Badpuppy Gay Today

Monday, 16 June, 1997

DICK MICHAELS

THE ORIGINAL MR. ADVOCATE

Kay Tobin's Insightful Portrait


Introduction:
He Started The Advocate After a Policeman's Tap on the Shoulder

 

It was early in 1969--101 days or so before the Stonewall uprising we're celebrating this month-- when I got a letter from Dick Michaels, the founder/ editor of The Advocate. He knew of Lige Clarke and me and kindly asked that we serve as his first New York correspondents, offering the welcome sum of $15 per monthly column, in those days something in the absence of other gay publishers who paid. Some of those long-ago columns can now be found on pages 28-29 of LONG ROAD TO FREEDOM: The Advocate History of The Gay and Lesbian Movement, edited by Mark Thompson (Foreword by Randy Shilts).

I have a soft spot in my heart for Dick Michaels and for the old Advocate because I respected him as its founder and as its editor. He seemed to me a decent man; a bit proper, perhaps, by New York hippiedom's standards, but honest, hardworking and eager to do what he saw as the right kind of job. He was a fair person as well as an American personification of success-through-community service-armed-with-a-practical-business-sense.

Though I've had no contact with any of the current owners/editors of The Advocate, I once hosted Dick Michaels for a single afternoon when he made a pre-Stonewall 1969 business trip to Manhattan. He was searching for ways to expand his fledgling Los Angeles paper's circulation, and he knew Lige Clarke and I were smack dab in the middle of New York's gay and straight publishing scenes and that we'd been long-time activists to boot. The three of us had lunch in mid-town and then wended our way to a festive afternoon occasion at Manhattan's Luxor Baths, not, however, minus our clothes.

The occasion turned out to be historically racy, nevertheless, for it was in this very bathhouse that Dick Michaels, Lige and I, met another fully-clothed, or perhaps over-clothed man, the world's first practitioner of the controversial practice--not yet named-- of "outing." I refer to none other than the pseudonymous author of The Homosexual Handbook, Angelo d'Arcangelo," a tall dark-haired gentlemen wearing--at his own book's party-press-conference-- an outlandish wig, dark glasses, and a phony mustache.

This first outer, d'Arcangelo, please note, wrote his popular book using a pseudonym and then he donned a disguise to promote it after shamelessly naming, in "Uncle Fudge's" list, nearly every then known or suspected-to-be-gay star and author. J. Edgar Hoover was on the original list; later he was strangely removed and the publisher deported to France.

"Outing" ethics aside, we all agreed The Homosexual Handbook, now out of print, was a milestone work, not because of the repeated outing quotes in the show-biz mag Variety, but mostly for its many funny, elegant, assertive, saucy tirades. After connecting with its b'wigged author, Dick Michaels, Lige and I took the subway downtown again where we chatted past dark.

Shortly afterwards, when Michaels had returned to Los Angeles, GAY the nation's first gay weekly newspaper, was born. It was New York's very-different-from-the-Advocate approach. Because of new and time-consuming work on GAY, Lige and I regretfully had to close our column in the old The Advocate. But we didn't stop--through the next half-decade--having a friendly business relationship with Dick Michaels.

In 1972 Dick Michaels ran a decent and sometimes enthusiastic review of the first book Lige and I wrote together. In 1973 he printed my defense of Walt Whitman against the snipes of an aspiring historian. Later, when Lige and I resigned as GAY's editors, Dick Michaels celebrated the occasion as a lead-front-page headline on his then-bi-weekly paper, calling our effort "The Nation's Second Largest Gay Newspaper."

Even after the departure from The Advocate of Dick Michaels and his lover, Bill Rand, the popular newsmagazine ran my tribute to Lige in 1975 and, in 1982 printed my mini-biographies of Edward Carpenter and Paul Goodman. I consider then-Senior Editor Mark Thompson, retired-as-such, though now a valuable Advocate contributor, among the most principled visionaries working in liberation journalists'circles today.

