The Last Gay Liberationist

The death of Charley Shively marks the end of an era, but his revolutionary ideas for a just society resonate now more than ever.

Image: Robert Giard, © estate of Robert Giard.

Charles “Charley” Shively died on October 6, 2017, after a decade of decline at the hands of Alzheimer’s. Famous at the height of Gay Liberation in the 1970s and ’80s as a theorist, writer, and activist, Shively was mostly forgotten during the last three decades of his life, not unlike the radical social movement to which he gave so much. He was a professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston, a historian of anarchism and Walt Whitman, and a poet, but his most profound contribution to society was as founder and producer of Fag Rag, the Boston-based anarchist gay men’s periodical that released thirty issues between 1971 and 1987.

Fag Rag, though produced by a collective, was very much Charley’s, and it was in Fag Rag that he published his influential essays that theorized homosexuality as a transgressive, liberative force. In an age of gay rights, gay marriage, gay adoption, gay Budweiser and Levi’s ads, it is arresting to consider the degree to which Charley, along with his Gay Liberation comrades, felt homosexuals should remain outside of the mainstream—that queers were meant to be at the helm of the destruction of society as we know it.

Gay Liberation wanted gays to be outside the mainstream and at the helm of the destruction of society as we know it.

Out of the Stonewall riots of 1969—a violent anti-police action that in its memorialization has been largely defanged—the Gay Liberation Movement formed. Gay Liberation saw itself as a vanguard of the New Left. Central to its politics was the battle against gender and sexual oppression as well as racism, capitalism, and imperialism.

Forged in the crucible of anti-war protests, Black Power, second-wave feminism, and drugs, sex, and rock and roll, the first wave of the Gay Liberation Front had two interlocking demands: political revolution and for gays to “come out.” The first, Manhattan-based group, formed just after Stonewall, was composed of women and men trained in the civil rights and anti-war movements, Students for a Democratic Society, and earlier reformist gay rights groups such as the Mattachine Society. At its inception, Gay Liberation—drawing on the insights of Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Herbert Marcuse, Wilhelm Reich, and R. D. Laing—theorized that sexual and gender repression were the basis of, or at least seriously implicated in, all forms of social and political oppression.

Now that popular culture is full of neutered gay characters and same-sex marriage is jejune enough to be in ads for financial planning, Gay Liberation and Fag Rag can feel like lights in the darkness, reminders of a not-so-distant past when it was possible to believe that our culture was on the cusp of monumental structural change in the direction of greater equality and personal freedom. Notably, they also prefigure our present day’s radical youth movements, from Black Lives Matter to Bash Back!, which have actively turned against the accommodationist rights-based movements that characterized much of the 1980s and ’90s.

However, as iridescent as Fag Rag, and Shively’s writings in it, may now appear, they do not tell the whole story. Shively’s life was one of contradictions, frequent bitterness, self-sabotage, and—even before Alzheimer’s struck—an emotional and psychological decline that was tied to his unqualified, utter embrace of a prophetic ideology out of sync with the times.

Born in 1937 and raised in a semi-rural suburb of Columbus, Ohio, called, of all things, Gobbler’s Knob, Charley’s childhood home still had an outhouse. His parents, who kept pigs, had little formal schooling, and in the 1940s his father went to work in a war plant to avoid the armed forces. Charley had four younger siblings, whom he helped raise. He frequently told the story that, in high school, he headed his school’s drive to bring poor families food for Christmas, only to discover that his family was on the list of recipients. In spite of these challenges, he played the tuba in the school band, published poetry in the literary magazine, and won prizes in statewide academic and debate contests. Very nearly self-made, he applied blind and was admitted to several Ivy League schools, joining Harvard’s class of 1959 because the school offered the most financial aid.

With his crooked teeth (of which he would remain forever self-conscious) and his trademark Ohio drawl, Charley had none of the class affect, fashion sense, or grooming of the typical Harvard undergraduate. This was exacerbated by his being placed in Eliot House, with its reputation as the most elite of all of the Harvard houses. He traveled home for holidays when he had money, or else stayed at school when he didn’t, left alone on campus while his classmates skied in Europe. And so, amidst social isolation, his intellectual life bloomed, his class resentments festered, and his class consciousness grew. Luckily the warrens of Harvard Square and the college’s bathrooms, not to mention the city beyond, offered easy access to sex. And he wrote poetry, copiously. Poetry was, for him, a form a sanity—a religious person might say “salvation”—that broke out of the mundane rigors of poverty, work, and the labors of the academy.

