Badpuppy Gay Today

Monday, 01 December 1997


By Jack Nichols
Address to Texas Gay Conference, VIII
Houston, Texas, 1981


GayToday editor Jack Nichols delivered this keynote speech, titled The Gay Tradition, at the 8th Annual Texas Gay Conference, held in 1981.

While I am keenly aware (as my words show) of feminist aspirations, I am speaking primarily to gay men. The struggling men in today's Gay Liberation Movement will always need new vision to get done what needs doing. But what is vision's best approach for our movement? Its knowing of those points at which segments take their parts in the Whole, a Whole that thereafter steps over wastelands to green pastures, satisfying the aspirations of each segment as it goes.

This creates a harmony of ensemble. Coalescence. Unity. Vision takes our present and creates a future from it. It calls to us in apocalyptic tones: Mount the barricades! Contend for your very lives! (Walt Whitman).

Today's Gay Liberation Movement needs vision expansive enough to encompass multitudes—to reach them—to contain them. We also need to feel currents within ourselves, streams of self-liberating knowledge.

With the arrival of each new decade we'll have to re-evaluate our Movement priorities. Lets look again at what needs to be done. The arrival of Ronald Reagan and the cohorts of the "Moral Majority" has brought about a shift in circumstances facing the Movement. While it is not necessary to discard effective strategies used in the past, weatherbeaten though they may be, we must also devise new strategies, ways that offer more than habit, more than bureaucratic security, more than opportunities for ego-tripping through a political mish-mash, more than a few crumbs for the queers.

It is one thing to be an efficient gay liberation strategist responding to one crisis after another with makeshift Band-Aids, and it is another to feel confident enough to go on the offense, moving swiftly to neutralize or to call attention to bigotry's lieutenants, stepping into the midst of chaos calmly, aiming darts so that they go to the heart of matters.

At the same time, the gay liberationists today must know how to create alliances, networks, friends, all of whom will be needed. Unfortunately, too much of what passes for gay liberation work today is myopic and culture-bound, doomed, I fear, to some very dismal failures.

Much of the talk I hear among those trying in vain to stay the forces of erosion since the Reaganites have taken office sounds like a conversation among straws before the onset of a great hurricane.

Is there some secret remedy for the resuscitation of our Movement? Has fate provided us with a method that can be used in times of emergency? I think so.

Little known, even to some who study the most recent trends of liberation-evolution, is the fact that there has evolved and been nurtured underground an amazing tradition—a truly gay tradition—during the last 100 years.

While this tradition has had a history made by visionaries, poets, mystics, and seers, it also has a number of present-day supporters: a nucleus of thinkers and writers of whom I am one.

I will tell you about others and suggest to those who would expand gay liberation's ground of being, that you examine their work. In short, I'm from what some people might call a radical wing of the Gay Liberation Movement—a wing which can and will walk hand-in-hand with the established movement.

Our method is not to condemn but to woo. And this, we believe, must become characteristic of the Gay Liberation Movement itself when it deals with the Establishment or when it deals with local gay communities.

To condemn is to wax angry—and an angry person loses his or her audience. There are too many angry people clamoring for attention.

Wooing means smiling. Wooing walks with laughter. It doesn't complain incessantly about oppression. Neither does it wear a perpetual frown. The person who woos is at peace with life. He is happy. He has something more important to say than "please accept me and my kind." He has something to offer, something to give! He has reached a plateau where he can advise those he woos: "Please accept your self!"

One who woos well is not only looking at his own predicament—he's looking at the other person's too, and he seems to say, "Don't be afraid. You can embrace what will not hurt you without fear. Life offers promises of good times!" This is the kind of emotional confidence that hits its mark.

Now I can hear you asking: "What's he recommending? That we woo strait people?"

Yes. Not primarily in a sexual way—but if the sexual is one segment moving among others toward the satisfaction of aspirations--it must be welcomed too.

We must make clear to ourselves that we're not here to defend same sex relationships. Instead, we must begin to recommend them as necessary and as healthy for all men. We must encourage close relationships—emotional in tone—among men, relationships that are not stymied by homosexual fears and that can possibly find friendship's natural joys outside of sex as well as in its hearty, sensuous embrace.

The tradition of which I speak has a vision that sees beyond single issues like civil liberties and social rights for sexual minorities. It focuses on the evolutionary part this present-day stage of gay social development can play on the larger scales of human unfolding.


