I don't do gossip, which is kind of unfortunate because I hear a lot of good stuff. And I actually do strive to keep my personal opinions out of my reporting - an old ethic, to be sure, but a comfortable one that enables me to tell someone else's story as truthfully and as unencumbered by ego as possible.
So thank god for blogs! I've had an itch to tell a particular story for some time now - but because I'm personally involved, it never seemed appropriate. Ah, but covering a discussion by Dr. Don Kilhefner and author Mark Thompson about the 30th anniversary of the founding of the Radical Faeries last Sunday, I realized that if I don't talk about it - perhaps no one else will. So here goes...
First, let me set the stage.
In 1979, Harry Hay, who founded the Mattachine Society in 1950, and Don Kilhefner, who co-founded (with Morris Kight) the Gay Liberation Front in Los Angeles in 1970, organized a group called the Radical Faeries. The basic idea was to explore gay soul and gay identity, springing off the work of creative gay men such as Walt Whitman and Edward Carpenter.
Kilhefner, a PhD who also co-founded what is now the LA Gay and Lesbian Center and the Van Ness Recovery House, is a practicing Jungian psychologist who is still advocating the spiritual and psychological exploration of gay identity. Mark Thompson is an author, journalist and retired therapist. As the cultural editor of The Advocate, Mark wrote the cover story on Harry Hay about the plans for the first Radical Faerie gathering that is credited with spreading the word beyond Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Here's where it gets personal... In the late 80s, when I started freelancing for the LGBT press, I covered Don and Morris Kight a lot - and Mark was my editor at the Advocate under Richard Rouilard.
I'd see this tall, skinny old man who always wore bead necklaces and flowery hippie-type shirts at different ACT UP and Queer Nation demonstrations. But I didn't find out that Harry Hay and John Burnside were my neighbors in West Hollywood until Wayne Karr introduced me during a faerie celebration of Harry's birthday.
Harry was amused by me. I had come to gay journalism out of a sense of being of service because so many friends died - and I was a blank slate as far as LGBT history was concerned. Harry loved filling me in.
I also met Doug Sadownick when he was partnered with performance artist Tim Miller and they'd show up to ACT UP demonstrations. Doug was writing for the LA Weekly at the time and was an unabashed advocacy journalist - sometimes, I thought, skewing or creating details to enhance a story which were not facts I witnessed or quotes I heard when covering the exact same event. I understood it to be a new-journalism version of "dramatic license" - though that ran counter to everything I knew about reporting.
Michael Callen's Last Days
When AIDS activist, writer and singer Michael Callen started falling ill, Doug organized a team of people to be his care providers. Michael, along with Richard Berkowitz and their doctor Joseph Sonnanband, virtually invented the idea of safe-sex and Michael also co-founded HIV/AIDS organizations that directly involved PWAs.
I met Michael outside a Holly Near concert, introduced by Torie Osborn. He knew my writing and I knew his at Genre. We became friends and he, too, educated me about all things gay and AIDS - though we disagreed over HIV since he thought AIDS was caused by STDS weakening the immune system, not HIV. He later changed his position, but more from being worn down, I think, than a real philosophical shift. Anyway - he was an ardent feminist and used to chide me for not knowing my lesbian singers. We laughed a lot.
I signed up with Doug to be one of Michael's care providers (in addition to his wonderful lesbian nurses) and when he moved from Hollywood to West Hollywood, that intensified since he moved one block down from my apartment. Doug disappeared because he was writing a cover story for Frontiers on APLA.
Michael and I got to be really close. And since I could speak heterosexual, I became the liaison between Michael's family and Michael when they came to visit him at Midway Hospital from their home in Hamilton, Ohio. Doug was not too happy about that - or the family showing up at all. He intimated that they had abandoned Michael and didn't deserve Michael's love or attention and it was offensive that they intruded during this crucial time when it was important that Michael be surrounded by the ones who really loved him.
I didn't feel that way. What I got from Michael was that he really wanted to repair the relationship with his family - but it was awkward and painful and there was so much stuff in the way, he didn't know how to do it. The family - his mother, father and brother - felt the same way - they tried so hard, in their straight way - to set aside their religious and regional beliefs and reach out to their gay son dying from AIDS who they really loved. Michael and the family thanked me for being a buffer and go-between.
When Michael Died
Michael died on Dec. 27, 1993. He was proud that he had outlived society's expectations - having had AIDS since 1982. And he'd performed "Love Don't Need a Reason" - an AIDS anthem he co-wrote with Peter Allen and Marsha Malemet - at the 1993 March on Washington - holding that last high note longer than his idol Barbra Steisand could, even with lungs filled with KS.
But Michael wanted to die on Christmas Eve. He was ready, he told me as someone whom he asked to help him die. But the vial of morphine was on a timer. When I asked his doctor - Robbie Jenkins - about it, explaining truthfully why I was interested - Robbie said they had taken precautions against assisted suicide because it was against the law and Michael was a high profile patient and they couldn't afford the publicity. Robbie apologized.