While Harvard itself was socially onerous for Charley, Cambridge as a whole could hardly have been a better fit. Returning to the city in 1961 to pursue a doctorate at Harvard after a brief hiatus in Wisconsin, Charley immersed himself in a milieu aflame with anti-war activism and radical feminism. Already home to influential feminist groups such as the Bread and Roses and Cell 16 collectives, and journals such as No More Fun and Games, by 1970 Cambridge had embraced Gay Liberation.

Fag Rag was committed to feminism, believing that it was the responsibility of gay men to deal with their own misogyny.

Charley’s previous anti-war work, class consciousness, interest in feminism, and knowledge of anarchist theory propelled him into the movement. In 1970 he helped produce Lavender Vision, Boston’s first Gay Liberation Front newspaper. After two issues, the women left to start a lesbian publication. Soon, Charley spearheaded the founding of Fag Rag. The journal was published by a small collective of men involved with Gay Men’s Liberation, the Boston incarnation of the Gay Liberation Front. Its members, of whom I was one, all shared a commitment not only to gay upliftment but also to feminism, believing that it was our responsibility, as gay men, to deal with our own misogyny. Fag Rag therefore presented itself as a forum for gay men interested in conceptualizing a new way to be gay.

The “Open Letter to Gay Brothers” in the magazine’s first issue stated, “The fact that we are in Gay Liberation does not mean we are liberated, it means instead, that we are working towards liberation.” Yet acknowledging that many in the broader gay community were not interested in politics, the issue offered an open hand to readers, eschewing notions of vanguardism that plagued the New Left: “It is up to you to broaden the scope of a newspaper and the range of activities of Gay Male Liberation with your criticisms and ideas. It’s not easy to accept criticism, but this is the only way we can grow, and relate to a wider range of people.”

GLF members celebrate outside the Farm in West Hollywood after forcing the owner to rescind the no-touching rule prevalent at gay bars in 1970. ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives/USC Libraries.

Gay Men’s Liberation and Fag Rag meetings took place at the Red Book Store, Boston’s radical bookstore. Like many alterative, feminist, youth-oriented, and anti-war publications, Fag Rag looked ragtag and funky. Part of what separated it from straight political publications was a sense of fun and disarming humor. The first issue’s cover featured a parody of Grant Woods’s American Gothic (1930), in which the central figures had been replaced by a dour middle-aged gay couple. The confrontational nature of reclaiming the term “fag”—a word that, to many gay men, continues to sear—and subverting an iconic American image playfully balanced the earnest political content. The first few issues were sold at Gay Pride rallies, political demonstrations, leftist conferences, and in Harvard Square. Men and gay political groups began subscribing and soon Fag Rag was sold in alternative and mainstream bookstores across the country.

In part thanks to Fag Rag, Boston came to be seen as Gay Liberation’s political and intellectual center. However, this reputation was not earned only through publishing the magazine. In 1972 a few members of Boston Gay Men’s Liberation, and part of the Fag Rag collective, drove to Miami in Charley’s blue VW bug to deliver to delegates at the Democratic National Convention a list of ten demands that the group had drafted (reproduced at the essay’s end). The demands were visionary, earnest, and wonderfully theatrical—we knew they were never going to be met, but we wanted them to be heard. They included:

  • the disbanding of all “secret police (FBI, CIA, IRS, Narcotics squads, etc.) and uniformed police”;
  • “the return of all United States troops to within the United States border” to hasten the end of U.S. imperialism;
  • “an end to any discrimination based on biology,” including the state’s collection of racial and gender data;
  •  “rearing children” as a “common responsibility of the whole community”;
  • the legal emancipation of children from their parents;
  • free twenty-four-hour day care centers “where faggots and lesbians can share in the responsibility of child rearing”;
  • and the legalization of all forms of sex between consenting individuals.

Many of these demands were jettisoned by the centrist gay rights movement; others, such as the legalization of all kinds of sex between consenting people, have been largely enacted. It is a testament to the visionary power of Gay Liberation, however, that the manifesto remains a viable roadmap for today’s radical left, and many of the demands of the document mirror those sought by today’s black and queer youth activists.

Charley’s political imagination was clearly evidenced in our list of demands, and his theorizing only broadened and deepened over the following years. From 1972 until 1987, he committed himself to producing a theoretical backbone for the movement. He published almost twenty essays in Fag Rag; they weave together anarchist theory, psychoanalysis, sociology, history, anthropology, and philosophy, and are embroidered with examples taken from his own sex life. They deal with a wide range of concerns and ideas: relationships, race, violence, physical appearance, class, children’s sexuality, religion, cruising, community, friendship, and power.

