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Shepard, B. (2010, July).

Reviving the Tribe: Friendship and Social Relations in the

Work and Play of Eric Rofes. Theory and Action. 3(3)


As a journalist, executive director, organizer, and educator, Eric Rofes worked to support
a Gay Liberation movement originally dedicated to sexual freedom and self
determination. While Rofes skills as a writer, educator and cultural critic have long been
recognized, this essay addresses Rofes use of friendship to realize movement goals. For
Rofes, friendship involved the nexus between individual and larger social forces, linking
ideas, bodies, and networks into Gay Liberation politics. Here, individuals and groups
helped realize the image of convivial social relations, in which human care, freedom of
the body, sexuality and imagination found support. Rofes died in 2006. The concept is
discussed and explored through the review of Rofes life and story.

Keywords: Friendship, play, sexual self determination, social networks, HIV prevention

Activists, AIDS prevention workers, scholars, and Gay Liberationists around the
world mourned the untimely death of Eric Rofes in June 2006. Over a period of three
decades, this accomplished and acclaimed author, educator, and activist worked to
support a Gay Liberation movement which he saw as dedicated to sexual freedom,
democracy, and pleasure for everyone. He was the author of twelve books, including:
Reviving the Tribe: Regenerating Gay Mens Sexuality and Culture in the Ongoing
Epidemic (1996) and Dry Bones Breathe: Gay Men Creating Post-AIDS Identities and
Cultures (1998). While Rofes skills as an author, academic, and cultural critic have long
been recognized, this essay addresses the ways Rofes cultivated friendships and what this
meant to his work in queer politics. It explores the overlapping utility of these friendships
in relation to organizing, teaching, writing, and community building. For Rofes,
friendship involved the nexus between individual and larger social forces; it offered the
possibility for achieving a long-standing goal of Gay Liberation politics. Here,
individuals and groups prefigured the image of convivial social relations, in which human
care, freedom of the body, gender, sexuality and imagination found support. And a queer
politics of possibility was realized within the workings of everyday life.
The first section of this essay considers the theme of friendship directly, while the
latter considers its presence and absence in relation to AIDS organizing, panics over sex,
struggles over the meanings of queer sexuality, HIV prevention, and the legacies of the
Gay Liberation Movement in which Rofes first found his voice as a writer and activist.
As it progresses, the essay includes a few of our discussions about play and organizing as
my voice and observations as one of Rofes friends informs the narrative (Tedlock 1991).
Throughout these chapters of his life, friendships provided pulsing, pluralistic, engaged
social relations as an alternative to oppressive patriarchal family structures.
For Rofes and others, friendship offered a vital social resource. I think now,
after studying the history of sex, we should try to understand the history of friendship.
That history is very, very important, Michel Foucault explained in an interview in the
late 1970s (Gallagher and Wilson, 1987/2005, 33-4). For Foucault, friendship was a
space to challenge conventional understandings gender and heterosexuality (Garlick,
2002). Friendship is increasingly recognized as a part of the study of social movements.
Much of the topic helps propel mechanisms of social change. Here, this topic extends
into means and motivations for social actors to gather, interact, and build space for
alternate social relations. Through such practices, countless movements have
transformed operations of power in everyday life. Eric Rofes story represents a useful
case example in the complex interplay between friendship and social change practices.
One of my challenges as an activist, and as an activist who structures his life in
an alternative way, has been about understanding when something is work and when
something is community or family, Rofes explained to me in a 2005 personal interview
a year before his death. And I think because I came right after the 1960s into
organizing, I carry with me the belief that the people I did organizing with were going to
be my friends and in some ways, my family and my community.

