Jack Nichols and The Tomcat Chronicles
Interview by Owen Keehnen
Jack Nichols is one of the elder statesmen of the gay liberation movement. His tireless work on behalf of The Mattachine Society, his efforts to bring the issue of gay rights to a national public consciousness, his work to unify community members and incite gay pride, his tireless campaign to remove homosexuality from the list of psychological disorders, as well as merely living his life as an out gay man since the early 1960s have all combined to make us better as a result of his efforts. Today he is tackling the cyberworld and is currently the acting editor of GayToday.com. Jack has also recently released a sexy memoir The Tomcat Chronicles: Erotic Adventures from a Gay Liberation Pioneer from Harrington Park Press. Clearly this man is just as passionate and outspoken about sex as he is about his politics. And at the core of our activism is the right to be and celebrate our sexual selves.
Owen Keehnen: The Tomcat Chronicles is an erotic memoir of your life from 1960-64. Why did you choose to narrow your focus to these 4 years?
Jack Nichols: I wrote The Tomcat Chronicles as a series in 1991 for Contax, Florida's statewide bar guide. The publisher, Bill Watson, also founded TWN (The Weekly News) the state's oldest gay newspaper. He asked me if I'd be willing to pen some erotic stories for Contax, assuring me I could use a pen name. But I told him I'd gladly use my own name and that I’d give him true accounts of my own experiences. I asked him: "At what age would you like me to begin, when I was 11?" I could almost hear him cringe on the phone.
So, instead I decided to begin when I was 23, a period during which I'd initiated and participated in a very wild spree, hitchhiking with a handsome hillbilly across the Eastern part of the USA.
The wild spree began to subside in January 1963 and in mid-1964 I met another mountain man, Lige Clarke, the beautiful creature whose upside-down-backside-out yoga photo appears on the cover of the book. Lige, the movement pioneer who incarnated my fondest hopes and dreams, spent the next decade at my side until he was gunned down in automatic fire at a mysterious roadblock in February 1975.
Owen Keehnen: The tales in your book are very hot. Did you have any qualms about the degree of sexual explicitness?
Jack Nichols: I'm among those who sees an America still suffering miserably from its anti-sexual puritan heritage. In recalling my own sexual experiences, I had the advantage of writing about them in hindsight, showing how I developed my sexual viewpoints. Today I'm a staunch and unrelenting advocate of condoms. Qualms? Hah! In 1969, I was the very first managing editor of SCREW, the world's most outrageous mostly-straight sexual tabloid, published by Al Goldstein. It was first on the newsstands to carry frontal nudes. In 1977-78 I was also editor of the then-oldest mass circulation sex therapy magazine, Sexology.
Owen Keehnen: Did you worry sexcapades would detract from the gay political history you also discuss in the book?
Jack Nichols: Very few early movement strategists admitted that the word "sex" appears in the middle of the word "homoSEXual." I look to a future in which sex is appreciated as a positive rather than a negative aspect of our lives. Feelings of sexual shame and guilt do great damage. The introduction to The Tomcat Chronicles was written by the scholar/historian James T. Sears who first suggested that they be turned into a book showing that not all activists favor a sexually-sanitized movement.
Owen Keehnen: Something that's striking about this memoir is how positive you were about being gay and gay sex at the time. What factors do you think helped you avoid so many of the prevailing stigmas and self-hatred of the time?
Jack Nichols: I was, no doubt, precocious. I came out at 13 and became a full-fledged self-accepting gay teen after reading the poet Walt Whitman at age 15 and works by Edward Carpenter, the grandfather of gay liberation, as well as Donald Webster Cory's groundbreaking book, The Homosexual in America. As early as 1955, I was sharing Cory's book with my gay friends who attended high school.
Owen Keehnen: I liked how The Tomcat Chronicles almost made you a self-taught sex-therapist for a lot of your tricks. Do you consider it as a sort of fieldwork for your more structured activism in the years following?
Jack Nichols: You got it: I'm self-taught. I deservedly graduated only from sixth grade. But by the time I was 20 I owned nearly a thousand works of philosophy. Walt Whitman became my literary mentor most and my movement work was simply a natural outcome of old Walt's activist advice: "Mount the barricades! Contend for your very lives!" I've always thought that ideas by themselves are invisible unless we bring them into the arena of action.
Owen Keehnen: How would you characterize the underground gay world in those pre-Stonewall years? It sounded much more extensive and connected than I imagined.
