Susan Sontag and a Case of Curious Silence
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 them.
Sontag was often quoted as saying, “Be serious, be passionate, wake up!” Let’s hope that America’s leading newspapers follow her advice.