By Raj Ayyar
Camerado, I give you my hand!
Lige Clarke has been most recently immortalized in two groundbreaking works on gay history: Before Stonewall (edited by Vern L. Bullough, RN, PhD, Haworth Press, 2002) and Rebels, Rubyfruit and Rhinestone: Queering Space in the Stonewall South (by James T. Sears, PhD, Rutgers University Press, 2001).
This interview with Lige's sister, Shelbiana Rhein, and with his long-time 'camerado' Jack Nichols, attempts to evoke and recreate aspects of an idealist, a fighter and a Whitmanesque voyager through many worlds.
Mother often invited troubled teenagers to stay with our family for as long as they needed, feeding, clothing, and welcoming them as our own. It was no surprise when we came home from school in the afternoon to find that another kid was sharing our rooms. If she heard anyone speak unkindly of another, she gently gave object lessons as to the importance of being appreciative and supportive of others.
I see now what a great influence our mother had in contributing to Lige's extraordinary colors. Add to the fabric our father Bramlette (Bram or Babe) a really muscular "hunk" with deep blue eyes, curly black hair, a dynamic personality who could sing "hidihidihidi ho" as well as Cab Calloway, whom he adored, particularly after he had had a new nips of bootleg whiskey.
During our early years, Daddy was a rambler and a high-rolling gambler. During World War II he was a Merchant Marine and later, he and most of the townsmen went to various places to find work. He later built our home and his store in Hindman. It was a large general store where people could congregate around the gas stove and catch up on all the news. Except for the annual swimming trip to a nearby lake, when Daddy invited the entire town to climb aboard his big truck and go with us to celebrate my birthdays, I can't remember my family doing anything together. Most mountain men and women traveled in "different circles" else the men would have been considered "henpecked."
On a cold winter night in February, Daddy held me on his lap and taught me a ballad as we listened for the stork. We finally heard tiny noises and he took me into his and mother's bedroom to meet my baby brother, Elijah. There was one winter that Daddy gathered us around the fire and read Uncle Tom's Cabin to us; all of us cried throughout. He was an excellent provider and encouraged us to go to college. I'm sure he loved us and admired us -from afar. To his great credit, he was a generous man who gave bags of candy, which I helped fill, every Christmas to all the children in all the churches in the entire area. When my brother George and I visit our hometown, numerous people say to us, "George (or) Shelbiana, if your daddy hadn't given us our food, our family would have starved. He preferred the Old Regual Baptist Church and sometimes attended alone. Like Mother, he sang when he was troubled, which was often.
Lige was exceptionally popular with his peers; I believe he was appreciated rather than teased for his creative expressions. In our town, where everyone knew everyone, we were innocent of prejudice. We played with children of women of ill-repute, as well as with those of more affluent families.
Despite the lack of museums, dance studios, and other advantages children on the "outside" of the mountains enjoyed, we grew up in a nurturing environment with a rich culture of mountain ballads, art, simple values, and people who cared about each other. It's a culture to which George and I and our families return when we have the opportunity.
He'd decided he never wanted to perceive himself as judgmental. He critiqued cultural nonsense, yes, but he seldom had even one bad word to say about anybody, except Richard Nixon, perhaps. He had an amazing, easy-going kind of self-awareness marked by a depth I've never since encountered in others.
He was utterly self-contained, and yet he was the most kind and loving man imaginable. After we'd lived together for two years, I realized how very patient he'd been with me. He taught me how to bypass my overactive intellect, helping me to enliven myself within my own body and in my relations with others. In 1968 he started teaching Hatha Yoga. Kay Tobin Lahusen, Barbara Gittings' life partner, became one of his regular pupils. The two of them got along famously.
His calling "bye, bye Georgie, Bambi" over and over until we were out of sight on our way to school. So many memories as we grew up - his defending me from a boy who was mean to me when I was a teenager; his taking me to see Rudolph Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn dance Romeo and Juliet as my college graduation present; the joy he had while visiting me and my children; his sprinkling rose petals over my head in a blessing as I sat at the table in his and Jack's apartment; the day we parted on a corner in New York City to go our separate ways and I heard him call "Hey Shelb!" When I turned the sun was shining on him as he waved his hand high into the air and called "Remember who you are!"
Raj Ayyar: Lige Clarke was a world explorer who visited many countries during his all-too-brief life. Whenever I read about him, I'm reminded of Whitman's "Allons! The road is before us!" Where did this wonderful wanderlust come from? Was it a restless, generous spirit that refused to be 'cribb'd and confined' to any one place or relationship?