The Advocate, founded by Dick Michaels, enlisted journalistic giants like Jim Kepner and later, under different management, Mark Thompson, thus holding up one end of the continent's gay and lesbian news reportage effectively. It had already been standing proud just prior to the beginnings of the Stonewall era, keeping a record of progress during crucial flashpoints of the movement, and, ultimately, helping immeasureably to inspire dedicated activism far beyond the sunny shores of America's West Coast.

Return with us to then to Yesteryear--to those heady days just following The Stonewall uprising in New York. Legendary East Coast activist Kay Tobin has, in primary-text words, provided a portrait of The Advocate's founder, a man who reveals in this insightful portrait that he had --just to keep the records straight-- purposefully bought The Los Angeles Advocate--which at its inception had been nothing more than a defunct gay org newsletter title--for one dollar. What happened after that dollar was paid is now history.

Jack Nichols,

Badpuppy's GayToday

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DICK MICHAELS
By Kay Tobin

Dick Michaels' desk pad tells a lot. He tears off a sheet, laughs shyly, and holds it up. "From the Desk of the Emperor," it reads.

"The Advocate is not democratically run. If newspaper publishing is in your blood, you want to have control over all aspects of it," Dick says and leans forward intently on his elbows for most of the interview.

Dick is willing to part with absolute power in this I domain for only one other person, his lover and co-publisher, Bill Rand. "Bill deserves as much credit as I do, though he's behind the scenes. He's been with the newspaper from the start, and he works longer hours than I do." Dick functions as Editor-in-Chief, Bill as Executive Editor. Dick worries mostly about the paper's content, while Bill worries mostly about the business end.

Concerning the last, Dick notes proudly that The Advocate, America's largest-selling gay newspaper, "has been around for nearly four years, and we've published more than sixty-five consecutive issues--and every one of them on schedule." Even the Los Angeles earthquake early in 1971 couldn't shake their publishing schedule, although it did shake up their meticulously kept offices.

"My life worked around in a circle," Dick explains, and reviews the chain of events that brought him to his present position. He was born in upstate New York in the early 1930's, into "a quite ordinary family, not anywhere near affluent. My father was a boiler-room engineer." His family had little interest in politics. "They were mostly concerned with making a living." Dick had four brothers and a sister. He attended a Catholic high school, went on to get a B.S. in chemistry, then got a Ph.D. in chemistry from a prestigious university.

In high school Dick started working on the school newspaper. In college he did the same, and took on work with the newspaper of the Newman Club as well. "I'd work long hours into the night. I had a knack for it. It was in my blood all the time." Despite the many hours he had to devote to his science courses, Dick managed to work on the newspapers and to take an interest in school politics.

He spent two years in post-doctoral research, another two years in the Army, and then went into chemical research for industry. However, when given the chance ten years ago to join the staff of a prominent technical magazine in the field of chemistry, he jumped at it. "So I've been in writing for the last ten years," he says.

All this while, Dick goes on, "I was one of those people in an in-between world." He had had homosexual experiences in his teens, but he didn't define himself to himself as a homosexual. "I was never comfortable on dates, and I avoided them like the plague, but I never could really figure out why I was socially unsuccessful. And I'd form strong friendships with school chums. Then, to me, it was a deep personal loss when they said good-bye and left school.

"I led a pretty lonely existence for a long time. I used to wander around disconsolately in strange cities, going from straight bar to straight bar. It was a terrible existence, until I found a gay bar. I wandered into one and there was a huge roomful of people who were enjoying themselves!

"I was already past thirty when that happened. Looking back, I could see clearly that I'd been homosexual all my life. I regret not having come out a helluva lot sooner!

"It wasn't all roses," Dick continues, "but I had found I out how many people there are like me. The bar was at least a semi-liberated atmosphere where gays could remove any pretense and be themselves."

Dick says that to this day he defends gay bars, despite the contention by some gay liberation groups that bars are oppressive. "Bars were in the business of liberating gays long before gay lib was even thought of. Formerly that was the only way a person became liberated."

He had a number of brief sexual encounters with tricks during which "I found out the joy of having somebody love and caress me even for a night. I even went through that ridiculous stage where I thought it was O.K. to have sex but not to kiss! I still had little individual hang-ups to get rid of."

