Interview by Jack Nichols
Arthur Evans is not only a legendary Stonewall Era activist, he's also a philosopher, and a damned savvy one at that. More, he's one of the last surviving founders of New York City's Gay Activists Alliance. His fierce, gentle and honorable energies have continued--since Stonewall erupted--to fuel many honest debates.
Arthur appreciates the asking of essential questions, those likely to improve the human condition. He cuts satisfyingly beneath appearances, getting to the heart of relevance.
He knows about the awesome powers of humanity's great myths and he understands the central weaknesses of scientism. Arthur's a unique specimen among us, one whose larger consciousness began to bloom expansively, I happen to know, in a truly magical period in time.
It was a time wherein he and just a few others--a small circle--took destiny into their hands and helped--with cunning strategies and an abundance of sheer physical bravery--to change our world.
While bureaucratic boors rushed to and fro, he shouted pertinent questions at them; over and over--always insistent, fiercely unrelenting and impatient.
Into the deceptively polite faces of the bourgeoisie, Arthur Evans wagged a disapproving finger clearly informing those to whom it pointed that their bigotry did not constitute acceptable fare and he had arrived, in fact, to call them to account.
In GAY newspaper appeared many photos of handsome Arthur Evans and his stalwart GAA companions. One showed the youthful philosopher carrying a picket sign asking "Was Socrates a Lousy Teacher?" Another captured him with his great companions walking proudly side by side, all wearing their newly crafted Lambda symbols.
(From left) Tom Doerr, Marty Robinson, Arthur Evans, Phil Raia, Jim Owles
Photo: Fred Orlansky
Jack Nichols: Arthur, let me ask you first about your recently published philosophic work Critique Of Patriarchal Reason that you've taken nine years to complete.
I'm sure in other ways it took longer than that--as your expanded perceptions multiplied--and that there have probably been many inklings of what you're now saying evidenced in your earlier books, right?
It would seem, based on your new title, that you favor a re-definition of what it means to be a man, or to be human, perhaps?
Arthur Evans: Right, Jack, the book grew out of my personal experiences in the movement. In GAA we learned how to redefine ourselves as gays and lesbians on our own terms. We rejected the hurtful, pre-packaged definitions that the establishment wanted us to wear.
I took that model of gay self-definition that I learned from GAA and started applying it to other questions: What does it mean to be a man? A human being? To be rational? To live a worthy human life? Critique of Patriarchal Reason takes the quest for self-definition that bloomed afterStonewall and applies it to the big philosophical questions.
Jack Nichols: What are some of your central messages in Critique of Patriarchal Reason?
Arthur Evans: We need to broaden our understanding of what it means to be human. It's not enough any more to look at the mysteries of life just through the eyes of bourgeois, white, straight males. Let's hear what lesbians, gay men, people of color, and the downtrodden have to say. Let's create a new dialogue about the meaning of life where we all get to put our two cents in.
Jack Nichols: Both fundamentalists and even scientists covet a delusion, I suppose I'd call it, that they can actually know every detail "objectively" and have on hold a sure-fire method for ascertaining objective truths.
Saying phooey to such so-called-objectivity--such illusion-- seems feasible enough to me, but where do you feel your philosophical approach leads critically thinking readers once you've helped them to come to this realization?
Arthur Evans: It leads us to take seriously things that have been dismissed before as unworthy of philosophical examination--the insights into reality that we gain through sexual ecstasy, through the rituals and myths of ancient tribal societies, through poetry, through a mother's love for her children.
I say, Open the windows of Western philosophy! Take in the whole spectacle of human experience! This approach doesn't abolish objectivity. It recognizes that objectivity is relative to the people who are invited to participate in the dialogue. I want to invite all people of good will to the dialogue and hear what they have to say.
Jack Nichols: Philosophy has been your interest since your earliest years. What drew you to its study most? What were you attempting to find--the legendary philosopher's stone?
Arthur Evans: No, I was attempting to find myself. As a young person, I inched my way along toward acceptance of my gay identity. In the process, I discovered that much of what I thought was myself was really a set of images that the dominant society had given me.
They did not come from my inner essence. So in reclaiming myself, I was led to question the society that had tried to sell me a false self. This reclaiming and questioning process, when done systematically, is what we call "philosophy."
Jack Nichols: You had a row with Columbia University over this book, didn't you? What was that all about?
Arthur Evans: Yes, while I was in GAA, I had been pursuing a doctorate in ancient Greek philosophy at Columbia. I dropped out in 1971, before finishing my dissertation, because Columbia became irrelevant to everything in my life.
Later, in 1986, Columbia re-admitted me. But I didn't want to finish my old dissertation. I wanted to create a whole new approach to philosophy that would reflect the insights I had gotten from the gay movement.
The philosophy department balked. So I gave up on the dissertation and wrote Critique of Patriarchal Reason instead, which took nine years.
Jack Nichols: But wasn't there something after that? Didn't you recently challenge Columbia's closeted professors to come out?
Arthur Evans: Right. After the book was published, I asked Columbia if I could submit it as an out-of-house dissertation. The philosophy department again balked, this time saying I'd been away too long.