Memories of Friendships
Chris Bartlett, an organizer from Philadelphia who had worked with Eric in the
Gay Mens Health Movement, was a speaker at Rofes East Coast memorial service held
at the LGBT Community Service Center in New Yorks Greenwich Village on August 1,
2006. Eric gave many young men and women both an education about the history of the
Gay Liberation Movement and strong support in putting visionary ideas into practice,
Bartlett explained (Highleyman, 2007). Friendship was an integral part of these
practices. This took shape via storytelling, collaboration, organizing, and even mentoring
(Bartlett, 2006). Rofes loved to tell stories about the ways queers built a new world with
their bodies, subcultures, social ties, and friendships. Last Tuesday night I attended a
workshop by Eric Rofes on gay men's sexual culture in the 70s, Kirk Read (1998) wrote
after a typical Rofes event in the late 1990s. I heard dozens of stories told by men who
enjoyed San Francisco bathhouses and sex spaces before they were shut down in 1985,
he recalled. Through the storytelling process, new social ties connected participants and
cohorts. Remembering this history is essential for our elders; hearing this history is
essential for our young. I caught a glimpse of the liberation that these brave pioneers
envisioned. Sex was central to that liberation. Pleasure was a political act, (Read, 1998).
Kirk Read would go on to work with Rofes and Bartlett in the Gay Mens Health
Movement, joining the planning collective for the First Gay Mens Health Summit in
Boulder Colorado.
Bartlett and many others appreciated Rofes capacity to support social
movement activities and friendships simultaneously. Part of his organizing method was
to foster ever-expanding social networks through movement building, mentoring, and
friendship. Each built upon each other in ways that fostered ever--expanding social
networks. "He insisted that gay leadership depended as much upon relationships and
shared community as it did upon ideas and action," wrote Chris Bartlett and Tony
Valenzuela (2007, p.v) in the forward to Rofes posthumous book, Thriving.
He was an artist of friendship, explained Richard Burns, a friend of Rofes
dating back to the mid-1970s, when they first met while working for Bostons Gay
Community News (GCN).
San Francisco writer Liz Highleyman remembers Rofes as a hub that brought
people together. To do so, he cultivated friendships. He did that with me, with Chris
Bartlett, and others in the Gay Mens Health Movement. He took pains to reach out
across generations, to reach out to women, to people who were not gay. Highleyman
spent years with Rofes in the San Francisco Study Group on Sex and Politics, dubbed
SexPols. It included luminaries in the field of queer studies such as Allan Brub and
Gayle Rubin as well as younger activists and scholars. What I liked about him was that
if Amber (Hollibaugh) was in town, he would call, she explained.
Friendships and Organizing
A few words on the intersection of friendships and social movement organizing
are instructive. Much of organizing begins with recruiting through networks and
relationships. I heard about it from a friend is a consistent response to questions about
how people got involved in organizing efforts (ODonnell et. al., 1998, p. 143).
Friendships make us feel more comfortable about leaving our individual worlds and
connecting with broader social worlds. It is easier for people to get started if, as a new
participant, they know someone at the meetings... (Ibid.). Such contacts can also be a
positive outcome: I made good friends. I can say that. I made good friends here, one
organizer explained (p. 147). Building friendships was one of the goals for his study
group on sex and politics, SexPols, explained Rofes at the Western Regional Meeting of
the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality, San Francisco, May 2005. At their core,
these friendships involve the nexus between private and public spheres, between
individual and community issues (Nardi, 1999). In doing so, he built on a long
organizing tradition. In 1970, community organizer Si Kahn wrote, In some ways, the
organizers main job in the community in the early stages of organizing is simply to make
friends with the people there. That these friendships are also essential to the work of
organizing the community does not mean that they are any less real (p.26).
Rofes took this lesson to heart. For organizers like him, these friendships served
as the foundation of organizing campaigns. When Gay Liberationist Cleve Jones sought
to create the AIDS Quilt, the worlds largest piece of folk art, he looked to his friends to
help him complete the project. They served as a profoundly personal and practical
resource (Jones, 2001). In the years that followed, it was their collective memory that
Jones sought to preserve (Shepard, 1997). When Harry Hay, the founder of the
Mattachine Society, the first U.S.-based gay rights group, moved to Los Angeles in the
1940s, he knew no one. Yet he had a list of telephone numbers of other gay people in the
community that he had been given by friends in San Francisco. This list of friends of
friends functioned as an introduction into LAs social network of gay men. He met a few
like-minded thinkers and started open meetings of the Mattachine Society in LA in
November of 1950 (Nardi, 1999). The goal of the group was to break isolation among
gay men, foster social tolerance, and draw awareness of the daily mechanisms of
oppression faced by gays and lesbians (DEmilio, 1983). Friendships help social actors
build their lives around communities of choice rather than non-voluntary repressive
communities; by creating support for alternate forms of community and kinship, these
friendships support subversive shifts within social mores. Rather than support restrictive
patriarchal models of kinship, Rofes favored the notion of "family of choice" as a method
to create relationships that transcended the work of organizations or projects.
He often organized large dinners of organizers, both at conferences, and at his
home in the Castro, explained Chris Bartlett (2010). At these dinners, you could meet
the diverse men and women who inspired him. Bartlett continues this tradition,
organizing similar dinners which help support convivial social relations and infuse fun
and relaxation into the work.
Such networks provide social and emotional support, which in turn fosters the
capacity to effect social change and mobilize movements. For example in 1991, when
California Governor Pete Wilson vetoed Assembly Bill 101, which would have included
sexual orientation as a protected category in the Fair Employment and Housing Act,
activists across the state received a call. Los Angeles sociologist Peter Nardi remembers
being notified by a friend who had called him from a phone tree (Nardi, 1999). Rofes,
who by then was living in Los Angeles, also received a call. Simultaneous rallies started,
as gay activists organized demonstrations up and down the state. Many began with those
simple phone calls. Through such ties, people become invested in issues larger than
themselves (Nardi, 1991). From Harry Hay to Eric Rofes, friendships offered the nexus
between individual and community. Much of the organizing of the liberationist era took
place via such networks, sometimes born of formal politics, but just as often from bars
and bathhouses. Through such ties, activists transformed the workings of everyday life
(Boyd, 2003; Shepard, 1997; 2010).
I think that what happened in the 1960s and 1970s is something to be preserved;
that there has been political innovation, political creation, and political experimentation
outside of the great political parties, and outside of the normal ordinary program, Michel
Foucault, who reveled in a similar liberationist ethos, explained. Its a fact that peoples
everyday lives have changed from the early 1960s to now, and certainly within my own
life. And surely, that is not due to political parties but is the result of many movements,
(quoted in Gallagher and Wilson, 2005, pp. 335). Rofes came of age in this era in
which a spirit of kinship, sensuality, and creativity propelled innovations in social
organizing (Shepard, 2010). As he wrote in a prospectus for an uncompleted manuscript:
The 1969 Stonewall Riots and the emergence of the radical Gay Liberation
movement ushered in a decade of astounding social and sexual exploration which
amounted to nothing less then a cultural revolution, For gay men, the 1970s
was a time of bold exploration, thrilling adventure, and surprising discovery as
they came out en masse and re-created themselves, their communities, and the
nation in urban centers across America (Rofes Undated).

