Jack Nichols - A Remembrance of Things Past

James T. Sears, PhDJack Nichols
A Remembrance of Things Past
By: James T. Sears, PhD
It was a crystal spring afternoon in 2005 when I phoned my friend Jack Nichols.  I was in Central Florida lecturing and had hoped to stop by to see how he was doing. Jack’s health had deteriorated greatly during the past few months and the prospects for recovery appeared slim.

A feeble-sounding man whispered into the phone.

“Jack, is that you?” I asked.

I had long grown accustomed to a booming voice passing along life’s enthusiasm across the phone lines. Jack loved engaging in the artistry of conversation, peppering his comments with amusing anecdotes, occasional poetry of Whitman or Burns, and zany one-liners about his old-time gay activist friends.
This was something, I suspect, was picked up by his grandfather, Murdoch Graham Finlayson—a Scott highlander from whom he learned, as Jack later told me, “that the constant repetition of themes laden with values turn those values into one’s marrow.”

A portrait of Robert Burns had hung over his family’s dining room sideboard. Everyday Jack faced the great poet as Grandfather Finlayson, in his Scottish brogue, recited one or another favored passage.
Like Burns and his grandfather, Jack was conscious of the welfare of others and expressed a healthful disdain of hierarchy, hypocrisy, and self-importance. This distinguished Jack from many other gay activists during the ‘60s & ‘70s, who I had come to know.

Like many of that generation, Jack entered the not-yet-defined “movement,” after encountering The Homosexual in America, published in 1953.  Its named author, Donald Webster Cory (later turned-homophobe Edward Sagarin), was the first modern writer to argue for self-acceptance of the homosexual. The eloquence and lucidity of the writing was surpassed only by its positive tone and soundness of ideas. Some (including myself) who later read Sagarin’s pseudo-sociological tones questioned his authorship of this monumental book. Nevertheless, whoever penned this book, its impact on a generation of homosexuals cannot be understated.

Like his earlier encounters with Burns and Whitman, Jack—still in high school and hunkered-down in a leafy 1950s Maryland suburb—studied this book at great length, committing many sections to memory. “He helped me see poor self-images not as a product of homosexuality, but as the result of the prejudices internalized.” Jack also told me, during one of my first interviews with him in 1996, “at that moment, I was determined to stand outside the condemning culture and, with the healthy pride of a teen, to claim my rightful place as an individual.”

And, so he did.

Nichols shared copies of Cory’s book with some of his classmates whom he thought might be gay. Then the rugged 6’3” framed boy, sporting short curly brown hair, injected his newly found pride into the bars scattered about Washington’s Dupont Circle.  But, it was not until the summer of 1960, at the age of twenty-two, that this activist acolyte encountered the “movement” in the persona of fired-astronomer Dr. Franklin Kameny at a DC gay party.

From a distance Jack heard a machinegun-like clipped words, “Cory makes an excellent case for our rights,” delivered in a precise, authoritative tone that distinguishes Frank’s voice.  Advancing toward the onslaught of radical thinking, Jack interrupted the professorial homily: “I think everyone should read it. Ideas by themselves are fun but what good are they if we don’t put them into some sort of action?”
Within a few months, the pair was organizing a gay group in Washington, which would become Mattachine Society of Washington, with the help of New York activist leaders Curtis Dewees and Al de Dion (a nom de guerre).

Of course, unbeknownst to either Jack or Frank, a Mattachine group had existed in DC five years earlier. Dwight Huggins, a short-fused attorney named, led this fledgling effort with the help of the aging and still headstrong, Henry Gerber, who had founded the first chartered homosexual organization in Chicago a generation before. (It seems each queer generation pursues its agenda without much concern or knowledge about its ancestors’ legacies.)

What distinguished Jack from these and other early (mostly) male leaders of the upstart “homophile movement,” were his poetic sense for organizing and fervency in challenging orthodoxy.

For instance, one canon within the fragmented gay movement was the accepted necessity of working with (and behind) established (heterosexual) experts in law, religion, and medicine in order to advance the cause.  As I detailed in my book, Behind the Mask of the Mattachine, since the 1890s this accepted strategy had been coupled to a related axiom that homosexuality was a weakness (moral or medical), not a strength. Canonical dissidents debated it philosophically but seldom engaged in the oppositional proposition politically.

In a 1963 letter to East Coast activists, Jack chided fellow activists for failing

in your duty to homosexuals who need more than anything else to see themselves in a better light. The question “Am I Sick?” is not an academic, drawing-room inquiry. It is an agonizing cry—and before you dare to give a drawing-room answer, I hope that you will give just a little more thought….

But, conservative activists gave little thought to it and so Jack, along with Frank Kameny and another youthful activist, Randy Wicker, blazed their own path.

The so-called “sickness question” (Are homosexuals psychologically damaged? Should the movement rely on [heterosexual] mental health experts to argue their case for civil rights?) was moved front and center into the Movement’s discourse. 

Jack continued to harangue movement conservatives as he trenchantly critiqued the “sicknesss theory” and its’ abuse by psychiatrists, politicians, and judges: “Homosexuality is not a psychological issue. It is a social issue which, unfortunately, has psychologically effects.”

Soon, the Washington-Mattachine group overwhelmingly endorsed the “militant” position—as argued by Nichols and Kameny, who were followed by a new radical leadership in New York.  And, it was during this time that Jack met his comrade-in-arms (both politically and personally), Lige Clarke.