I was with Michael the day he died. It was a Sunday and Michael's ex-lover Richard Dworkin (who produced Michael's Legacy album), who had flown in from NYC and basically taken over, was taking a several hour break. Michael was in a coma but we believed he could still hear.
So when his family called, I told them Michael didn't have much time and they should tell him they loved him and say goodbye. I told Michael they were on the phone and then held the phone to his ear. First his brother, then his father told him they loved him and were proud of him. "I love you, son," his father said.
And then it was his mother's turn. She talked to him awhile - promising to bury his ashes under his favorite apple tree in their backyard. And then she said, "I love you, Michael. I will always love you."
A tear rolled down Michael's cheek. "I love you, too, mom." It was the last thing he said. He lapsed back into a coma - as if he'd been holding out to say those goodbyes. I talked to the family a bit and then hung up. Richard came back shortly thereafter. I told Michael I'd see him later and I left.
Two hours later, they called to tell me Michael had died. I rushed back to Midway. There seemed to be a lot of commotion. Doug and Richard were acting like rivals and Sandra Golvin was in the room howling in what was apparently some ritual. Richard told Doug in no uncertain terms to get her out of there. I waited a bit and then went in to say my goodbyes.
Doug Sadownick's Scream
I wasn't alone with Michael for long when Doug came in. I told him about what I thought had been a miraculous reconciliation before Michael died - and Doug suddenly started screaming at me. Literally screaming. Just steps away from Michael. He was screaming something about how I had violated Michael's very being - because Michael didn't want to have anything to do with his family.
I said that's not true. And then Doug started screaming at me about how this was really all about me and my shadow - by which he apparently meant my Jungian shadow. This was all about me wanting healing with my family who had abandoned me - on and on and on.
He was so intense and persistent, I wondered if he might not be right. Sitting on a bench outside Michael's hospital room, I stopped and mentally went over everything. I checked my heart. I'm in a 12 Step program that requires rigorous honesty if I'm to stay clean and sober - and I went to that place and asked the question: did I facilitate the reconciliation between Michael and his family because of my own family issues?
The answer was no. Michael was my friend and this was always about him. I looked at Doug and wondered why he would choose this moment to be so cruel - in the name of being helpful.
By the way, Don did help me after Michael's death and the Northridge earthquake triggered an emotional breakdown from all the unprocessed grief. He told me I was on a "spiritual quest" which gave me a more positive way to contextualize the overwhelming darkness. The concept helped some of my grief-stricken friends, too.
I have been estranged from Doug Sadownick since Michael's death - this is the first time I'm publicly telling this story. I avoided Doug and the people he hung out with - he and Tim Miller, who I admire greatly, broke up. It was not difficult - our paths didn't cross much.
The Mitch Walker Connection
My awareness of Doug resurfaced in 1998. I decided to produce a short documentary on LGBT history to air on West Hollywood City Channel. The idea originated when I realized that Harry actually wrote about the unique gay identity and gays as an oppressed minority in a paper in 1948 - making 1998 the 50th anniversary of the "start" of the LGBT liberation movement. My camera person Robert and I drove Harry around to different spots where he first thought up the idea of the Mattachine Society and where they first met.
We had long talks - which at some point turned to a discussion of a fellow named Mitch Walker. Apparently Mitch and Harry once knew each other - around the time of the founding of the Radical Faeries. Mitch was now a therapist with his own little band of followers - including Doug - and Harry said they were "viciously attacking" him. I'm not sure how or why or where - but Harry was pissed off.
Mark Thompson also was having trouble with Mitch, Doug and another member of Mitch's clan named Chris Kilbourne. "Gay Body," the last in Mark's trilogy of "Gay Spirit" and "Gay Soul" had just been published and Mark was being inundated with nasty letters attacking his character stuffed in his mailbox at home and in mailboxes at Antioch where he was getting his MA degree in psychology. The small group also showed up at Skylight Books in Silver Lake during Mark's reading and shouted "shadow" questions that left Mark so frightened, he and Malcolm were hastily snuck out the back by Betty Berzon and Terry DeCrescenzo.
I told Mark and Harry that this sounded like a story. Both said that they'd "come after" me. I said if John Duran and I could survive intimidation from the White Aryan Resistance - I wasn't afraid of a handful of screaming therapists. "They'll come after your dogs," they said - which gave me pause.
But truthfully - from a journalistic standpoint - unless Harry and Mark were willing to go on the record - there was no story other than some jerks making nuisances of themselves at a book reading.
But it gnawed at me. Clearly, they had so terrorized Mark that he refused to do any publicity for "Gay Body" - and that essentially killed his book career. Don called them "cult-like."
When Doug contacted me about doing a story on his new endeavor - he had a PhD now - I balked. I immediately told my publishers the story about Michael Callen and said I'd have to recuse myself from anything related to Doug Sadownick. I think I did a brief on his new LGBT Specialization psychology class, but for the most part, I shuttled everything over to the features and calendar editors - which was actually appropriate since therapy-related stories are more "lifestyle" than news, anyway.