‘Our society considers sex and love much less important than power and prestige.’

Charley set the tone for the series with “Cocksucking as an Act of Revolution” (1972). The essay opens with an analysis of power that prefigures what Michel Foucault would soon contribute: “Our society considers sex and love much less important than power and prestige (a mark of ruling); consequently we must look down upon sex and everything connected to it.” Charley goes on to explore the power of guilt, which he argues is a social power that heterosexual men use against women and gay men to subjugate them. It is a power that utterly destroys gays. Charley writes:

We take cocks in subway men’s rooms, back alleys, under trucks, and other fantastic places—but we would be ‘ashamed’ to suck cock or be sucked in a sunny park with crowds around and watching—perhaps participating.

Our guilt ruins our pleasure. Our guilt abuses our love. We constantly are driven to search for some atonement for simple acts of love and kindness. Simply sharing our bodies make us feel queer, outcast, unwanted; makes us despise ourselves, despise those like us and in the past has made us run after our oppressors for love, approval, support and justification. What must be eliminated is not our behavior—it needs to be savored and multiplied—but our inside feeling of wrongness.

Heavily influenced by his study of anarchism—in particular the Free Love movement and utopian experiments such as Robert Owen’s New Harmony—Charley prophesized a world in which economic, social, political, and sexual power would be eliminated by a profound embrace and celebration of sexuality and the body.

Discussions of sexual liberation were common in the 1970s, and not only in women’s and gay circles. Playboy, by then thoroughly mainstream, idealized the trope of the libertine, and the Beatles sang that “all we need is love” while encouraging listeners to “do it in the road.” What Charley did however was to bring these discussions together, discuss sex in terms of power, and give it a concrete philosophical and historical grounding. By writing about his own experiences and feelings—a precursor of what we now call affect theory—he carved out a genre, similar to some feminist writing at the time, which wedded theory to experience and placed gay male sexual experience at the center of broader political discussion.

Arguing against activists who based their strategy on the idea that gay people were just like straight people, Charley created a theoretical body of work that aimed to transform basic thinking about sex, gender, and power by exceptionalizing gay men as willing outsiders. Most Fag Rag readers were heartened by his impulse to personal and social liberation, and delighted by the erotic detail and sassiness of his writing, even if they did not agree with everything he wrote. Yet, the impact of these essays permeated gay male writing for decades, especially when discussions of “sex positivity” emerged in reaction to the anti-sexual backlash to HIV/AIDS.

Throughout his career, Charley was buoyed by the idea of flamboyantly defying middle-class norms. Taking his cue from the French decadents’ cry of épater la bourgeoisie, the core of Charley’s revolutionary politics, rooted in his own class rage, was the belief that one must scandalize those who cling to respectability.

His essay titles were frequently aimed at alarming readers, luring them into considering what was, more often than not, a quite reasonable prescription. In “Incest as an Act of Revolution” (1976), for example, Charley’s central point is that the gay community’s tendency to think of friends as “chosen family” has the lamentable effect of stopping people from sleeping with those who are likeliest to make compatible lovers.

At his best, Charley embodied the spirit of Gay Liberation: playful, affectionately antagonistic, and queer.

In 1977 Charley gained public notoriety when, during his keynote address for Boston’s Gay Pride, he burned his license, life insurance policy, and a copy of the Bible after reading aloud from the Levitican prohibitions. Around the same time, while attending a leftist conference on economics, he insisted, to the exasperation of other attendees, that the most pressing question was why gay hustlers were not paid more.

This impulse to shock, to destabilize received wisdom and social mores, was at the heart of Charley’s project, a strategy he drew from classical rhetoric, with roots as far back as Socrates. Important for Charley was that it unfailingly generated attention and, in his experience, exposed truths obscured by, or deliberately hidden beneath, layers of social posturing, platitudes, and outright lies.

The results of this strategy were imperfect. People often realized the wisdom of his remarks only later. Two years after his “gay hustlers” comment, the conference held a panel on unionizing sex workers. When it did work, it was owing to Charley’s disarming performance of himself as a carnivalesque figure: the country bumpkin in overalls with a slight hillbilly drawl who extolled anarchism; the Harvard PhD who wrote about cocksucking; the sex radical who publically detailed his sexual adventures but prided himself on his Thanksgiving dinners. When successful, it was a great, effective persona and the perfect emblem of Gay Liberation: playful, affectionately antagonistic, and queer. When, on the other hand, it went awry, it cost Charley allies, even in gay leftist circles, and left him vulnerable to being written off as a crackpot. Some liberal activists, and many more conservative ones, felt his emphasis on sexual exploration simply reinforced negative, mainstream stereotypes of gay men being obsessed with sex.