And of course, the history of social movements is full of stories of friendships propelling
such innovationsBob Kohler and Sylvia Rivera in the years after Stonewall in New
York; Charles King and Keith Cylar, of Housing Works; Panama Vicente Alba and
Richie Perez, with the Young Lords Party and the National Congress on Puerto Rican
Rights; Randy Wicker and Barbara Gittings, of the Mattachine Society and Daughters of
Bilitus; Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru ,with the Indian Independence
Movement; the Friends of Brad Will, a US activist and independent journalist killed in
Oaxaca in the fall of 2006, etc.
For Rofes, much of the dialog started with colleagues at the Gay Community
News in Boston in the mid-1970s. As a writer for the paper, Rofes took part in a
conversation about social moments and change, personal identity and group culture
which would continue for the next three decades. Richard Burns, one of his colleagues
from this era was the executive director of New Yorks Gay Community Services Center
in the years ACT UP peaked, as friendship networks helped support the struggle against
the AIDS carnage. He also invited countless activists and authors to speak at the Center.
I gave a talk at the Center on the work I co-edited, From ACT UP to the WTO, which
included an essay by Rofes, during one of these sessions. The other author at the session
was Burns GCN colleague Amy Hoffman. She read from her memoir An Army of Ex-
Lovers: My Life at the Gay Community News, which weaves a story of her friendships
with Richard Burns, Urvashi Vaid and Rofes in the 1970s Gay Liberation Movement;
here her gay family thrived as a part of social movement culture (Hoffman, 2007, p.
xi). We often claimed that GCN was neutral, and that we were open to all perspectives,
including conservative ones, but that was ridiculous, Hoffman confesses. We
supported the most radical expressions of the Gay Liberation Movement. We believed in
upsetting the social order and in creating alternatives to traditional gender roles,
definitions of sexuality, and hierarchical power structures of all kinds, (p. xiii). In the
years that followed, many of these friendships endured as did the work (and in some
circles resentment for the cliquish brand of social activism practiced by Rofes and
Yet, for Rofes and those he was close to, such as Burns, this friendship was
invaluable. The two worked closely on projects ranging from the 1979 March on
Washington to any number of talks at the New York Gay Community Center. Just
months before he died, Rofes put on a workshop in January of 2006 introduced by Burns.
Others resented Rofes very public brand of sexual civil liberties activism,
implying it was too much about personal ties, sex, and social history (see Barrett, 2007A,
B). Its always about Eric, one critic would complain after Rofes helped organize a 30

Anniversary Event for the Gay Community News, also with Burns, at New Yorks Gay
Community Center.
Eric and I were never friends, explained sociologist Donald C. Barrett (2007A).
If you were not in, you were not in, he lamented referring to Rofes circle. Seeing
Rofes navigate between friends, students, fans, allies and opponents at conferences, I was
always struck by how many actually did feel part of Rofes circle.