Shelbi Rhein: Lige was definitely a "restless, generous spirit" that could not be confined. This wanderlust might have been genetic; after all, those of our ancestors who weren't Cherokee came here from Ireland, England, Scotland and France. Some of our aunts and uncles were adventurous wanderers, and Mother would have enjoyed seeing the world if she had had the opportunity. Both my children, Jamie (who with her family has lived in several different countries) and Eric, are world travelers. I'm fortunate that they sometimes like to have me tag along with them. George takes his family on long trips. (I often begin my e-mails to him with "Oh, brother, where art thou?"
Jack Nichols: Wow, Raj! Wouldn't you know that Lige himself eagerly memorized Whitman's Song of the Open Road in 1969. And when he wrote me in 1974 during his year-long world travels and when I was writing Men's Liberation, which I dedicated to him, he ended one of his letters to me with that very same Whitman quote you've affixed at the beginning of this interview. During the decade we lived together, we continuously returned to Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet and The Way of Life According to Lao Tzu. Lige was carrying all three of these books when he was gunned down.
Raj Ayyar: Lige's passion for human rights exemplifies the best in America--an impatience with old shibboleths and imprisoning dogmas, a broad-chested inclusiveness of the 'Other', a generosity toward the stranger and the outcaste and a fierce concern for civil rights everywhere. What would he have to say about Bushian America post-9/11, where so many Americans appear to have shriveled into a contracted, mean-spirited paranoia that is suspicious of the Other, that discriminates against Brown people and that wants to ride the world stage like an unfettered bully?
Shelbi Rhein: Lige would be ever mindful of the poverty, disease, and political corruption he had seen during his travels, including throughout the USA. He would be sickened by America's wasting our resources. He would have been proud of Jamie who has joined advocacy groups in countries where she has lived, and of Eric who donates his art work to help support PWAs.
As for Bushian America - he would feel the entire world is endangered. Lige would endeavor to live his own life fully, concentrating on meditation, breathing, movement, dance, music celebrating life, celebrating the earth and its wonders. He would feel that if he kept himself focused, he could help lift others to a strong spiritual consciousness where we could overcome the insanity of warmongering and greed. Lige didn't have a need to prove anything; he could influence people by speaking softly and rationally, without carrying "a big stick."
Jack Nichols: Following his 1974 travels around the world, Lige's view of America changed radically. He used to say we must keep our passports at the ready to escape quickly should the Republican zealots get too scary. I'm sure if he were here today that his concern about America's GOP leaders would probably be far more intense than in that earlier time.
Raj Ayyar: Jack, in an era of separatisms within and outside gay communities, its refreshing to recall Lige's words written after Stonewall: "We hope that 'Gay Power' will not become a call for separation but for…integration." Any comments?
Raj Ayyar: Shelbi, how did the 'locals' react to Lige when he visited home? I gather some whispered that there was "something 'quare' about the Clarke boy. Ain't natural for a man not to get married."
Shelbi Rhein: People in our home town were "family." While there were long-standing animosities among some families over forgotten indiscretions, everyone claimed everyone else as their kin in times of adversity. Certainly, people asked Lige why he wasn't married; they thought it was their right to ask, and, besides, that was a good way to begin a conversation for people who didn't have much to talk about with someone who was familiar, yet foreign to them because he lived in Washington, D.C. or New York City. They certainly welcomed Lige home with invitations to "come on up and sit a spell" and "come to supper when you get a chance."
Jack Nichols: In an AIDS-related sex-phobic era, Lige would never have consented put a damper on healthy sexual enthusiasms. However, he'd have discouraged the kind of attitude that culturally-bound folks demand when they insist on goal-oriented sex. He used to say that the means is the end and that kissing, for example, isn't just a prelude to sex, but that it truly is sex. And he'd probably have appreciated the late Michael Callen's enthusiastic approach, encouraging lusty non-penetrative contact…even in groups. There are many ways, between two or more participants, in which sexual satisfaction and excitement can flourish.
The lounge lizard's bar-side query, "Just what do you like to do in bed?" Lige considered a kind of insult - because it places the asker's insistence for performing a particular sex act ahead of any real appreciation for the person he queries. This approach tends to keep people apart from each other rather than bringing them together. He hoped to encourage more inclusive perspectives.
Raj Ayyar: Jack, in many ways your relationship with Lige went way beyond tame little bourgeois labels like 'friend', 'lover', 'spouse' etc. Walt Whitman's 'Camerado' comes closest--loving without possessing, soul-brothers as well as fellow wanderers and sex partners. How did you manage to avoid the little pigeonholes and the thrust toward possession in your relationship?
