Pete Fisher at an early ‘70s meeting of the Gay Activists Alliance. | RICH WANDEL/ NATIONAL HISTORY ARCHIVE, LGBT COMMUNITY CENTER
Pete Fisher, who with his late partner Marc Rubin and a cadre of fearless comrades in the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) militantly challenged anti-gay bigotry in the early 1970s, has died in Springfield, Massachusetts. The cause was suicide by suffocation, according to his sister Lynne Fisher with whom he had been living for the past several years. He was 68.
His groundbreaking 1972 book “The Gay Mystique” chronicled the early, vibrant post-Stonewall movement and explained homosexuality to straight people and to homosexually-oriented people still coming to terms with themselves. For this reporter, it was a seminal text as a college student coming out and, later, becoming an activist in 1974.
Describing his intense joy marching in the Christopher Street Liberation Day march in 1970 that commemorated the first anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion, Fisher wrote, “There’s no going back after that. You can’t feel those things and take them back to the closet and nurse them. When you know what it really means to be free, you know that freedom is life. Do you know how it tastes to be alive for the first time? Oppression in any form requires the complicity of the oppressed. To come out is to refuse to oppress oneself, refuse to play the game.”
Fisher was writing and agitating at a time when sodomy was still a crime in most states including New York, psychiatry classified homosexuality as a mental illness, and civil rights protections on the basis of sexual orientation were non-existent. He led several of the most famous “zaps” for which GAA was known, taking over the offices of the Daily News when its editors derided gay people as “fairies, nances, and queers” and of Harper’s magazine when its Joseph Epstein wrote, “If I had the power to do so, I would wish homosexuality off the face of the earth, because I consider it a curse.”
When City Councilman Saul Sharison refused to allow the New York gay rights bill to be heard in committee in 1971, Fisher was among those who led more than a thousand people from a dance at the GAA Firehouse at 99 Wooster Street to Sharison’s high rise at 70 East Tenth Street and got clubbed by the police. “It was the most nightmarish scene I had ever witnessed: long, brutal clubs smashing left and right, landing on people’s heads, the crowd panicking, pushing first to the barricades and then falling back,” he wrote. He and Rubin were arrested, but five days later the hearing was scheduled on the bill that GAA put forward as the first in the country to propose protections on the basis of “sexual orientation.”
Veteran gay and AIDS activist Bill Bahlman, 60, who worked in GAA with Fisher, said, “Whenever he spoke at a GAA meeting, everybody listened. He could turn the debate on an issue around. And at demonstrations, he was larger than life.”
Allen Roskoff, 62, now president of the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club and also a GAA vet, paid tribute to Fisher and Rubin, saying, “They were totally devoted to the movement and totally devoted to each other.” He said that neither of the men put much stock in electoral politics, which became a big focus of the movement in later years. Rubin went on to co-found the Gay Teachers Association.
Bahlman said, “Both were S&M activists as well as gay activists. They declared their lifestyle in their dress. There was a dignity and power and demand for justice just in the way they walked hand-in-hand in Central Park.”
Steve Ault, one of the principal organizers of the first two marches on Washington for LGBT rights in 1979 and 1987 and a close friend of Rubin’s, said, “When Marc got sick nine years ago of prostate and brain cancer, Pete did heroic work caring for him.” While he said Fisher “was a very sweet man,” he also said “he was an absolute wreck and lived in a state of semi-breakdown for many years” and even before Marc’s death often considered suicide, something his sister confirmed.
Rich Wandel, GAA’s second president, runs the archive at the LGBT Community Center where the papers of Fisher and Rubin reside. “Pete was in many ways overshadowed by Marc who was a big gun dealing with municipal government,” he said, “but he was there all the time. He was the first chair of the committee to make contact with other groups around the country. In two bound volumes, he saved every flier and newsletter in GAA, and we have them.”
Gay historian David Carter wrote in an e-mail, “Any time a member of the leadership of the Gay Activists Alliance such as Peter Fisher dies, it is important because GAA did more than any other organization to change what we today call the LGBT civil rights movement into a mass movement.”
Perry Brass, a veteran of the Gay Liberation Front, wrote in an e-mail, “I remember Pete as a very handsome, very charismatic, blonde young man. He was always dressed either in leather or a tight, beautifully fitting T-shirt, but he was totally devoted to GAA and the cause of real gay liberation, that is, leaving self-hatred, leaving oppression, and forging a new identity as a gay man.”
“‘The Gay Mystique’ played an important part in my life,” wrote author and book critic Jesse Monteagudo. “It was one of the seminal LGBT books that were published in 1972, written by openly LGBT authors (like Pete Fisher) instead of heterosexual ‘authorities.’… It helped me, a college freshman in 1972, deal with my homosexuality and helped me to come out as a gay man the following year. Pete's passing is another terrible loss for our community in a year that has already seen too many of those losses.”
With Rubin, Fisher wrote the novel “Special Teachers/ Special Boys” based on Rubin’s experiences teaching troubled youth.
Fisher, coming to consciousness of being gay pre-Stonewall, had a rough time. His father, an executive at the New York Times, strongly disapproved and sent him to a shrink to try to turn him heterosexual — partly by forbidding masturbation! Fisher’s counsel to parents in “Mystique”: “The rule with regard to sexuality is a simple one. Hands off — let your child be himself.”
Lynne Fisher said her brother “told me he spent 60 percent of his time thinking about suicide” and made several unsuccessful attempts over the years. This latest successful try was not unexpected. But she also remembers Pete as “exceptionally intelligent, a book writer and a songwriter,” and “a quiet but popular kid.” He was cremated, and his ashes were scattered in her backyard in Springfield with Rubin’s
Peter Randolph Fisher was born on May 19, 1944 in Richmond, Virginia, graduated from Eastchester High School in Westchester, went to Amherst College for two years, enlisted in the Air Force rather than wait to be drafted, and graduated Magna Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Columbia University in 1969. He was pursuing a graduate degree “but resigned to become a full-time homosexual. I have yet to regret it,” he wrote in 1972.
He joined GAA in 1970 where he met Rubin, and their relationship endured until Marc’s death.
In addition to Lynne, Fisher is survived by his parents, Andrew and Cornelia of Vero Beach, Florida, and a brother, Randy. He is also survived by generations of LGBT people who owe much of their self-respect and even their lives to the courageous work that he did 40 years ago. He was part of a group of activists who did not ask for their rights, but took them, and responded to attacks not with press releases but immediate, militant action that got results. His expansive vision in “The Gay Mystique” bears reconsideration by a generation of LGBT leaders in suits pushing a relatively narrow agenda — and not too successfully at that.