. Yet neither paper mentioned Sontag's relationships with Leibovitz and other women.

It seems that editors at what are, arguably, the nation's most respected (and liberal) newspapers believe that one personal detail cannot be mentioned in even the most complete biographies — being a lesbian.

In a 1995 New Yorker profile, Sontag outed herself as bisexual, familiar code for "gay." Yet she remained quasi-closeted, speaking to interviewers in detail about her ex-husband without mentioning her long liaisons with some of America's most fascinating female artists.

An unauthorized biography written by Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock and published by W.W. Norton in 2000, reports that Sontag was, for seven years, the companion of the great American playwright Maria Irene Fornes (in Sontag's introduction to the collected works of Fornes, she writes about them living together). She also had a relationship with the renowned choreographer Lucinda Childs. And, most recently, Sontag lived, on and off, with Leibovitz.

Sontag's reticence is surely part of why the two Timeses neglected this part of her life. But she didn't deny these relationships. And given that obituaries typically cite their subjects' important relationships, shouldn't the two best newspapers in the country have reported at least her most recent one, with Leibovitz, as well as her marriage, which ended in 1958?

Some will ask why revealing Sontag's sexuality is relevant. As Charles McGrath wrote in his appreciation of Sontag in the New York Times, "Part of her appeal was her own glamour — the black outfits, the sultry voice, the trademark white stripe parting her long dark hair." Sontag was well aware of herself as a sexual being and used her image to transform herself from just another intellectual into a cultural icon. She may well have felt that her true sexuality would limit her impact in the male-dominated intellectual elite, while an omnisexual charisma opened doors.

More important, though, Sontag's lesbian relationships surely affected her work and our understanding of it. Two of Sontag's most famous essays dealt with issues associated with homosexuality: "Notes on Camp" and "AIDS and Its Metaphors."

The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times found ample room to discuss Sontag's cancer and subsequent mastectomy, which were not seen as lurid details but as necessary information in understanding the work of the author of "Illness as Metaphor." The papers also included extensive discussions of Sontag's schooling, her early family life, how she met her ex-husband, even her thoughts on driving in Los Angeles. However, her relationships with women and how they shaped her thoughts on gay culture and the larger world of outsiders
and outlaws (a Sontag fascination) were omitted.

There is, of course, a larger issue here: Continued silence about lesbians in American culture amounts to bias. Gay men seem to have settled into the role of finger-snapping designer/decorator/entertainers in the mass media. Meanwhile, most lesbians who achieve widespread fame — Ellen DeGeneres, Melissa Etheridge and Rosie O'Donnell — have to remain in the closet until they have gained enough power to weather the coming-out storm. This model victimizes those who are out and proud from the very beginning.

The obituaries, remembrances and appreciations in New York and Los Angeles do anything but honor Sontag. They form a record that is, at best, incomplete and, at worst, knowingly false. But don't look for corrections, clarifications or apologies.

The New York writer and activist Sarah Schulman has been, ironically, described as "the lesbian Susan Sontag." Schulman told me recently that Sontag "never applied her massive intellectual gifts toward understanding her own condition as a lesbian, because to do so publicly would have subjected her to marginalization and dismissal."

Susan Sontag was a brilliant, provocative writer who had vital, loving relationships with some of the most fascinating and creative women of her day. I believe that her intellectual accomplishments are even more compelling when one understands how her sexuality informed

Sontag was often quoted as saying, "Be serious, be passionate, wake up!" Let's hope that America's leading newspapers follow her advice.


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