Kahlil Gibran wrote: "Love one another, but make not a bond of love." Our relationship always evolved, giving us each "the glorious privilege of being independent." By letting go, as the Zen approach teaches, we gravitated ever-closer together. We never smothered each other. We gave each other room. We took interest in each others' discoveries and findings, growing thereby together.
Raj Ayyar: "While adults praised the Lord inside the church", said Lige, "we young 'uns enjoyed automobile orgies in the parking lot out back." Lige apparently felt that in the Kentucky mountains, "at least we had learned to fuck wildly at an early age, both heterosexually and homosexually." Shelbi, is it true that there was less puritanism and more freewheeling body exploration in those mountains when Lige was growing up?
Shelbi Rhein: Evidently, my brother was much more sexually advanced than I. While Lige was having his "orgies" in the parking lot, I was abandoning our Methodist church to pray with the Baptists across the street. I was in great need of redemption for committing such "sins" as skipping school or hiding out behind my Uncle John's theatre with my best friend, smoking stolen cigarettes and drinking beer. I doubt that my brothers, friends, and I were any different from youngsters in any other place in the U.S. Lige bloomed early. He had some serious girlfriends who wanted to marry him. Since I was five years older, I didn't often notice what he was doing; if I had known what he was "up to" in the parking lot, I would have dragged him home.
At that point, Lige and I had already been activists together since we'd met, and so we fell easily into editing GAY together for the next four years. GAY was full of the enthusiasm and joy of a never-to-be- forgotten period in American history. Even Allen Ginsberg contributed a poem, as did most all of the wonderful activists and pioneers of that time. Dr. George Weinberg, who coined the term "homophobia" wrote regularly for GAY. Kay Tobin Lahusen was its first news editor.
We were at ground zero during the counterculture period, something I'm proud to be able to say. Dr. Rodger Streitmatter, professor of Journalism at the American University, celebrated GAY in his recently published textbook, Voices of Revolution: The Dissident Press in America (Columbia University Press, 2001) and in his landmark history of the gay and lesbian press, Unspeakable (Faber & Faber, 1995).
Raj Ayyar: You know, Jack, one of the first books I read when I first surfaced in the U.S. back in the '70's was your book Men's Liberation: A New Definition of Masculinity (Penguin Books, 1975/1980). It made a tremendous impact on me at the time and helped me understand and come to terms with my sexuality better. Did Lige's personality and ideas shape the book in any way?
Jack Nichols: Well, as I've said, Lao Tzu, Walt Whitman and Kahlil Gibran were our best buddies living in book form. In Men's Liberation they're all quoted and heartily recommended. I particularly recommend Bynner's translation of Lao Tzu above all others. When we gave a copy of that translation to Angelo d'Arcangelo, the author of 1968's famed groundbreaker, The Homosexual Handbook, he wrote in his next tome, Lovebook: Inside the Sexual Revolution (Lancer Books, 1971) that whenever he picked it up to read it he gave himself a little party.
Raj Ayyar: Jack, Walt Whitman was an inspiration and a point of departure for you and Lige. In what ways did Whitman's vision of America help mould Lige's life?
Jack Nichols: Yes, we were Whitman's comerados and we were Whitman's "two boys together clinging." I'll never forgot how Lige recited aloud to folks from Leaves of Grass. I can still hear his voice:
Listen, I will be honest with you. I do not offer the old smooth prizes,
but rough new prizes. These are the days that must happen to you: You
shall not heap up what is called riches. You shall scatter with lavish hand
all that you earn or achieve. You but arrive at the city to which you were
destined, you hardly settle yourself to satisfaction before you are called
by an irresistible call to depart. You shall be treated to the smiles and
mockings of those who remain behind. But what beckonings of love you receive,
you shall answer with passionate kisses of parting. You shall not allow the hold of
those who spread their reaching hands towards you.
Raj Ayyar: Jack, with regard to Lige's tragic murder, you said that you were "convinced that he was a victim of machismo's homophobic influences." Can you elaborate?
And then there was Juan, a somewhat questionable early Mattachine member who'd joined the Society in Washington, D.C. and who, during the previous two years, had supposedly been working with the Peace Corps. Juan told us he'd been ensconced in a downtown Bogata high rise before he showed up unexpectedly in Cocoa Beach asking to accompany Lige and our North Carolina neighbor on their jaunt to Mexico.