That made me angry. In all the years I've been working for the movement, none of the closeted lesbian and gay philosophy professors there ever offered any open support.
So I issued a press release calling on them to come out and help me, but without naming anybody. They clammed up even more, of course.
I'm not going to "out" them, but I am thinking about suing the university. But I'd have to find a pro bono lawyer for that.
Jack Nichols: Earlier you admitted to me that you often find the poet Walt Whitman a presence in your life. Does Walt Whitman's approach to philosophy dovetail somehow with your own?
Arthur Evans: Absolutely. Open the doors! Take off the jams! Go out onto the open road of life and let the rough and tumble of experience be your guide to reality.
Jack Nichols: Richard Rorty, now a professor of philosophy at Stanford and a kind of academic gadfly in philosophical circles, is very same-sex-love friendly. In his political strategy work, Achieving Our Country, he stands halfway on Whitman's shoulders in his appeal to the left for a pragmatic resurgence and halfway on John Dewey's. He vigorously devalues the concept of objective truth as I believe you do. Why do you both do this?
Arthur Evans: We both know that absolute objectivity is a delusion. There is no such beast. We also both know that philosophy is an ongoing personal dialogue. It's not a mirror that objectively reflects the nature of reality.
Jack Nichols: You were originally from Pennsylvania, though you moved to New York in the early Sixties and you soon became a vital energy source in the movement. What was this transition like--and what did New York offer in its early Sixties climate that you think we could use more of today? Particularly, how did the counterculture affect you?
Arthur Evans: I moved to New York in 1963 to be gay. I was 21 years old, didn't know anybody else who was gay, and had been horny, lonely, and suicidal for over a decade. I read an article in Life or Look magazine saying that there were a lot of "homosexuals" in Greenwich Village, so that's where I headed.
Luckily, the village then was also at the heart of the counterculture. I encountered the poetry of Allen Ginsberg, who seemed to me like Walt Whitman come again. The whole experience broadened my understanding of what it means to be human and led me to question everything. It was an exhilarating experience!
Jack Nichols: Which of GAA's founders affected you profoundly in the wake of the Stonewall uprising, and how? Do you have any gripes about things in history books that have been written about that period?
Arthur Evans: My two personal heroes will always be Marty Robinson and Jim Owles. Marty was the smartest person I've every known. He taught through direct action and personal example. He showed me how to combine self-respect, humor, and theater in a way that would enrich my life and help change the world. Jim was the model of fairness and level-headedness. Without him, GAA would have blown apart because of all the conflicting egos (mine included).
Marty & Jim were also very brave souls. Some of the previous accounts of those days have been written by arm-chair academics. They've tended to slight Marty and Jim because they didn't have fancy degrees or write theoretical treatises. Nonetheless, from 1969 to 1971, Marty and Jim were the two most influential men in the New York gay movement.
Jack Nichols: Your relationship with Arthur Bell was detailed dramatically in an early book of his telling of events only from his standpoint, including your breakup. Later he changed his views and dedicated his second book to you. How do you recall Arthur--his writer's attitude, his philosophy?
Arthur (left) with lover Billy Amberg, San Francisco, late 80s
Arthur Evans: This past June 2 was the 15th anniversary of Arthur Bell's death. His spirit breathes in everything I write. He taught me that there's more to love and life than what logicians say, which is the basic theme of Critique of Patriarchal Reason. We hurt each other in our relationship because we were both immature and self-centered at times. But we eventually grew beyond that and learned how to love each other, even though we were no longer lovers.
Jack Nichols: Your first book, I think, one that's still in print after two decades, is Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture. What is the message of that book? After writing it, in what directions did you then develop?
Arthur Evans: The basic message of that book is that being gay or lesbian is not just an empty fact hanging in the air. It's deeply rooted in history and mythology. In reclaiming our gay or lesbian identity, we also reclaim our hidden past, and our hidden mythological powers.
Part of our hidden past is our role as spirit-keepers in the old pre-Christian religions of Europe. The Christian establishment called the surviving remnants of these religions "heresy" and "witchcraft."
The witchcraft book led me to write The God of Ecstasy, which is about the ancient Greek god Dionysos. Dionysian traditions were among those that survived in Christian Europe and which the church called "heresy" and "witchcraft." I'm currently working on an enlarged second edition of Witchcraft, which I hope to have out early next year.
Jack Nichols: You left New York and have now lived for twenty-five years in San Francisco. That means you're very happy there, I guess. Or is it like New York where many folks who live there love/hate it simultaneously?
Arthur Evans: Oh, it has its pluses and minuses. I love my friends here and the clean fresh air that blows in from the Pacific Ocean. But the city is becoming overcrowded, over-priced, and increasingly mean-spirited. Plus, I'm getting older and crankier! I hope to save up enough money in the next year or so to move to Arcata, a small college town in northern California. It's my big dream in life.
Jack Nichols: What has been the most moving life experience you've had in the near-quarter century since I saw you last? What did it teach you?