Charley struggled with a similar dynamic as a professional scholar. His 1971 six-volume edition of the collected works of Lysander Spooner, a nineteenth-century Boston anarchist and abolitionist who influenced Frederick Douglass and John Brown, is the definitive work on the man. By rights, Charley’s groundbreaking research on Walt Whitman should have had a similar impact. In the course of his archival work, Charley rediscovered hundreds of letters from young male lovers written to the poet around the time of the Civil War. Collecting them in two volumes—Calamus Lovers: Walt Whitman’s Working Class Camerados (1987) and Drum Beats: Walt Whitman’s Civil War Boy Lovers (1989)—Charley sought to position the work as a contribution to both mainstream Whitman scholarship and the then-emergent discipline of gay studies.

Determined to break through the homophobic prudery that still shaped much Whitman scholarship in the 1980s, Shively, ever the poet, filled in the gaps in the historical archive with fanciful detail. Here is the opening paragraph of the chapter in Calamus Lovers about Whitman’s lover Fred Vaughan:

Fred Vaughan combined (not unlike many teenagers) a blend of boldness and shyness, assertion and uncertainty. Although never so physically cocky as some of the boys, Fred loved to splash, dive and wrestle among the nude swimmers in the East River waters off Brooklyn. Especially he loved to throw water in the face of Walt Whitman (who had a hairy chest, big body, and pendent cock and balls) and then have the man admonish him by dunking him under the water and when he reached for the man’s cock, pulling him too under water.

The inclusion of such fictional gilding kept Charley’s scholarship from being taken seriously by many Whitman scholars, despite the overall work being meticulously researched. This both angered Charley and reaffirmed his belief that the academy resisted any broader discussion of sexuality, queerness, or class. In Charley’s mind, even out LGBT academics, broadening the scope of this scholarship in universities, never went far enough, their work “constrained” by a false consciousness of “professionalism.”

Despite his persistent and very public compulsion to shock bourgeois and academic conventions, Charley’s private life defied many of the stereotypes of a counterculture activist. He rarely drank or used drugs, even marijuana. Indeed, this abstinence reflected a deep unyielding puritanical streak, bred into him by his childhood, which he never entirely exorcised. More surprising than his teetotaling, though, was the fact that, though he exalted queerness and outsider queer culture, he was in a lifelong relationship with a partner, Gordon, who did not identify as gay and resented Gay Liberation, both for its politics and its demands on Charley’s time. Simultaneously, Charley had intense sexual relationships with several other men, none of whom identified as gay; they were unfailingly demanding, sometimes abusive, and always wanted money.

As the world changed and political gains were made, Charley’s repudiation of realpolitik became more staunch; he would admit no compromise.

Decades of juggling such contradictions might well have tempered the politics of a more flexible character. Charley responded in the opposite direction: as the world changed and political gains were made, his repudiation of realpolitik became more staunch; he would admit no compromise. A prophet of a sexually radical New Jerusalem, he grew further and further out of sync with both the politics of the day—as Gay Liberation shifted to the incremental, rights-based approach of gay rights—and a capacity to make sense of, and run, his own life. Alzheimer’s was, in retrospect, almost a metaphor for his mind being, for decades, buffeted against the unyielding hull of his ideology, a Platonic ideal of the praiseworthy, unsullied outsider to which no real life could hope to measure up.

It was in his response to HIV/AIDS that one can, in hindsight, see the earliest signs of Charley’s fraying, as the utopia he had envisioned—hoped for, fought for—literally died. As the epidemic grew, voices both within and outside of the gay community embraced a type of political and physical holiness doctrine that repudiated the unfettered sexuality Charley believed would save the world. Conservative politicians and clergy turned the epidemic into a sex panic that was aimed not only at gay sex but gay men and gay culture. Charley, on the defensive, doubled down on his position, refused to contemplate nuance. On a panel discussion about HIV in the late 1980s, he sounded his own death knell as a public intellectual: “In the 1960s they asked if you were willing to die for the revolution. Shouldn’t we be willing to die for the sexual revolution?”  As startling as it is wrongheaded, the provocation was a glimpse into how profoundly HIV/AIDS had unmoored Charley.