These hang-ups, however, seemed more the result of culture-bound notions than of religious convictions. "I felt no guilt," Dick says. "I'd already been masturbating for twenty years, and there's a limit to how much guilt a person can feel. The great weight lifted off my shoulders far outweighed any guilt."

A practicing Catholic until about ten years ago, Dick says that "inside and philosophically, I still am a Catholic. Most of the tenets of the Church I still find quite solid. But the Church cuts off a homosexual. In his case, sin is just his very being, practically. They leave the homosexual no recourse. They make it an either-or proposition. So I've given up the outward trappings of the Church."

Dick quickly found other gay bars, including a friendly neighborhood bar in Los Angeles, where he had settled. "It was a tiny place and we were having a rollicking good time one night, when all of a sudden vice cops came in and arrested twelve people. I was one of those tapped on the back. The arrest cost me around six hundred dollars, for one tap on the back. I was charged with a misdemeanor, lewd conduct and I hadn't done a damned thing!

"Up to that time I'd always said to friends, 'What are you worried about? If you're not doing anything wrong, nothing's going to happen to you.' I'd swallowed all the wonderful propaganda churned out by the Los Angeles Police Department. But after my arrest, I knew there was something radically rotten going on.

"There probably wouldn't be any Advocate if it were, not for that one tap on the back."

A few months after his arrest, Dick met Bill, who took him to a meeting of one of Los Angeles's first militant gay groups, PRIDE (Personal Rights in Defense and Education). The two started to work on the organization's newsletter, which went to members and was distributed in bars.

"Then it occurred to me that one of the principal things any movement needs is a press of its own, a newspaper. Without that, you can't inform people of what's going on, you can't tie together widespread elements. So I said, let's transform this newsletter into a newspaper.

"We called the paper The Los Angeles Advocate. The first issue was dated September 1967 and was 8-1/2 by 11 in size. At first it was published under the auspices of PRIDE, but the organization was dying. Nonetheless Dick and Bill (who now were living together as lovers) went through the formality of paying PRIDE one dollar for ownership of the paper, in February 1968. This was done to keep the paper from being saddled or killed by any debts the collapsing organization might have.

"I had no intention of making it into a business," Dick says. "My intention was to make it a service to the local gay community, something they sorely needed to make progress in legal and social reforms."

The paper was coming out monthly then. Friends joined Dick and Bill around the dining room table and donated their help in putting the paper together. In addition, there were other free services from the gay community: for the first eight- or nine months, the small newspaper was "printed after hours on the offset press of a large corporation. They never knew," Dick chuckles. A former PRIDE member had found excuses to stay at work after hours in order to do the printing free.

"We started with zero capital," Dick says, "and it sold right from the start." Sales were mostly in gay bars in Los Angeles. "At first we charged twenty dollars a page for ads. Gay bars could afford it, but they were not in the habit of advertising. We had to train them to advertise, and the training took a year.

"And for the first two years or so, nobody who worked on the paper got a penny. Everybody just slaved away! We moved from the dining-room table to the living room, and Bill and I and our friends did everything, including folding, collating, mailing, delivering, and collecting money from the sales.

"Bill was going to college, and I was still on the technical magazine. We worked on into the night constantly. We weren't able to go out much, and we were tired most of the time. But it drew us closer together. We were just so busy we didn't even notice the loss of a social life.

"As for profits, there really weren't any in the true sense of the word. Whenever we had a little money left over after the normal expenses that we couldn't get out `of, it was used to buy something we badly needed but which we'd done without. For years, anything we made was plowed back into the paper."

The Los Angeles Advocate came out of their living room until the press run got up to three thousand copies. "And we said, my God, this has got to stop, we can't go on this way! So we hired an ad salesman, part-time, on commission. And he was the first person who ever got paid.

"Then things really picked up. We went to outside services and became full tabloid size. We got a small office four blocks from home, and set up the paper as a private business venture while we both held full-time jobs during the day. And we started paying our writers in driblets."

