Badpuppy Gay Today

Monday, 02 June, 1997



Kay Tobin's Historic Portrait of a Strong Leader


"He's the scrappiest little faggot in New York!"
spoken in admiration and affection by Marty Robinson


At the end of this month many will celebrate, dancing and marching, the proud bursts of self-esteem that led, at the end of June, 1969, to the Stonewall rebellion. Each week during this month, therefore, GayToday will celebrate outstanding Stonewall Era personalities now gone, pioneers who lived proud dreams of same-sex love and affection, dreams still struggling to be actualized today more than ever before.

Jim Owles, in his mid-20's when this personality sketch was written, was the first president of New York's Gay Activist's Alliance (GAA) whose founders and membership burst on the New York scene wielding bold strategies, shortly after the Stonewall uprising, a Greenwich Village bar patrons' rebellion against police oppression now celebrated-- only 27 years later--in public parades across the globe.

Kay Tobin, already in 1969 a veteran pioneering activist herself, is the author of The Gay Crusaders, a book of seminal biographies of leading lesbian and gay activists, those who dared to seize the moment during a particularly critical period of social change. The following chapter has been excerpted from Tobin's out-of-print book where her historic portraits enjoy an unrivaled authority, having been written during the very timeframe of the histories described. Tobin had also been present at the December, 1969 founding of the legendary GAA, the most effective and high-spirited New York direct-action gay and lesbian liberation group ever. Those who danced at the GAA Firehouse and who bonded affectionately across all racial, gender, and age groups, were Manhattan's initiators of a much-needed dignified, principled, in-your-face militancy, keeping all the while to a doctrine of non-violence coupled with imaginative strategies that were sometimes peppered with often humorous surprises.

At the time Kay Tobin spoke with him for this biographical sketch, Jim Owles was serving his second presidential term as the respected leader of Manhattan's feisty direct-action group. As remembered by GayToday's editor Jim Owles was a man of noticeable calm and civility, a quiet but keen thinker who, when he spoke, commanded almost immediate allegiance from hundreds of GAA members. In the midst of some very zany zaps-- GAA's unruly, surprise protests--he stood like one unbothered-- always cool-headed, a low-key barker of quickly-heeded strategies.

Jack Nichols,




By Kay Tobin

"Restrictive institutions have always drawn my fire," Jim Owles exclaims, as he looks back over his 25 years as a rebel. He is still firing away at restrictive institutions from his position in Gay Activists Alliance. At the time of this interview Jim is now serving his second term as president of GAA of New York.

This pioneer Gay Activist Alliance (now there are others around the country) grew from a membership of 12 men and women meeting in an apartment in January 1970, to a membership of around 300 by the summer of 1971. Not bad for a year and a half, Jim feels. He likes to recall that, even in its early months, GAA was called by a Boston admirer "the hottest little gay group on the East Coast." Now the New York organization has a center of its own, a four story, 10,000 square-foot renovated firehouse--"The GAA firehouse" as it's called--located just below Greenwich Village proper. And Jim Owles is one of those at the heart of the GAA success story.

Jim was born October 9, 1946, in Chicago. The eldest of six children, Jim has two younger sisters and three younger brothers. His father was a professional man, and both his parents were "middle class, liberal Republicans." They sent Jim to both public and private schools, and in both settings he remained completely consistent: he was a known underachiever.

"I hate to use the word because its such a catch-all word, but school always seemed oppressive to me," Jim says, wincing slightly at the word, "oppressive." He dislikes radical rhetoric. "I hung out with malcontents who were also underachievers, and that was my pattern through school. I hated things that were required, and found it repulsive to be told to take certain courses. I wanted to go to school to learn what I wanted to learn."

Jim argued with his teachers when he was required to take social dancing. "I really resented that! What bull-shit!" And the same with gym. "That was another rebellion. I hated what seemed a militaristic, Hitler-jungend type of thing. I said, 'Throw me out! I refuse to go!' I was kind of proud of that, because in high school then, everyone was rather docile and went along with the requirements. Only a handful of us were rebels. And it felt very good, rebelling against what I felt to be unjustified intervention in our lives."

Fencing was the one sport that appealed to Jim. "I was always drawn to that, as opposed to team sports where you're part of a machine, taking orders from a coach or captain. I was just too individualistic for that."

