|Radical Faeries, Bound, a Congress of Freaks, a riot at Cooper's Donuts, Bayard Rustin and a few books Rofes loved.|
A decade ago my friend Eric Rofes died. A mentor and a colleague, he inspired me in ways that are hard to assess even now. I interviewed him just a few months before he died, in one of the best interviews, I ever completed. It lay the groundwork for two subsequent books on organizing and friendship.
So on January 19th, 2017 the day before the inauguration, I travelled to Philadelphia for the Creating Change conference to take part in a workshop about Rofes’ life, legacy, and ways we can continue the unfinished business of his life.
The invitation to the “The Eric Rofes Legacy: Sex, Community, Health, and Power #cc17” asked:
“Are you coming to the Thursday Institutes at Creating Change 2017 in Philadelphia?? Join a national team of sex positive, feminist, queer organizers who are exploring how to strengthen a movement that puts sex front and center, celebrates queer lives and friendships, and believes in the importance of telling our diverse and powerful stories. You'll emerge from the day refreshed with new ideas and tools to empower your already powerful organizing! And you'll learn about a great organizer and thinker who taught us much: Eric Rofes, (1954-2006.) Topics include: how to be an activist for the long-term; keeping sex front-and-center in our movement; HIV and queer health; community organizing and friendship; Black Lives Matter; Israel/Palestine; and HIV Criminalization. Join us for a day of conversation, action, and fun. Faculty includes: Chris Bartlett, Mandy Carter, Alex Garner, Jewelle Gomez, Amber Hollibaugh, Trevor Hoppe, Jim Mitulski, Kevin Trimell Jones, Stewart Landers, Peter Lien, Lex Rofes, Diane Sabin, Ben Shepard, and the ideas and inspiration of Eric Rofes.”
The room was filled with people, sitting in a circle, radical faeries, queer kids, punks, sex radicals, virgins, grad students, and so on.
Jim Mitulski, Eric’s old pastor, opened the session asking everyone how we all can go about remembering this great friend.
Sitting there, I thought about the ways Rofes showed up and influenced pivotal moments in my life – my first job in San Francisco, 1993, at Shanti Project, where Rofes was the executive director, the SexPanic conversation in the late 1990s, community organizing, scholarship, and academia. Throughout all these steps, Rofes was there lending advice, modelling a smart, thoughtful way to live and be, literally until he died, his stories still lingering, incomplete, oral histories untranscribed, movements for sexual freedom lingering.
But that was just my experience. Everyone in the room seemed to have a story about Rofes.
This blog highlights a few of these perspectives and reflections.
Some remembered Rofes’ questions about intersectionality. Others appreciated his capacity to challenge the pitfalls in puritanical thinking, which seem to find their way back into movements.
While Rofes supported the marriage equality movement, many suggested that the movement had lost track of questions about sex and pleasure.
Others worried that – homeless kids, immigrants, people of color, the asexual – were being left behind by the movement.
Be real with people instead of policing them; be open and honest about lived experiences, to learn to improve health.
Mandy Carter and Jewelle Gomez Gomez lead us through the historical context of Rofes’ work and timeline of his life. They invited everyone to add a line about their own lives into this timeline.
So everyone marked dates and historical markers in their lives and Eric’s.
1954 – Eric born in Long Island
Cooper’s Donuts Riot in LA 1959.
Long vs State of Virginia – Interracial Marriage – 1966
Deweys Lunch Counter Sit in – Philadelphia, 1959
Drummer Magazine – founded by Clark Polack – “a sexy intellectual type,” recalled Chris.
My favorite moments on the timeline included personal moments.
1976 – road side bathroom experience – my first – how about you?
Eric teaching in Boston
Eric marched in the gay parade with a paper bag over his face.
He wrote about that in Socrates, Plato, and Guys Like Me.
1973 – APA end psychiatric diagnosis for homosexuals
1970’s – NOLA Fire – where were you?
1981 – HIV – archives of Rofes’ friends obits in the SF historical society.
Jewelle highlighted a few heroes on the timeline:
Audre Lorde – women are powerful and dangerous!
Sex workers are a part of our movement!
Sex Wars raging!
Sluts defend slut! – Jewelle Gomez and Dorothy Allison.
Disco – a place to meet, naked on drugs
Attacks on people coming out, people in public space!
Here is a picture from the movie Bound which looked like people actually having sex.
Eric – post identity, pleasure, power, comes with violence.
He opened things up a conversation about post – AIDS identities and subcultures.
I met Rofes at the Oscar Wilde bookstore in the spring of 1998. But I had known him for years prior, jotting a note about those first and last conversations with Rofes, the last in California at the Pacific Sociology Association meetings.
Freaks are families march on Washington!
And the session continued, moving into a discussion of mentoring, friendship, and leadership.
Rofes’ aim was to create new networks of sex positive leadership. Yet, it wasn’t always smooth.
Several mentioned that the timeline mischaracterized Rofes’ life – of fits and starts, a few disappointments and resilience.
Over and over, he was able to turn lemons into to lemonade.
Everyone gets flattened from time to time. But how do we get up and build on what we’ve done?
When you take chances, it doesn’t always work out.
He paid a high price for his leadership, for being out there.
Gradually, we moved into the core theme of the day – sex: keeping sex front and center of the movement.
