David Thorstad reflects on his collaboration with Tom Reeves

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Looking Back on My Collaboration with Tom Reeves

by David Thorstad (February 26, 2012)

When I go into a bank or a church, I feel dirty; but when I am having sex, I feel clean.” —Tom Reeves

Tom had a way of distilling thoughts into pithy formulations. This one, which he made at some conference, has stayed with me. I confess to having used it myself at times. I have often fantasized about pissing out candles in a Catholic church or shitting on the floor of a bank. And I share Tom’s sense of edgy and radical uplift and soaring purity while making love with a boy. The boys I have known have been more courageous and creative than I was at their age. If they wanted friendship or sex with a man, they went for it. I was more reticent.

Occasionally, during my involvement with the North American Man/Boy Love Association, I heard other men suggesting that I was “not really a boy lover.” That is probably because I came out of the socialist and gay movements and was never part of any underground boy-love scene, shunned the dramas that often came with befriending street boys—something Tom seemed to thrive on—and hadn’t even felt an attraction for teenage youths until one cruised me and picked me up in 1978. But I knew instinctively that our consensual friendship was pure and blameless, even if the state authorities, goody-goody-two-shoes, and (s)mothering feminists would not have approved.

I had recently read a long feature in the Village Voice in which Tom talked about the decades-long tradition among working-class youths in Baltimore’s Highland Town area of hustling or just hanging out to meet men for sex. Fathers had done it. Their sons did it. Were they “gay”? Not necessarily. They were a manifestation of the ageless and perhaps biological attraction between men and boys, of the irrepressible nature of same-sex love between older and younger males. In today’s grotesque “LGBTetc.” alphabet-soup identity jargon, such homoeroticism is denied. It is, however, the kind of adult-youth homoerotic interaction that exists in all cultures that have ever been studied, some of which have elevated it to a status above other forms of sexuality. But it is anathema to today’s conservative and conventional hetero wannabes of the “LGBT” persuasion, more keen on gaining acceptance by the heterodominant society than liberating repressed same-sex love.

I was shocked that any man would come out so openly about his pederasty as Tom did in that article. I didn’t yet know him. But I was a prominent gay activist in New York and wrote a manifesto about gay liberation and man/boy love for Gay Community News, an important gay and lesbian paper published in Boston. Tom was involved in the Boston-Boise Committee to defend working-class men in the Boston area from state repression and a witch hunt (promoted by the only openly lesbian state legislator in Massachusetts, Elaine Noble—for me, she will always be Elaine Ignoble) in 1977. That same year, the Canadian gay paper The Body Politic had been raided by the police for publishing a rather bland article titled “Men Loving Boys Loving Men.” These witch hunts had been primed by antigay Christian and washed-up singer Anita Bryant and her Save Our Children (from homosexuality) crusade. Another female antigay-male banshee (her own term for herself), Dr. Judianne Densen-Gerber, was beating the antisex drums in New York. The issue of man/boy love was in the air.

Tom told me he wanted to organize a conference in Boston on the topic of age of consent, and I readily agreed to support his efforts. So began our longtime collaboration. We decided to hold a meeting after the conference for those who might wish to form an organization for men and boys who loved each other. About thirty of us met and formed a group we called (initially) Man/Boy Lovers of North America. A few days later, Tom called me to say he thought a better name would be North American Man/Boy Love Association, mainly because it would result in a pronounceable acronym: NAMBLA. I agreed, despite the fact that the name sounded a bit like it might be a baby food. It also clearly differentiated the group from European “pedophile” groups, which lumped together disparate homosexual and heterosexual behaviors involving prepubescents. We wanted a group that was open to all, but while pedophiles were welcome, none were involved in founding the group and NAMBLA was not a pedophile group. It was unique.

Both Tom and I came from radical political backgrounds. His tended toward a kind of anarchism, with a heavy Christian or Quaker tinge; mine was radical socialist. NAMBLA also attracted its share of Libertarians, and we all shared their antistatist and individual-empowering outlook.