During two years of college at Northwestern University, Jim cut classes, played pinochle, sat around at rap sessions, again refused to do required reading, and "did political agitations against the school." He did not participate in the mainstream of school politics, which seemed to him "an insult to my intelligence," Nonetheless he planned to major in political science.

Jim says his parents felt his refusal to strive for academic success was a phase that would pass. "My parents never placed restrictions on me, and I respect them for that. Discipline was kept to a minimum, and they let me have as much freedom as I could handle. They believe in that very much and they didn't nag me."

Nonetheless, Jim felt at odds politically with his parents and felt forced to look at positions other than middle-of-the-road Republicanism. "But I was never too satisfied with the extremes either. I was no John Bircher or Minuteman. I was for a time attracted to Ayn Rand, and to the new libertarianism that doesn't have the authoritarianism that they extreme right and the extreme left share, or the morality of the extreme right."

Today Jim feels that Ayn Rand's theories are too dogmatic. "Romantically I lean toward 19th century anarchy," Jim explains, "but practically, I'm just an old Eugene McCarthy liberal. I'll admit to being a militant reformer."

Jim's family were not religious. He recalls that he felt no interest whatsoever in religion and fell asleep when taken to church by friends or relatives. Today he says he feels the utmost contempt for the churches. "I'm militant about the church as an institution because of the damage done to the minds of homosexuals by the churches. Most of organized religion has been the moral enemy of thinking people. I don't want to destroy the churches, but I want to save young homosexuals from being damaged by the churches."

After two years of college, Jim's interest in becoming a political science teacher faded. "I wouldn't be a martyr and take those required education courses to become certified by the state to teach," he says. In addition he had no taste for taking the loyalty oath then required of teachers in the state of Illinois. At twenty he dropped out of school, joined the Air Force to avoid the draft.

"It never occurred to me to check the box," he says (meaning the "Yes" box under the question, "Do you have or have you ever had....homosexual tendencies?" on the old medical form then used by the services). Jim thought of his homosexual feelings as a passing phase or that maybe he was bisexual.

He chose the Air Force because it had "the least amount of discipline. But even that was too much," he reports. "There was an organized program to single out individuals at random and get them to do humiliating things, to break down their individualism. I knew I had years of hassle coming up. I almost went AWOL. Instead, I applied for Air Intelligence and was accepted."

He continued to pursue his own interests. "The war in Vietnam was heating up, and there was a growing discontent with it among servicemen. I attended local anti-war demonstrations. They were, of course, monitored." In addition Jim disobeyed a sergeant's order to stop distributing anti-war leaflets on base. He was put through a summary court-martial, in which the American Civil Liberties Union defended him but lost. Jim was downranked, his literature was confiscated, and he was thrown out of Air Intelligence and sent "with other malcontents" to an isolated area of eastern Montana, "kind of like a little political Siberia."

Jim was made a water treatment specialist, but then it was feared he might be a subversive and contaminate the water. So he was made a typist--a two finger typist, to be exact. On his free time he wrote letters to the Montana newspapers criticizing the war, the air base, and the officers. "That made things interesting," Jim recalls.

Ultimately Jim was shipped, under tranquilizers, to another base for psychiatric observation. "The doctor was a nice, liberal Jewish psychiatrist and he certified that I was completely sane." Jim was then sent to California, where he involved himself with the American Servicemen's Union and with circulating anti-war petitions. He was given an administrative discharge, a general discharge that is less than honorable, but under honorable conditions, as the regulations say. He was issued his discharge in California at twenty-two.

And in California Jim had his first homosexual experience. He was at a party, everyone was high, and he drifted off into a bedroom with a young acquaintance, Jim recalls. "I found it quite enjoyable and felt no guilt. But I was embarrassed for him because he felt so uneasy. He was a Southerner, from a fundamentalist family. I felt a great deal of compassion for him, but I wasn't sure what to say to him to reassure him. I couldn't find the words to tell him why not to feel guilty.

"I wasn't bothered because I was against the church, I was against the state--it had tried to tell me what my politics should be, so I didn't respect it--and I was against psychiatry. My parents don't have faith in psychiatrists but see them as religious leaders without garb. I inherited a distrust of psychiatrists from my parents. I regard psychiatrists as mystics and soothsayers in their own way and never considered them men of science."

