A spirit of the 60's
published in: The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide. 15.3
(May-June 2008): p20.
IN 1967, a number of us with same-sex feelings moved from the East Coast to the San Francisco Bay area. We were young and the sky wasn't big enough to measure our dreams. Some of us went West because we were disillusioned and some of us were just searching. It's important to remember this migration because the history of the modern gay movement did not begin with the Stonewall Riots. When Martin Duberman writes in his book Stonewall that "the 1969 riots are now generally taken to mark the birth of the modern gay and lesbian political movement," he is only reflecting how the coastal cultural establishment has come to monopolize the writing of gay history. That view of history needs to be broadened.
In fact, the modern gay movement began with many people spread across the country before finding its iconic moment in Stonewall. One of the most memorable of them was Carl Wittman (1943-1986), whose life has been all but forgotten by gay historians. Wittman was one of the most charismatic voices and tragic casualties of Gay Liberation.
He was a genuine radical. Born a "red diaper baby" (child of communist parents) into a family of middle-class leftists in northern New Jersey, Wittman grew into a tall, awkward blond who felt very uncomfortable with his body. He would hitch rides on the New Jersey Turnpike to find "scores" and then take them home when his parents were away. While a student at Swarth-more College from 1960 to '64, he became radicalized by the Civil Rights movement. He organized demonstrations to protest the economic conditions of poor African-Americans in nearby racially segregated Chester, Pennsylvania, and became part of the national leadership of SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), traveling from campus to campus.
After graduating in the summer of 1964, Wittman worked on SDS interracial projects called ERAP in poor neighborhoods of Newark and Hoboken, but hid his gay feelings from fellow radicals. He shared leadership with Tom Hayden (later of Chicago Seven fame and a California state legislator), who sometimes borrowed his room to bed his many women. Hayden announced that drugs and homosexuality were taboo for ERAP participants. Later he realized that Wittman was gay and withdrew from him. In fact, the New Left was as homophobic as the Old Left. While the women's liberation movement began to stir in 1966 in the ranks of SDS with a "women's manifesto," Gay Liberation would have a much more difficult time finding acceptance by the New Left. Some former SDS members, like Tom Hayden, will admit this today, but the homophobic ghosts have never been fully exorcised by the New Left, and most of the gays in their ranks came out of their closets with great difficulty.
Wittman felt the homophobia of his fellow radicals and wanted to get away from it, but he had also absorbed some of it. He was filled with contradictory feelings and homophobic self-loathing. These contradictory feelings led to a self-destructive announcement to his fellow SDS members: he had homosexual feelings, but since they were like a "broken record," he was going to create a "symphony" by marrying another New Left leader, Mimi Feingold. The consequences were disastrous--like a lot of other marriages involving gay guys in the 60's. In 1966, Wittman and Feingold were married in a hippie-style wedding in a pasture on the New Jersey farm of the prominent New Left elder Dave Dellinger (1915-2004).
With SDS disintegrating, Wittman became restless. He and his wife moved to San Francisco in the summer of 1967. They had an open relationship, but Wittman's gay feelings began to manifest themselves, as did the bodies of the young men who went shirtless under the northern California midday sun. He dreamed of being free, and his marriage began to disintegrate. By 1968, he was thinking of "sexual liberation" in a very personal way. He began circulating drafts of an essay containing his beliefs to friends. "The Gay Manifesto" took a final form in May 1969--one month before the Stonewall Inn riots, which began on June 28th.
Carl and I met on the U. C. Berkeley campus in late February of 1969. We shared a lot in common. We were both born in 1943, married in 1966, and came to California in 1967. We were physical opposites who were instantly attracted to one another: he was tall and blond, I was dark and smaller. We had a passionate affair that nearly destroyed my marriage. For a while, I went crazy doing things that previously I had only dreamed of doing. Freedom and sexuality are a powerful combination, but they can be damaging to people you love.
Carl and I lived gay liberation. There was a shock element in Gay Lib as a political movement, and we were energized by doing things that were scandalous to most of the people we knew. I followed Carl in placing a model ad in the Berkeley Barb underground newspaper, and we both worked as unlikely male prostitutes--unlikely because no one would have suspected us of doing such a thing. He was a prominent New Left figure active in the Vietnam War resistance and had just burned his draft card. I was a Berkeley doctoral student in Chinese history who was just publishing my first scholarly article, married, with a child on the way. We both stood for a kind of integrity and professionalism that by conventional standards we were violating. We used to joke about it because we were hustling more for the adventure than the money (which was meager).