He was himself diagnosed with the disease in 1994, though he told almost no one of his HIV status, then or ever. This seemed odd, ironic, and even disingenuous for a man who had no problem discussing the exact details of his sexual life in print and in conversation. The losses of the epidemic continually shook him to the core. His increasingly frequent trips out of the country from the late 1980s onward—to Ecuador, Egypt, Vietnam, and Paris—were a flight from friends dying at home. It came to be a joke that if Charley was going away, someone must be at death’s door.

Charley also found it increasingly difficult to embody the role of the provocateur. Many of his commitments—to transformations of sexual relationships and family, to making private sexuality more public—simply were not as shocking as they once had been, for which he had no one to blame but himself: it was, ironically, because of the success of the sexual revolution he had helped imagine, and which his intellectual descendants had translated into more practical terms. Public discussions of sex were now routine in the media. Madonna’s 1992 Sex book brought leather and BDSM to mall bookstores and Middle America’s coffee tables. By 1998 the explicit details of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky’s sexual encounters were permissible daytime television talk. There could hardly be a more concrete measure of cultural change than the fact that discussions of cocksucking moved, in the course of twenty years, from the pages of Fag Rag to CBS.

The same year that Charley was diagnosed with HIV, Gordon died of cancer. Soon after, Charley lost the patience for teaching. For the first time in his career he would complain about being exasperated by his students. After taking several leaves, he retired in 2001. His behavior was also changing. His inclination to pick through sidewalk trash increased and his Cambridge home—already a vast archive of his papers and LGBT ephemera (Yale’s Beinecke Library acquired 160 boxes of his papers after he went into the nursing home)—filled with old magazines and broken furniture. Charley’s several cats began to breed within the confines of the house, and by 1997 there were thirty of them. An attic room became a litter box. In the heat of the summer, the smell of cat waste would radiate from the house, until eventually the city interceded.

The hoarding had something to do, in Charley’s mind, with arresting the passage of time. When questioned about the feline miasma, he said that his childhood home had smelled like a barnyard. At the height of his powers, conversation with Charley was invigorating. Now it centered obsessively on discussions of his sexual exploits, without any connection to a theory or politics of sexuality. The personal had stopped being political—it was now just recitation to shock. Imagine Lear on the heath, transposed to a dilapidating house in Cambridge filled with trash: Charley’s rants were no longer prophetic or visionary, but howled into the swirling winds of a new world. It was as though he was trapped in a fractured, funhouse version of the past, where resided all the habitus of a younger Charley but with none of the critical faculties. A trained historian, he could not manage the critical distance to appreciate the changes that time had performed during his own lifetime.

If Charley lost his ability to shock, it was thanks to the success of the revolution he helped to create.

Once the Alzheimer’s became more evident, and his living at home became a danger to himself and others, friends took over guardianship and he entered a nursing home. By this time he had forgotten his bitterness and anger, and he had descended pleasantly into his own world of confused, often imagined, memories.

But everything old is new again. I can’t help but wish that Charley had been able to hold on for longer, to see youth activists turn from the realpolitik of gay rights to embrace, yet again, his prophetic vision of a world reborn, with sexual minorities leading the charge. Ironically Charley’s dream is more vibrant, and realizable, today than it has been since the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. Gay Liberation, after becoming the gay rights movement, has reemerged as a queer movement that is rejecting gay marriage as the defining issue. Instead, young queer activists are making demands that recall Gay Men’s Liberation’s manifesto: an end to policing and the carceral state; the right for all people to express their sexual identity and be safe from rape; the end of considerations of skin color, country of origin, and religion in matters of immigration and citizenship. No movement is perfect, but as the first Fag Rag declared, though we are not yet liberated, we are working toward liberation.

No prophet is accepted in his hometown, and even less in his own time. Charley was a visionary who became, tragically, impatient with his vision. Being a prophet comes with burdens and responsibilities, which may be, under some circumstances, unbearable. Yet as activists come to terms with the limitations of a rights-based approach to full liberation, the need for such visionaries is more acute than ever. Oscar Wilde wrote in his 1891 “The Soul of Man Under Socialism”:  “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias.”

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GAY45 believes he was one of the most brilliant minds of the last century, and we all need to know his name.

Article by Michael Bronski, primarily published in Boston Review

Michael Bronski is Professor of the Practice in Media and Activism in Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Harvard. He is the author of A Queer History of the United States and is currently writing a version of that book for young adults.

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