For Charley Shively, Gay Liberation Was About Sex and Rebellion, Not Equality

On Saturday morning, I received word that Charley Shively died. Shively was a pioneering gay liberation activist on the scale, if not with the name recognition, of Harvey Milk. He was a journalist, a poet, and a founding editor of one of the most important gay newspapers in the 1970s; but as I read more details about his death, I realized how many people had never heard of him.

Portrait of Charles Shively as an adolescent, 1950.

Charley Shively papers - courtesy  of The History Project: Documenting LGBTQ Boston.

Despite growing acceptance of LGBTQ people, many still don’t teach LGBTQ history, and many Americans still don’t know the names of the leaders of the movement. October marks National Coming Out Day as well as LGBTQ History Month but even these commemorations fail to inform our national memory.

Part of the problem is that LGBTQ people cannot just be added into history textbooks like women suffragettes or black freedom fighters because the history of gay liberation is not just about fighting for equality. As Shively’s life shows, gay liberation often sidestepped concerns about state-sanctioned rights; in fact, Shively and many others of his generation fundamentally rejected the pillars of American society—religion, capitalism, and the family. The popular political 1970s liberation slogan sums it up best: “Two, four, six, eight, smash the church, smash the state.”

Shively spent his career writing about how gay people understood their bodies, relationships, and sex. For him, writing about sex was political; he once wrote a series on oral sex as a revolutionary act, addressing the unacknowledged guilt and shame many gay men faced engaging in it. History books tend to lionize gay men in sweaty street protests fighting for legal recognition as the epitome of liberation, but Shively interrogated the sex that propelled them to become political in the first place. He shed light on the taboos that many gay men were too uneasy to discuss in public: the mechanics of sex, intimacy between men, the question of promiscuity.

As the founder of Fag Rag, a magazine that unapologetically reversed the stigma of homosexuality, Shively wrote about how gay men imposed heterosexual standards onto their relationships and sex lives. In one thought-provoking article, he advocated for group sex, not because he was a provocateur per se, but rather because he believed if the function of sex is for pleasure, why be limited by a practice designed for reproduction? Indeed, this is not the type of lesson one could teach in a fifth-grade social studies class or even in a high school curricula, but it does reflect part of the forgotten history of gay liberation. Sex mattered to gay men sometimes more than politics, and they explored its meaning by reading and writing about it in the gay press.

The cover of Shively’s seminal 1987 study of Whitman’s sexuality.


Just because people in the past came out of the closet does not mean that they understood the nuances of their identity; in fact, many, like Shively, turned to the burgeoning newspaper culture of the 1970s in order to make sense of themselves. Shively further theorized about sex in an article titled “Incest As An Act of Revolution.” He urged his readers to stop recasting their friends as family members and thus making sex between them illicit. By imposing the heterosexual model of the family onto gay friendships, gay people unwittingly limited their number of sexual partners and restricted their sexual lives.

If that did not blow the minds of his readers, he then provided a history of incest and the family to prove how even these ideas were socially constructed. He first pointed to the classical Roman definition of incest that meant, rather broadly, an offense to chastity and then to the 12th-century definition that limited the term to sexual transgressions between relatives. Shively then reminded his readers that the basic notion of the “family” was an outcome of capitalism, not a biological reality. He cited the work of many other theorists, whom he only referred to by last name—Friedrich Engels, Simone de Beauvoir, Shulamith Firestone, and others—signaling his readers’ deep knowledge of these erudite topics. Charting this history allowed him to convey to his newspaper audience how religious then-legal authorities created restrictions about sexuality, which then set the parameters for gay relationships.

Again, sweaty activists, like Sylvia Rivera, fit much more comfortably within a historical tradition of protest that begins with Tom Paine and culminates with Black Lives Matter than a queer journalist who offered a critique of the family. But this is what gay people were thinking and talking about in the 1970s. This is the history of gay liberation.

At the Boston gay pride march on June 18, 1977, Shively stood on stage in his academic regalia—which he earned from his Ph.D. from Harvard University. He told the crowd that his request for teaching gay history at Boston State College was denied. He then said his Harvard diploma was useless, so he lit it on fire. The crowd roared.

He then told the crowd that earlier that day they had marched by the John Hancock Insurance Company and the Prudential Insurance building, which, he noted, had “one hundred, two hundred, a thousand times more space than all the gay bars and all the gay organizations in Boston.” He then pulled a dollar bill and his Hancock insurance card out of his pocket and announced, “This is what they’re worth: burning.”

He then picked up a copy of the Bible and read a verse from chapter 20 of Leviticus that denounced homosexuality. By this point, the crowd was rumbling with excitement. They shouted, “Burn it, burn it!” Shivley ignited the Bible and dropped it at his feet. But this time his act of defiance was met with resistance. A member of the crowd pushed his way through the rally, screaming, “You can’t burn the Bible!” The demonstrator grabbed the burning Bible and tried to put out the fire with his feet. Shivley continued with his speech, but was eventually stopped.

Charley Shively reveals a history of gay liberation that does not fit into a standard narrative of political protest in which activists stand outside municipal, state, and federal buildings demanding legal recognition. He turned the other way. He saw how the family, religion, and capitalism harmed gay people, and he raised issues that mattered to his community. His prolific writings reveal how LGBTQ people grappled with the meaning of sex and considered its implication long before the outbreak of HIV cast a critical gaze on their sex lives.

Before Shively died on Friday, he had been suffering from Alzheimer’s for over a decade, living in a nursing home for the last six years of his life. So many of his ideas died with him because we as a culture have failed to recognize the true meaning of gay liberation and because we continue to pigeonhole the past into familiar patriotic frameworks. Shively deserves a monument erected in his honor at his birthplace, or a plaque commemorating his activism at his alma mater, or a panel discussion hosted by scholars reflecting on his prolific publications, or, in keeping with his politics and proclivity, a sex party.

He was one of the most brilliant minds of the last century, and we all need to know his name.