It sees that there is a narrowing of consciousness that takes place if gays and straits think themselves as separate camps of humanity. It says we must drop this dualistic approach to homosexuality and heterosexuality. There is no "them," there is only "us."

For far too long now we've regarded ourselves as a dumped-upon minority.

It is now time for us to point out that those who condemn same-sex relationships are condemning their own best potential. In a nuclear age men who are afraid to show their feelings for each other—who square off against each other competitively—and avoid one another because of a stupid taboo, isolate themselves and create a more tense and dangerous climate in the world.

Looked at in the larger framework of experience, the homosexual taboo is a great threat to human survival. It is a block to comradeship.

I predict that if we in the movement continue to regard ourselves as an isolated and nearly defenseless minority weathering hard times, we will lack the jaunty spirit we need to do our wooing. Instead, we will be going hat in hand, asking for some water with our slice of bread. We will suffer from a kind of inferiority complex that accompanies us because we tend to regard heterosexualism as monolithic and impregnable; as mighty and powerful; and as the dominant trend forever.

I say that this assessment of our situation is retrogressive and reactionary; a static view; a static perception. Homosexual feelings are the necessary soul property of every person, waiting to be discovered on levels other than the sexual—but including the sexual—expressions that can be exuberant and must be without shame.

How does such a way of seeing things work in a practical situation? It takes away our defensiveness and gives us questions of our own to ask when others ask why we aren't married, namely, "Where is Your most loving Friend? Do you have a close, loving relationship with one? Why not? Have you been prevented by the gay taboo? Are you afraid of what others will think?"

Here, at this juncture, we begin to see the connection between our movement and the larger world. We are reminders to humanity of its own outmoded, regressive repressions: those which put barriers between everybody, causing unnecessary anxieties, keeping everybody from rightful fulfillment with others.

Our message addresses not only our own self-assertions and self-fulfillments, it speaks to millions of others too whose lives have been stunted and maimed because of their same-sex fears.

The strait man who fears close contact with a member of his own sex is as much in need of liberation as any gay man who dislikes and treats women unfairly, or who hides fearfully in a closet.

A fountainhead of the tradition I'm speaking about is the poet Walt Whitman. His name appears prominently in every book I write. He practiced in his poems the theme of the androgynous psyche. Let me read you his poetic prophecy, what he says to the women of tomorrow:

They are not one jot less than I am,
They are tanned in the face by shining suns and blowing winds,
Their flesh has the old divine suppleness and strength,
They know how to swim, row, ride, wrestle, shoot, run, strike, retreat, advance, resist,
defend themselves.
They are ultimate in their own right—they are calm, clear, well-possessed of themselves.

Whitman summoned attitudes to use in ways he considered fundamental to the evolutionary processes. He must be read, as Oscar Wilde counseled, as a philosopher perhaps more so than a poet. His famous essay, Democratic Vistas sees love among men as the very adhesive of society. He looked to the development of such love to counter our materialistic and vulgar American democracy, and for the spiritualization of America. I will read you another quote to show you what this great visionary of the tradition says:

Many will say it is a dream, and will not follow my inferences: but I confidently expect a time when there will be seen, running like a half-hid warp through all the myriad audible and visible worldly interests of America, threads of manly friendship, fond and loving, pure and sweet, strong and life-long, carried to degrees hitherto unknown—not only giving tone to individual character, and making it unprecedentedly emotional, muscular, heroic, and refined, but having its deepest relations to general politics. I say democracy infers such loving comradeship as its most inevitable twin or counterpart, without which it will be incomplete, in vain, and incapable of perpetuating itself.

In other words, the man whom the New York Times has finally (and just recently) called "An American Genius" after calling him "a pig rooting about in licentious garbage" during his lifetime, and of whom LIFE magazine recently said was "America's Greatest Poet"— this man who is known as the Poet of Democracy, actually believed that democracy is in need of the development of love among men as its most inevitable twin or counterpart. Without such love, he says, democracy will be incomplete, in vain, and incapable of perpetuating itself.

This is not a defensive statement. Whitman does not defend love among men. He recommends it. He is on the offense.

The poet lived until 1892.


