Arthur Evans, long-time San Francisco community activist and writer, died quickly from a massive heart attack in his Haight Ashbury home early in the morning on Sept. 11. Diagnosed with an extraordinarily large aortic aneurysm in October of 2010, and not expected to live more than a few months, Evans refused risky surgery, opting instead to live out his remaining time on his own terms. This was consistent with a lifetime of challenging convention and honoring his own intuition. Though he became weaker over time, he successfully managed the occasional pain and to his delight, rarely saw a doctor. He spent his last year pursuing his pleasures: translating ancient Greek, playing chess with me, going to the Castro Theater, dining out, writing letters to the editor and visiting with friends. He remained chipper to the end, often joking about his situation.
Evans lived in San Francisco since 1974. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, he played a pivotal role in the newly emergent gay liberation movement in New York City.
A few weeks after the famous Stonewall Riot of June 1969 (which he missed), Evans and his lover, Arthur Bell, joined The Gay Liberation Front (GLF), a new group that proudly proclaimed itself to be gay, countercultural, and revolutionary.
Within GLF, Evans and others created a cell called The Radical Study Group to examine the historical roots of sexism and homophobia. Many of the participants later became published authors, including Evans, Bell, John Lauritsen, Larry Mitchell, and Steve Dansky.
A number of GLF members, including Evans, soon became dissatisfied with the organization, complaining that it lacked a coherent, ongoing program of street activism. At the suggestion of GLF members Jim Owles and Marty Robinson, about twelve people met in Arthur Bell’s Manhattan apartment on December 21, 1969, and founded The Gay Activists Alliance (GAA). Evans wrote the group’s statement of purpose and much of its constitution.
Acting on the principle that the personal is the political, GAA held homophobes who were in positions of authority personally accountable for the consequences of their public policies. Accordingly, Robinson, Evans, and Owles developed the tactic of “zaps.” These were militant (but non-violent) face-to-face confrontations with outspoken homophobes in government, business, and the media. Evans was often arrested in such actions, participating in disruptions of local business offices, political headquarters, local TV shows, and the Metropolitan Opera.
In effect, GAA created a new model of gay activism, highly theatrical while also eminently practical and focused. It forced the media and the political establishment to take gay concerns seriously as a struggle for justice. Previously the media treated gay life as a peripheral freak show. The new gay activism inspired gay people to act unapologetically from a position of gay pride. This new model inspired other gay groups across the county, eventually triggering revolutionary improvements in gay life that continue to this day.
In November 1970, Robinson and Evans, along with Dick Leitsch of the Mattachine Society, appeared on the Dick Cavette Show. They were among the first openly gay activists to be prominently featured as guests on a national TV program.
It was a big change from Evans’ earlier days in York, PA, where he was born on October 12, 1942. His father worked most of his life on assembly-lines, the last in a chain factory. His mother ran a small beauty shop out of a front room in the family house.
When Evans graduated from public high school in 1960, he received a four-year scholarship from the Glatfelter Paper Company in York County to study chemistry at Brown University in Providence, RI. While at Brown, Evans and several friends founded the Brown Freethinkers Society, describing themselves as “militant atheists” seeking to combat the harmful effects of organized religion.
The group picketed the weekly chapel convocation at Brown, then required of all students (even though Brown is a secular institution) and urged students to stand in silent protest during the compulsory prayer. National wire services picked up the story, which appeared in a local York newspaper.
As a result, the Glatfelter Paper Company informed Evans that his scholarship would be cancelled. Evans sought help from Joseph Lewis, the elderly millionaire who headed the national Freethinkers Society. Lewis threatened the paper company with a highly publicized lawsuit if the scholarship were revoked. The company relented, the scholarship continued, and Evans changed his major from chemistry to political science.
Although obstreperous politically, Evans remained closeted sexually and very lonely, not knowing any other gay person. Throughout both high school and college, he often thought of suicide. In 1963, after completing three years at Brown, he read an article in a national magazine reporting that many “homosexuals” lived in Greenwich Village in New York City. He promptly withdrew from Brown and moved to the Village, a change that he later described it as the best move he ever made in his life.
In 1963 Evans discovered gay life in Greenwich Village and in 1964 became lovers with Arthur Bell (later a columnist for the Village Voice). In 1966 he was admitted to City College of New York, which accepted all his credits from Brown University. He participated in his first sit-in on May 13, 1966, when a group of students occupied the administration building of City College in protest against the college’s involvement in the Selective Service System. A picture of the students, including Evans, appeared the next day on the front page of The New York Times.
In 1967, after graduating with a B.A. degree from City College, Evans was admitted into the doctoral program in philosophy at Columbia University, specializing in ancient Greek philosophy. His doctoral advisor was Paul Oskar Kristeller, then the world’s leading authority on Renaissance humanist philosophy. Kristeller had studied under Karl Jaspers and Martin Heidegger in Germany but fled to Columbia University after his parents were killed in the Holocaust.
Evans participated in many anti-war protests during these years, including the celebrated upheaval at Columbia in the spring of 1968. In the same year he also participated in the protests at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. During this time, the poetry of Allen Ginsberg had a powerful influence on the formation of his values. While at Columbia, Evans joined the Student Homophile League, founded by Nino Romano, although he was still closeted.