Rofes Friendships

The nexus between individual friendship and social forces was in constant flux
throughout Rofes career. In the years after the 1970s, it was going to be difficult to
maintain the bond he began in the 1970s with his Gay Community News cohort. Rofes
writings (1996) as well as interviews reflect ambivalence about the topic. [W] hat I had
with me in my organizing are people from the 1970s who I had done organizing with in
Boston and in the March on Washington in 1979, he explained in 2005. Organizing in
those years after college, it was about having meals together and going to concerts and
sharing Patti Smith albums together and going to bars together, and going to sex clubs
together, and stuff like that. The extent of Rofes commitment to those in his circle was
profound. No doubt the depth of these feelings led to occasionally being let down. I feel
towards those people an odd kind of loyalty and community and family that sometimes
they dont feel, he would later confess. Rofes struggle with some of these friendships
and their connections to movements runs through in his Reviving the Tribe (1996).
Friendship is anything but simple. It would endure and fade in different kinds of ways, as
the years progressed, and the AIDS crisis hit full steam.
The majority of Rofes writing involves a concern about the fate of his network of
formal and informal friendships and their links to a broader queer social body. Early in
Reviving the Tribe, Rofes writes about the way his friends used to dance together. For
Rofes, dancing was a collective expression of freedom, desire, and celebration. On the
dance floor at Chaps, a Copley Square clone disco where my friend Tom and I would
dance for hours on Sunday afternoons, I noticed a subtle but pronounced shift in the
energy of the men I had danced with for years, he writes, recalling a Sunday afternoon
in Boston in 1984 (1996, p. 21). Much of this feeling changed with the early AIDS years:
As a weekly community of dancers, we were shifting gears, and the dance floor was one
of the last venues where we could assume masks of denial and pretend the catastrophic
world hadnt overtaken us, (p.21). By the mid-1980s, the mood on the dance floor had
taken on a more manic dimension, more desperate than in previous years:
By 1984, it was impossible to disavow the rising tide of death, although wed
certainly try. Ironic lyrics crept out of our lips. Whether we were mouthing, I
will survive, or So many men, so little time, it became impossible to pretend
that we were not all thinking the same hideous thoughts. One Sunday evening, as
the powerful sound system throbbed with Irene Cara singing What a Feeling
from Flashdance, I looked from face to face of my fellow tea-dancers, and a knot
of raw emotion tore at my gut as my eyes dampened. In my AIDS story, that was
the day the music died (p. 21).

In the years that followed, Rofes would report that his entire social world changed as
friend after friend fell to AIDS. Many who had come of age in the 1970s would watch
their entire social networks reduced to newspaper obituaries and photo-albums of former
lovers, tricks, and friendships (Shepard 1997). Eric had volumes of photos and obits of
his friends who died, recalled Chris Bartlett. They were gorgeously created
remembrance books with hundreds of folks documented. Rofes spent the 1980s and
1990s consumed with the battle around the health crisis, working in AIDS organizations,
writing about AIDS, all while taking care of friends and lovers suffering from illness.

Memories and Losses
Much of Reviving the Tribe involved the fate of a subculture where so many of
his friendships and movement organizing had taken shape. During a recent trip to New
York City, I found myself in subfreezing temperature detouring a dozen blocks out of my
way to walk through the Meat Packing District of the West Village, Rofes recalled.
Without consciousness or planning, I needed to stroll by what had been the Mineshaft,
the quintessential gay male sex club of the 1970s. As I stood and stared at the door,
tears flowed as I remembered the individual men and the spirit of optimism of the times
(1996, p. 33). Rofes mourned the loss in space, networks, and gay mens sexual
culture (p. 33). Yet, the melancholic process involved conflicting feelings.
By the mid-1990s, Rofes experienced survivors guilt. In the introduction to
William Johnsons HIV Negative, he described the plight of uninfected gay men, such as
himself, as a "population of supposed survivors left to walk the earth like robots or
zombies, telling ourselves and others that everything's fine while we are actually numb,
cut off from our emotions," (quoted in Young, 1996).