Nonetheless, Jim did feel concerned about what his friends would think of him if they knew. He thought it "a flaw in their thinking that they didn't see it as part of individual rights and liberties to do what they wanted with their own bodies! But I valued their friendship then, so I hid my homosexuality."

Jim didn't know of any gay bars in the area. He had two more sexual encounters with the young man, who was "very afraid," Jim says. Jim decided to return to his home city.

In Chicago he got a job with a brokerage firm and was eager for advancement. "I was under the mistaken impression that if you were good and sharp, rules and regulations didn't stand in your way. You could go up to the top. I found out it wasn't true." He was unhappy with Chicago for other reasons. "It's a very down city. It drives away non conformists. I felt it would eventually break me if I stayed." So he moved to New York and took a job on Wall Street.

Jim didn't know how to find the gay subculture, and he didn't realize that homosexuals were all around him in the Village. As he puts it, "I found the gay political movement before I found the subculture." He had arrived in New York just in time to read about history's first homosexual uprising after the police raided the now-famous Stonewall bar. Then he saw a notice for a meeting of "militant homosexuals."

Jim went to that meeting "after work, in a suit with a vest and tie. Everyone looked at me--and I was scared to death! I was really intimidated because I felt so out of place." Dress acceptable during the working day on Wall Street was obviously out of place here: jeans, bell-bottoms, and counterculture garb were the order of the day in summer, 1969.

"But I met Marty Robinson and felt at home once I saw we had areas of common interest politically." They soon started to rap about whether or not the gay movement should seek to align itself with movements of other oppressed peoples, Marty being somewhat against alignment and Jim being somewhat in favor of it in those days.

Jim quickly acquired a different set of clothes to wear to meetings of the militant group that was then forming in New York, the Gay Liberation Front. "I liked the individualistic and decorative uniforms that military officers could, at certain times and places in history, design for themselves." So Jim put on tight jeans and a one-of-a-kind Civil War jacket, and he let his hair grow into a Beatle bob.

Gay Liberation Front (GLF) was leafleting vigorously in an effort to organize New York gays, and Jim went out to leaflet with Marty. "Hand them only to gay people," Marty told him. "How will I know them?" Jim asked. "Oh, you'll get to know them," Marty replied. "And I did," Jim says. "I don't believe in ESP, but after a while you just get to know."

It wasn't very long before Jim found himself in bed with another GLFer. "It was a little awkward, partly because of a disagreement on politics," Jim recalls. "He was a Marxist and was a little up-tight about sex. I got the impression he went to bed out of a sense of devotion to the cause."

"Then the first time I danced with a man was at a GLF dance, and I really loved it! It was terrific! I kind of have a cuddly nature, so I got into that very quickly. And while leafleting in the Village, I picked up the jargon. From the very start I thought: gay people are so easy to talk to! Gay life is going to be really great!"

At that time, Jim says, GLF of New York (now defunct) had a wide political spectrum. Factions were always jockeying for control. For example, there were arguments over the content of leaflets, and finally one would come out that was "impossible" from Jim's point of view.

Four or five philosophies would be thrown in: a little Marxism, a little classical liberalism, a little anarchist pitch. How could such a group ever stay together? We didn't! There was a bi-weekly debate over whom we align with, whom we endorse. When the Black Panthers were endorsed I resigned as treasurer of GLF and I left." He felt the Black Panthers were strongly anti-gay. By this time Jim was convinced that GLF's attention was going to almost every oppressed minority except gays, and that a non-alignment policy, or at least one demanding reciprocity between the oppressed groups, was the only sensible course.

GLF, Jim feels, wanted to keep "their hard-working moderates, but I considered we were nothing more than window-dressing." He says that extremists in GLF "blocked all attempts at starting some kind of structure or continuity. It was actually an infantile resentment of any kind of authority or structure."

