1965--Jack Nichols and Arnie Norton at the East Coast Homophile Conference (ECHO) looking very much the part of assimilationist "pigs" that the GLF tagged them as 5 years later.Perry Brass—Guest Columnist
Aside from my father, Louis, and my best friend, Jeffrey Lann Campbell, Jack Nichols was one of the most amazing men I’ve ever known. Unfortunately all three of them are now dead, and I miss all of them every day.
However, unlike the former two, I was not prepared to love Jack. In fact, I’d been prepared to hate him. As in really hate him, without ever meeting him. The reason for that was that Jack was, during the first part of this story, a leading figure in the older, circa 1950s era of the gay movement: the Mattachine Society. These were the guys in ties and suits. They wanted to be tolerated or at best accepted, and they barely existed for most queer men and lesbians except as strange ghosts every now and then in the media. What they’d done was amazing, took unbelievable courage, and should never be undervalued. But I was a kid when I first became aware of Jack. I was twenty-two, and had just joined New York’s very radical Gay Liberation Front, right after the Stonewall Uprising. We were going to change the world, and in fact, believe it or not, we did.
We were ragamuffin, left wing, dope-smokin’ hippies (ah, those days . . . ) into drugs, sex, rock ‘n’ roll; ending the war in Viet Nam; Che Guevara-Cuban revolution- Third World politics; feminism (getting men off our backs); and of course the end of sexism, racism, classism, and, ‘les we forget, all elitism.
We borrowed a lot from other movements, but basically we said something that no one had said before (with the exception of Magnus Hirschfield, but he was too forgotten already) which was: the only people who can speak for gay people (the term for all of us then: gay, lesbian, bi, and trans) were gay people. Not the psychiatrists, not the law, not the cops, not the church (New and Old Testament versions). Anyone who ever said he (or she) was an Authority on queerness without telling us first that he was that way (and had also undergone genuine consciousness raising) could go “eff” himself.
Simple as that.
That was the secret: Consciousness. How do you become conscious of what you are, in your own way, past all the self hatred imposed on us: the oppression, the suicidal behavior (alcoholism, tranquilizers, drugs: we knew it) and the sheer everyday violence perpetrated on us?
In short, how do you really know yourself?
That was the question facing the young radicals of my generation, and we tried to answer it, and in doing so created a different world. But to do so, we felt all had to hate Jack. As well as the other people in the old Mattachine crowd. Harry Hay was already out of the picture—dear, sainted, more Leftist than any of us Harry.
Barbara Gittings (Left) and Dick Leitsch (Right) © Kay Tobin LahusenBut Jack (and his partner Lige Clarke) was still in it, and so was Dick Leitsch, the last president of Mattachine, as well as fogies like Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings. The youngsters in G.LF., several of whom had once been long-haired Mattachine alumnae, needed another generation to pull away from and feel vastly superior to.
So at G.L.F. meeting I heard about “Pig Leitsch,” “Pig Nichols,” and “Pig Gittings.” (“Pig” was a standard epithet; cops were pigs, white bread was “pig bread,” Cadillac’s “pig mobiles.”)
The terrible thing was that I didn’t know any of these people, except in the most nodding way. Barbara Gittings once innocently attended a G.L.F. meeting and was booed out of the room. Jack had worked for Al Goldstein, publisher of Screw, and that alone condemned him to infamy. Goldstein was pretty much a pig, although a colorful one.
Later, through the 1970s, I did see Jack from time to time; by now he too had long hair, looked very hip in the fashion of the period, and during the later Disco era, he and Lige were “the most famous gay couple alive.” They had gobs of glamour, although a sweet, distant shyness, too. By the mid-1970s, I had become more involved with gay media myself, was freelancing all over, and I’d see them often—but still had almost no interest in getting to know them—they were after all, still “pigs,” according to my hard-wired Gay Liberation Front brain, and my generation was still feeling its oats, pre-AIDS, pre-Ronald Reagan (the real pig if there ever was one).
By this time I had got to know Dick Leitsch, and liked him hugely on a personal level. He was fun, sweet, and courtly. He was in fact a very old-fashioned gay, and I’d always had a deep respect in my hearts of hearts for them. Dick and I used to joke about the G.L.F kids calling him “Pig Leitsch.” He’d smile. He had got out of gay politics completely and was tending bar on the Upper West Side where he lived. His long-time roommate Bobby Amsel was one of my first editors, editing straight pulp porn magazines I contributed to (I had to pay my rent, too); I was still writing poetry, and now writing porn. It’s funny how both of them have things in common—getting to the point fast, but adding a certain elaboration that make both worthwhile reading.