Jack Nichols: Well, there was no dancing, no hugging, no kisses allowed in the few city bars. There were, of course, 2 or 3 creaky old bath houses like the Everard in Manhattan and you've read in the Chronicles about Miami's odd little backyard bar, Googies, where one day "the bushes" were eliminated by what locals called an act of God, a tornado.
Cruising in city parks or around the Greyhound bus stations was endemic. Most gay folks were very proper and extremely closety and everywhere there was a great deal of sexual shame and guilt. Cory's book introduced me to the fact that the worst effect for those treated as criminals and discriminated against was to make these people doubt themselves, sharing society's general contempt for others in their group.
Owen Keehnen: In the early 60s you also worked with the Mattachine Society, for gay civil rights, and to have being gay removed from the list of psychological disorders...what about the political climate of the era is wise for activists to keep in mind today?
Jack Nichols: Between 1960 and 1967 when Frank Kameny and I would discuss our activist strategies with most other gay males in Washington D.C., they just shrugged, telling us we'd never succeed. Frank and I - and just a few other activists -- were considered radicals by many of our conservative movement cohorts because we insisted on taking a strong stand against the mental health professionals who'd labeled us sick.
Those same movement conservatives also damned us for initiating the first picketing protest demonstrations at the White House. Today, I'd say, it is wise to remember that the conservatives we have with us always.
Owen Keehnen: And how did your activism continue in the following years?
Jack Nichols: When I moved in 1967 from Washington D.C. to Manhattan I was the sales manager for Underground Uplift Unlimited, the nation's largest producer of those counterculture slogan buttons that everybody was wearing in the 60s: buttons with sexual freedom slogans such as "More Deviation, Less Population," or "Make Love, Not War". I think these buttons changed more minds than books did.
Then, in 1968, in its first issue, SCREW hosted a weekly column I co-wrote with Lige Clarke titled "Homosexual Citizen". It was the first time that a rampantly straight publication had published an uncensored gay column and we kept it going for five years. At nearly the same time, Lige and I edited America's first gay weekly newspaper, GAY (1969-1973) which hosted all of the gay pioneers and crusaders of those times.
In 1972, Lige and I wrote I Have More Fun with You Than Anybody, published by St. Martin's Press, history's first non-fiction memoir by a male couple. It was humorous and philosophical and thus very well received. Next, St. Martin's coaxed us to write the first non-fiction book of advice about male relationships, one in which we replied to actual letters from our readers. It was titled Roommates Can't Always be Lovers. After Lige's murder, I wrote Welcome to Fire Island which celebrates gay communities in The Pines and in Cherry Grove.
In 1975, my major work was published by Penguin Books: Men's Liberation: A New Definition of Masculinity. It examines the drawbacks of conventional male role-training--machismo--and it went into German and Greek and into several university textbooks. It's aimed at both straights and gays. I did quite a bit of men's movement work throughout the 1970s.
In the 1980s I kept a weekly flow of columns going into gay papers in Miami and Atlanta and between 1986 and 1991, I crusaded in Florida for Cure AIDS Now, an AIDS activist group that generated quite a bit of national publicity. I organized noisy protests against Jerry Falwell and Ronald Reagan. For the Reagan protest I dressed as death, carrying a sign with an ostrich on it and reading: "Reagan Ignoramus = AIDS"
In 1996 my book, The Gay Agenda: Talking Back to the Fundamentalists was published by
Prometheus Books. It's still in print and it beats up on religious fanaticism.
Owen Keehnen: Do you consider your current work as editor of the Internet magazine GayToday.com an extension of your activism as well?
Jack Nichols: Oh sure. And I'm thankful to the huge gay website, Badpuppy.com for originating GayToday as a free news service for its readers and for others. The Badpuppy staff rediscovered me here in this little beach town where I live and where I'd never expected to be rediscovered. They literally knocked on my door and thus I've been an editor again for almost 8 years. The Badpuppy folks chose the newsmagazine's name, GayToday, and thus it seemed slightly mystical that after co-editing the original GAY 30 years ago, I'm now editing GayToday.
Owen Keehnen: So are you planning a sequel to The Tomcat Chronicles?
Jack Nichols: Happily, a professor is currently writing my biography. He's already completed 5 very effective chapters. Presently, I'm going to hold off writing any more memoirs in order to give his forthcoming book the room on store shelves that it deserves.
Owen Keehnen: Thanks Jack, for the book and for a lot more as well.