Camerado, I Give You My Hand: Celebrating Jack Nichols

Camerado, I Give You My Hand:
Celebrating Jack Nichols
By Raj Ayyar

Allons! Whoever you are, come travel with me.
Travelling with me, you will find what never tires.
Allons! With power, liberty, defiance, gayety.
  --Walt Whitman: Song of the Open Road.

Raj Ayyar - Contributing WriterWhen I arrived at SIU-Carbondale, IL in the ‘70’s, I was a dewy-eyed grad student-- an angry, yet nurturing challenger, constantly questioning my own and others’ presuppositions and taking strategic pot shots at cultural sacred cows.

A pivotal turning point in my endless browsing sessions at a local bookstore occurred, when I stumbled upon a slender Penguin volume entitled ‘Men’s Liberation’ by Jack Nichols. Little did I suspect the profoundly synchronistic nature of this discovery. I had no idea that the author would become one of my best friends in decades to come.

The book was an exciting read. Jack never bulldozed the reader into accepting fixed gender/sexual orientation definitions. Rather, ‘Men’s Liberation’ is a passionate invitation to rethink gender and sexuality in androgynous terms. The book invites comparison with June Singer’s masterful Jungian work ‘Androgyny’, Marc Feigen-Fasteau’s ‘The Male Machine’, and other important works of the ‘70’s and ‘80’s. that challenged the multiple separatisms of the period: the traditional overblown male/female, gay/straight binarisms of the hetero-patriarchal order, bifurcations and schisms within the LGBT movements, feminist separatism etc.

‘Men’s Liberation’ also reflects Jack’s deep respect for ancient Chinese Taoist philosophy, with its emphasis on a deeply interconnected yin/yang balance of energy in the universe. I really enjoyed the celebratory Whitmanesque tone of Jack’s prose.

During the ‘80’s, I settled into a comfortable stint as the resident gadfly of Brevard Community College in Central FL, constantly teasing and challenging students out of their emotional and philosophical comfort zones.

One day, I noticed an intensely attentive stranger in my World Religions class at the Melbourne campus of BCC. Since I encouraged community members to visit my classes, I wasn’t fazed by his presence.
When the class ended, my student Darlene introduced the smiling stranger as her friend and class guest Jack Nichols. ‘Y-you mean, you wrote ‘Men’s Liberation’? I blurted out. Jack smiled and replied ‘Yes, indeed, I am’. He gave me a full body hug that left me tingling and slightly breathless. Most white American males of my acquaintance (straight or queer) are embarrassed by anything more intimate than an A-frame/baby burp hug, upper bodies touching in stiff physical connection, hands thumping the other’s back, like burping a baby, lower bodies carefully distanced.

Our friendship developed over the years. Generally, we met at Jack’s comfortably homey apartment in Cocoa Beach and spent hours discussing Walt Whitman, Edward Carpenter, Tantra, Wicca, the Beat poets, contemporary gay fiction and everything else besides. Our conversations were punctuated with Jack’s acerbic wit, his richly rolling chuckle and his deep humanity.

Like me, he detested what Whitman described as the ‘bat-eyed and materialistic priests’ of any institutionalized faith, and the blind ethnocentrism, the fear/guilt base of most faiths and their tendency to bash, persecute, annihilate or marginalize the ‘Other’, be s/he a heretic, a queer, or of the ‘wrong’ race, religion or whatever else. His book ‘The Gay Agenda: Talking Back to The Fundamentalists’ is a passionate (re) assertion of queer rights against the propaganda campaigns of nutty religious fundamentalists. Jack could not stand a pie in the sky God, preferably white, male and old, out there in a space that NASA astronauts have mysteriously failed to discover—a God who thunders down at queers, women, minorities and freethinkers of any kind.

On the other hand, I think Jack had a wistful Transcendentalist sense of spirituality, one grounded in the ‘rational’ mysticism of people like Emerson and Whitman.  This drew him to non-mainstream religions like Taoism and Wicca, and led him (more cautiously) to sniff out the mystical traditions of the world’s mainstream religions.

Our relationship deepened and intensified after my return from a sabbatical in San Francisco in the ‘90’s. He was always extremely supportive of my new found engagement with HIV education in Brevard County, working with a host of doctors, queer activists, priests and ministers to dispel myths and misconceptions about HIV disease and to create support networks for people with the disease.
Around the turn of the century, I started contributing regularly to Gay Today. Jack was a wonderful editor, with a vision of running an online gay publication that was open to all progressives, shorn of separatisms and not ‘exclusively’ gay. Like the advocates of the old homophile movement and Harvey Milk, he believed that there were deep connections between change advocates in all movements and countries, and that one could not ghettoize blindly, without a sense of responsibility to all the camerados in other movements.

Even when I returned to India in 2002, I continued to write interviews, articles and reviews that were published in Gay Today. Jack liked the fact that I steered away from the Eurocentric queer paradigm, and tried to wean the reader from a vanilla, Stonewall-imitative, monolithic perception of what queer ‘identity’ means.

For me, Jack may have moved out of his physical form, shedding it quietly in 2005, but he remains an active presence in my mind and life, encouraging me to speak out against injustice wherever I find it, to have the passion and the integrity to live my dream and my ideals, without fear of religious, political or other authority figures and to develop a celebratory affirmation of life, with all its emotional roller coasters.

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