Three tiny rooms made up that first small office they moved into in October 1968. Several times the office space was expanded, and today the paper's operation uses about two thousand square feet, down the hall from the original quarters.

In June of 1969, Dick left his job where he was making almost fifteen thousand a year, left it to make the newspaper what it is today. "Now I make half that much," he says, "but since Bill and I both draw salaries from the paper, we can live fairly well."

Obviously, The Los Angeles Advocate was liked by the gay community. "The reaction was great, from the very first issue," Dick says. "We try to treat every gay organization fairly. Our purpose is to disseminate the news--not just the news Dick Michaels likes or the news that anybody else on the staff likes. We want to run the whole spectrum of opinion in the gay community. In fact, we are partisans of the gay community, period. Not of any organization. I don't belong to- any organization--deliberately."

Despite his nonpartisan stance and Catholic leanings, Dick is pleased with the role he played in helping Reverend Troy Perry launch a church where gays, as gays, are welcome. Troy cornered Dick in a gay bar one night, introduced himself, told him of the kind of church he wanted to start, and asked if he could place a small ad in the paper announcing services. "At first I was skeptical," Dick admits. "I thought, I hate to do something like this. There are so many charlatans trying to separate gays from a dollar. But after we talked half an hour, I was completely won over by Troy. There's a sincerity in Troy's voice that cannot be ignored." He adds, "Troy's dream probably couldn't have come about without 'The Advocate Nor it would have taken much longer."

Finding a regular printer when the paper went to tabloid size wasn't so easy, according to Dick. "Only a few straight printers will touch The Advocate because it's gay. But finally we found one particular printer who couldn't care less. We're treated very well by him and we get a quality job."

Ever since the paper went national and changed its name in March 1970 from The Los Angeles Advocate to simply The Advocate (with the subtitle "The Newspaper of America's Homophile Community"), Dick has worked to get as much national news as possible. In order to boost sales nationwide, The Advocate took on a national distributor, and, indeed, sales around the country have gone up steadily. The press run as of summer of 1971 was 39,000. A sampling of headlines from this news-oriented gay newspaper shows its nationwide coverage: ''Philly disc jockey zapped when remarks rile gays"; "Gays busted at New York school board sit-in"; "Gay pride: Chicago plans"; "Minnesota ACLU chapter hires gay as its lawyer"; "Gay raiders seize stage in D.C. psychiatric meet"; "Allen Ginsberg blows some Sacramento minds"; "Connecticut gays fight slurs"; "Idaho sex reform"; "Gay women speak out at Rutgers meeting"; "Hollywood harassment rises."

The last headline represents a subject still uncomfortably close to Dick Michaels' heart. "From the first days, we never let up on the police. Whenever they've done anything seriously wrong, we've called them everything short of pigs. We've even been fearful of walking out of the office late at night because some idiot vice officers might take it upon themselves to inflict their own form of justice on us. But nothing like that has happened.

"There's been no harassment of The Advocate. Maybe even the police have respect for our honesty and integrity. For example, we try to check facts with them. We'll print their side of a story, if they'll ever give it.

"We don't beat the police over the head with lies. A lot of the underground press does that, unfortunately, and all they wind up doing is blunting their own argument. They often have justice on their side and they muddy it up. Once your readers have reason to distrust you, then your paper can go nowhere but downhill in influence."

The paper's high standards have attracted some enviable talent. Rob Cole, for example, joined the staff in April 1970, when the paper went from a monthly to a biweekly. Rob is a seasoned newspaperman with fifteen years of professional experience behind him. He has the key post of News Editor. Also, writers from the establishment press as well as movie industry writers are contributing features to The Advocate--under pseudonyms, usually.

The paper sells extremely well in the Hollywood area and is being read by movie bigwigs, Dick says. "The Advocate has the distinction of being the only gay publication anywhere that is sold in coin boxes on street corners. They're mostly in the Hollywood area. And there are no repercussions." That couldn't be done in New York, Dick adds, because coin box dispensers would be vandalized there.

