Politics: June 2006 Archives

Eric Rofes

Eric Rofes died on Monday.

This remarkable and very gentle activist was one of the most important voices to ever represent the "sexual outsider" - meaning effectively just about everyone who's ever done the thing, or even only thought of doing it, and still of course all women, as charter members of the tribe. Rofes was an individual thinker and mover, and as his own queer sub-community became more and more interested in pursuing an elusive and illusory respectability he often found himself a voice crying in the wilderness - when his arguments were not actually demonized, described as monstrously sexually-compulsive.

In the death announcement on the PlanetOut site, Richard Burns, executive director of New York's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Center, is quoted: "He was a critical thinker and someone who didn't feel it was necessary to go with the flow in his analysis. He believed we needed to build a healthy community and respect adult sexual decisions and not pathologize or infantilize gay men's sexual lives. In the face of HIV/AIDS that was not always a popular view."

Ben Shepard, who also knew Rofes as a friend and a fellow activist, has written this memorial:


I just got word that Eric Rofes died of a heart attack. I had known Rofes since our time in San Francisco with Shanti Project in the early 1990's. We reconnected together in the late 1990's doing SexPanic! stuff in 1998. He was a caring voice who hoped for pleasure to be part of our democracy. He argued for this, screamed about it, yearned for it. When he was attacked he fought back about it. And many attacked Rofes. They attacked him for wearing leather when he testified at the National AIDS Commission in San Francisco. He was criticized for embracing Walt Odets and the notion of survivor guilt among gay people who had lost whole cohorts of friends to HIV. And he was attacked when he ran Shanti Project. But he kept going. And he kept on asking people to think about the complexity of their lives and struggles and emotions. After leaving Shanti Project, he earned at PhD at Berkeley and wrote two enormously influential books, Reviving the Tribe: Regenerating Gay Men's Sexuality and Culture in a Period of Ongoing Epidemic and Dry Bones Breathe: Gay Men Creating Post AIDS Identities and Subcultures. Both were enormously important, contextualizing the losses to community, pleasure, friendship, and social knowledge of the connection between public sexual space and community organizing with the AIDS years. Early in Reviving the Tribe, Rofes wrote about standing with tears in front of a sex club where he had once enjoyed so much pleasure. Rofes was intensely aware of the multiple losses to AIDS and the need to think through what was going on. "I believe that any hope for collective survival is rooted in the realities of our lives, however, harsh and seemingly unacceptable," Rofes wrote. "Our inability to continue confronting the ever-intensifying manifestations of AIDS has brought us to the point of paralysis."

Rofes railed against those who suggested gay men should just 'grow up' and reject public sexual culture. "Even a cursory look at the histories of our movement will show that sexual liberation has been inextricably bound together with gay liberation, the women's movement, and the emancipation of youth," he wrote. He suggested a vast cultural amnesia was taking place as the lessons of the gay liberation years were lost amidst panic over continued rates of HIV. Rofes was keenly aware of the complexity of questions of sexual self determination. "For many, the forbidden becomes desired; taboo produces cravings; the return of the repressed is made corporeal and is experienced as an enormous hunger," he wrote in his newest book. He was always aware telling gay men or anyone to just say no served no one's ends but the moralists. Thus, HIV prevention would have to be considered within a broad holistic, harm reduction approach. For Rofes, there was far more to the question of pleasure than just getting off or male privilege. Central principles of democracy in America lay at the core of the sex panic question. Rofes wondered, can you lose your job for deviating from conventional sexual norms? For many, the answer is affirmative. Like so much else within our democracy, what one person enjoys, another will inevitably find offensive, he counseled. Variation is a core component of social life. And some people built alternative kinship networks. This should not be condemned, at least not in a pluralistic democracy. "Among the most effective ways of oppressing a people is through the colonization of their bodies, the stigmatizing of their desires, and the repression of their erotic energies," he claimed during the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's Creating Change Conference San Diego, November 16, 1997. "We believe continuing work on sexual liberation is crucial to social justice efforts," (see complete speech here).

In 1998, Rofes came to New York to speak on a panel for the one year anniversary of SexPanic! and contacted me. I had just finished a book about the San Francisco AIDS years (White Nights and Ascending Shadows: An Oral History of the San Francisco AIDS Epidemic) and he wanted to talk about the book. We talked about survival, the capacity for resiliency, and the hope for a lusty pleasure in a democracy. I told him about my work with the group as a kinky straight man and he encouraged me to push forward and help forge a different kind of politics based in caring connection and social justice rather than identity, despite what people said. I had always had an image of him being a radical, but in person he was a caring, thoughtful person willing to consider each of our unique contributions. He was ever aware of all of our capacities to contradict ourselves and be bountiful. And was painfully aware that some of his greatest critics were gay men who scorned him for integrating his own personal story into a larger story of gay liberation and the need to revive the tribe. 'Where are your sexual politics?' he wondered after such attacks.