By the late 1990s, many old-line activists worried that a vast cultural amnesia in
the community had wiped out the memory and legacy of queer artists and activists of the
1970s. Whether they were sex club owners, porn film-makers, or activists defending their
work, their passions and play spaces deserved recognition, not obscurity rooted in
condemnation. Without them, there was little to prevent a culture of shame from taking
hold of the queer scene (Moore, 2004). All reification is forgetting, Herbert Marcuse
(1978) writes in the Aesthetic Dimension. With this in mind, Rofes started thinking
intensely about what the years before the AIDS crisis had meant to him. Infused with
memories of past friendships and activism, Rofes fought to make sure the meaning of the
pre-AIDS Gay Liberation years was not lost to the sex-negative cultural narratives which
accompanied the AIDS years. And he tended to have a good time while doing so.
Ive often realized that most people who sustain themselves as organizers need to
have fun and need to get social, cultural, and pleasure needs met through organizing,
Rofes explained to me during our 2005 interview. Yet in many circles this need for
pleasure was rejected in favor of a dour model of LGBT advocacy. People favored
equality over affirmative battles for sexual freedom, opting for fitting in, rather than
challenging an oppressive system (Goldstein, 2002).
In the face of this vast forgetting, Rofes hoped to fight back by highlighting the
stories and experiences of this network of queer activists and artists, liberationists and
innovators. Following up on Reviving the Tribe and Dry Bones Breathe, he hoped to
finish the trilogy with a project which highlighted the stories of gay men who went to
baths, ran the bars, and functioned as sexual and social pioneers (Rofes undated).
In the years after Dry Bones Breathe (1998) was published, Rofes completed nearly one
hundred interviews with activists who had been involved with queer social organizing
during the 1970s. He would refer to the project as, my 70s book. Rofes hoped this
project could serve as a corrective: The gay glory days of the 70s are both
mythologized and maligned. As the shadow of AIDS fell over a generation, memories
and personal life stories became hidden, repressed, distorted or lost forever. The point
was that queer life offers a route outside of imposed ideological structures and
expectations about gender and culture; queer spaces allow for personal and social
transformation (Halperin, 1995). Within this context, the search for another way to live
within the culture had become a work of art in itself. This search would be the subject of
Rofes final work. Through it, Rofes hoped to capture a small glimpse into the history
and aesthetics of legendary queer public sexual spaces, including clubs like the
Mineshaft, the Saint, and the Catacombs, from San Francisco to the Greenwich Village
and the Lower East Side of New York City. These were all spaces where personal lives
overlapped with aesthetic explorations of self and community. In the second volume of
the History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault elaborated on those voluntary and deliberate
practices according to which men not only set themselves rules of conduct but also seek
to transform themselves, to change themselves in their singular being, and to make their
life into a work of art (Foucault, 1985, 10-11). Through oral history, Rofes (undated)
hoped to describe the lived experience of such practices, spaces, and networks.

Beyond Shame

Rofes was particularly concerned about the implications of the loss of such
practices of the self. As the AIDS years continued, he was worried queers would turn
their back on the lessons of the 1970s Gay Liberation which called for queer world-
making to involve a radical social critique of marriage, family, militarism, and any
number of restrictive tenants of US social life. Through such practices, queer theorist
Michael Warner suggests queer world making brings into being the space of our world,
which is then the background against which we understand ourselves and our belonging.
Here, our most intimate experience and self-understanding relies on a world that is
essentially public, and brought into being by the interactivity of others, (quoted in
Jagose, 2000). Warner, Rofes and company worried that aspects of this queer world were
being privatized and sanitized away, a casualty of a sex panic which used a morality
campaign to advance neoliberal aims to suburbanize urban space (Jargose, 2000;
Shepard, 2010). Debate over this panic would last for much of the late 1990s. In the
face of a push for more queers to turn their back on the world-making possibilities of
queer sexuality and by extension public sexual cutlure , Rofes hoped for pleasure to be
part of our democracy. He argued for this, screamed about it, yearned for it. When he
was attacked he fought back about it.
Throughout these years, Rofes remained a controversial figure. In our 2005
interview, I asked about his use of performance to defend pleasure at a government
Yet, that was 1989, testimony at National AIDS Commission. They were doing
hearings in San Francisco. And it was at a point when we were feeling like the
gay piece of it was becoming kind of bureaucratized and mainstreamed away
from authentic gay male subcultures. At that time I was the new executive
director of an AIDS group [Shanti Project] and felt that it would be much more
impactful to give testimony first in a suit and then in leather as a way of pushing
the issue of culture and community I got flack for it because people thought it
was disrespectful and unprofessional. This was when I was thinking AIDS groups
were still community-based in the real terms. I later learned how wrong I was.
But I was trying to bring an organization closer to grassroots gay male cultures.
And I think it was at a time when it was a tension within AIDS organizing, about
whether that was appropriate or not.

Rofes, who was blamed for a number of difficulties faced by the organization (see Rofes,
1996; Shepard, 1997), looked back with regret:

Many organizations were great examples of authentic communities that by the
1990s were inauthentic communities. I think thats an important distinction to
make. Because there are moments within community organizing where authentic
community forms around people coming together in crisis in a particular moment,
and being there for each other for that growth which you are talking about. And
then there are the times when people are trying to emulate or recapture that
authentic moment. My experience, at least with some organizations, is that they
are really not there for you when push comes to shove; they are around only in
rhetoric or representation.

When the divide between friendship, activism, and professional commitments became too
wide, the authenticity of the experience dwindled. Rofes left Shanti in the midst of an
angry struggle over funding and questions about accountability for service providers. The
end of the Shanti years would be the low point of Rofes career. He felt like many had
abandoned him, Urvashi Vaid recalled at his funeral.