Thereafter, until 1929, the tradition was carried aloft by a remarkable Englishman, a social scientist and poet, Edward Carpenter. (1844-1929) Carpenter had visited Whitman twice. The power of his own affirmative vision he compared to the moon's, while he compared Whitman's to the sun.

Edward Carpenter's fame extended beyond England. His works on civilization, feminism, and socialist and anarchist views were read in many lands. He was the first gay liberationist essayist I read—at age 14. His essay I discovered had been written before the turn of the last century. Carpenter's thought integrated gay liberation, feminism, political awareness, and an understanding of how these must coalesce.

Listen as Carpenter celebrates the equality of the sexes, and Uranian love (the word used in his early works to denote homosexuality):

But as these sufferings of women, of one kind or another, have been the great inspiring cause and impetus of the Women's Movement—a movement which is already having a great influence in the reorganization of society; so I do not practically doubt that the major sufferings of the Uranian class of men are destined in their turn to lead to another wide-reaching social organization and forward movement in the direction of Art and human compassion.

It is possible that the Uranian spirit may lead to something like a general enthusiasm of Humanity, and that Uranian people may be destined to form the advance guard of that great movement which will one day transform the common life by substituting the bond of personal affection and compassion for the monetary, legal and other external ties which now control and confine society. Such a part of course we cannot expect the Uranian to play unless the capacity for their kind of attachment also exists—though in a germinal and undeveloped state—in the breast of mankind at large. And modern thought and investigation are clearly tending that way—to confirm that it does so exist.

In other words, Carpenter foresaw a future in which women and gay men would hold to the cutting edge of change.

What would be left for strait men to do? Would they have no part? Could they or would they understand? If they began to understand—the sufferings of women, the limitations of the conventional male role, their fear of showing feelings within themselves, and the homosexual taboo, it would mean a breakdown of the very base on which conventional masculinity stands.

It would mean a withering of machismo, sounding the death-knell of the macho man and, little by little, the emergence of a new esthetics and new kinds of social behavior. The new male would incorporate spiritual values: nurturing, empathy, tenderness, which were formally thought "feminine" but are, in fact, only human virtues.

The tradition I speak for calls for the emergence of such values, of such a kind of man. It calls too on the Gay Liberation Movement to help bring forth such a male—no matter his reputed orientation.

Undermining social norms of masculinity and instilling survival virtues like empathy will break down false divisions between gays and straits. Obsolete masculine warrior codes blindly move us toward violence and disruption, threatening continuance on the planet.

This gay tradition couldn't have been understood till now because the development of both women's and gay liberation had to pre-figure it, paving its way, laying groundwork, pointing to necessity.

Here we see the connection between our movement and the very needs of the planet: to resoundingly call for the birth of the new male, a call which is on the offense, not the defense, a call which seeks planetary health on the one hand and personal happiness on the other, a call which seeks the utter destruction of the gender system that divides labor into male and female camps—into the camps of violence and warfare on one hand and childcare and the caring professions on the other. Warfare in these nuclear times—if humanity is to exist—becomes obsolete.

The male who was once trained to pursue warfare as his contribution to society is now obsolete. His threatening manner is obsolete. His toughness is obsolete. We all bleed—male and female—we are all delicate physical constructions, and we will all die if this threatening macho male is not laid to rest and soon.

Today, among men, orthodox social values are not passed on through religion, nor education, nor merely through parental training. None of these hits the mark anymore. Hellfire. Purgatory. Everlasting punishment after death—none of these scarecrows has the power to frighten a man into an assured acceptance of orthodox social behaviors.

But if the fires of Hell have cooled, what still remains to frighten men into becoming social robots for the status quo?

The male gender prescription, that's what. The fear of being called "un-manly." Our current social system, unable to perpetuate itself through religion or patriotism, can still count on a handing down of a prescription that divides men from women in the fields of labor.

Since the obsolete male stance is tied to warfare, the values at the base of the old-fashioned male-role find men often trying to prove masculinity, striking out, posing, boasting. Private boasts step out from the arena of the personal into social/ political realms. Thus, the personal becomes political, and we get bullies and warmongers as well as heavy-duty control freaks for our leaders. Finally, if there's no change, we'll get death.

Perhaps our movement has more radical potential than we first assumed. The tradition, nurtured over the last 100 years has long been aware of its larger, more comprehensive role.

Thank you.

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