Ex-Lovers and Other Strangers

Amy Hoffman's history of Boston's seminal Gay Community News disappoints.





By Amy Hoffman

University of Massachusetts Press

166 pages, $22.95 in paper

A pioneering effort at gay journalism, the Boston-based Gay Community News (GCN) – which published weekly from 1973 to 1992 – claimed to be a national newspaper, and indeed it had a significant impact in developing the gay liberation movement on the East Coast.

As Amy Hoffman writes in “An Army of Ex-Lovers: My Life at the Gay Community News,” “The paper never had a circulation of more than five thousand, although at its peak it claimed subscribers in all fifty states and twelve foreign countries… GCN had an influence way out of proportion to its circulation figures.”

When I told the editor of this newspaper that I was planning to review Hoffman's book, he was enthusiastic – he'd come of age politically in Boston as an avid reader of it.

In the '70s, I would myself pick up copies from time to time when I dropped by the Oscar Wilde Bookshop on Christopher Street. Founded in 1967 by the late Craig Rodwell, a dedicated and radical gay militant even before Stonewall, the bookshop served as a magnet and agitation center for New York City's early liberationists, and it carried every gay publication Rodwell could get his hands on.

Hoffman, who was an editor at Gay Community News from 1978 to 1982 and now edits the Women's Review of Books, writes, “GCN's mission was explicitly activist – we wanted to encourage readers to come out of the closet and become involved in the movement and also to provide a forum where ideas and actions could be proposed and debated. We often claimed that GCN was neutral, and that we were open to all perspectives, including conservative ones, but that was ridiculous. 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.”

As a result, Hoffman writes, “The paper rarely shied away from controversial issues; we sought them out and probably even created a few. Reporters, readers, and avid letter-writers brought incredible passion to a wide range of topics: the role of bars in the queer community (which immediately lost GCN its most potentially lucrative source of advertising), intergenerational sex, S&M, pornography, drag, racism, sexism, socialism, feminism, reproductive rights, nonmonogamy, US policy in Central America, Democratic and Republican politics – and later, of course, AIDS. The scope of GCN's coverage was itself a source of constant debate: what exactly was 'gay community news'?”

Unfortunately, one doesn't get much real sense of the content of those passionate debates at GCN, or of the paper's cutting-edge advocacy, from Hoffman's memoir, which is illustrated with a number of photographs. Her subtitle is, “My Life at the Gay Community News,” and the emphasis is decidedly on the beginning rather than the end of that phrase. The promo copy for the book makes the claim that it's “the untold story of the early years of gay liberation,” but anyone expecting a solid political account from a lesbian perspective – like Karla Jay's excellent “Tales of the Lavender Menace: A Memoir of Gay Liberation,” published in 1999 – will be disappointed.

As Hoffman herself confesses at one point, “I lack the socio-historical… gene. Whatever is happening, being involved in GCN, going to ACT UP demonstrations – it's simply what I'm doing, day to day, minute to minute. Only later do I realize that it actually had a particular mood or shape or significance. Some things I've done in my life because I'm a particular, idiosyncratic person, but other things, it turns out, I've done or thought or felt along with millions of others as part of some vast cultural tropism. What I mean is, I don't always correctly distinguish news from the chaos of everyday life…”

That's what makes this book unsatisfactory for anyone with a serious interest in gay history – it's largely devoted to the “chaos” of Hoffman's everyday life during her years at Gay Community News. There's almost nothing in the book about the development and evolution of the LGBT movement in Boston in the period covered, and the one brief section of the book devoted to national gay politics- regarding the 1979 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights – consists of a lengthy tale about how she and her comrades failed to distribute the 10,000-copy GCN special issue for the March, most of which wound up getting dumped in a telephone booth in a vacant lot.

Add to that apolitical problematic the fact that Hoffman chose a whimsical tone, aiming at humor, for her memoir, and the result is gay lib as it might be recounted by Erma Bombeck.

Hoffman as well is frequently rather gauzy about facts. For example, she refers several times to “bullet holes” in the windows of GCN's offices, without explaining how they got there – but then, well into her book, she implies that these “bullet holes” may have been just a figment of her overexcited imagination.

Gay Community News shared office space with the anarchist collective that produced Fag Rag, one of the most memorable of the freewheeling, irregularly appearing radical publications that marked the early days of gay liberation – along with San Francisco's Gay Sunshine, Detroit's The Gay Liberator, Philadelphia's The Gay Alternative, and Toronto's The Body Politic.

I adored Fag Rag's insouciant, outrageous, in-your-face style, and it was even more strikingly militant than GCN. It also emphasized international gay solidarity; in its Winter '73 issue Fag Rag published one of the earliest accounts of gay life in Communist Eastern Europe. One of its most famous articles, written by Fag Rag collective member and recent Harvard grad Charlie Shively, was titled “Cocksucking as an Act of Revolution.” Shively is now a professor of American Studies at the University of Massachusetts and authored the excellent “Calamus Lovers: Walt Whitman's Working Class Camerados.”

Yet, although she worked just a few feet from the Fag Rag crew for five years, Hoffman – except for a few rather condescending sketches of a couple of the collective members – delivers no true picture of what this vital, neighboring journal was all about. Perhaps as a lesbian she just wasn't really interested in the all-male Fag Rag crowd, though Hoffman repeatedly emphasizes how much she learned from the gay men in the GCN collective (made up of a tiny paid staff on subsistence-level salaries and a host of volunteers) in which both sexes were considered equal. She also celebrates her close, life-long friendship with the paper's managing editor, Richard Burns (now the executive director of New York's LGBT Community Center). Hoffman's book is dedicated to Burns.

The title of Hoffman's book was inspired by a crack she heard at a gathering in the 1970s she attended with her then-lover, Urvashi Vaid, another member of the GCN collective (and later the executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force).

“At the women's conference, the room had been hung with a banner: 'An Army of Lovers Cannot Fail.' A woman sitting next to me and Urvashi leaned over and whispered, 'What about an army of ex-lovers?' It was the first time we'd heard that joke, and we thought it was hysterical.”

Sometimes Hoffman's humor works; too often, it falls flat. She does poke fun at lesbian separatism, in vogue among certain circles then.

“There's a strain of lesbian culture,” Hoffman writes, “that thinks of lesbian sex as pure, spiritual nearly to the point of non-existence. The homophobic corollary to Freud's famous, sexist question, 'What do women want?' – answer: everything – is 'What do lesbians do?' – answer: nothing. In the seventies, encouraged by this notion of lesbian sex and nothingness, some women declared themselves 'political lesbians' or 'woman-identified women' (or, to get the 'man' out of it completely, 'womyn-identified,' 'womb-moon-identified,' etc.)… 'As I understand it,' concluded writer Pat Califia, 'after the wimmin's revolution, sex will consist of wimmin holding hands, taking their shirts off, and dancing in a circle. Then we will all fall asleep at exactly the same moment.'”

Hoffman captures the tone of what seem to us now to be endless and silly arguments that obsessed some of her friends and colleagues, but her attempts to be funny frequently lead into rather pointless, gossipy digressions, that include people who had nothing to do with GCN, which make at times for an all-too-incoherent read. If you like Hoffman's airy, discursive emphasis on the fey, this slight book may be to your liking; it wasn't to mine.

Gay Community News made a serious contribution to building gay liberation; but if you're looking for a serious history of that contribution, or solid and reliable insight into the political currents the paper helped build and by which it was influenced, this isn't it.

Doug Ireland may be reached through his blog, DIRELAND, at http://direland.typepad.com/direland/ .