And that brings me to last Sunday and the Radical Faeries discussion at ONE Institute.
When Therapists Collide
Don Kilhefner had written two columns on the founding of the Radical Faeries for Frontiers and I wrote an advancer for IN Los Angeles magazine. Neither had received any complaints.
Then suddenly I received an email call to protest from Wendell Jones, who I vaguely remembered as an old ACT UP guy. The email read: "Come Honor the 30th Anniversary of the Radical Faeries by Protesting the Distorted Revisionism, Hypocrisy, and Abuse of Power By So-Called Community Leaders Don Kilhefner and Mark Thompson."
Here's part of Wendell's pitch:
"Renown for being a loose-knit organization of gay men attracted to the notion of an indigenous gay-centered spirituality, the Radical Faeries has also always unfortunately been surrounded by controversy due to the tendency by many of those involved to act-out unconscious violence in vicious, mostly passive-aggressive ways, an issue perhaps related to gay people being such a fiercely oppressed minority. This heinous lack of psychological responsibility in the Faeries is once again getting played out around the 30th anniversary celebration that is now being concocted by Don and Mark, and deserves a spirited response in favor of better psychological responsibility.
Don's recent articles on Radical Faeries history in L.A. gay magazine Frontiers (January 27 & February 24, 2009) self-aggrandizingly over-emphasize his own role in forming the Faeries movement with gay rights pioneer Harry Hay, while at the same time completely erasing the major part played by his one-time colleague, gay psychologist and activist Mitch Walker, offering only one very brief dismissive mention of Mitch that seriously mischaracterizes what actually happened as documented in Stuart Timmon's book, The Trouble with Harry Hay. This erasure of significant gay history is especially problematic because one of Mitch's primary aims in being involved with Harry, and then Don, in those beginning days was to bring psychological-mindedness and honesty to the proceedings by confronting overt authoritarian, dominating, passive-aggressive, and other coercive behaviors, both in himself and in others."
Huh? He goes on about "the shadow" as if everyone knows what the hell he's talking about. But then Wendell comes to his main point:
"Thus, it should come as no surprise that when any new Radical Faeries endeavor is being advanced with such ugly signs of the old violence still in control, a reaction to that ugliness may well spring forth. Presenters Don and Mark in that sense seem to be asking to be confronted about the distortions, manipulations, and abuse of power they have actually been maliciously generating for a long time through their extensive networking capabilities and historical prominence in the gay community."
OK - so Don and Mark are "asking to be confronted?" Abuse of what power?
I'm no therapist but I studied psychology in college. So here's my sophomoric take on Wendell's diatribe.
Wendell seems to be projecting his own obsession with violence and ugliness onto Don and Mark. As I noted above, these two gentle human beings are not the ones doing any sort of intimidation or "violence."
Wendell acknowledges that Don mentions Mitch - so Mitch is not really erased from history. Mark actually interviewed him for "Gay Soul." And surely someone into psychology knows that individuals may have differing interpretations of the same event. Let Mitch write his own book.
I'm a longtime LGBT reporter and in the 20 years I've been covering people, places and things in Southern California - I have never once met Mitch Walker - who they claim is such an "activist." I have read some of his writings - which sound much like what Harry told me way back when - only more intellectualized. If Mitch thinks that his views should be the basis for the next phase of gay liberation - why hasn't he approached me to write a story on that - just as I've written about Harry and about Don's more recent efforts.
But here's the central question: if one of Mitch's primary aims is "to bring psychological-mindedness and honesty to the proceedings by confronting overt authoritarian, dominating, passive-aggressive, and other coercive behaviors, both in himself and in others" - why wasn't he at the ONE Institute event to confront Don and Mark directly?
What's Mitch afraid of?
And what gives him - or his followers - the right to tell me about my goddamn "shadow" when I have not asked for his "help," thank you very much.
Perennially Petulant Peter Pans
After Don and Mark's presentation, a few of Mitch's followers shouted questions - stunning a number of the 100 or so audience members (especially the younger ones) who seemed to have no idea what precipitated this level of vitriol. Don said he had no idea what all the racket was about - he knew his truth and would respect that Mitch's follower had his truth, too.
Don told me that his truth was that he was there and Mitch didn't play as significant a role as his followers were suggesting - Mitch talked with Harry about the idea for the gathering, then they had a big fight and Mitch left - leaving Harry and Don to do the actual organizing.
Don and Mark noted that there are Radical Faerie groups around the world - some with women and heterosexuals who want to explore their gay identities. After the shouters left, someone asked why there wasn't a Radical Faerie group in LA. Don held out his hand and said, "Because of this." Meaning the angry divisiveness.
It's a shame. Many of the folks in the audience - especially the young people - wanted to find out about their history and perhaps find out about why gay people are different from heterosexuals.
Instead they were treated to a confrontation by perennially petulant Peter Pans who seem to delight in tearing down others - in the name of therapy.