In 1971 Evans and Bell separated. Bell died from diabetic complications in 1984.
By the end of 1971, Evans had become alienated from urban life and the academic world. With a second lover, Jacob Schraeter, he left New York in April 1972 to seek a new, countercultural existence in the countryside.
Using Seattle as a base, Evans, Schraeter, and a third gay man formed a group called The Weird Sisters Partnership. They bought a 40-acre spread of forest land on a remote mountain in northeastern Washington State, which they named New Sodom. Evans and Schraeter lived there in tents during summers.
During winter months in Seattle, Evans continued research that he had begun in New York on the underlying historical origins of the counterculture, particularly in regard to sex. In 1973 he began publishing some of his findings in the gay journal Out and later in Fag Rag. He also wrote a column on the political strategy of zapping for the Advocate, the national gay newspaper.
In 1974, Evans and Schraeter moved into an apartment at the corner of Haight and Ashbury Streets in San Francisco, from which Evans never moved. Schraeter returned to New York in 1981 and died from AIDS in 1989.
In the fall of the 1975, Evans formed a new pagan-inspired spiritual group in San Francisco, the Faery Circle. It combined countercultural consciousness, gay sensibility, and ceremonial playfulness.
In 1976 he gave a series of public lectures at 32 Page St., an early San Francisco gay community center, entitled “Faeries”, on his research on the historical origins of the gay counterculture. In 1978 he published this material in his ground-breaking book “Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture.” It demonstrated that many of the people accused of “witchcraft” and “heresy” in the Middle Ages and Renaissance were actually persecuted because of their sexuality and adherence to ancient pagan practices.
At this time, Evans also was active in Bay Area Gay Liberation (BAGL) and the San Francisco Gay Democratic Club, which later became the vehicle through which Harvey Milk rose to political prominence. He and I opened a small Volkswagen-repair business, which we named “The Buggery.”
In the late 1970s, Evans became upset at the pattern of butch conformity that was then overtaking gay men in the Castro. Adopting the nom de plume “The Red Queen”, he distributed a series of controversial satirical leaflets on the subject. In a 1978 leaflet entitled “Afraid You’re Not Butch Enough?” he facetiously referred to the new, butch-conforming men of the Castro as clones, initiating use of the now widely used term “Castro clones.”
In 1984 Evans directed a production at the Valencia Rose Cabaret in San Francisco of his own new translation, from the ancient Greek, of Euripides’ play “Bakkhai.” The hero of Euripides’ play is the Greek god Dionysos, the patron of homosexuality. In 1988, this translation, together with Evans’ commentary on the historical significance of the play, was published by St. Martin’s Press in New York under the name of “The God of Ecstasy.”
As AIDS began to spread in 1980s, Evans became active in several San Francisco groups that later morphed into ACT UP/SF. Evans was HIV-negative. With his good friend, the late Hank Wilson, he was arrested twice while demonstrating against the drug-maker Burroughs-Wellcome, accusing them of price-gouging, and once against a local TV station, charging them with defamation of people with AIDS.
In 1988, Evans began work on a nine-year project on philosophy. Thanks to a grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission, it was published in 1997 as “Critique of Patriarchal Reason” and included artwork by San Francisco artist Frank Pietronigro.
The book is a monumental overview of Western philosophy from antiquity to the present. It shows how misogyny and homophobia have influenced the supposedly objective fields of formal logic, higher mathematics, and physical science. Evans’ former doctoral advisor at Columbia University, Paul Oskar Kristeller, called the work “a major contribution to the study of philosophy and its history.”
In recent years, Evans devoted much time to improving neighborhood safety in the Haight-Ashbury district. As part of that effort, he penned a series of scathing and funny first-hand reports entitled “What I Saw at the Supes Today,” which he distributed free on the Internet.
The reports recount many acts and comments of the city’s Supervisors, often of an embarrassing nature, which the established media missed. The politicians were not amused, as when Evans caught Supervisors Jake McGoldrick and Chris Daly each snarling “Kiss my ass!” at each other in front of the press box in the board’s ornate chamber. Altogether, the reports run to over a thousand pages in length and provide a provocative look at the inner workings of local politics at the time.
In 2010, Evans was instrumental in helping pass Proposition L, the civil-sidewalks law. In addition to writing his own reports on the matter, he worked behind the scenes to get favorable coverage in various newspapers and on TV.
His support for the measure provoked intense criticism from many of the city’s self-styled progressives. To which, he replied: “Neighborhood safety is a progressive issue. How can we make the world a better place if we neglect improving our own neighborhoods?”
There may be others who were as instrumental as Arthur in launching the modern gay liberation movement, but very few more so. He was a brilliant strategist, forcing the establishment to yield to our demands for justice by making it easier for them to give in than to refuse. He was also a compelling orator, inspiring that first generation of gay activists after Stonewall.
He is survived by his brother Joe Evans of Durand, Michigan; his best friend, this writer; and a host of long-time friends and admirers who are grateful to him for his pioneering vision and leadership, wit, delightful companionship and loving nature. A memorial service is being planned for mid-October.