At this point, the faculty brought out four chairs into the center of the room and those who were willing stepping in to tell their sexual stories.
Talking about sex is important, interjecting it into the conversation about movement building, yet today there is too much self-sanctioning with marriage equality.
Bring sex back into discourse.
We can be public and sexual. We are all sexual people. We have our sex adventures. These were a central part of Jim’s relationship to Eric, building on stories, research and play time together.
Amber asked, do we have to choose between our sexuality and our activism? Can’t we have both? “As a person of mixed race and poor white trash, I always felt shame. Eric helped me out of that. For me that’s why I feel its so important to keep these conversations going.”
People kill themselves over the gap between what they do and what they think they should do.
But people trivialize sex as marginal, peripheral to movements. We need to turn that around.
“I’m a Catholic. My body brought me to this movement. As a liberal, we don’t want to talk about sex. I want to break that shame,” confessed Jim.
“I’m a sissy… I related to my sissy side. But the movement wants me to be a more masculine guy….I related more with black and brown guys… but I question myself… worry I’m fetishizing things. Eric would say who cares… but it still gets in the way of me relaxing. I like sex in the park, in bookstores. I love the serendipity of the men I meet along the way, of the history I am a part of….” Chris shared as the day was becoming more and more vulnerable.
One women stood to share stories of her reclaiming her sex, her desire as power after being assaulted.
Another women with a mohonk sat to say she is bisexual. She doesn’t care. She likes the feeling of pleasing her partners. “I like seeing how people react when I do down on them.”
A young man walked into the circle and confessed he was a virgin. He thinks about sex a lot, about men, reads porn. But isn’t ready to act yet.
Jewelle followed with the line of the day: “Being open about our sex is one of the most important things we can ever do…” She told a story about sex in high school, adding, “The specifics of our desire … getting it in the right package is not always easy.”
Lets talk about sex, but we don’t have to talk about what we do.
Sex is a conversation.
Don’t desexualize the movement.
Sex is a circle of friends.
After lunch, the conversation moved into discussions of HIV and questions about what Eric would have thought of the current moment. For many years, the movement strived to cultivate a culture of sexuality in the midst of the epidemic, while simultaneously arguing that health care is a right. But what of now? Its useful to remember that we found a response to the epidemic by stepping up and fighting. We have to deal with tomorrow and the future.
He saw that we have to deal with the messiness of sexuality and campaigns around health promotion.
Danger had to be a part of this conversation. You can’t be politically correct about sex.
So we organized, creating a model to cope with HIV as a model healthcare delivery.
Much of it grew out of models of mutual aid.
Now its shifting and we have to go back to that mutual aid.
So how do we respond to questions about the dialectic of sex – as shame and isolation contend with models with protection and togetherness? How do we come together, breaking the divide between connection and separation?
In the past, HIV built on the lessons of the women’s health movement, from those with non-medical expertise, sharing, and challenging hierarchies of knowledge, certification, and power, to disseminate information and healthcare delivery. Rofes helped propel a gay men’s health movement that grew out of the women’s and gay men’s health movements. And now we do the same.
Sex is complicated.
Thanks Mr Rofes and the city of friends still allowing us to remember this.
|Chris, Amber and a circle of friends.|
An Eric Rofes Bibliography
Books by Eric Rofes:
· The Kids' Book of Divorce (1983)
· I Thought People Like That Killed Themselves: Lesbians, Gay Men and Suicide (1983)
· The Kids' Book About Parents (1983)
· The Kids' Book About Death and Dying (1997)
· Socrates, Plato, & Guys Like Me (1985)
· Gay Life (1986)
· Living with AIDS on Long Island (1989)
· Reviving the Tribe (1996)
· Opposite Sex (1998)
· Youth and Sexualities (2004)
· The Emancipatory Promise of Charter Schools (2004)
· A Radical Rethinking of Sexuality & Schooling (2005)
· Thriving (with an introduction by Chris Bartlett & Tony Valenzuela) (Posthumous)
Eric Rofes wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eric_Rofes
Books by Eric Rofes’ friends and colleagues:
· Berube, Allan. Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War Two
· Gomez, Jewelle: The Gilda Stories
· Grant, Jaime: Great Sex: Mapping your Desire
· Hollibaugh, Amber: My Dangerous Desires: A Queer Girl Dreaming Her Way Home
· Hoppe, Trevor and David Halperin: The War on Sex (2017)
· Reeders, Daniel: https://badblood.wordpress.com/
· Rubin, Gayle: Deviations: A Gayle Rubin Reader
· Scarce, Michael: Smearing the Queer: Medical Bias in the Health Care of Gay Men
· Shepard, Ben: Community Projects as Social Activism: From Direct Action to Direct Services Sage
· Shepard, Ben: From ACT UP to the WTO: Urban Protest and Community Building in the Era of Globalization Verso
· Shepard, Ben. Rebel Friendships Outsider Networks and Social Movements Palgrave
· Shepard, Ben. Queer Political-Performance and Protest: Play, Pleasure and Social Movement. Routledge
· Shepard, Ben. Play, Creativity and Social Movements: If I Can’t Dance, Its Not My Revolution. Routledge.
· Walt Odets. In the Shadow of the Epidemic: Being HIV-Negative in the Age of AIDS.