By this time, Lige had been murdered in Mexico, and Jack was no longer living in New York. I still remember Bobby telling me about Lige’s murder—I was really shaken by it. I’d had numerous friends traveling in Mexico; I shuddered for them. I felt terrible for Jack. Now he seemed a little less like a ghost.
Segueway about two decades later, to 1995: I was outside a hotel ballroom in Miami for the Lambda Literary Awards. One of my books had been nominated for a Lammy. A tall attractive man several Jack Nichols, circa 1997 courtesy Gary Comingdeeryears older than I approached. There were a lot of journalists about, and he introduced himself as one. We started talking. He was familiar with me; I asked him his name.
“I’m Jack Nichols,” he said shyly.
I smiled, and told him how honored I was that he was talking to me. By this time I realized that he had been out there in our gay world a longer time than I, and in our full-bent rush to erase the past, almost forgotten. I’d also read I Have More Fun With You Than Anybody, his memoir of his life with Lige, and been really charmed by it.
I didn’t see Jack again for a while until I started writing early for GayToday, and he later became my editor there. I was in New York, and Jack in Cocoa Beach, Florida, but we would talk constantly on the phone. He invited me to come down to stay with him, and I’m sorry to say that I didn’t—I was putting out a lot of books, and over my head in work. But our phone conversations became a part of my life. We were both incredibly unguarded in them, and I wish I had taped some of them, but perhaps if I had, they would have been less candid.
I quickly learned how radical Jack really was—in fact, he had gone way behind many of my GLF brothers and sisters, to a radicalism even deeper than the feminist roots of GLF. I would not describe Jack as a “feminist,” as much as an extremely deep, passionate “masculinist.” He understood the rich depth of male feelings that had been destroyed by the Industrial Revolution, bourgeois values, American corporatism, and later by a razorish homophobia that had taken the place of racism as the hate mechanism for what coalesced as the Reagan right. He and I both loathed charming, genial, ruthless Ronnie, at a time when the full range of Reagan’s destruction was still being kept in a box. We could both tolerate Bill Clinton (and I felt a special kinship with Bill because we had both grown up dirt-poor in the South), but Jack felt a hatred for George W. Bush that was frank and unapologetic.
During the “Dubya” years, a lot of people kept trying to come up with excuses for him, and Jack would have none of it. It was a very interesting time to be writing for a site like GayToday because on one hand the lines were so beautifully drawn—it really was us versus them; you didn’t have to pull any punches, and Jack actually loathed it when you did. And on the other, the site was not only popular but very influential. It was before the Blogosphere became crowded with so much digital kudzu you could barely wade through it.
Old GayToday masthead featuring pictures of Jack Nichols, Lige Clarke, Dr. Lilli Vincenz, Logan Carter, Barbara Gittings, Kay "Tobin" Lahusen, Dr. Franklin Kameny and Randy WickerI have no idea how many pieces I submitted to GayToday, maybe 50 or 60. There were times when Jack felt that he’d really published enough of me. He would say, “You’re not really a political writer. You’re a poet, Perry.”
I would counter that one came right out of the other, and he’d say, “Don’t send me anything else now for a month or so.”
Then he would either call me, or I would call him and we’d start again.
Our relationship became kind of like a long distance lover affair that you would break off every now and then because of the frustration of it. We did see each other in the flesh a few times, and then it was different: he was all smiles and wonder. It was easy to be charmed and warmed by Jack.
He was very personal with me, even more than I could be with him. He told me about his consuming love for the men in his life—Lige and the men who followed him. “I have a thing for hillbillies. I like their deep hearts and twangy accents.” He also had a thing for Arab men or men from the Fertile Crescent. He told me about the first boy he’d ever fallen in love with, an Iranian high school exchange student. He was fourteen at the time and fell madly in love with him—even telling his mother and grandfather about it.
His grandfather, a Presbyterian who was a devout follower of Robert Ingersoll, the Victorian Scottish-American philosopher of free thinking and agnosticism, encouraged him to have his own feelings. He Robert G. Ingersollaccepted Jack’s crush on the boy. His mother was more realistic (this was in the mid-1950s) and told him, “It’s OK, Jack. Just don’t tell this to other people.”