Jim, Marty Robinson, and several others left the chaotic, strife-torn GLF at the same time, the fall of 1969. "Then in January 1970, after several preliminary get-togethers, we had our first official meeting of Gay Activists Alliance in an apartment on the Upper East Side." The small group had a constitution, officers, an executive committee, a copy of Robert's Rules of Order, and the determination to be focused on one issue only: gay liberation. No alliances with other oppressed minorities could be argued over, for none were to be sought. No political ideology was to govern. There was to be room in GAA for gay people of every political hue, as long as they were willing to work in a structured organization with parliamentary procedure and work militantly, though non-violently, for gay liberation.

Jim Owles was elected the first GAA president and a year later was re-elected for a second term.

"You can't just say, organize politically and liberate yourselves! That's too vague," Jim points out. Soon after organizing, GAA members spelled out specific goals and reforms that they felt would constitute first steps toward gay liberation:

1. Fair employment legislation for gays.

2. Fair housing legislation for gays.

3. Repeal of New York State's laws against sodomy and solicitation.

4. Legislation forbidding police entrapment and entrapment.

5. An end to the harassment of gay bars.

In GAA, working "militantly" for such reforms usually means confrontation---very often (though not always) unexpected and angry public confrontation. "An action," "a zap," these are common terms in GAA. Jim explains: "Gays have to develop anger just as blacks did. Anger isn't always destructive. It's better than being depressed. Gays must redirect anger that has been largely inward, outward---where it belongs. That doesn't mean smashing windows. It means confronting people who do have the power and saying, "Look here, ours are not ridiculous or frivolous demands--they're something every American should have!"

Jim tried force once, and then only symbolically, as a protest. That was during one of GAA's very first actions, the day the original twelve members plus several supporters went to City Hall to get an appointment to see Mayor Lindsay about problems facing New York gays. Naively they brought along picket signs that revealed their plans to set up a picket and attempt a sit-in if the appointment wasn't granted. Suddenly, Jim remembers, the building was declared by police to be "closed to all members of the public." Yet other members of the public were going in. Police massed on the steps of City Hall and thwarted all peaceful attempts of the tiny group of gays to enter the building. Even mounted policemen suddenly appeared. Press people assigned to City Hall poured forth with pads and pencils, and TV cameras switched on to the scene."

"Limp wrists stiffened today at City Hall..." a TV announcer chortled on the newscast that night as GAA got its first round of publicity. News photos showed Jim Owles throwing himself futilely against the line of police, then being shoved off City Hall property. "He's the scrappiest little faggot in New York," Marty Robinson whispered with admiration and affection. Everyone laughed at the in-group joke and fell into a pocket line. All Jim got at City Hall that day was a sore foot--those mounted police aren't always too careful.

"I didn't think of it as using force," Jim comments. "I was simply trying to retain my right of access to a public building." Since then he's been to City Hall many times, usually by invitation, but not always.

Thereafter Jim quickly firmed up a standard role in the many GAA confrontations with politicians that followed, a role much more congenial to him. In a public confrontation with politicians, for example, "a two pronged attack is usually needed. First a segment of the group comes on with a very hard approach; then another segment of the group comes on presenting the same ideas in a much more reasonable tone. On the one hand are the super-militants, people like Marty Robinson and Arthur Evans; on the other, Mr. Moderate, Mr. Soft-Spoken, here's the diplomat! He admits "it doesn't always work; the diplomat and the firebrand may both be rejected."


The sensible moderate, the one who is calm in the midst of a stormy zap--that's the image Jim projects. "Glacial," some people call him. Jim sees his role more positively. "It's just part of me that I believe people are basically good and can be reasoned with and brought over."

Looking back over GAA's quest for gay power by action tactics, Jim says, "it was only natural that we should first concentrate our energies on those people in politics who should naturally be our allies." Hence GAA started by attending meetings of the Village Independent Democrats (VID), an influential political club frequently addressed by liberal politicians on both the state and local levels of government. One night, New York City Council-woman Carol Greitzer was zapped at the VID by about 20 GAA members who wanted to know why she had earlier refused to accept from Jim Owles a petition with nearly 6,000 signatures asking her help with GAA goals. Mrs. Greitzer's explanation was that on the day Jim tried to give her the petitions she had too many other papers to carry home, and anyway she felt that other politicians could be of more help to homosexuals.

