Recently on Facebook and by email many people have asked me "who was Jack Nichols?" They aren't just speaking in the literal sense but in the esoteric sense.
I urge them to try and find, as I did, as many of Jack's old books on Amazon.com as they can to see the evolution of Jack Nichols not only as a person but as an activist as a writer. From his beginnings with his lover, Lige Clarke, in I have more fun with you than anybody all the way to his swan-song The Tomcat Chronicles: Erotic Adventures of a Gay Liberation Pioneer (which serves as much as a prequel as much as an evolution), Jack shows you his heart, his mind and his beliefs in every word.
Still, people wonder if there is some tidbit, some minor bit of information that I'm omitting from them about Jack, as if there was something to hide or cover-up. Nope! With Jack; what you saw was what you got!
He did have a "thing" for Arabic men but I think that went back to his first sexual experiences in Washington D.C. when his grand parents had a home next to the Iranian Embassy and he became close friends with the Iranian diplomat's children. He reveled in the differences in culture that allowed male bonding to touch each other yet maintain a Platonic relationship. He spent the last years of his life with an one-legged Arabic man who lived in his condo in Cocoa Beach, Florida.
Jack maintained that the relationship was purely Platonic but most who knew him suspected that he had feelings for the man. I don't recall the man's name and I know he was heterosexual but unless Jack had the very deepest of feelings for someone he didn't open his home for you and buy you a car even if it was a junker!
Jack was a very complicated man who had very deep and layered convictions about his feelings, his life and the world of gay activism. It wasn't hard to get him to open up and talk about them. One only need ask and he was glad to get involved in the deepest of conversations about a variety of subjects from the relationships of his life to the history of the Washington D.C. Mattachine Society.
But if Jack had a pet subject he loved more than any other it would be the poetry of Walt Whitman and Robert Burns. He admitted in his younger life that Robert Burns was a favorite of his grandfather's but in his activist years he discovered Leaves of Grass and when I would visit he would trod out a beaten copy of it with post-it notes sticking out to mark various pages and inside under various passages.
At a very early stage in our relationship I had to admit to Jack that I was more of a fan of Robert Frost and that The Road Not Taken had become like an oak tree to lean against for me. Jack smiled and admitted that it was indeed a good poem and our common love of a well-constructed sonnet as well as good prose became one of the bonds between us but Jack opened that tattered Leaves of Grass book and read one passage to me that became as strong as The Road Not Taken in my mind:
“Wisdom is not finally tested in the schools, Wisdom cannot be pass'd from one having it to another not having it, Wisdom is of the soul, is not susceptible of proof, is its own proof.”
Jack read it with such eloquence that the words rolled off his lips. It was definitely his message to me that he considered me worthy of teaching his craft to.
In the years that followed I attempted to listen as closely as I could to what Jack said but sometimes his nuance was lost on me. I admit that there were times during that period of my life when I was struggling just to survive and then I had to take a "straight job" in order to put food on the table and a roof over mine and my lover's head.
I had moved further south to Port St. Lucie, Florida; a joy-forsaken town where New Yorkers had taken control in what they thought was the best interest of us poor dumb Florida hick's who had no idea what the value of our land was, and the housing bubble had just started to bust so the robber-barons from the Great White North were scrambling all over South Florida and screaming, "What shall we do?!?!", when I received an email from Steve Yates, an almost too calm anthem that was far too unexpected that said simply; "Stephanie; Jack passed away last night. -Steve".
I sat there staring at the computer screen for almost an hour before I started searching for some hint of what happened. I called Steve Yates' and Gary Comingdeer's home phone only to get their answering machine (to which I never received a return phone call to this day). I had no idea why Jack had died. I knew years ago he had a bout with cancer but I thought he had been cancer-free for years. Jack never gave me any indication that anything was wrong with him and I had just talked with him several months before!
The day after I got that email, on the old GayToday site, Steve Yates's account of Jack's last hours was posted there. It was taken down some months later and I've never found it archived since but it basically said that Jack had been suffering from cancer of the saliva gland, that it was incurable and he passed away at Cape Canaveral Hospital. Steve said he put a Rosemary Clooney music CD in as Jack slipped away and Jack seemed peaceful and satisfied over his life. It was very much like Jack to never complain about his life or bother anyone else regarding the details of his own troubles. He was far more concerned about the troubles of his friends than he wanted his friends to be concerned about him and so Jack's life ended having never seen the conclusion to the dream of gay equality he had worked for his entire life.
In the next year the community lost Barbara Gittings and the age of Homophile leaders seemed destined to slip quietly away into retirement while the back rooms of current LGBT leadership organizations made their deals with heterosexual government officials and allowed our civil rights to be a bargaining chip like some floodgate in a puzzle of humanity where they give us just enough to think there might be hope but the carrot is always just out of reach. To me it was infuriating that the leadership sat there like suited frogs in a croaking chorus and insisted that we be patient while the conservatives and the Christian fundamentalists steadily advanced and we ran for cover.
All the while between May 2, 2005 and the present day I strained to remember every word that Jack Nichols said to me; hoping to glean every nugget of wisdom so that hopefully, one day, I could revive Jack's dream somehow, some way.
When I finally received a settlement for an injury that happened to me in 2002 after a long and bitter battle in 2010 I set the dream back in motion and in Jack's tradition I started LGBT-Today so that I could continue to fight until we gain LGBT equality once and for all.
If you really want to know Jack Nichols then read this 1997 essay he wrote because it spans his life in as few words as was possible for a great man.
December 31, 2010
Come, Celebrate the Sixties, the Seventies and Today by Jack Nichols
I stop somewhere waiting for you.
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