But Jack did, and he liked telling this story. “I was at a family gathering one evening. There was this frumpy middle-aged aunt and she came up to me and asked if I had a girlfriend. She smiled, the way you would at a kid, and said, ‘Is there anyone special in your life? Like some girl you’d like to marry?’”
“So I told her, flat out, ‘I’m going to marry a boy.’
“And she looked at me, and said, ‘God! You really are sick, aren’t you?’”
“I was crushed. No one had ever spoken to me like that. I went back to my mother and told her, and she said, ‘Don’t worry. You just can’t tell everything to everybody.’”
I loved this story. That Jack could be so open, so unguarded even at 14. I couldn’t even imagine it during my own growing up later in Savannah, Georgia.
I asked him, “How did you get to be so strong to do what you did?”
He answered, “I was taught to believe in myself.”
I think that was the key to Jack’s life; also here was his intelligence, linked to the fact that as a young man he was indeed movie-star handsome. In the earlier pictures of him he has a poise and beauty that just pops off the print. You can feel the directed quality of his being: that he already knew what he was, who he was, and that he was very capable of exercising both.
His life was not easy. He had almost no formal education and made very little money, even though he managed to live nicely. He was resentful of people in the gay movement who either garnered all the attention he should have had, or felt that they deserved the attention that was Jack’s due. We had a whole list of them, believe me. He called them the “Johnny-come-latelies.” Some of them were also in the Gay Liberation Front who felt that they had a special place in heaven due to a “political correctness” that Jack—whose father had worked for the F.B.I.—could never reach. Since I wasn’t exactly crazy about this attitude myself, it gave Jack and me yet another reason to bond.
Sam Manzie, 1997I wrote two pieces for Jack that jumped out of the GayToday pool and had a life of their own. Both were in 1997 on young killers: Sam Manzie, who at 15 had murdered an 11-year-old neighbor boy after being pulled into an F.B.I. dragnet because of an older man, Stephen Simmons, with whom Sam had become involved; and Andrew Cunanan, the 28-year-old spree killer who murdered Gianni Versace in Miami and was then mowed down by police bullets. In both pieces I used my fictional muscles to create images and stories of people I’d never met. The Manzie piece was so compelling that people were sure I’d met and interviewed him. Stephen Simmons got in touch with me, and we began a decade-long correspondence. I got several letters from Sam as well. The piece became one of the most popular pieces ever published on GayToday, and I still get emails about it.
The Cunanan piece also got a huge response, as I dug deeper into what would drive a young man to do what he did: murder five people out of a self-hating, anti-gay revulsion. Jack and I talked about it. That even with AIDS still raging, this was what the gay world offered to a lot of young men then:The Different faces of Andrew P. Cunanan, the 27-year-old spree killer who murdered Gianni Versace in Miami, Florida in 1997. nothing basically soul nourishing. Jack wanted something different: a real liberation based on the end of all categories: gay and straight; male and female; white and black; rich and poor. Although Jack said that he was an atheist, he also believed that there was something within the human psyche that held us all together, and that went deeper than any boundaries we set up.
After he died on May 2, 2005, I produced a memorial service for him at New York’s LGBT Center. I and many of his friends, like the long-time activist Randy Wicker and George Weinberg, the psychologist who coined the term “homophobia” in his groundbreaking book Society and the Healthy Homosexual, talked about him. I kept thinking about what an enigma Jack was. He reminded me of T.E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia, whom Winston Churchill had dubbed “the Man of Destiny.” Jack was very much that—he was our man of destiny, in so many, many ways.
At the end of the service, we all sang Jack’s favorite song, “When You Wish Upon A Star,” from Pinocchio. Jack told me that he used to sing it all the time, and that his own wishes had indeed come true. “If your heart is in your dream/ no request is too extreme.”
I miss him right now.
Longtime gay activist Perry Brass is the author of 16 books. His latest is King of Angels, A Novel About the Genesis of Identity and Belief, awarded a Bronze Ippy for Best Young Adult Novel, 2012, and a finalist for a Ferro-Grumley Award for Gay and Lesbian Fiction. His previous book was The Manly Art of Seduction; both books are available as EBooks and in print. He is currently working on a book about the power of desire, and can be reached through his website, www.perrybrass.com.
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