Eric E. Rofes (August 31, 1954 - June 26, 2006)
Activist and author Eric Rofes died Monday, June 26, of an apparent heart attack in Provincetown, Mass., where he was spending the summer on a writing sabbatical. He was 51.
"Eric was an absolute giant of the gay movement -- as an intellectual, an organizer, and an activist," said anthropologist and community historian Gayle Rubin. "He was a massive presence, whose influence was felt across a broad range of constituencies and issues and organizations. It’s as if a mountain has suddenly vanished."
Rofes, a resident of San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood, was found late Monday evening in his Provincetown rental apartment after his partner, Crispin Hollings, was unable to reach him by phone. Hollings contacted a mutual friend, who went to check on Rofes and found him dead, surrounded by books and his laptop computer.
"Eric never took his friendships for granted, nor his positions on the issues he cared deeply about, always looking for greater complexity and possibilities for fostering change," said long-time friend Will Seng. "He changed the way we now think of gay men’s sexuality, and by his example, prompted many gay men to take a closer look at feminism, class, and racism."
Said San Francisco Supervisor Bevan Dufty, who spoke in remembrance at a Board of Supervisors meeting on June 27, "Eric Rofes will be remembered as an unsung hero of contemporary gay American culture."
Rofes was born August 31, 1954 in Manhasset, Long Island, New York to a leftist Jewish family. He graduated from Harvard College and got involved with gay activism in Boston in the 1970s. He joined the Gay Community News collective, started two early queer youth groups (Out Here for Gay Youth and the Committee for Gay Youth), and founded the Boston Lesbian and Gay Political Alliance. He was a founding member of the Boston Men’s Childcare Collective, which provided childcare at women’s music events and battered women’s shelters. In 1980, he was elected as a delegate to the White House Conference on the Family.
Rofes, who once marched in the Boston Pride parade with a paper bag over his head, was fired from his sixth-grade teaching job after he came out as gay, but was soon hired by the progressive Fayerweather Street School in Cambridge. He founded Boston Area Gay and Lesbian Schoolworkers, the first local group for queer educators.
In 1985, Rofes was hired as executive director of the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center, which started some of the first HIV prevention and testing programs and created shelters for queer youth. He was co-chair of the Southern California No on LaRouche Committee, which defeated a statewide ballot initiative to quarantine people with AIDS.
In 1989, Rofes was named director of San Francisco’s Shanti Project, which provided practical and emotional support and housing to people with AIDS. He was a member of the Los Angeles AIDS Commission and the San Francisco Ryan White Council, and once provoked controversy by testifying before the National AIDS Commission dressed in full leathers.
"Eric was complex, talented, and had a genuine sense of justice," said author and activist Scott Tucker. "He was always thinking and evolving...He was one of my personal links to a generation of gay men who suffered great losses during AIDS, and who put up a good fight."
Rofes was a board member of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and regularly
attended the group’s annual Creating Change conference.
In 1994, Rofes began attending the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Education, where he earned his MA and PhD in Social and Cultural Studies. He played a key role in fostering a gay men’s health movement that focused on issues beyond HIV/AIDS. After the dissolution of the National Lesbian and Gay Health Association, of which he was a member, Rofes was a lead organizer of several national Gay Men’s Health Summits, beginning in Boulder in 1999, and the first Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender/Intersex Health Summit in 2002.
Rofes was among the most prominent critics of HIV prevention efforts that failed to account for the complexity of gay men’s desires. "Prevention efforts targeting gay men are sorely in need of re-visioning and re-direction," he wrote in 1999. "We don’t need more brochures, more programs to improve our supposedly sagging self-esteem, or more sound bites and marketing messages. We need a multi-issue, multicultural gay men’s health movement."
According to Chris Bartlett, a gay men’s health organizer from Philadelphia, "Eric gave many young men and women strong support in putting visionary ideas into practice. A whole generation of activists who’ve been impacted by his ideas are building a queer health movement that is non-judgmental and focused on our assets."
Rofes, a proud member of the leather/fetish/SM and bear communities, was a tireless advocate for sexual liberation. He served on the advisory board of the Woodhull Freedom Foundation, which organizes around sexual freedom as a human right, and for more than a dozen years he coordinated a Sex and Politics study group that met at his Collingwood Street home.
"It was Eric who first suggested an organization focused on the global issue of sexual freedom as a fundamental human right, and it was, in great measure, his early vision that guided the growth of Woodhull," said Executive Director Ricci Levy. "His legacy will be found in every victory we achieve as we continue the battle for sexual freedom that he began thirty years ago."
"Eric had a radical vision, based on the principle that honesty and openness
about human desires would free humanity," said friend and fellow activist
Melinda Chateauvert. "At conference workshops, or in strategy meetings,
or while plotting to take over the world from our deck in P-town, talking to
him was always thrilling, always sexy. He knew so much and had done so much
that his advice, his opinions, his analyses, and his stories were invaluable."
