Scroll To Top
Voices

Death of a
pioneer

Death of a
pioneer

Rofes

Eric Rofes, who died of an apparent heart attack on June 26, was an influential activist who authored several books on AIDS and gay culture and once served as director of the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center and the Shanti Project in San Francisco.

Eric Rofes, activist, educator and author of influential books on AIDS and gay culture Dry Bones Breathe and Reviving the Tribe, died Monday in Provincetown, Mass., where he was working on a writing project. He was 51.

Friends said the cause of death was an apparent heart attack; an autopsy is pending. Rofes lived in Arcata, Calif., and San Francisco. He is survived by his longtime partner, Crispin Hollings.

An educator by profession, Rofes was a sixth-grade teacher in the 1970s, before becoming editor of the Gay Community News in Boston, the only LGBT newsweekly at the time. He served as director of the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center in the 1980s, then became executive director of the Shanti Project, San Francisco's pioneering housing organization for people with HIV/AIDS.

After receiving his Ph.D. in social and cultural studies from the University of California, Berkeley's Graduate School of Education, Rofes became an associate professor of education at Humboldt State University in Arcata, where he served until his death. In the summer of 1999, he convened the Boulder Gay Men's Health Summit, the first gathering of its kind.

Of Rofes's 12 books, the two best-known were provocative looks at gay male culture in the face of the ongoing HIV/AIDS epidemic. Reviving the Tribe focused on the post-traumatic stress of gay men who suffered catastrophic losses from AIDS and the necessity of remembering and mourning those who died. Dry Bones Breathe: Gay Men Creating Post-AIDS Identities and Subcultures stated that, for most gay men in the United States, AIDS was no longer an emergency and that a "crisis mentality" was no longer useful. The books were hailed by critics for their sociopolitical analysis mixed with intensely personal ruminations on sex, loss, and community.

In his writing, Rofes decried a cultural amnesia about the lessons of gay liberation amid the panic of HIV, and he railed against those who suggested gay men should just "grow up" and reject public sexual culture.

"I believe that any hope for collective survival is rooted in the realities of our lives, however harsh and seemingly unacceptable," Rofes wrote in Reviving the Tribe. "Our inability to continue confronting the ever-intensifying manifestations of AIDS has brought us to the point of paralysis."

Writing for PlanetOut last year, he predicted a possible backlash against condoms after years of HIV-prevention messages.

"Today I wonder what nearly 25 years of negative messaging has done to the ability of gay men to enjoy their bodies and erotic lives and maintain sexual health and a sense of balance," he wrote. "Gay men need time out, time on our own, in order to heal, to discover and to return to a place where our sex and desires and bodies are things of joy, excitement, pleasure and intense spiritual connection."

Sexual politics was just one of Rofes's passions, said Richard Burns, executive director of the New York Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Center. Burns said Rofes will be remembered for his commitment to building a gay men's health movement and for being an activist when activism was dangerous.

"I met Eric in 1977 when we worked at the Gay Community News, and I think that time was formative for him, because from that time he always thought of himself as an activist, whether he was writing or teaching, even at a time when school teachers wore bags over their heads in gay parades," Burns said. "In fact, he lost a job as a public-school teacher because he was an out gay man."

Burns said Rofes was never deterred by his critics. "He was a critical thinker and someone who didn't feel it was necessary to go with the flow in his analysis. He believed we needed to build a healthy community and respect adult sexual decisions and not pathologize or infantilize gay men's sexual lives. In the face of HIV/AIDS that was not always a popular view."

A memorial service will be held Wednesday at McHoul Funeral Home in Provincetown, and a community memorial service will be held July 15 at the Metropolitan Community Church in San Francisco.

30 Years of Out100Out / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff & Wayne Brady

From our Sponsors

Most Popular

Latest Stories

Larry Buehl