Tom was a superb organizer. He was a wordsmith. He had an ability to throw words at people, overwhelm them with verbiage and blunt any resistance. That also worked well with teenagers he had taken a shine to, as well as adults whose support for a given project he wished to obtain. Once he had sunk his teeth into something, he was a dynamo.

In July 1981, the first of several FBI and police attacks on NAMBLA came down, with the arrest of a member in Long Island who had not been as discreet as he should have been. A number of youths were brought in for questioning and the media and the police portrayed it as a “sex ring” (that is a typical ploy of the authorities, often involving a district attorney who has his or her eyes on higher elective office), with NAMBLA supposedly being involved (it was not). To my amazement, Tom traveled to Long Island and New Jersey to knock on the doors of the families whose teenage sons were caught up in the dragnet and to explain to them their legal rights, including their right not to cooperate with the authorities. After all, their sons had only been willingly involved in consensual activity. These working-class families were complete strangers to Tom, and he did them a service by informing them of their rights. Nobody else was going to do that, and these were people who had no knowledge of their rights under the law. I found his courage in reaching out to them brave and admirable.

He also helped to organize a public meeting in a Greenwich Village church to explain the facts of the case to a confused gay community. The media, as usual, had presented only the sensationalized police allegations.

A year and a half later, an even bigger witch hunt against the group was unleashed by the FBI and the New York City police when—without a shred of evidence—they accused NAMBLA of having kidnapped and murdered six-year-old Etan Patz. FBI lies for days took up the front pages of the tabloids and filled the television “news.” NAMBLA successfully refuted the accusations at simultaneous news conferences in Boston and New York, and the police were forced to admit that our evidence was correct. This story is recounted in the book A Witchhunt Foiled: The FBI vs. NAMBLA.

A few days later, ABC TV invited Tom to appear on its late-night live call-in show The Last Word on December 29, 1982. Tom asked me to appear on the show with him, and I agreed, despite some misgivings about the fact that a show that lasted an hour or so would give nut cases an easy opportunity to show up at the studios and murder us as we left. When I arrived at the studios on the Upper West Side, I was informed that Tom had told them he could not, or would not, appear. He had stood me up! Since Tom was so articulate and forceful and knowledgeable, I had agreed to appear only because he too would be there. So, here I was to fend for myself against Jill Haddad, executive director of the Foundation for America’s Sexually Exploited Children. The program went well, and I think I got the last word, but I never forgave Tom for what I considered his manipulative method.

One day I got a call from Tom, who had just picked up a teenager in Times Square. (I myself never went out actually looking for a young sexual partner. It wasn’t my style, which was more conservative and private.) They had been driving around the city and parking in a secluded spot to have sex. Tom had an appointment, and asked if he could bring the youth to my apartment. I said sure, though I was busy working on a project. Before he left, Tom said that the youth wanted to get fucked and that Tom had not been able to get a hard-on; he suggested I might want to help out. I was not so inclined, actually. The youth was a near giant, well built and almost intimidatingly strong and tall, and I didn’t know him at all. He said he was tired, so he lay down on a couch in another room, saying he would nap while I worked. When later I happened to walk into the room, he had his pants down and was playing with a huge erection. He asked me to please fuck him. It wasn’t even my favorite activity, but I obliged, and found it delightful, as did he.

Tom was a bit of a drama queen. I sometimes got the impression he was running for sainthood. We were together on NAMBLA’s Steering Committee for several years, and at times our debates led to personal friction. I once vowed never again to be in the same organization with him. He was too intense and tended to overdramatize. His forceful style could be intimidating in a meeting.

Still, even after we had both left NAMBLA (and for similar reasons—we both felt that the open sexual freedom organization we had envisaged was no longer able to function the way we had wanted in the repressive antisex climate in the United States: Tom once said that “Being a boy lover in the United States today is like being a Jew in Nazi Germany”), Tom would send me long letters from Spain or Canada. I treasure the times we shared, our failed efforts to build a broad sexual freedom movement encompassing boy lovers, gay and lesbian activists, the left, feminists, and civil libertarians. As I look back on our optimism of the late 1970s and 1980s, I think we were naive. The world was not ready for a radical sexual liberation movement. It still isn’t, as the current “LGBT” and “queer” assimilationist avatar proves.

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