If you enjoy “Will and Grace” or “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy”, you have somebody to thank for that freedom of gay expression.
A few weeks ago Jack Nichols, a significant figure in American gay history, died at the age of 67. I am 45 and I’m embarrassed to say I had not heard of him. Reading the obituary of Nichols made me aware of how little I know about those who fought for gay rights, for my rights, in the decades before Stonewall (1969) and after.
How did we get where we are? Most of us take for granted the rights and acceptance we have today. Yet 40 years ago society’s view of us was all negative, and the laws reflected it. We were considered
- mentally sick, according to psychiatrists
- sinners, according to religious groups
- criminals, according to legislators and lawyers
- deviants, according to everybody
We had no rights as gay people. There are still many areas where we are not accepted, but we have come a long way.
We have Jack Nichols to thank for many of those gains. He helped organize some of our first civil rights demonstrations. He was a founder of “Gay”, the first gay weekly newspaper in the US. He led the first gay rights march on the White House, in April, 1965. Wow! That same year, he helped organize a July 4 demonstration at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Remember, being gay was illegal in every state. Gay men and lesbians could be jailed or stuck in a nut house just for being open about their sexuality. And of course, back then, gay bashing was pretty much accepted as perfectly justified.
In 1967 he went on national television and spoke as an openly gay person in the CBS documentary, “The Homosexuals” (Sounds like a bad horror movie) I’m sure he feared for his life in those days.
Perhaps his most significant contribution was to lobby the American Psychiatric Association to change the official definition of homosexuality as a mental illness. It took awhile. Finally, in 1973, four years after Stonewall, the language condemning us as mentally ill was dropped.
But he also contributed to the spiritual growth of our culture. When he restarted the Mattachine Society in NYC in 1961, he knew of the spiritual and philosophical tradition of Harry Hay, who created the original Mattachine Foundation in San Francisco in 1950. And he also continued the older gay spirit of Walt Whitman. He tried to close the gap between religion and gayness. More about these efforts here.
Starting in 1963, he chaired the Washington Society’s Committee on Religious Concerns and initiated the first organized dialogs on America’s East Coast between LGBT activists and clergy representing various denominations. Nichols himself is not a member of any church, but instead calls himself a “philosophical child” of Walt Whitman’s.
You can learn more about this remarkable and attractive man from his web site, Jack Nichols.
So next time you’re out holding hands with your beau, or kissing on main street, or buying a house with your lover, or venting to a gay counselor about the trials of gay life, or even just reading a gay novel, or posting to your gay blog, think of Jack Nichols. He’s gone now, but he helped make all those things easier to do as an openly gay person.