I was infatuated with Carl and his radically gay lifestyle and treated my wife Christine shabbily. She was newly pregnant with our first child, and I went off with Carl to spend a week at his Oregon commune, leaving my wife to celebrate her 23rd birthday alone. Christine went back to the East Coast and I had a decision to make. It was a classic bisexual dilemma. When I realized that Carl did not love me as much as I loved him, I decided to end our relationship. He tried to contact me again, but I did not respond. It was painful, but I decided to return to my wife. My conservative Italian family values had won out.
CARL STAYED TRUE to the values he expressed in the Gay Manifesto. He wrote that the first thing needed was "to free ourselves; that means clearing our heads of the garbage that's been poured into them." He thought that ghettos, whether black, white, straight, or gay, were a bad thing. So in 1971 he left San Francisco for good, because it was becoming a gay ghetto, and moved to Wolf Creek, Oregon, where he tried to build a gay commune. I personally never liked the idea of living in a commune, but for Carl it became a substitute for a family of blood relatives. Whereas living in a gay ghetto was something you felt pressured to do, living in a commune was done by choice.
Wolf Creek was 62 acres of scenic country land on a sloping hillside with a small, two-story house dating from the 1940's. The farm was at a place called Golden, and I had visited there with Carl in March 1969. They had tried to include lesbians, but women's separatism was very much in the air. There was something quintessentially American about his move, and he did it for reasons similar to those of Thoreau in moving to Walden Pond or Walt Whitman in cruising the countryside. He was anti-materialistic and cultivated the simple life. He wanted to be close to nature and to learn about spirituality. He did not want to be married to either a man or a woman, because marriage limited his freedom to have sex with whomever he pleased. Sex was, after all, the driving force in Gay Liberation.
In 1974, Wittman was part of a small group that founded RFD, a back-to-the-land magazine dedicated to serving the needs of "country faggots" and ending their isolation. The postal term "RFD" (Rural Free Delivery) was chosen as the title because of the importance of mail in country life. The title is a continually evolving pun on RFD, with each issue having a different meaning for the abbreviation. Produced in the fall of 1974, the first issue's take on RFD was "Rustic Fairy Dreams." It was followed by "Reckless Fruit Delight," "Really Feeling Divine," and so on. Although the first issues were put together by rural gay collectives in different parts of the country--Grinnell and Iowa City in Iowa, Wolf Creek in Oregon, Elwha in Washington, and Butterworth Farm in Massachusetts--the heart of the publication lay in the gay community at Wolf Creek until 1979.
Carl's involvement with the magazine was greatest at the beginning. The range of topics in RFD was broad, ranging from holistic health to gay politics. Many of the articles in the early issues dealt with the topic of food, both growing and preparing it. The Wolf Creek community was attempting to survive as a largely self-sufficient agricultural commune, and practical concerns were paramount. For example, the spring 1977 issue was devoted to the mechanics of farm machinery. From the outset, the artwork in RFD was excellent in a way that set it apart from other publications. Carl's new partner, Allan Troxler, was one of the leading graphic artists, but there were others as well. Numerous articles dealt with personal relationships, which were a constant concern because of the close contact in communal living. There were also many poems. And there was a lot of sex. When the late porn star Scott O'Hara was in high school (1977-79), he often bicycled the 35 miles from Grants Pass to Wolf Creek to have sex with the Radical Faeries of RFD.
Spirituality was another important topic in RFD, one largely avoided by mainstream gay periodicals today. For the first time in his life, Carl became involved in a sphere of experience that had been completely absent from his atheistic, Marxist family background. It was New Age spirituality but viewed from a gay perspective, with a sharp critique of its heterosexist elements. He reinterpreted the 22 pictorial cards of the Tarot (the Major Arcana) as representing mysteries in a "pre-patriarchal" gay sense. Of course, the late 60's and 70's were filled with spiritual searching by a whole generation that was dissatisfied with the traditional Christianity and Judaism it had been raised on. My own search took me to East Asian religions, and particularly to Buddhism, although it eventually brought me back to Christianity in the form of Episcopalianism.
The most outrageous article that Carl published in RFD was titled "Shit," in which he argued that terms like "shit" and "asshole" should not be used as epithets. He wrote: "If there is nothing else revolutionary about male homosexuality, at least it leads us out of this morass of tension about our assholes. Indeed, it is remarkable that anal intercourse and rimming ever become acts of love. But it is through those acts of love that I am in touch with the muscles and organs around my asshole. This now seems quite central to my consciousness as a faggot; enjoying that part of my body, not feeling so alienated or disgusted by the shit which passes through it" (RFD #5, Autumn 1975). He criticized American culture's negative associations with excrement, which begin with toilet training. He wrote partly from a gay sensibility, but also from the ecological need for recycling the nutrients for agriculture. The blunt language of this essay underscores just what a radical Carl was, especially when we consider how out of place such ideas would be in today's glossy gay magazines.