Resiliency and Regeneration

After leaving Shanti Project, Rofes earned a PhD in Social and Cultural Studies at
UC Berkeley and wrote two enormously influential books (Rofes, 1996,1998). Both
were important contributions, contextualizing the losses and challenges to community,
pleasure, friendship, and social knowledge in the AIDS years. They also highlighted the
links between public sexual space and community organizing which had been so vital to
Rofes in the 1970s and early 1980s. After watching queers die en masse during the
years before AIDS treatment, I remember reading Reviving the Tribe in the summer of
1996 with a profound sense of excitement, thinking of ways communities facing multiple
losses could find new routes toward health and pleasure. Rofes was intensely aware of
the need to think through what was going on in the face of multiple losses to AIDS. I
believe that any hope for collective survival is rooted in the realities of our lives, however
harsh and seemingly unacceptable, he wrote in Reviving the Tribe (p.7). Facing a stark
reality head on, Rofes managed to articulate a life-affirming narrative for a new direction
in queer life and activism.
In doing so, Rofes railed against those who suggested gay men should just grow
up and reject public sexual culture. Even a cursory look at the histories of our
movement will show that sexual liberation has been inextricably bound together with Gay
Liberation, the womens movement, and the emancipation of youth, he wrote in 1998 .
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s a cultural war raged over of meanings of sexual self
determination, S&M, public space and the place of sex in the GLBT movement. Much of
the debate centered around the meanings of sexuality and pornography, S&M and public
sexual culture (Duggan and Hunter, 1995). Here panic grew over strategies of HIV
prevention (Crimp et al, 1997; Moore, 2004). Many suggested gays should act more
responsible (Goldstein, 2002). In response, activists, ironically dubbed themselves
SexPanic!, to challenge this discourse (Crimp et al, 1997). Rofes, who supported the
groups efforts, was keenly aware of the complexity of questions of sexual self-
determination. For many, the forbidden becomes desired; taboo produces cravings; the
return of the repressed is made corporeal and is experienced as an enormous hunger, he
wrote in A Radical Rethinking of Sexuality & Schooling: Status Quo or Status Queer
(2005). He was aware that telling gay men or anyone to just say no served no ones ends
but the Comstock like moralists who favor abstinence over more comprehensive
approaches to sexual self determination (Goldstein, 2002; Collins, 2002; Crimp, 1988).
Rather than condemn, Rofes supported efforts to considered HIV prevention within a
broad holistic, harm reduction approach, aimed at increasing safety rather than
prohibiting specific behaviors (Crimp, 1988; HRC, undated).
For Rofes, there was far more to the question of pleasure than just getting off, or
male privilege, as his old GCN colleague and veteran activist Urvashi Vaid had
charged. Central principles of American democracy lay at the core of the sex panic
question, argued Rofes (1997). Can you lose your job for deviating from conventional
sexual norms, he wondered? Many have (DEmilio, 1983; Murphy,1988). Like so much
else within our democracy, what one person enjoys, another will inevitably find
offensive, Rofes counseled. Variation is a core component of social life, he would
explain. In a pluralistic democracy, alternate kinship networks abound; honoring
difference is part of democratic living. Yet, many condemned the ways queers and
sexual outsiders organized their friends and families in alternative ways (Goldstein,
2002). Much of Rofes work and scholarship involved challenging such narratives.
Among the most effective ways of oppressing a people is through the colonization of
their bodies, the stigmatizing of their desires, and the repression of their erotic energies,
Rofes declared during the National Gay and Lesbian Task Forces Creating Change
Conference in San Diego, on November 16, 1997. We believe continuing work on
sexual liberation is crucial to social justice efforts, (Rofes, 1997). Without pleasure
there can be no justice, it was a point born of Rofes years of thinking and writing about
sexual politics.

