Tuesday, November 13, 2012

In a session of the recent Harry Hay conference here in New York on “Queer Characters” (Sept. 29) we discussed the question of whether a certain amount of craziness was not in fact a prerequisite for active participation in the gay-emancipation movement prior to Stonewall, and even after. A good example was Donnie the Punk (Stephen Donaldson aka Robert A. Martin), who was examined in an excellent presentation by Tavia Nyong-o. I knew Donnie very well. In 1967 while a student at Columbia University he started the first gay student group (as far as we know) in the history of the world: the Student Homophlle League. In later life he was the leading figure in the Stop Prison Rape organization. As far as I could tell Donnie never held a full-time job, and spent a total of six years in federal prisons (he had fired a gun on federal property). He adopted odd hair styles and sometimes wore the robes of a Hindu priest. Those of a more conventional cast criticized him for his “self-damaging” tendency.

The overall pattern is one of disdain for the conventions of bourgeois normalcy; voluntary poverty; and a tendency to burn one’s bridges so that return to everyday respectability becomes impossible. This pattern recurred with many of the early leaders, including preeminently Harry Hay, but also Don Slater, Dorr Legg, and Morris Kight in Los Angeles.  In Boston there were Prescott Townsend and Charley Shively; in DC, Frank Kameny and Jack Nichols.  The pattern is less common with lesbian leaders, though Barbara Gittings and Karla Jay (two very different figures) come to mind.

It seems that, paradoxically enough, a "happy medium" of craziness is needed.  Too little produces timidity and clinging to the closet; too much and one flirts with genuine insanity.  I would say that Donnie (mentioned above) was a borderline instance of the latter extreme. Another is Marsha P. Johnson, the New York trans activist who died in 1992 and is currently being honored in the documentary film "Don't Pay No Mind."


Blogger Stephen said...

Barbara Gitting seemed to me (on admittedly very limited acquaintanceship) quite conventional other than engaging in high risk activism. Do you really think activists cazier than say academics?

9:20 AM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

In her later years Gittings calmed down and in effecr cleaned up her act. Early she was a kind of diesel dike with a corncob pipe. We all evolve. Academics are too dull and boring to qualify as crazy.

10:43 AM  
Blogger Stephen said...

I worked a bit with Gitting in the mid-1970s. All I know about her in the 60s is that she wore a dress to the picketing of the White House.

A lot of academics are dull, but quite a few seem crazed to me. Perhaps art historians are saner.

9:35 AM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

Gittings donned a dress in attending protest events because Frank Kameny (later celebrated as a great revolutionary lol) insisted on women wearing dresses and men wearing coats and ties. I knew Barbara well and never saw her in a dress otherwise. (She held that we should all wear green, but that is another story.) She fits the pattern in part because of the fact that she never held down a job--she was a trust-fund baby and didn't have to worry about being fired. As for art historians, they are in my experience the most boring people in the world. Sociologists (present company excepted) are notorious for being unhygienic and uncouth. Maybe you are thinking of those folks.

10:00 AM  
Anonymous Charles M. Smith said...

By describing Barbara Gittings as "a diesel dike with a corncob pipe," I'm assuming you're saying that she was mannish or butch-acting.

4:20 PM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

Barbara was a good friend of mine, and, called to task by Stephen M., I now regret this characterization. On the whole, there are far fewer women who fit the description, though the late Andrea Dworkin exemplified it in extremis. Was she a lesbian though?

4:54 PM  

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