Lige didn't believe for a minute that Juan had been working with the Peace Corps, but treated him warmly, anyway. Juan, originally from Havana, was mentioned briefly in our 1972 memoir. We'd joked that to hear him speak of his "magnificent" Havana domicile prior to the revolution, was like hearing Scarlet talking about Tara before the war. I hoped Juan could translate for Lige once they got to Mexico. Apparently on the road they disagreed about accommodations and Juan, who'd always valued rich surroundings and comfort, opted out of the trip before they reached the Mexican border. Lige and our neighbor continued on, however.
Mexican customs inspectors had kept Lige waiting at the Brownsville border checkpoint for 3 hours, our neighbor told Shelbi and me, while they examined his few goods. Our neighbor was somewhat effeminate. But when they were attacked, he was grazed ineffectually by a bullet and said that he pretended to be dead. He later wrote to Shelbi that the customs officials at the border had been spooked upon discovering the two gay books that Lige and I had written together, the most popular being I Have More Fun With You Than Anybody. That book was the first non-fiction memoir ever written by a male couple (St. Martin's Press, 1972.)
Whoever gunned down Lige with automatic weaponry knew ahead of time that he'd be on that highway. There was a midnight roadblock waiting for him. At first we had all thought it had been bandits who were to blame, but nothing much was really stolen from the car. One other possible theory involved my estranged father, now deceased. A macho-maniac athlete, my Dad had been a Special Agent of the FBI for 25 years. After the first White House gay protests in 1965 and right in front of Lige, he'd threatened my life with his service revolver. I told him I never wanted to see him after that. He was very homophobic. I'm pretty certain that he kept a wary eye on our perpetual public ridiculing in print of his dear president, Richard Nixon, and so I later imagined-just a speculation-that he could have finally made a move to punish us. But that's just one theory among several.
Raj Ayyar: Shelbi, how did Lige's family react to the news of his murder?
Sheli Rhein: All us were almost destroyed when Lige was murdered. Mother had been dead for a few years and the loss of Lige was a contributing factor to our father's death not long after. It's painful to imagine what effect such a violation of Lige's essence would have had on our mother. George grieved in silence, and like the rest of the family, he still cries sometimes when we talk of Lige. I wrote letters to a woman in the American Embassy in Mexico; I wrote to Lige's murderers quoting Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. while wishing them peace; I wrote to our legislators, stressing the need for gun control; I wrote to friends and strangers whom I admired; I typed until my hands cramped and my fingers turned blue with bruises. Although reports and newspaper articles gave the identify of the men who had killed Lige, I wouldn't learn their names because they then would have become objects for me to hate, which would have further desecrated all that Lige stood for. He would have wanted me to focus my energy in positive ways instead.
When Lige's body was finally at home, I couldn't let myself see him dead, even though I planned his funeral. I wanted to keep the image of his golden essence waving to me as we parted from each other on the corner in New York. Lige was the favorite of all our aunts, cousins, and neighbors. All were broken-hearted that he had been so violated.
The townspeople were lovingly hospitable to Lige's gay friends who traveled to Hindman for his funeral, served as pallbearers, and carried his coffin up the hill to our woodland family cemetery; they welcomed his friends into their homes, provided them with home-cooked meals, and invited them to visit often. People in Hindman still remember Lige and speak of him with admiration and love.
As far as accepting Lige's sexual orientation - it wasn't for me to accept or reject any part of his being. Something either is or it isn't. It's very simple; Lige was gay, he was my brother, I loved him. I didn't know whether or not Mother knew Lige was gay; she knew of some girlfriends who wanted to marry him. I do know that she would have welcomed anyone into our family who loved her children. Daddy must have known, although Lige didn't "come out" to him. When Lige was killed, Daddy and Jack sat for hours holding hands, crying, and talking during visitation time at the funeral home.
Both children were profoundly affected when Lige was killed. Eric, who was in seventh grade, answered the phone when my uncle in Kentucky called and told him that he had bad news for me about his Uncle Lige. He immediately went to bed to grieve. Jamie, who was a junior in high school, wrote thoughtful, beautiful poetry about Lige, some of it addressed to his killers. One poem dealt with Lige's immigrating to another star. Last January 1st, when Jamie gave birth to a wonderful baby boy, she and Steve named him Elijah Cyril.
Around the time Eric was in 6th grade, always perceptive Lige told me not to be surprised if he were gay; thus, when Eric confided in me when he was around 19, I was ready for a good discussion.
Raj Ayyar: What is Lige Clarke's legacy for today's gay generation and for people of any sexual orientation here and now?
Shelbi Rhein: Whether dealing with sexuality or any other facets of one's life, Lige would encourage people to be - to do - to love - to give and receive freely without fear of what others think. He would encourage us to live fully each day; and, he would say to us, with his broad smile, "Remember who you are."