Karen Ocamb

Gay Activist Alliance Co-Founder Arthur Evans Dies

Filed By Karen Ocamb | September 15, 2011 11:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Living
Tags: Arthur Evans, Gay Activists Alliance, Gay Liberation, Stonewall riots

Arthur Evans, born in York, Pennsylvania on October 12, 1942, died in San Francisco over the weekend, Michael Petrelis in San Francisco and Jim Fouratt in New York (via email) report. No cause of death was given.

Arthur Evans in Board of Education picket line (Photo Rich Wandel, New York Public Library)

In August 1969, two months after the Stonewall Riots, Evans and his lover Arthur Bell, who would later become an important columnist for the Village Voice, joined the Gay Liberation Front, a group described to him as “A bunch of stoned-out faggots!”

There is a good biography of Evans here. But of particular interest to LGBT history is why Evans left the Gay Liberation Front to start the Gay Activists Alliance with Marty Robinson and Jim Owles in November 1969. Evans, a student of philosophy, wrote GAA's mission statement based on the US Constitution.

Here's an excerpt from "GAA & the Birth of Gay Liberation" written by Evans and posted on Gay Today:

For the first time in our lives, Arthur Bell and I met a large number of gay men and lesbians who were proud of being gay, angry at being put down, and determined to do something about it in a big way. Furthermore, they saw gay oppression as part of a bigger picture--the systematic oppression of women, Blacks, students, the poor, and advocates of peace.

It was an exhilarating experience. In the previous year, I had demonstrated for peace at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, fleeing tear-gas-firing police, while Allen Ginsberg intoned “Ommmmm” to the heavens. In the same year, I had also demonstrated at Columbia University, where I was a graduate student in philosophy, after police raided the campus and clubbed hundreds of professors and students.

But in all my past demonstrations, going back to 1963, I had never made the connection between my being gay and my participation in demonstrations for peace and Black civil rights.

GLF made the connection. We are all oppressed by the same rotten system, GLF proclaimed. The answer is revolution for all. I agreed.....

For a while, the GLF rose bloomed. I helped to create a GLF cell, known informally as the radical study group. Most of the participants later became published authors….

Apart from the radical study group, though, I started to become disenchanted with GLF. The group insisted that it had no leaders, yet a few Non-Leaders were clearly calling many of the shots, although no one had elected them to do so. In addition, the same questions were often re-debated and re-decided, with little or no group memory from one meeting to the next. Finally, the group had no program of consistent street activism, only occasional spurts.... But they seemed to me to be withering on the vine because of the group’s gnarly decision-making process.

Matters came to a head when a proposal was made to donate $500 (a big sum then) to the Black Panther Party. Proponents said that such a contribution was needed to show gay solidarity with the Black power struggle. Opponents argued that the Panthers were abusive to women and gay people, and that gay groups should first attend to gay needs.

The Non-Leaders backed the proposal and carried the day. They did so by labeling their opponents as racist, imperialist, assimilationist, reformist, reactionary, and counter-revolutionary. Apart from the substantive issue at hand, an ugly procedural precedent had thus been established in GLF: the use of ideological name-calling, rather than rational argument, to win people over.

Evan met Robinson and Owles, who was more interested in street activism than "ideological consciousness-raising." Evans continues:

Arthur Evans (Photo via Gay Today)

Both Marty and Jim saw the debate over the Panthers as exposing fatal flaws in GLF: The group was not primarily concerned with gay matters. It was disconnected from the lives of ordinary gay people. It lacked a rational, democratic structure. It didn’t do much.

In November 1969, Jim suggested that we and some other friends think about creating a new group. Jim wanted the group to engage the political system, but without becoming entangled in it. The solution: the group would question candidates for public office, publicize their response, but never endorse any candidate or political party. We would rock the system without becoming a part of it! [They used "zaps" to non-violently and publically confront "our oppressors."]

We all agreed that the new group should be exclusively devoted to gay and lesbian issues. We had seen GLF tear itself apart too many times over non-gay issues. We had all demonstrated before, of course, in the peace movement, the Black civil-rights movement, and the women’s movement. But when we came together and acted in the name of this new group, we would focus solely on gay issues. That didn’t mean we would stop having individual lives outside the new group!

Our inspiration for this decision was the history of the 1960s, with its panoply of different groups devoted to various popular issues. After all, if Blacks and women could focus on Black and women’s issues, why couldn’t gay people focus on gay issues?….

I was asked to gather everyone’s suggestions together and draft a proposed constitution for the new group, as well as articulate the rationale for its existence. In doing this work, I drew on my practical experiences as a 60s street demonstrator, as well as my studies in political science and philosophy.

The proposed preamble and constitution that emerged rested squarely on the precedents of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. These documents were themselves part of a revolutionary struggle, and one that expressed noble ideals: civil rights, democracy, and the rule of law. True, the U.S. had not always acted in accordance with these ideals, but the ideals remained worthy nonetheless.

Accordingly, my proposed preamble called on the larger society to recognize four basic rights. The new group we were creating would be dedicated to attaining these rights.

The first:

“The right to our own feelings. This is the right to feel attracted to the beauty of members of our own sex and to embrace those feelings as truly our own, free from any question or challenge whatsoever by any other person, institution, or moral authority.”

The U.S. constitutional tradition had spoken mostly of the rights of property, the mind, and speech. This new right touched on feelings as well. They are as much of who we are as our possessions and thoughts!

The second:

“The right to love. This is the right to express our feelings in action, the right to make love with anyone, any way, any time, provided only that the action be freely chosen by all the persons concerned.”

This right goes beyond merely having feelings. We also should be able to express them in action, just as we can express our opinions in dialogue.

The third:

“The right to our own bodies. This is the right to treat and express our bodies as we will, to nurture them, to display them, to embellish them, solely in the manner we ourselves determine, independent of any external control whatsoever.”

This right connects to something the U.S. Constitution hardly mentions, the body. It especially affirms the rights of drag-queens and transsexuals.

The fourth:

“The right to be persons. This is the right freely to express our own individuality under the governance of laws justly made and executed, and to be the bearers of social and political rights which are guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States and the Bill or Rights, enjoined upon all legislative bodies and courts, and grounded in the fact of our common humanity.”

This right acknowledges that the holding of private rights is always within the context of a larger legal and social contract. The only way we can be reasonably secure in our individual bodies and feelings is to sustain a lawful, democratic political order for the society at large. From the interaction of these two realms emerges personhood....

These, then, were the rights the new group would fight for--the right to our feelings, the right to love, the right to our bodies, the right to be persons....

In philosophy, I had felt that the existentialists were right in insisting that existence precedes essence. Likewise in politics, I felt that identity precedes ideology. In sum: As existence precedes essence, so identity precedes ideology. That meant that in the actual conditions of the real world, GAA must come before GLF.

Solstice 1969

On December 21, 1969 (the winter solstice, as it turns out), about a dozen or so of us met in Arthur Bell’s apartment at 1st Avenue and 75th Street in Manhattan. With some minor changes, we approved the preamble and constitution as proposed. We decided to call the new group the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA), and elected Jim Owles as our first president. That was an appropriate choice since Jim was the first spark that led to the creation of the new group.

Now we were ready to hit the streets as Marty Robinson wanted.

(Crossposted at LGBT POV)

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He was a great hero. God bless him.

Rachel Bellum | September 15, 2011 9:45 PM

Arthur Evans began his public activism before I was born. There was obviously a point at which I didn't recognize his name, but I don't remember it. Truly a man who contributed positively to his world.

I also really like that first picture. He looks so happy.