My Friend, JackBy Stephanie Donald
In the summer of 1998 I was not in the best of financial circumstances when I read a Florida Today article about Jack Nichols and his newly formed collaboration with an online gay pornography site to start gay, lesbian and bisexual news site, GayToday.
I was living in Cape Canaveral not very far from him and I had previously been the editor of several GLBT print newspapers in the Norfolk/Tidewater, Virginia area. I had won several awards there for covering hate crimes in the community and the debacle of President Bill Clinton’s failed attempt to remove the ban on gays and lesbians serving in the military.
Since Norfolk was home to the largest Naval and Marine Corps base for the United States in the world the stories abound in 1992-1994 about service men and women who thumbed their noses in their commanding officer’s faces on Clinton’s election day; prematurely coming-out and thinking they had no worries because of Clinton’s seemingly iron-clad promise which turned to quicksand around their ankles.
Tidewater was never my “home”. I was born in Cocoa Beach and longed to return home but as always; the job situation was never favorable in Brevard County unless you launched rockets for a living.
I was surprised after reading the Florida Today article to find Jack’s phone number listed in the telephone directory so being the brash pain-in-the-ass that I was I called him and told him my background and offered to write for GayToday.
I was instantly taken by Jack’s warmth even though he was cautious regarding my offer. He wanted to meet with me and discuss it so I offered to have him over for dinner with my lover at the time. I think either the offer of dinner or just something about my overall sincerity must have given Jack some degree of trust because, while he turned down the offer of dinner, he invited my lover and I to his condo to talk.
Thus began my friendship with Jack Nichols and its one that has had a continuing impact on my life and will probably have one until the day I die. One doesn’t forget Jack after you’ve been touched by him.
If I had to use a collection of single, individual words to describe Jack in order to summarize my inner feelings about the man I knew when he was alive they would be; panache, intelligence, sensitivity, depth, mystery, humor, warmth, life, intensity, sarcasm, irony, friendship, sharing, joy and love.
It wasn’t until after Jack died in 2005 that I was even aware that he had been sick for almost 20 years. Jack had told me once that he had a brush with cancer back in the 1980s but that he had been in remission and had it beat. After talking to several of his close friends in the years since his death I believe that it wasn’t that he was lying to me; he was simply using the power of positive suggestion to make himself believe that he would not get sick again.
Jack had simply dealt with too much death in his life and if you truly knew Jack, even in his late 60s, he had the verve, energy and outlook of a man just starting out in life; looking for the good fight and smiling wryly at his handpicked enemies, knowing he was the better man. Jack’s battles in life weren’t the gladiator games. Jack’s battles in life were getting the King to laugh at how stupid a Royal decree could be because if Jack was anything he was the intellectual Court Jester.
One time in Jack’s small bedroom he played a video tape proudly for me of a very early CBS 60 Minutes™ episode from around 1967-68 where he was interviewed by Mike Wallace as the first openly gay man on national television. He went on for some time about how homophobic Mike Wallace was and how much Wallace didn’t want to “interview a faggot”, and how he just wanted to get it over with. Jack just talked slowly and calmly to Wallace and, at the time, Nichols looked very much the part of the “All-American boy”. After several minutes of joking with Wallace he had diffused the situation and Wallace had changed his views about gay people. This anecdote pretty much defines the Court Jester role that Jack brought to gay civil rights. It was hard for anyone to be “against” Jack when he turned on the charm and he had loads of charm.
In another one of those famous Nichols “bedroom talks”, Jack told me about his relationships with Lige Clarke and Logan Carter. Both men met with tragic deaths and he loved both very, very deeply. Lige Clarke was murdered in Mexico and Logan Carter died of HIV complications. Both men had what Jack called “a wonderful androgynous quality”. In retrospect, I think Jack would have loved a man or a woman if they had exhibited a completely androgynous nature although I understand that sexually Jack loved only men.
Jack went into some detail about his relationships with Lige and Logan and apparently I mistook his explanations for melancholy. I remarked to him, “It must be very hard on you that you’ve lost the two men in your life that you’ve loved so much in such a tragic way.”
Jack stopped for a moment and realized my misunderstanding his remembrances. He sat up on his bed (he had been reclined and showing me a photo album with pictures of both men). He gently took my hand, looked into my eyes and smiled gently and said, “Stephanie, you’ve misunderstood! I’m not sad at all! I was lucky to have known them at all!”
In that one moment I felt embarrassed about my own feelings while at the same time Jack came into crystal clarity for me as a human being. It just wasn’t part of Jack’s nature to feel sorry for himself. I wasn’t there for Jack at the end of his life but after reading Steve Yate’s article about his attendance of Jack at Cape Canaveral Hospital in those last hours it seems to reflect that even as Jack lay dying he wasn’t feeling sorry for himself even as his life was slipping away.
Even in those years between the cessation of GayToday in 2003 and the end of Jack’s life in 2005, his final writing project; The Tomcat Chronicles: Erotic Adventures of a Gay Liberation Pioneer (Harrington Park Press®) wasn’t the declaration of the end of his life but a connection of the bridge all the way back to the beginning of his awakening as a sexual being.
With no apologies and the wit and wisdom of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Jack Nichols tells us how it all began so that all of us who wanted to know how he got from “there to here” had a roadmap to plot the trail of those years right up until he met Lige Clarke.
The story ends with his meeting Lige and bookends I have More Fun with You than Anybody almost as a prequel in the most brilliant of fashions. It’s just a shame that if you want all of Jack’s books that you have to dig the rare used book shops of Amazon.com and probe deeply to find them. Perhaps if LGBT-Today becomes successful we will buy the rights to Jack’s books and reprint them so that another generation can enjoy his classic observation of history and life.
In forming LGBT-Today I’m not seeking any fame or fortune for myself and I consider myself the most unlikely successor for Jack Nichols in the entire world. I made an ardent plea to the writers who were Jack’s friends and contemporaries and told all of them to make sure that I walked the straight and narrow to uphold their legacy.I consider myself most unworthy when comparing myself to the likes of Jack Nichols, Rodger Streitmatter, James Sears, Randy Wicker and most of all, Dr. Frank Kameny. My talent lies in editing, organizing and promoting, first and foremost.
I’m not a bad writer or a bad organizer and while I’ve participated in many contemporary protests, written many editorials and news pieces for the LGBT community, my past pales in comparison to my staff of writers and I differ to their extensive knowledge and experience. I feel that I’m the luckiest editor/publisher who has ever lived to have the people contributing to this publication that honors the legacy of Jack Nichols and those who laid the bricks for what we must do next. I also feel Jack’s gentle touch on my shoulder urging me on and telling me this is the right thing to do and who am I to argue?
My real work is in this next decade. This is our decade; 2010-2020. 56% of the population of the United States now favors gay marriage and gay civil equality. Our community lacks focus and leadership and seems accepting of “piecemeal” civil rights such as ENDA and the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and DOMA. It never seems to have occurred to anyone to roll it up into a complete Gay Civil Rights Bill like the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Together with the bricks and mortar of the past 60 years that people like Jack Nichols, Dr. Frank Kameny, Barbara Gittings and Harvey Milk and many others have left us, the leaders of today and tomorrow along with a free and open press such as LGBT-Today can help shape our future over this next decade and this will be our age of equality.
I never would have done any of this without my friend, Jack.
Jack Nichols around March of 2005, perhaps the last picture ever taken of him before his death on May 2, 2005. © Gary Comingdeer 2010
Have you learned the lessons only of those who admired you, and were tender with you, and have you not learned great lessons from those who braced themselves against you, and disputed passage with you?-Walt Whitman
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