The idealism of the Wolf Creek RFD compilers was also evident in their attempt to deal with some of the less attractive, superficial aspects of gay culture. They tried to fight the dominant gay meat-market mentality by announcing that they would not publish height, weight, race, or age in contact letters. Although this effort began to break down six months later when ages began to reappear in personal descriptions, it was a noble experiment based on 60's ideals that are largely out of fashion today.
The last issue of RFD to be produced at Wolf Creek was Summer 1978 (#16), after which the publication was moved to Elfland in the North Carolina Piedmont. The move from Oregon to North Carolina coincided with the move of Wittman and Troxler to nearby Durham, but their involvement with RFD was essentially over. In the summer of 1980, RFD moved to Bakersville in the mountains of western North Carolina where it was produced by a four-man gay collective on the Running Water Farm. Eventually, in 1993, it was moved to Liberty, Tennessee, where it recently produced its 132nd issue (Winter 2008). The themes that RFD continues to explore were in large measure defined by Wittman and are a testament to his enduring influence. These include community, diverse sexuality, caring for the environment, supporting gays in prison, poetry, prose, drawing, photography, Radical Faerie consciousness, nature-centered spirituality, and sharing experiences.
Carl's involvement in ecological activism came with his growing concern over the destruction of the Oregon forests around Wolf Creek. His developing spirituality was tied to the trees. In a half-serious, half-humorous scenario for a drama entitled "At the Pass: A Modern Morality Play," he linked same-sex attraction with magic and trees. He had fallen in love with the landscape and the towering forest. When the trees were threatened, he protected them by organizing "a group of country faggots, lesbians, and freaks against the machinery of corporate-government-bureaucracy." Their campaign against the state government's logging practices in southern Oregon used many of the same protest techniques that Wittman had used in SDS demonstrations, and led to the founding of a forest activist group called Headwaters.
Wittman's death also bears the marks of his radicalism. In the early 1980's he was already exhibiting symptoms of AIDS. In Durham, he fell visibly ill late in 1984. In December of 1985, he came down with meningitis and suffered violent and uncontrollable vomiting. In Oregon he had developed an interest in country dancing and had become a dance teacher. During his last days, he rushed to complete a dance book titled "Sun Assembly," which was a history and commentary on the teaching of English and Scottish country dancing. It was Carl's obsession to the end, and he devoted nearly all of his waning energy to its completion, dictating passages almost until he died.
On January 22, 1986, he decided to implement a plan for ending his own life. Rejecting the assistance of medical professionals, he took things into his own hands one last time. Nine friends gathered at his home for a death watch. Carl took a massive dose of sleeping pills followed by a sedative and painkiller. His partner Allan Troxler was with him when he died. The official cause of death was respiratory failure due to pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP). Microscopic protozoa were filling the air sacs of his lungs, causing him to suffocate. They appear when the human immune system has been suppressed and were the leading cause of death in terminal AIDS patients in the 1980's. Wittman refused to prolong a hopeless situation by becoming dependent on professional health care. His rejection of that care in 1986 in the face of strong objections from numerous physicians and his decision to commit suicide were characteristic of his entire life. It was a personal decision, but it was also a defiant political act in which the personal was political. He died one month before his 43rd birthday.
Although I never saw Carl again after 1969, he continued to exert a tremendous influence as a contrasting model. I did not choose his form of liberation, but I never doubted that it was a valid choice. My life has been more mundane--an academic life of writing books, residing abroad, raising children and grandchildren. I lost my wife to breast cancer after 31 years of marriage. It's a very different story; but just as Carl's life has been marginalized in gay history, I find that only a certain kind of bisexuality is included in the use of the term GLBT. That excludes a lot of us. People with same-sex feelings don't all have blue-state values, aren't all alienated from their families, and aren't all anti-Christian. A lot of us feel we have more in common with our straight friends than with trans gendered people.
Fortunately, history is constantly being rewritten, forgotten people are being rediscovered, and excluded people are being added. I will always remember that sunny spring day of our first meeting and sex and kissing Carl good-bye on a busy Berkeley street in 1969. He is someone we should all remember.