Of this time, Jack told me:

We set out among the membership to cajole and convince…. Part of our strength, we knew, lay in our looks, as well as in the fact that we were beginning to be perceived by the membership as symbols of wholesomeness—an all-American male duo. We consciously used our appeal to help our militant perspective succeed.

Lige Clarke, Barbara Gittings, Kay TLahusen, Jack Nichols

From left to right: Lige Clarke, Barbara Gittings, Kay Lahusen and Jack Nichols circa 1970.

Jack and Lige (a Kentucky native with hazel eyes, blonde hair, and an Adonis-build), roamed up and down the East Coast in their crusade. In Miami, they worked with Richard Inman, Florida’s first gay activist and founder of the homosexual Atheneum Society. In Philadelphia and Washington they helped lead public protests in front of the White House and Independence Hall. They also co-founded a confederation of gay groups, The East Coast Homophile Organizations (ECHO) and the duo edited the East Coast newspaper, The Homosexual Citizen.  And, in 1967, Jack spoke openly about his homosexuality to homophobe Mike Wallace on national television  in "CBS Reports: The Homosexuals.”

Unlike many gay activists, Nichols moved with the gay times—often impacting them. As the 1960s evolved, so did Jack’s thinking (and his deepening relationship with Lige). In 1968, they co-wrote the first syndicated column, “Homosexual Citizen” for the newly launched Screw magazine.

In its inaugural edition, they asserted:

To the homosexual the sex revolution means much more than greater freedom for sex relations. It means that we’ll be able to build positive lives in our culture…. It does not need to be based on out-worn heterosexual ethics….

Challenging heterosexism not mimicking heterosexuals was Jack’s mantra. Like Whitman, he was an arduous advocate for human rights; not the right of homosexuals to be straightjacketed into gender confining roles or narrow conceptions of love and marriage.

The classic Mattachine-published cartoon of a zebra, whose stripes were in the opposite direction, saying to another, “Well, the only difference is in our stripes!” was an anathema to Jack. He rejected the canon of the distinct homosexual arguing that everyone “would be capable of homosexual responses if only their abilities to relate to their own sex were not blocked by strict conditioning....”

Jack and Lige challenged the sexism and homophobia embedded in gay thinking of the era in deed as well as word. In fact, Lige’s influence prompted Jack to transform himself from a macho warrior jealousy guarding his lover into a man embracing his femininity and recognizing love secured is love set free. Jack expanded on the “destruction of outworn “masculisum” in his intellectual landmark 1975 book, Men's Liberation: A New Definition of Masculinity, but it was the couple’s Roommates Can't Always be Lovers: An Intimate Guide to Male-Male Relationships, published a year earlier, that won the hearts of gay youth.

In 1969, Jack & Lige persuaded Screw publisher Al Goldstein to commit $25,000 to start up the first national newsweekly, GAY. Like Jack, the paper was irreverent in tone, brassy in style, and thoughtfully ironic. Jack published his letter to New York City’s mayor, who had sanctioned a police sweep of infamous 42nd Street, threatening a strike of hairdressers which Jack claimed would leave city officials’ wives “mad at you.” He also poked at religious leader Troy Perry as a “fire-eating Fundamentalist hooked on Hubert Humphrey happiness pills” under the GAY headline: “2000 Years Late: A Welcomed Change?”

Jack was a spiritual-minded person, being drawn at an early age to the Baha’i faith. What he hated, though, was the hypocrisy of religion and the tyranny of theocracy. In the mid-1990s, he wrote Talking Back to the Fundamentalists: “The price of gay and lesbian liberty is eternal vigilance. The fundies are going to keep us on guard—high alert—for a long time. If you're ever tempted to think they're harmless—just remember they want you dead.”

Nichols was a human bridge across gay activist generations, from Boys in the Band to the Village People to Ru Paul, from homosexual to gay to queer. Like his generosity of spirit, Jack’s mind and interest roamed with the times—and often presaged them.

Jack embraced the sex in sexuality, understanding its spiritual, physical, and political importance. His retrospective autobiography, The Tomcat Chronicles: Erotic Adventures of a Gay Liberation Pioneer (2004), is one of the best examples of a pro-sexual argument in what has become an increasingly conservative and sex-negative 21st century gay “rights” movement.

In 1997 Jack went digital, becoming the editor of GayToday, an on-line publication funded by a Florida-based Internet sex entrepreneur. Jack rustled up a sundry set of old gay activist friends and new talent to create a must-read newsmagazine during the seven years of his editorship. He wrote every day and was on the telephone constantly, sharing strategies with activists, chiding cowardly journalists, and lending a supportive ear or kind word.

So this is why the graveyard silence that followed my telephone greeting to Jack on that spring day was so dramatic. After a long pause, he asked that I not stop by as he wanted to remember me as he had been. And, so it was. Jack died of complications from cancer on May 2.

The importance of Jack Nichols being is underscored by a full-length obituary published in the New York Times. Just a few gay activists, including Harry Hay, have had this distinction. In addition to a full-length biography (Jack Nichols: Gay Pioneer) published in 2007, his entire correspondence and writings, interviews and personal papers are archived at Duke University. More importantly, Jack’s presence resonates in the voices of those challenging orthodoxy or seeking a seat at the table of heterosexual privilege.

Walt Whitman once observed, “Your very flesh shall be a great poem.” Jack Nichols is a poetic legacy.

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