Ninety percent of The Advocate's total sales are from bars, bookstores, newsstands, and coin boxes. The other ten percent are paid subscriptions. In geographic distribution, half the `sales are in southern California, the rest around the country and abroad.

In an effort to boost East Coast sales dramatically, Dick tried to place a full-page ad in After Dark, a sophisticated, slick-paper entertainment magazine based in New York City. He wrote in an editorial in The Advocate (issue 59, May 12-25, 1971) that "After Dark is not a 'gay' magazine in the accepted sense of that term. We suspect, however, that After Dark has a substantial gay readership, primarily because of the many pictures of very attractive young actors, dancers, and fashion models usually nude or near-nude--that fill every issue. Most of them make the denizens of ordinary cock books look like gargoyles." Dick contended in his editorial that the magazine's Los Angeles ad representative gave him every indication his ad would be accepted, but just a few days before the magazine's deadline, the New York headquarters suddenly nixed the ad.

Printed right next to Dick's editorial criticizing the decision was a replica of the intended ad. It showed two men in sports clothes standing beside each other at the top of a hill. Superimposed on a dramatic sky and hillside are these words: "THESE TWO YOUNG MEN LOVE EACH OTHER! They are trying to build a life together--a life with meaning, a life without shame or guilt! And The Advocate, the most complete newspaper of America's homosexual community, is in the center of this revolution in human dignity." There followed a pitch for sales and subscriptions.

Dick closed his editorial with this comment: "We do not argue with the right of a publisher to choose his advertisers or to hold them to certain standards. This right is essential to preserving the style, quality, and tone of a publication. We do believe, however, that those in charge at After Dark made a very bad decision--probably believing that they were protecting the magazine they had worked very hard to build. It was a decision made in fear and ignorance--a decision that completely misreads the temper of the times and the intelligence of After Dark's readers. Worse yet, it places the publisher among all those others who don't mind making money off homosexuals but don't want anything to do with them publicly.

"We are not angry at the editors of After Dark. We feel sorry for them." A strong civil libertarian, Dick defends the right of After Dark to make such a decision, though he deplores it. Of his political leanings he says, "I'm a conservative liberal. I'm a liberal, not a radical. I believe in working within the system and I'm very much opposed to violence, opposed to doing anything that puts us in the same category as the people we oppose. If one of their tactics is injustice, I think we're wrong in using injustice ourselves.

"My basic position, which is the position of The Advocate, is that we back militancy, but not to the point where it will bring about violent action, or if it impinges on the rights of other people.

"I think basically the system we have is pretty good. I'm certainly not anticapitalist! I'm anti the establishment that's anti me, but I'm not anticapitalist. There's nothing evil about somebody providing a service somebody else wants and charging for it."

In past years, Dick had been distressed by the lack of gay activism in politics in California. In one election, it fell to The Advocate to send 300 letters to candidates for the state Legislature and Congress asking for their views on legislation affecting gay people. Dick published a tabulation of replies received. "This is where you can do some damned good--getting this information disseminated before election day. Gays are entitled to know where politicians stand!" Today, activist gays in his state are making a bold entry into reform politics, and The Advocate covers their moves extensively.

What is Dick's life like now that he has a strong news editor and a paid staff of seven to help put out the paper? "It's getting more hectic all the time! The biggest problem Bill and I have is getting out of the office. At home I sit in front of the TV and relax, but Bill has a harder time relaxing. He's thinking about undone work all the time. Promotion of the paper is suffering, for example. We used to take every other Sunday off and go somewhere, but we haven't done that for quite a while now."

But the couple does have one great moment that no work pressure can ever rob them of. "Our anniversary is July 4th," says Dick. "The whole country celebrates it--fireworks and all!"

Dick says he likes to cook and gets elaborate with it when he has the time, but this is very seldom. "Our main problem is finding time for relaxing that has nothing to do with the paper. But we both enjoy so much what we're doing! It's not like a job you go to that you don't want to do. This job is very important to us. It's not just a way of making a living. There's not a person on our staff who couldn't be making more elsewhere. And we're all overworked. So there's got to be something else driving us!"