After the heat of the super-militants' shouts had melted Councilwoman Greitzer's composure, Jim stepped up beside her and addressed himself both to her and to the packed VID meeting. He said (as reported in GAY , June 1, 1970) that "it was an outrage that homosexuals should not be able to petition their representatives for redress of grievances, and that if she would not accept the petitions, 'she's no longer our representative and we'll have to look elsewhere.' " Councilwoman Greitzer took the petitions. A VID member told a GAA member, "Thank you for shaking us up. Sometimes we need this."

Another GAA zap squad caught Arthur Goldberg, then Democratic hopeful for the New York governorship, at a campaign stop in Manhattan. They asked him what he would do to repeal the sodomy law. When Goldberg replied that there were more important things to think about and slipped into his limousine, Jim Owles told Assemblyman Al Blumanthal, who was assisting Goldberg that day, "I think we showed Arthur Goldberg that whenever he appears here in this city, he can expect to be asked questions by homosexual constituents." Before the campaign was over, Goldberg had issued a pro-gay rights statement.

Bella Abzug, successful candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives, came eagerly to GAA during her campaign and received a standing ovation from over 200 gays for her pro-gay remarks. On that occasion Jim told the militant gay organization, "I can promise you that Bella isn't going to be the last politician brought down here one way or another to speak to us."

Meanwhile, city councilmen and New York City's Commission on Human Rights were approached by GAA about fair employment legislation in New York City. All agreed the time was ripe, and, ultimately, the Clingan-Burden-Weiss-Scholnick bill (Intro 475) was introduced into City Council. Jim gave this legislation top priority, knowing that fear of loss of job prevents gays from coming out into the open and insisting on equal rights. He told the New York Post on November 5, 1970: "You shouldn't have to be on guard at your job against what you say and who you're seen with. The point is that you shouldn't have to hide what you are."

Mayor Lindsay's support for gay rights, however, was still missing, and this was considered vital to the passage of the bill. GAA had started dogging Lindsay in public as early as April, 1970, confronting him at the Metropolitan Opera, the Metropolitan Museum, a peace rally, and a television filming. The group got meetings with Lindsay's deputies, but Lindsay continued his silence on gay rights.

Jim puts forth a vigorous defense of GAA's public confrontations of Lindsay, which many New York gays found rude, distasteful or hard to understand. "The New York gay community was sold a package on Lindsay by old-line gay organizations that almost sets him up as some sort of monarch. What he's done for gays has always been unofficial, behind closed doors, and like a royal whim, Lindsay has ended homosexuals' most obvious problem, entrapment.

"But younger gays are not satisfied by unofficial acts. There's no reason in the world why Lindsay couldn't reverse himself. And no reason to believe that when he leaves, his successor can't go back to the old ways. Both GAA and the gay press have not been successful in letting gays know this. Gays have been infatuated with the charisma of Lindsay, but in actuality he has up to this time shown no visible support of gay rights."

"Furthermore," Jim says, "a lot of gays are just afraid of GAA rocking the boat, that if we make Lindsay mad, he'll reverse his royal decree. And that's the thing that makes me angry, that whole attitude. It shouldn't be up to him or to any legislator or administrator to give us something and then have the power to take it right back. It should be part of the law that police cannot entrap and that gays have fair employment and housing rights.

"And if a mayor like Lindsay can speak out eloquently for other minorities, then he owes it to the gay people who have strongly supported him. We have a man who poses himself to the city and the nation as being a very humane and liberal man. If that is indeed his true image, then he owes it to that image to be completely humane on all issues, not just those that are safe. I'm interested in supporting people who are willing to take controversial, non-popular stands. For the record, I was in favor of Lindsay's election. Gays helped build Lindsay's margin of victory in New York--and I don't particularly like being taken for granted. It's up to a leader to lead and not to follow the Harris poll and put some issues on the back burner until the public is ready for them.

"You don't get politicians on your side by keeping quiet. You should convince people who should be your allies. They're interested in you too as allies, and not as timid allies. So Lindsay may be personally pissed off when we zap him, but I think he basically respects us because he is a liberal and recognizes we are not making unrealistic demands."

(Authors note: After the interview with Jim Owles was taped, Mayor Lindsay issued on May 17, 1971, a statement backing the fair employment bill in City Council.)