"We have been condescendingly characterized as immature children who haven’t grown up and need to get with the times, put our pricks back in our pants, and apply our energies to the real challenges facing our communities, like gays in the military or gay marriage," he stated. "Yet we believe that even a cursory look at the histories of our movement will show that sexual liberation has been inextricably bound together with gay liberation, the women’s movement, and the emancipation of youth...We believe continuing work on sexual liberation is crucial to social justice efforts."
"Can we not advocate for a pluralistic queer culture where we affirm everyone’s right to self-determination in the ways they organize their sexual relations and construct their kinship patterns?" he asked. "You don’t like sex clubs, don’t go to sex clubs. But do not ask your local authorities to shut them down. You don’t like sex areas in parks, don’t go to sex areas in parks, but don’t invite police to bust the men who enjoy such activities. Refuse to cast off any section of our community in order to gain privileges and social acceptance." "Eric made it his life’s work to think about the importance of pleasure, social connection, and justice," said author and sociologist Benjamin Shepard. "While others wanted to reduce questions of queer sexuality and politics to simple slogans -- just say no, zip it up -- he kept asking people to think about the complexity of their lives, struggles, and emotions."
"In my generation of gay men, there are too few left who, like Eric, could think in three dimensions," said activist attorney Bill Dobbs. "He came from a time when we were working to change the world -- a far cry from today’s empty equals sign."
Over the years, Rofes came full circle, from insisting that mainstream gays and lesbians support sexual liberation to demanding that political and sexual radicals stand up for marriage equality.
Rofes and Hollings, partners for 16 years, were married at San Francisco City Hall on Valentine’s Day 2004, two days after Mayor Gavin Newsom ordered that licenses be issued to same-sex couples. After his marriage -- and 4000 others -- were annulled by the California Supreme Court the following August, Rofes cofounded PerfectUnion.net. He told an interviewer that the campaign for same-sex marriage was a long-term battle that would be "won as much in the neighborhoods and the streets and our workplaces as it is in the courts and the Congress and the media."
Rofes wrote or edited 12 books on a variety of topics, from The Kids Book on Divorce (1981) and The Kids Book on Death and Dying (1985) -- with his students at the Fayerweather Street School -- to A Radical Rethinking of Sexuality and Schooling: Status Quo or Status Queer (Rowman and Littlefield, 2005). Among his best-known works are Reviving the Tribe (Haworth, 1996) and Dry Bones Breathe (Haworth, 1998), about gay men’s responses to HIV/AIDS. With Sara Miles, he edited Opposite Sex: Gay Men on Lesbians, Lesbians on Gay Men (New York University Press, 1998). At the time of his death, he was working on a book about the lives of gay men in the 1970s.
"Eric Rofes was a visionary leader in the movements for gay liberation, sexual freedom, progressive education, gay men’s health and social change," said Miles. "His steady presence and principled engagement inspired generations of activists." Since 1999, Rofes split his time between San Francisco and Arcata in Northern California, where he was Associate Professor of Education at Humboldt State University, teaching courses in community organizing, the social foundations of education, and gay/lesbian issues in K-12 schools; prior to that, he taught at UC Berkeley and Bowdoin College in Maine. He was a member of the Pacific Sociological Association and the American Educational Research Association, and coordinated the annual North Coast Education Summit, focused on issues of education, democracy, and social justice.
"Eric Rofes was an extraordinary visionary and a brilliant organizer, speaking out about the current war in Iraq, HIV and AIDS, the beauty and danger of sexuality, and his pride as a bear and a leatherman," said NGLTF Senior Strategist Amber Hollibaugh. "He took what he knew, what he believed, and used it to create progressive possibilities for social change; he was a man who struggled to understand his own privilege and vulnerabilities, and a person who dared to love powerfully, fully, and deeply."
In 1998, Rofes spoke about the challenges of sustained social change organizing at the Second Annual Summit to Resist Attacks on Gay Men’s Sexual Civil Liberties, held in conjunction with that year’s Creating Change conference in Pittsburgh.
"There are many ways to contribute to social change, but there is a difference between grassroots organizing and writing a book. There is a difference between being an organizer and being a city councilor," he said. "I want to be a voice affirming the value and heroism of long-term commitment to democratic processes of community organizing. We may hate the endless meetings, be sick of licking envelopes, feel frustrated working across different identities and political visions, and be drained by community cannibalism, but we’ve got to continue doing the work...No one will give you rewards for your work, but social change cannot happen without old-time grassroots community organizing." Said Creating Change director and long-time friend Sue Hyde, "No better memorial can be built to him than to walk his path to freedom, to liberation, and to democracy."
Mr. Rofes is survived by Hollings, his mother Paula Casey-Rofes, his brother
Peter Rofes and sister-in-law Ruth, nephew Lex, and many loving friends.
by Liz Highleyman