Thursday, September 15, 2011

Arthur Evans, RIP

Today we were saddened to read the New York Times obituary of Arthur Evans, a pioneering gay activist whom we knew in the early 1970s and greatly admired for his courage, resourcefulness, intelligence and his commitment to the gay rights movement and to his friends:
Arthur Evans, who helped form and lead the movement that coalesced after gay people and their supporters protested a 1969 police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a Greenwich Village gay bar, died on Sunday at his home in San Francisco. He was 68.

Arthur Evans and others created the Gay Activists Alliance in an effort to present a more assertive front than other groups.

The cause was a heart attack, his friend Hal Offen said. Mr. Evans was found to have an aortic aneurysm last year.

Mr. Evans was not at the Stonewall disturbances, but they fueled in him a militant fervor and inspired him to join the Gay Liberation Front, an organization started during the wave of gay assertiveness that followed.

For Mr. Evans and other militants
[including Jim Owles], however, the group was not assertive enough. They worried that it was diluting its effectiveness by taking stands on issues beyond gay rights — opposing the Vietnam War and racial discrimination, for example. So in December 1969 they split off to found the Gay Activists Alliance, choosing a name to suggest more aggressive tactics.

Based in New York, the alliance became a model for gay rights organizations nationwide, pushing in New York for legislation to ban discrimination against gay men and lesbians in employment, housing and other areas. Mr. Evans wrote its statement of purpose and much of its constitution, which began, “We as liberated homosexual activists demand the freedom for expression of our dignity and value as human beings.”

To attract attention the alliance staged what its members called “zaps,” confrontations with people or institutions that they believed discriminated against gay people. Among other incidents, they confronted Mayor John V. Lindsay of New York, went to television studios to protest shows perceived as anti-gay, demanded gay marriage rights at the city’s marriage license bureau, and demonstrated at the taxi commission against a regulation, since abolished, requiring gay people to get a psychiatrist’s approval before they could be allowed to drive a taxi.

In the fall of 1970, Mr. Evans and others showed up at the offices of Harper’s Magazine in Manhattan to protest an article it had published sharply criticizing gay people and their lifestyle. It was Mr. Evans’s idea to bring a coffee pot, doughnuts, a folding table and chairs for a civilized “tea party.” When the editor, Midge Decter, refused to print a rebuttal as the group demanded, Mr. Evans erupted.

“You knew that this article would contribute to the oppression of homosexuals!” he yelled, according to the 1999 book “Out for Good: The Struggle to Build a Gay Rights Movement in America” by Dudley Clendinen, a former reporter for The New York Times, and Adam Nagourney, a current Times reporter. “You are a bigot, and you are to be held responsible for that moral and political act.”

Arthur Evans was born on Oct. 12, 1942, in York, Pa. His father was a factory worker who had dropped out of elementary school, and his mother ran a beauty shop in the front room of the family house. Mr. Evans attended Brown University on a scholarship and there joined a group of self-styled “militant atheists.”

He left Brown after three years and headed for Greenwich Village, having read in Life magazine that it welcomed gay people. In New York, he transferred to City College and switched his major from political science to philosophy. Graduating in 1967, he entered the doctoral program in philosophy at Columbia, where he studied ancient Greek philosophy and participated in antiwar protests.

But, becoming disenchanted with academia, he withdrew from Columbia in 1972 and moved to rural Washington State, where he and a companion, calling themselves the Weird Sisters Partnership, homesteaded a small patch of forest land and lived in a tent.

When the Washington experiment failed, Mr. Evans and his companion moved to San Francisco. There, he and Mr. Offen opened a Volkswagen repair business they named the Buggery.

While living in Washington, Mr. Evans had spent his winters in Seattle researching the historical origins of the counterculture. After settling in San Francisco, he wrote “Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture,” a 1978 book tracing homophobic attitudes to the Middle Ages, when people accused of witchcraft, the book contended, were being persecuted in part for their sexuality, often their homosexuality.

He went on to write “Critique of Patriarchal Reason” (1997), arguing that misogyny and homophobia have influenced supposedly objective fields like logic and physics.

Mr. Evans is survived by his brother, Joe.

Growing up, Mr. Evans had hid his sexual orientation, though he himself was aware of it at 10, he said. By November 1970, when he was scheduled to appear on “The Dick Cavett Show” with other gay leaders, he had still not told his parents that he was gay. But, by his account, he did tell them he was going to be on national television. Thrilled, they told friends and neighbors to tune in.

Mr. Evans later said he regretted his handling of the matter.

We knew about his work with the GAA, but we first met Arthur Evans through our Brooklyn College friend and classmate, Jay Schraeter, who is the "companion" in the obituary.

Jay was the first of our friends to come out and he was one of the kindest, most gentle people we knew back then (and an art major, he also helped us a lot when we were in the same class in Northern European Renaissance Painting and were pretty clueless ourselves).

Jay and Arthur were the first male couple we saw kiss in public, and we admired both of them for their courage and their adventurousness when they moved out to Washington State for their rural experiment in living. (Eventually they moved to San Francisco and later separated.) We gave Jay our St. Christopher's medal before they left in April 1972, and he was gracious enough to accept it although he was the son and grandson of famous cantors. We didn't even know his name was Jacob, not Jay, until he passed away of AIDS in 1989.

(We also knew Arthur Evans' first lover, Village Voice writer Arthur Bell, briefly our neighbor, who was very kind in giving us a nice write-up on our first book. They had an acrimonious breakup, but later became friends again. Arthur Bell died of complications of diabetes in 1984.)

As the Bay Area Reporter noted, in later years in San Francisco, Arthur Evans became something of a conservative on neighborhood issues involving zoning and the homeless, but he was always an iconoclast from the start.

He wrote some wonderful articles for the Boston magazine Fag Rag, and he was a critic of the butch "clones" (a term he helped popularize) in the Castro in the late 1970s. Arthur directed a production of Euripides' Bacchae that he himself translated, and his books included The God of Ecstasy: Sex Roles and the Madness of Dionysus, Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture and the gay-positive philosophy treatise Critique of Patriarchial Reason.

Arthur Evans was one of a kind, and although we met him only four or five times nearly forty years ago, we feel his loss deeply.

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