In the years that followed Rofes tried to build a broad based movement for gay men's health. He was keenly aware of the need for social movements to support broad based struggles for social justice. When I interviewed Rofes for my dissertation, he helped tease out the relationship between embodied experience and the history of struggles for pleasure. Rofes saw that the role of the gay liberation movement was to reject notions that pleasure should be considered a peripheral component of social movement activity. Rofes helped me think about pleasure and play as strategy for organizing. "Play is a term for drag, ACT UP zaps, the use of food in the Latino Community, the use of dance dramaturgy, culture jamming, the carnival, and other forms of creative community building activities," he helped explain to me, as we talked. Thus, play is the exhilarating fun, the pleasure part, the joy of building a more emancipatory, caring world. Rofes would point out that humor, drag, eating food together, cultural rituals support activism. "Ultimately, does a sober form of organizing appeal to more than white people in a sustainable way?" he asked. We concluded that play was part of expanding networks, social capital, and friendships extended around activism.

As we walked away after the interview in the West Village, Rofes said to me that he felt like a strange kind of survivor from a storm, from a different kind of era. Many, many of his friends had passed. AIDS was still around and so was Rofes, who had recently gotten tenure at the school where he happily taught and wrote.

That Spring of 2005, Rofes wrote that his life was a success despite the losses. "Recently I attended a dance party, one of the many evenings of intense music and cavorting available to thousands of gay men in my city each weekend. I looked over the crowd of primarily twenty-something and thirty-something men, shirtless, gyrating, arms reaching to the heavens. I thought immediately at how the doomsayers criticize this population of young gay men, saying things such as, 'I didn't work my ass off during the past 30 years to create a culture of drug use and unprotected sex and self-centered me-me-me attitudes. This is not what the gay movement was all about....' And then I realized something, something surprising and simple. As someone who has spent the last 30 years working on gay liberation and AIDS activism and sexual liberation, what I saw before me was precisely the world I was trying to create. When we fought during the 1980s and 1990s to prevent gay men's sexual cultures from being destroyed, when we worked to preserve certain values about gender play, friendship, and erotic desire, when we quietly worked behind the scenes to ensure that certain spaces would survive gentrification and public health crackdowns, we were fighting to preserve the ability of new generations of gay men to create worlds of pleasure and desire. As I looked out over the sea of dancing men, I realized, despite all the battles we've lost in terms of politics and discourse and the media, gay men and gay sexual cultures had managed to survive and, indeed, thrive."

The last time we saw each other was last Spring during the Pacific Sociological Association Meetings. In between a tour to Slammer's sex club in West Hollywood we talked about other heroes of the movement who were facing their mortality. Rofes was always concerned about AIDS, but none of us know how we are going to go out.

Eric Edward Rofes was 51 years old. He is survived by his long time partner Crispin and friends from around the world. He will be missed.

[image from Gay Today]

Rolfes had a lover and died in Provincetown, on a summer day, while working on a writing project, unexpectedly, of a heart attack. There aren't many more attractive scenarios for a departure, especially for a pleasure-loving activist in the age of AIDS.


In the last hours these two stories have appeared in the NYTimes:
"Cheney Assails Press on Report on Bank Data" and:
"Court Bars Info Request on NSA Wiretapping"

So, the engineer behind the systematic destruction of our liberties is outraged that the media might inform us of the fact, and in a related case our courts have once again ruled on the side of the rogue executive. Even the third branch of our government is paralyzed to resist these authoritarian depredations, fearing the accusation of being soft on terrorism (the new McCarthyism) while ignoring the terrorism at the top.

Wednesday evening we were privileged to attend a magnificent performance of Heinar Kipphardt's 1968 play, "In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer" at the Connelly Theatre in the East Village. In the drama, which is based on actual transcripts from a 1954 hearing, Oppenhiemer has been summoned before a committee of the Atomic Energy Commission charged with determining whether his security clearance will be reinstated. In the first act he responds to one of the lawyers arguing against his case,

"There are people who are willing to protect freedom until there is nothing left of it".

Can anyone say the phrase, "police state"? Or are we going to wait until we are totally forbidden to do so?

[image from Micah Wright]

no hanging garden, this [a section of the Green Zone perimeter]

I'm tired of the media's [continuing] misleading descriptions of last week's flight by Bush to Baghdad International Airport and the Green Zone. If I thought it was just a question of semantics, I'd leave it alone, but words are important, especially when they are instruments of propaganda and they are going unexamined.

He didn't "visit Iraq".

He didn't "visit Baghdad".

He visited a god-damned super-bunker sheltering people who call him sir.

