Author, activist Eric Rofes dies

  • by Liz Highleyman
  • Wednesday June 28, 2006
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Well-known author and activist Eric Rofes died Monday, June 26, of an apparent heart attack in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he was spending a summer writing sabbatical. He was 51.

Mr. Rofes, a resident of the Castro, was found late Monday evening in his Provincetown rental apartment after his partner, Crispin Hollings, was unable to reach him by phone, said Mr. Rofes's longtime friend, Will Seng. Hollings contacted a mutual friend, who went to check on Mr. Rofes and found him dead, surrounded by books and his laptop computer. The Provincetown police said the death appeared to be due to natural causes.

"Eric was always looking for greater complexity and possibilities in fostering change," said 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 District 8 Supervisor Bevan Dufty, who spoke in remembrance at the June 27 Board of Supervisors meeting, "Eric Rofes will be remembered as an unsung hero of contemporary gay American culture."

"Eric was an absolute giant of the gay movement – as an intellectual, an organizer, and an activist," said 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. The gay movement will be much the poorer for his absence."

Mr. Rofes was born August 31, 1954 in Manhasset, New York. 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 queer youth groups, and founded the Boston Lesbian and Gay Political Alliance. Mr. Rofes, who once marched in the Boston Pride Parade with a paper bag over his head, carrying a sign that read "Jack and Jill can come out, but their teacher can't," was fired from his sixth-grade teaching job when he came out as gay.

In 1985, Mr. Rofes was hired as executive director of the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center, and four years later was named director of San Francisco's Shanti Project, which provided practical and emotional support to people with AIDS; he and Shanti co-director Melinda Paras resigned in 1993 after they could not account for $2.7 million in federal funds. Rofes was a member of the Los Angeles AIDS Commission and the San Francisco Ryan White Council, and once raised eyebrows by testifying before the National AIDS Commission in full leather.

Mr. Rofes was a board member of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and regularly attended the group's annual Creating Change conference. "For more than 30 years, Eric was our movement's visionary," said NGLTF Executive Director Matt Foreman. "He pushed us to be better, to never lose sight of what our movement for liberation is all about, and to love each other, fight for each other, and celebrate our community."

In the 1990s, Mr. Rofes attended the University of California Graduate School of Education, where he earned his master's of arts and doctorate in social and cultural studies. He played a key role in creating a gay men's health movement that focused on issues beyond HIV/AIDS. He helped organize several national Gay Men's Health Summits, starting in Boulder in 1999, and the first LGBTI Health Summit in 2002.

"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," said Chris Bartlett, a gay men's health organizer from Philadelphia. "A whole generation of activists who've been impacted by his ideas are building a multi-issue, multicultural queer health movement that is non-judgmental and focused on our assets."

Mr. Rofes was known for embracing multiple social justice issues, from education to health to sexual liberation. He served on the board of the Woodhull Freedom Foundation and coordinated a long-running sex and politics study group.

In 1997, Mr. Rofes gave a keynote address at the Creating Change conference about what he saw as an emerging "sex panic" targeting the gay community and the shortcomings of HIV prevention that failed to recognize the complexity of gay men's desires.

"Those of us standing up for sexual freedom are neither lost in a romanticized version of the golden age of the 1970s nor dick-hungry men who are selfishly seeking more power and more privilege," he stated. "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. 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."

"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, good gays versus bad gays – he kept asking people to think about the complexity of their lives, struggles, and emotions."

Full circle

Over the years, Mr. Rofes came full circle, from insisting that mainstream gays and lesbians support sexual liberation to demanding that sex radicals stand up for marriage equality. He and Hollings were married at City Hall on Valentine's Day in 2004; after his marriage – and nearly 4,000 others – were invalidated by the California Supreme Court, he co-founded

Since 1999, Mr. Rofes split his time between San Francisco and Arcata, where he was an associate professor of education at Humboldt State University. He was a member of the Pacific Sociological Association and the American Educational Research Association.

Mr. Rofes wrote or edited 12 books on a variety of topics, from The Kids Book on Divorce (1981) to A Radical Rethinking of Sexuality and Schooling: Status Quo or Status Queer (2005). Among his best-known works were Reviving the Tribe (1996) and Dry Bones Breathe (1998), about gay men's responses to HIV/AIDS. At the time of his death, he was working on a book about the lives of gay men in the 1970s.

"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."

"No better memorial can be built to him than to walk his path to freedom, to liberation, and to democracy," added Creating Change director and longtime friend Sue Hyde.

In addition to Hollings, Mr. Rofes is survived by his mother Paula Casey-Rofes; his brother Peter Rofes and sister-in-law Ruth, nephew Lex; and many loving friends.

A funeral service was held Wednesday, June 28, in Provincetown. A San Francisco memorial service is planned for July 15 at 3 p.m. at the Metropolitan Community Church-San Francisco, at 150 Eureka Street in the Castro.