Arthur Evans: That would be the assassination of Harvey Milk and George Moscone in San Francisco in late November 1978. Milk was our gay supervisor (city council member). Moscone was our mayor. They were murdered by an ex-cop who resented the fact that fags and dykes were moving ahead in the city.
It was the darkest day of my life. Still, in the years ahead, the lesbian/gay community and the city of San Francisco were able to recover and heal themselves. And I was, too. I learned that community is stronger than hate and death.
Jack Nichols: As you look back over the 30 years since Stonewall, in what ways do you feel particularly fulfilled? When you think about what you struggled to achieve in the GAA and see now what's happened nationwide, even worldwide since, does it sometimes give you a heady rush?
Arthur Evans: We have seen a revolution in our own time. Living in York, Pennsylvania, in the late fifties, I thought I was the only gay person in the world. I had no gay friends, no community, no identity, no history. I was a non-person.
In the past thirty years, we've been able to take our place in the sun. We've learned how to love each other, build community, take power, create identity, reclaim history. We still have many problems, of course. But we're a people now. We have a future.
Jack Nichols: If gay movement strategies had been conducted any differently than they have been since GAA went out of operation, what would you have liked to have seen happen ?
Arthur Evans: I would like to have seen less in-fighting and more cooperation. It's entirely proper that we affirm our sub-identities within the community, as women, people of color, working-class people, professionals, Republicans, whatever. But we shouldn't forget that we really are in pretty much the same boat. The far right wants to see us all dead.
Jack Nichols: You were put off by the Castro clone fad, I know. Why? And what were some other cultural developments that didn't thrill you too much? You created your own counterculture--out in the country--didn't you? And you helped get the Radical Faeries going, right?
From left to right: Arnie Kantrowitz, Arthur, Rich Wandel, Hal Offen
Arthur Evans: The Castro Clone thing was more than a look. Many middle-American gay men flocked to the Castro district in San Francisco who had no understanding of the movement. And they didn't want to know about it, either. Their lives revolved around pumping up their muscles, going to discos, doing drugs, and getting laid.
For a while, gay male liberation degenerated into a testosterone cult. The faeries continue to provide some welcome relief to that head-set. They still have some of the gender-bender magic and radical politics of the Stonewall era.
In 1975 I helped form a group in San Francisco called the Faery Circle. We conjured up the old sex-and-nature magic. The circle helped pave the way for what was later called the Radical Faeries.
Before that, Jacob Schraeter (my lover after Arthur Bell) and I homesteaded some forest land on the side of a remote mountain in Washington State. We called it New Sodom. We did everything from scratch--digging a well, gathering wild edible plants from the forests, hewing logs for a shelter, protecting ourselves from the bears. We learned how to reconnect with Mother Earth.
Jack Nichols: In a variety of ways I think you and I may have come--independently of each other-- to some similar views on masculinity. You refer to the patriarchy. My major work critiqued the drawbacks of male role conditioning and suggested alternative practical strengths that can be ours--as men-- when we abandon weak-kneed machismo. I favor the uncovering, developing and celebrating of the androgynous psyche. Do you?
Arthur Evans: Yes, you're absolutely right, Jack. Why settle for being a tight-assed macho jerk when you can be open to the whole rainbow magic of life? It also makes things easier on the people around you, too.
Jack Nichols: Would you be likely to blame macho role-conditioning as part-cause for the Columbine rampage?--or for violence among men, generally?
Arthur Evans: Definitely. To be a real man in this society means to be primed to inflict violence on others. When you combine that sort of conditioning with easy access to guns, everybody's in deep trouble. We need to redefine what it means to be a man, and get rid of guns.
Jack Nichols: What are some current radical books you'd particularly advise thinkers to read? Do your own writings sometimes appeal to different audiences?
Arthur Evans: For me, the most powerful radical writings have always been poetry. Allen Ginsberg especially continues to be a powerhouse. He touches all the corners--sex, magic, politics, spiritual vision. Another is Audre Lorde. As far as I can tell, my own writings appeal to women, gay folks, spiritual visionaries, and a few academics.
Jack Nichols: What do you think of certain making-it-in-the mainstream writers like Camille Paglia, Larry Kramer, or Andrew Sullivan?
Arthur Evans: This is where I get to be dishy! Camille Paglia knows how to draw attention to herself, but her hype is more than her substance. Larry Kramer is an Old Testament prophet. Like them, he will be vilified throughout his life, and then honored after he's dead. In the long run, it's not a bad fate, but it can wear you down day to day. Andrew Sullivan is good for helping gay Republicans find self-acceptance. I guess somebody has to do it.
Jack Nichols: I unashamedly celebrate same-sex love and affection because I think it's really a necessary ingredient for planetary survival. How do you feel about that?
Arthur Evans: Yes! We are part of the new paradigm for what it means to be human. It's in the interest of the whole world to hear our experiences and visions. Let the great dialogue continue!
Jack Nichols: I hope that you won't be a stranger to GayToday where your ideas will always be welcomed with great interest.
Arthur Evans: Thanks, Jack. It's been a thrill for me to reconnect with you after all these years. GayToday remains a voice of authenticity in our community. That's because it reflects the growth and vision of your own personal life.