Even at that our heroic conqueror's departure for his five-hour stop-off inside a fortified headquarters ("the Ultimate Gated Community") shared by his victorious army of pacification and a more-or-less client local government had to be kept secret from his own staff. Also, what does it say about this stunt that Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi Prime Minister and Bush's host, didn't know the President of the United States was coming until virtually the moment he showed up at the door?

[image from Rich Galen's Mullings]

no, unfortunately this image is very real, and not Trompe l'oeil [the Yahoo! News caption for the picture begins: Leg irons and hand cuffs hang on a board at Camp Delta at Guantanamo Naval Base in Guantanamo, Cuba, in 2004.]

So reads the headline on the lead story on the BBC at the moment. The attribution for the description of the deaths of three prisoners in our Cuban concentration camp is the United States Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy [my italics].

Colleen Graffy told the BBC the deaths were part of a strategy and "a tactic to further the jihadi cause", but taking their own lives was unnecessary.
We're expected to listen to our "public diplomat" explain their deaths as a bad career move, but we aren't allowed to know who any of these folks are?

[news tip from Barry; image, credited "AFP/Pool/File/Mark Wilson", from Yahoo! News]

Now we're finding out he wasn't killed by the 500 lb bombs we dropped. He had to be dispatched afterwards, more or less manually.

We sure wouldn't have wanted him to be able to talk. Somebody might actually have learned something. But then he might have been able to incriminate members of the government. Oh, of course I'm only referring to our security zone Baghdad allies; who else?

only the lyrics change

I'm going to start by pointing out that here in the U.S, in the best of all possible worlds, we managed to put racism and nativism behind us long ago and we are today totally cool with the blessings of multiculturalism.

Admitedly however, in the last few weeks we've had to confront the fact that we haven't entirely straightened out the kinks in the wall which is supposed to keep out the brown peril on our southern border.

We've also been reminded only this week that we still haven't been able to carve into the Constitution a new 3/5ths rule for our damnable native homos, although this time it's going to be more like 0/5ths when marriage licenses are distributed. The girls aren't much of a problem, but why can't the gay boys be happy with their beauty parlors, ribbon counters and, well . . . their traditional illicit and indiscriminate sex, leaving the manly jobs and marriage bliss for real Americans?

All of this gives me the authority to decry the horrors of nativism which have descended upon what is by most accounts one of the most ancient and most sophisticated [Western] societies on the planet, the nation of Belgium.

I am going to upload here the entire text of an email which I [along with a number of her other correspondents] was privileged to receive recently from a good friend who has been living in Antwerp for a number of years. Kate's own complex national and cultural background would be difficult to describe easily, and I would argue it is irrelevant to the significance of her account.


Dear friends abroad:

I am writing to tell you what it is like being here. Recent events have brought an ugly demon to the surface and everyone seems to be tainted in some way by its grip. It was as if before it was "sleeping" but events prove that it has embedded itself deeply at this society's core.

I am talking about the recent spate of attacks and murders that have swept through the Flanders part of Belgium and in particular in the city of Antwerp where I live.

First we were shocked to hear how a parisian of african origins and his Belgian (white) rastafarian friend were severely beaten by some neonazis in the picturesque city of bruges

The african man is still in a coma and just about every bone in his face was broken

Then a young boy of, what, 22, was chased into the river Scheldt and drowned. The assumption is that it was a racist attack, as Mohamed Bouazza was from Morocco, living in Belgium.

Third and perhaps most devastatingly an eighteen year old man went on the rampage with a hunting gun which he simply purchased at a store near the museum where I was working that day. Didn't need a license, and the weapon he bought was powerful enough to kill a bear. Are there still bears in Belgium, incidentally? Just days before it happened I had looked at the shop, displaying all manner of weaponry, and knives as if they were trophies, and wondered what sacrifice would be made with those items.

So the man goes into town, and shoots a Turkish woman reading a book on a park bench, the bullet going right through her and even leaving traces in the apartment building behind. Her condition is serious if no longer critical.

The man then proceeded to kill a Malian woman who was pregnant, and a child of two from Belgium for whom she was babysitting. In the "Black Sister Street" [Zwartzustersstraat] no less. Nobody of the Flemish government was at her funeral.

The shooter's aunt belongs to the extreme right Vlaams Belang (formerly known as the Vlaams Blok), is a member of parliament and also involved in some of the VB's more radical wings. Evidence shows the man's motives were racist. It does not seem too farfetched to suppose that the man was brought up on extreme right propaganda. Fed with his porridge spoon as they say in Flemish.

One third of citizens in this city votes extreme right.

Yesterday 20.000 people marched in silence to the court of justice in Antwerp to commemorate the dead. 35.000 people went to see the holy blood procession in Bruges a few days earlier. I don't know if they were all tourists; or if it was because of yesterday's rain. What I can say is that people are afraid, the atmosphere is highly strung here, and that there seems to be no solution in sight.