As for the chairman of the city's Commission on Human Rights, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Jim maintains that in GAA's fight for a fair employment law to cover gays, "she has been very helpful, but I don't think she would have been as helpful if we hadn't shown her how earnest we were, and that had to be done through constant pressure. This may at times have made her personally angry at us, but we showed her how earnest we were."

Jim relates that he and members of GAA's Fair Employment Committee paid an unannounced visit to public hearings held by the Commission on Human Rights to investigate alleged discriminatory hiring practices in the city's schools. Members of other minorities had been lined up to testify, but none from the gay community. In front of the press covering the hearings, Jim and the other gays announced they were prepared to disrupt the hearings unless discrimination against gays was also probed. The Commission acceded and accepted written testimony from gays claiming discrimination by the Board of Education.

"They couldn't have been more surprised," Jim notes, adding that Mrs. Norton's reaction seemed positive and that he trusts gays will not be overlooked in the future when such testimony is being sought. He says further, "I think when gays think about it realistically, blacks have gotten the most when they've been angry, and rightfully so. I mean, you shouldn't have to be out there picketing in order to talk about fair employment legislation and so forth."

How does Jim's busy political life affect his social and sexual life? Jim admits that it can no longer be said of him that he is as active sexually as he is politically. "Not at this present period. I hope it returns to that, but right now I just don't have the time for even the flings that I used to have, let alone try to have a love relationship." When he stays up until 3 A.M., as he often does, it's quite likely he's just reading the newspapers to keep abreast of political currents.

He champions the idea of many life-styles for homosexuals. Although once he was attracted to the concept of communal-type living, he admits that is perhaps utopian. "One may have to settle at this point for a love relationship with just one other individual at a time. But I also want to say that you don't have to have one other person or group of people as lovers, in order for you to be a happy homosexual. I think there are many ways of being happy that don't require having a lover. I don't think looking for a lover should be your prime drive. I know a number of people who are happy without lovers, and I think you shouldn't regard yourself as being incomplete until you find someone."

Jim's parents know now that he is gay and involved in the gay movement. "They've been very understanding and accepting about it. We've always kept a good but distant relationship, and that's been best on both sides. About the only concern they had was one of safety. My mother feels strongly about this--the way the country is now with so many assassinations, she's very worried."

Even Jim admits he's discussed with Marty Robinson the possibility of the assassination of some up-front person in the gay movement. He feels, however, that avoidance of personality cults and the building of strong organizations will minimize any drastic damage to the movement should an assassination occur. The late Dr. Martin Luther King, whom Jim admires very much, made a mistake in not building an organization strong enough to hold up well under the loss of his leadership, Jim contends.

He also feels that Dr. King slowed the momentum of the black rights movement by departing from a one-issue stance and involving himself heavily with the peace movement. Jim still attends the major peace demonstrations today, marching in the gay contingent; but he does not and cannot participate as representing GAA. Most of Jim's marching time nowadays is necessarily spent for the gay cause.

As one of several gay speakers addressing a rally of 2500 gays in Albany on March 14, 1971, Jim delivered one of the more fiery speeches. He told the throng (pictured on the cover of this book): "We're not here to ask for something. We're here to demand. We're here to confront the legislators and shake them up. We're here to give them one large consciousness-raising session!"

That rally was in support of several bills to benefit gays that were pending in the New York State legislature, including a state-level fair employment bill and a measure to repeal the sodomy law. "Repeal is important to gays because this law is an insult, because its an affront to us to be listed by the state as a criminal element." While he concedes that the sodomy laws are seldom enforced, he sees repeal as an important psychological victory.

Jim says that repeal of the sodomy law in Illinois ten years ago didn't make much difference in the lives of gays "because it wasn't accomplished by them but done for them. Many were not even aware of the repeal." Harassment of gays under other Illinois laws was simply stepped up, because there was no gay power behind the repeal. Jim feels that gays' demonstrating openly, lobbying vigorously, and exercising their new political power for state law reforms will make things different in New York.

Regarding chances of getting such bills passed in the conservative New York State legislature, Jim says: "It may be extremely naive of me, but I think that even conservative Republicans can be won over on certain issues like sodomy law repeal. If they are true to the rhetoric they espouse--that the state has no right to interfere with a person's individual liberties or freedom as long as he's no hurting anyone else--they should be with us. I would like especially to try to get these conservatives interested in sodomy law repeal." Unfortunately they were not ready in New York State in 1971. Repeal was narrowly defeated when most of the Republicans voted against it on a roll-call vote.