A primary means for Rofes reading of sexuality was the San Francisco Study
Group on Sex and Politics (SexPols), a study group he helped organize in San Francisco.
A few words on the group are instructive. Founded in 1993 with the iconographic queer
writers Allan Brub and Gayle Rubin, the group was formed to help sex activists break
down feelings of isolation, make sense of their experiences, and chart shifting political
and cultural trends. Its a group of kind of egg head type people who have formed a
community of some kind, said Rofes. Some of us are new and some of us have been
around for thirteen years just getting together once a month over food and a book and a
reading or an article or a video weve seen to discuss it. And along the way, the writers
and friends from the group helped produce a pulsing body of writing as well as activism
SexPanic!, The Gay Mens Health Movement, among others. Yet, much of this project
began with a series of monthly salons.
The precedents for the group were many. Some were the 1970s queer study
groups and San Francisco History Project (Rofes 2005C). The other, of course, was
Wilhelm Reichs similarly named Sex-Pol group formed in 1927, a Viennese network of
social clinics for social reform, sexual education, and street based psychoanalysis (Reich,
1966). Through the group, Reich called for an authentic, politics of everyday life
which focused on both broad social issues and the details of everyday living, including
cravings for intimacy, care, and safe ways to connect with others (Danto, 2005, 116).
The group railed against the social and political costs of repressed sexuality. Reich
linked political repression to neuroses and redressed sexuality and guilt notes Elizabth
Danto (2005, p. 119). The San Francisco Sex Pol group built on a similar ethos. It was
an argument Rofes advanced throughout his career. And as with Reichs day, not
everyone agreed.
Sometimes Erics honesty about his personal sex life made people feel
uncomfortableas if somehow the seriousness of his work were diminished by his
personal stories, acknowledged Bartlett and Valenzuela (2007, p. v).
It was too much about himself and not others, complained Donald C. Barrett
(2007A). So it [his writing] comes off as braggy. Its one thing to locate yourself in the
environment, but it is not about you.
But this discomfort was a gift of Erics: he helped his readers, fellow organizers
and community members to see those hidden niches where shame and fear bind us,
argue Bartlett and Valenzuela (2007, p. v). The rejection of sexual shame was one of
Rofes powerful skills as an organizer and thinker.
An unfortunate by-product of those years and cultural battles was the schism
among queers. I think the conflicts that emerged during that period in the 1990s were
not pleasant or fun for any of us, Rofes (2004) recalled in another interview. Gay men
took sides in this debate and some long-time friendships were destroyed. This might also
discourage people from diving into the wreck of AIDS writing. Throughout the sex
wars, panic seemed to everywhere. It certainly was in New York.
In 1998, Rofes came to New York to speak on a panel for the one-year
anniversary of SexPanic! and contacted me about the book I had just finished on the San
Francisco AIDS years, White Nights and Ascending Shadows: An Oral History of the San
Francisco AIDS Epidemic. We talked about survival, the capacity for resiliency, and the
hope for a lusty pleasure in a democracy. I told him about my work with SexPanic! as a
kinky straight man, and he encouraged me to push forward and help forge a different kind
of politics, based in caring connection and social justice rather than identity. Shortly
before he died, we corresponded about an essay I wrote about the topic (see Shepard,
2006). I had always had an image of him being an intense, highly contentious man in
pursuing his ideology. Yet in person he was a caring, thoughtful person willing to
consider each of our unique contributions. He was aware of all of our capacities to
contradict ourselves. This was what Whitman talked about when he suggested we are all
bountiful (Christman, 1963; Schmidgall, 1998). Unfortunately, many rejected such a
lusty politics. Some of Rofes greatest critics were gay men who scorned him for such
views (Barnett, 2007A,B). Where are your sexual politics? he used to lament.
In the years after the sex wars of the 1990s, Rofes (2007) organized a series of
conferences, aimed at supporting a movement for gay mens health which expanded the
conversation beyond HIV and its related panics. Friendship was integral part of the mix.
Our aim is to encourage socializing, friendliness, and caring and downplay stardom,
power plays, and community civil wars, Rofes explained in the call for the Gay Mens
Health Summit in Boulder, Colorado; July 19-23, 2000. In doing so Rofes and company
helped move debate around gay mens health toward a more holistic approach to
community health (Rofes, 2007).
In between such engagements, Rofes continued to enjoy the company of gay men
in less formal settings, including clubs, and even bars, such as the Lone Star, a bear
meeting space in San Francisco. These spaces are friendly, theyre warm, theyre silly!
Rofes confessed in an interview about bear culture (Suresha, 2002, p. 16). I hate using
that word but there truly is a silliness, a lightness about it. He found great meaning in
such subcultures. Eric was famously a proud member and stalwart defender of the sex
and party cultures of gay men as vital sites of engagement and critical thought. He was a
non-monogamous, kinky leather bear and community organizer and scholar and writer,
explained Bartlett and Valenzuela (2007, p. 5). He insisted that most gay men in their
erotic adventures are not sick, immature or vestiges of a bygone era rebuked by AIDS,
but are instead brave innovators of ever-expanding the possibilities of intimacy and
He was keenly aware of the need for social movements to support broad-based
struggles for sex and social justice, with multiple means, including forms of play.
When I interviewed Rofes for my dissertation in 2005, he helped tease out the
relationship between embodied experience and the history of struggles for pleasure.
Rofes argued that the role of the Gay Liberation Movement was to reject notions that
pleasure should be considered a peripheral component of social movement activity.
Rather than distractions, pleasure and play represented smart strategies for organizing.
Play is a term for drag, ACT UP zaps, the use of food in the Latino community, the use
of dance dramaturgy, culture jamming, carnival, and other forms of creative community
building activities, he argued. In this way, play supported the exhilarating, pleasure of
building a more emancipatory, caring world. Here, cultural rituals, such as humor, drag,
and eating food, support and foster activism. Ultimately, does a sober form of
organizing appeal to more than white people in a sustainable way? he asked, responding
to a common critique of those who suggest activism should involve a calculated analysis
of benefits and costs. A politics of play would involve any number of similar questions
(see Shepard, 2010).
Throughout our 2005 interview, and in the following months, we debated this
politics of pleasure and playcomparing and contrasting our respective samples of
activist narratives. [I]f you look at the first chapters of my White Nights book, I
suggested, one could find a group of people who were doing both political organizing as
well as organizing parties. I cited party promoter Michael Molletta, one of these early
AIDS causalities, as a prime example. Rofes retorted, I can find exceptions but they are
rare, and I think your White Nights sample may have been unusual.
The long email conversation was a continuation of our interview from the
previous spring. In that interview, he noted, In doing my research, I have found that
there is a division there. When asked, what was their relationship to gay political,
social, religious, and cultural organizing in the 1970s, Rofes interviewees suggested,
basically they had no relationship to it. They were getting laid. They were going to the
bars or the baths or the parks. Conversely, My political activist friends often had total
disdain for them The activists tended to be sober and tended to be anti bar, anti disco.
It was a kind of Marxist left. Rofes found himself straddling these worlds. I felt like
because I had this interest in kink and masculinity, I did the leather bars, I did the sex
clubs in a way that put me next to people who generally had total disdain for the political
activists, (Rofes, 2005).
We concluded that play was an integral part of expanding networks, social capital,
and friendships which extended into and beyond activism. As we walked away after the
interview in the West Village, Rofes said to me that he felt like a strange kind of survivor
of a storm from a different era, as he looked around with a warm smile, a gesture of
reflection and relief. Many, of his friends had passed. AIDS was still around and so was
Rofes, who had recently become tenured at Cal State Humboldt, where he happily taught
and wrote as he continued to participate in organizing efforts.
In spring of 2005, Rofes wrote that his life was a success despite the losses:
Recently I attended a dance party, one of the many evenings of intense music and
cavorting available to thousands of gay men in my city [San Francisco] each
weekend. I looked over the crowd of primarily twenty-something and thirty-
something men, shirtless, gyrating, arms reaching to the heavens. I thought
immediately at how the doomsayers criticize this population of young gay men,
saying things such as, I didnt work my ass off during the past 30 years to create
a culture of drug use and unprotected sex and self-centered me-me-me attitudes.
This is not what the gay movement was all about. And then I realized
something, something surprising and simple. As someone who has spent the last
30 years working on Gay Liberation and AIDS activism and sexual liberation,
what I saw before me was precisely the world I was trying to create. When we
fought during the 1980s and 1990s to prevent gay mens sexual cultures from
being destroyed, when we worked to preserve certain values about gender play,
friendship, and erotic desire, when we quietly worked behind the scenes to ensure
that certain spaces would survive gentrification and public health crackdowns, we
were fighting to preserve the ability of new generations of gay men to create
worlds of pleasure and desire. As I looked out over the sea of dancing men, I
realized, despite all the battles weve lost in terms of politics and discourse and
the media, gay men and gay sexual cultures had managed to survive and, indeed,
thrive (quoted in Rofes, 2005B).