The region of Flanders has to wake up to the idea that its diversity is a fact and that it is a positive and enriching fact in an already extremely prosperous region. I see these events as the result of a people's grossly warped self image and a great lack of gratitude. Flanders is stooped under a huge chip on its shoulder due to the francophone suppression, but that was years ago and now Flanders is far more prosperous than the Wallonian, french-speaking part of Belgium. A big chunk of the taxes I pay go to funding the Vlaams Belang, who preach hate messages wherever they can.

The march was a warm affair despite the damp yet at its end I was left with a feeling that little had been done. I had a feeling that the immigrant community don't have a good spokesperson, and there is such an all pervading sense of "the other" it is chilling.

Of course it was nice to see many artists and actors, musicians, poets in the ranks of people on the walk. We found each other and we spoke with people we didn't know before. And 20.000 is an awful lot of people. All people I know have reacted in a similar way to me and are as disgusted and shocked by the events. And I am happy to say that I have met some wonderful warm intelligent gifted openminded and generous people of all origins while living here and that the cultural scene is thriving, at times visionary, and quite positively one to be jealous of. This gives hope.

But I am not sure how much longer I want to live in this city which never clarified or brought its dubious allegiances of its WWII history into the open.

I am not an expert on this subject but I have tried to sketch an image of how I feel.

Be well,

In truth of course Belgium's nightmare is currently being shared in one form or another by each of its neighbors, and to a greater or lesser degree by every nation on earth, not least our own frightened, benighted land.

If only reports about the worst of these horrors unfolding in distant lands could bring us to our senses. Instead similar tragedies produced by similar hatreds and fears can continue to unfold here precisely because we fail to recognize ourselves in the ignorance and malevalence of what is seen only as the other.

[image from Latin American Studies]

I wrote a little while back that I would show some of the damage the school had done to work created by Brooklyn College Masters degree students. While this small post can't show the full extent of the physical and psychological assault, it may help to show what New York really thinks about art where it's not attached to big money or some kind of celebrity.

Susan C. Dessel Texas Barrier 2006 cement, styrofoam, cheesecloth, rocks (barrier structure: 5'6" H x 10' W x 4'D, rocks 8' D around structure) [installation view of photograph in re-assembled show documenting the original site-specific installation; the photograph itself is by Robert Puglisi]

Susan C. Dessel Texas Barrier Post Mortem 2006 (elements of Texas Barrier) [large detail of installation in re-assembled show]

Even in photo reproduction, for me Dessel's original installation stood as a brutal monument to exclusion or "security"; in its damaged form, its shattered pieces reconfigured and squeezed into an alcove in something less than ideal lighting, the work sadly suggested something more like a wounded, defeated animal. I don't know how to sort out an irony through which an evil process can transfom a scary, inanimate object into a creature less the object of scorn than of pity, but I want to watch where Dessel goes from here.

jun Yejin's damaged sculpture (large sections broken off and removed, and large remaining areas of straight pins completely flattened)

Carrie Fucile's large wooden house sculpture, as totally flattened by workers sent by Brooklyn College, including her video documentation of men loading pickup trucks

Megan Piontkowski's Brooklyn College parrots were re-configured after their initial outing in the show's original venue: While these little guys suffered damage when they were taken from the War Memorial, the artist herself has altered their appearance further herself. Tiny dark hoods now cover their heads, in a reference to the violence of New York City's summary act of art censorship and the College's ready cooperation in it.

There are more photographs on the "PlanB Prevails" website, along with an open letter from Vito Acconci, one of the few artists to be heard from on this assault on the arts and on civil rights which exploded five weeks ago.

Somebody must currently be leaning very hard on George, perhaps some homo brute has a gun at his back and is forcing him to walk out on Laura and pad down the aisle once again. Why else would our Commander-in-Chief be thumping for a constitutional amendment in order to stay with his wife?

It seems to me a real man could just say no, or at least yell to the Secret Service for help. Anyway, from where I sit when you see a Republican panic and run off to try to rig up a clumsy, big-government device in order to defend a marriage it sadly looks like just plain cowardliness. If Bush or even some lower-ranking heterosexual is unable to protect her or his marriage without calling in the feds, the contract's no longer likely to be worth a damn anyway.

Then again, how could I know any thing about the horrors of bourgeois marriage? Barry and I have had too much fun being together for fifteen years to even begin thinking about "protection" or "defense", other than safe sex, that is.

Oh, Bush's problem? Maybe someone just has to start supervising our boy's reading material:

[to protect the ancient innocent, this vintage DC Comics image has not been altered one bit]

[image from superdickery]

This page is an archive of entries in the Politics category from June 2006.

previous archive: Politics: May 2006

next archivePolitics: July 2006