On May 20, the gay activist, scholar, and writer, Jeffrey Escoffier (1942-2022), died.
His career began in the age of New Left-inspired gay liberation. It lasted to the age of Pete Buttigieg and PrEP. He always linked LGBT political struggles to larger social issues, like class, gender, and race. All the while, he defended the diverse sexual behaviors and expressions. In his last book “Sex, Society, and the Making of Pornography” (2021), he examined the porn industry like any other industry in late capitalist society.
In an email, Fred Fejes, a professor at Florida Atlantic University, described Escoffier as a “member of that important first generation of queer scholars and activists who, in the 1970s and ‘80s, through cultural activism, scholarly work and community engagement, helped shaped our sense of LGBTQ identity and community.”
In 1970, he became head of Philadelphia’s Gay Activist Alliance. That group led that city’s first Stonewall Commemoration in 1972. No one called it “Pride” back then. Escoffier also had a passion for writing and publishing. In 1972, he and others published “The Gay Alternative.” The expanded acronym would come later. That magazine became a forum for discussions about radical LGBT politics and culture. In 1974, it featured the gender-fuck icon Divine on its cover. In a tribute to Escoffier in “Jacobin,” Whitney Strub said his “most sustained theme was always socialism and sexual liberation.”
In the late ‘70s, Escoffier moved to San Francisco, hotbed of cultural, political, and sexual activism. He edited “Socialist Review.” Unlike many Left Journals, "Socialist Review" reflected an open, pluralistic socialism. Its articles discussed issues from feminist, multi-racial, HIV/AIDS, and queer perspectives.
In 1988, Escoffier and others started the LGBT quarterly magazine, “OutLook. “The Advocate” targeted the emerging consumerist LGBT subculture. In contrast, “OutLook” targeted the multi-racial, gender radical, sex-positive LGBT communities. Escoffier took free speech and the “marketplace of ideas” seriously. Their goal was not to sell products, beliefs, or candidates. Their goal was to promote critical thinking. “OutLook” ceased publication in 1992.
As a side project, “OutLook” organized the “OutWrite” conferences in San Francisco from 1988 to 1992. “OutWrite” brought together writers to network and learn about LGBT writing. Both “OutLook” and “OutWrite” saw themselves as rooted in grassroots movements. The book, “OutWrite: the Speeches that Shaped LGBTQ Literary Culture” quoted Judy Grahn at one conference, “If there is a lesbian or gay writer who has never done organizing, that person is getting a free ride.” These conferences featured and helped to develop, many of the luminaries of LGBT thinking and writing.
“OutLook” and “OutWrite” had visions of LGBT politics that extended beyond LGBT rights and same-sex marriage. They involved issues of class, gender, race, and other systems of domination. Like everyone else who has tried to do so, they sometimes failed. Many times, it is better to fail to succeed than to never try. The LGBT right attacked them for being “politically correct,” yesterday’s term for “woke.”
In 1993, Escoffier began to work for the New York City Dept. of Health and Mental Hygiene. He held the title of Director of Health Media and Marketing. He retired from that job in 2015.
In a time of increasing economic anxiety and attraction to social democracy, Escoffier’s writing may have more relevance than ever.
The full tribute in “Jacobin” is available online at jacobin.com.
Stonewall National Museum and Archives (1300 E. Sunrise) is currently hosting an exhibit about the “OutWrite” conferences. They also have back issues of “OutLook” available.
OutLook’s back issues are also available online at lesbianpoetryarchive.org.