So far only Dick and Bill own stock in the enterprise. "Even now there are no stock dividends. We get only our salaries. Everything else after expenses goes into the bank for some large expenditures we're contemplating, such as our own typesetting equipment.

"But we would like to issue stock one day in order to open other offices and have regional editions, to really give homosexuals a national paper and tie together the homosexual communities from coast to coast. Give them one thing in common, and that might help a lot!

"National papers in the straight world are usually unsuccessful," says Dick, noting that The Wall Street Journal is one of the few to succeed. "But we think a national paper is very possible in the gay newspaper field. It's just a matter of being able to afford it, and attracting the right people. It probably costs us more than ten thousand a month to run The Advocate now. But we're not in debt, and as income rises, we'll expand.

"When we started, we were just convinced that as soon as a reader saw The Advocate, he'd be hooked for life. And although it hasn't gone quite that way, we don't think any other gay publication can touch it!

"The excitement of building a newspaper from scratch is really something. Every office procedure, every blessed little office form, we worked out ourselves. Someday I'11 try to interest The Wall Street Journal in-doing a story on us."

Though he's "the Emperor" in his office, Dick is dedicated to vigorous exercise of the democratic process by the gay movement. "All the patterns on how to make progress are well laid out by other minority groups. The techniques are tested. And God knows we have enough gays to influence legislation. But there have to be thousands of gays out there working! If we don't succeed, it will be our own fault." Politicians, he has said, can get away with treating gays as "the new American nigger" only if gays allow it. ;

Reforms springing-from law change are in Dick Michaels' view the key to gay liberation. As he wrote m an editorial in April 1971: "Because they are the bedrock for the mountain of prejudice directed against us-- we must rid ourselves of laws that brand decent, productive, valuable, and loving human beings as criminals."

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Kay Tobin, author of this portrait-interview celebrating Advocate founder Dick Michaels, is herself a legendary portrait-making strategist who, in exact moments stood in the right places and knew precisely what to do about it. Overly modest about her little-known accomplishments, it is an historic fact that Kay Tobin alone--on one occasion-- represented to youthful Stonewall revolutionaries, an already seasoned East Coast gay movement strategy and philosophy that had been formulating a decade prior to the Stonewall uprising. She did this as one of the 12 founders of New York's Gay Activists Alliance. Therefore, Kay Tobin can be said to have acted as a wise and effective transmitter of long-developed knowledge, passed to an organization that fast became, contrary to two recent revisionist histories, the most surprisingly effective force for liberation in the immediate post-Stonewall era. She chronicled--in photographs and in writing--the progress of that group, the Gay Activists Alliance.

Kay Tobin was also the first photographer to place true-life lesbians' faces on the nation's first lesbian journal, THE LADDER. Her long-time, ever-constant companion is a woman she greatly treasures, as do all who know that woman, Barbara Gittings--who will be next week's GayToday "People" feature, each installment celebrating this month of June the happy birth of gay pride and marking the beginning of the Stonewall era.

Barbara Gittings, Kay Tobin's great love, is, in the mind of GayToday's editor, the Grand Mother of Modern Gay and Lesbian Liberation. Nichols' portrait, next week, of Ms. Gittings, will be timed to accompany a well-deserved honor, namely Barbara Gittings as co-Grand Marshall--with Barney Frank--of New York City's 1997 gay pride parade. The 1997 Pride Theme is "Liberate, Educate, Demonstrate." Barbara Gittings and Kay Tobin are two loving companions who have tirelessly done just those things since the early dawn of our liberation movement.

THE GAY CRUSADERS, from which this portrait of Dick Michaels is excerpted, is Kay Tobin's magnificent series of portraits of America's Stonewall-era activists, "In depth interviews with 15 homosexuals--men and women who are shaping America's newest sexual revolution." New York: Paperback Library, 238 pp. 1972. also in hardback--reprinted in New York: Arnos Press: Series on Homosexuality: Lesbians and Gay Men in Society, History and Literature in (1975). THE GAY CRUSADERS is, without doubt, a primary text that is now out of print.

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