At this exciting juncture in his life, Jim is living as a pauper. The sum total of his belongings can be put into two laundry bags. He found that out when he moved into the tiny room that he now rents in the apartment of a friend in GAA.

Early in GAA's history, Jim was told by his boss on Wall Street that if he took any more time off from work he would be fired. The next week there was a need for a major confrontation by GAA. Jim made his choice--and was immediately jobless. He then took part-time weekend work in a Greenwich Village news shop and managed somehow on less than $50 a week. Now, because of the recession, that job too, is gone; his boss let him go with apologies.

"I'm an even poorer parish priest now," says Jim. "I still get old clothes from friends, and people have me over to their apartments for dinner. And every once in a while I'll get an anonymous donation, or someone will stick a five-or a ten-dollar bill in my jacket pocket. And that's how I get by. I don't even think about tomorrow--I can't. I'm a true existentialist! And while I can't seem to find any kind of part-time work, I can't see going back to a full-time job because it would mean cutting back on my involvement in GAA."

Jim glances at the handsome hand-crafted gold ring given him by the membership just before the close of his first term as GAA president. It bears the GAA symbol for gay activism. "The thing I'm most proud of with Gay Activists Alliance is that during our first year we placed all of our emphasis on actions. Although we're getting into these things now, in our first year we had no time to put out newsletters or hold conferences or have consciousness raising groups. We devoted all our energies toward specific, attainable goals--not abstractions. I think GAA tends to draw the best the gay community has to offer in the way of activists because we do get things done. In April of 1971 alone, we took in 95 new members. We get professionals, students, all types who've had enough talk and are interested in joining an organization where they see quick results--and there are damned few organizations I've seen where you can do this."

And that's about enough talk for Jim, as well. He has a date, and not with a politician. For his date he simply wears his GAA sweat shirt, jeans and boots. The person he's meeting is "a real old-fashioned New England boy, the type you don't see much anymore, a rugged individualist who knows he can start and really run his own farm, a back-to-the-land person. He had never even been in a gay bar until a couple of nights ago. He blushed to see two men dancing together! I thought it was charming."

Just one more question: What are Jim's predictions for himself and for the gay movement?

"I think there will no effective national gay movement for at least three years. But starting this summer, GAA will start to send out our organizers in a 'summer caravan' to help gays in parts of the country where they are not organized. I really look forward to getting into some of that myself, after my presidency is up.

"Also we'll be confronting candidates in the upcoming 1972 presidential election and demanding that they take proper stands. But mostly, we'll be organizing gays around the basic reforms. By going after these simple pieces of legislation, we aren't throwing manna to the gays. We're getting them used to working together as a bloc, as a minority united on common goals, working for power for themselves."

What is gay power, this slogan that we hear so often? "Gay power," says Jim, "is where you have a strong pride in your own minority, not quite arrogance, and where you feel that there's no institution and no person on this earth that can take away your freedom or that has any right to tell you what you may do as long as you don't interfere with the rights of others. In blunt terms, it means that no matter which gang is running City Hall or sitting in the White House, they're not going to take any measures against your group!

That's when you know you have power.

"And it won't come to gays exclusively through a gay voting bloc. Some minorities have an influence beyond their numbers. It just depends on how organized you are and how you put your brains together to protect your own group.

"As for myself, my own future," Jim concludes, "I'm working for the time when there's no need for GAA. I don't want always to be a gay activist. I have other interests in the field of political science. Once we have the law changes we want, this will be a small step toward gay liberation. After that, I'm not sure there'd be any need for an organization geared to that kind of political activity. The steps toward gay liberation after law reform might well require a new kind of organization and a new kind of individual. Planned obsolescence is always an attractive idea."


This portrait of Jim Owles has been exerpted with the permission of the authors, from THE GAY CRUSADERS by Kay Tobin and Randy Wicker, published by Paperback Library, 1972 and reprinted (hardback) in 1975 by the Arno Press Series on Homosexuality: Lesbians and Gay Men in Society, History and Literature.


1998 BEI; All Rights Reserved.
For reprint permission: eMail