The last time we saw each other was in the spring of 2006, during the Pacific
Sociological Association meetings. I had flown out at Erics invitation to participate in
one of his panels (see Shepard, 2006). After a tour to Slammers sex club in West
Hollywood, we chatted about careers; he gave me the name of a couple of books,
including Tools for Conviviality by Ivan Illich and we talked about other heroes of the
movement who were facing their mortality. Rofes was always concerned about AIDS,
but none of us know how we are going to go out.

Friendship and Freedom

In the end, Rofes life experiences of movement building through friendship
belongs to a tradition dating even before the days of Gay Liberation. Friendship and
Freedom was the name of the short lived 1924 publication for the nations first gay rights
group, Society for Human Rights. Throughout Eric Rofes experience, friendship
connected personal passions with broad movement goals. It made lifes struggles
worthwhile. The friendships offered room to celebrate when he won and to lick wounds
when he suffered a setback. Without them, it is hard to imagine three decades of Rofes
writing and movement building taking shape in quite the same way. My most
meaningful kinships have emerged out of that movement, Rofes explained toward the
end of our conversation (Rofes, 2005). The following summer Rofes flew East for a
summer vacation to write his 70s book and spend time with old friends in
Provincetown, one of his old Gay Community News romping grounds. And he would
never return.
The legacy of friendship and organizing that Rofes leaves behind is best summed
up by Rofes himself, in an observation made towards the conclusion of our 2005
interview, as he reflected on three decades of community organizing;
For me, most of the meaning in community organizing has come from being part
of a movement. I am someone who has been able to work it so that I find it
meaningful to be part of movements that change the world or resist thingsand
to me thats a very sixties notion. But that is where Ive had to find satisfaction
and where I could actually find it. So for me theres an identity piece thats
around being part of a movement

The author would like to thank Erika Biddle, Jay Blotcher, Chris Bartlett, Liz
Highleyman, Peter Nardi, and Nadia Raza for feedback and editorial assistance with this

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