BY KAREN OCAMB | UPDATED | Mark Thompson, photographer and author of several books on gay spirituality and the history of The Advocate died at his home in Palm Springs on Tuesday of unknown causes. He would have turned 64 next week.
Word spread quickly among friends and on Facebook Friday, leaving a wave of shock and a flood of memories. A longtime HIV/AIDS survivor who’d been very sick prior to the death of his beloved husband Rev. Malcolm Boyd last year, Mark seemed “fine” after a medication adjustment. Moving from Silver Lake to Palm Springs— where he had moved to continue his practice as a therapist—was not as easy a transition as expected, however. According to a friend, Mark was discovered by someone who had been trying to reach him without response. Since Mark was prone to fainting as a result of health issues and medication, friends believe his death was accidental, that he fell or collapsed. The Riverside County Coroner’s office says an investigation into the cause of death is pending with a toxicology report expected in six weeks.
Born and raised on the beautiful Monterey Peninsula in California—as if fated for a life of spiritual quest—Mark came out during the early days of Gay Liberation. In 1973, while a journalism student at San Francisco State University, he co-founded the Bay Area-wide Gay Students Coalition and started a gay student newspaper. In 1975, he asked David Goldstein, the new owner The Advocate—who was transforming the publication from an activists’ screed to a more sleek professional magazine—to write an article about gays and the political process. And to stir controversy “and maybe raise a little hell,” he asked camera-store owner and political hopeful Harvey Milk to contribute, as well, “knowing the two men’s ideology would be different, but not having a clue that their clashing views would ignite a long-festering feud.”
That famous feud was captured by the late journalist Randy Shilts—also an Advocate writer—in his book The Mayor of Castro Street, and later in the film “Milk.”
Just before graduation, in April 1975, Mark got a call from Goodstein to set up an interview. Aware that Mark had planned a summer tour of Europe, Goodstein suggested Mark interview artist David Hockney in Paris. Mark had never heard of Hockney. “Goodstein sputtered in shocked disbelief, but I received the assignment nevertheless,” Mark writes in the Introduction to The Long Road to Freedom, the important history of The Advocate Mark edited before he left the publication in 1994.
Mark interviewed Hockney on the Left Bank, then moved on to Amsterdam where he received a call that would change his life. Before leaving for Europe, editor John Preston had shown Mark clips about gay movements in other countries, including a gay uprising in Spain that had been brutally suppressed by Franco’s regime. The call was from a contact in Spain, a professor who was one of a few members of MELH (Spanish Movement for Gay Liberation) who had not been arrested or forced into hiding. The man urged Mark to “Come at once,” which Mark heeded.
“I spent the next twenty-four hours with the resilient half dozen men and women of MELH, their struggle and courage in the grip of fascism a lesson indelibly impressed upon my consciousness,” he wrote. “When I returned to the United States that fall and filed my stories, I felt certain as never before that The Advocate and the just cause it represented would be forever worthy of my attention.”
That “cause” included reporting on “countless brutal assaults, and numbing assassinations, to the mounting horrors of the plague [AIDS],” he wrote, having to “make sense of the senseless, take stock of outrageous injustices unfamiliar to the mainstream.”
Mark explained that The Advocate stood as a “hopeful beacon, holistic in its concern for a people previously broken, adamant in its conviction that the pieces stay mended together. ‘The Advocate was for many of us the first exposure we’d had to the idea that what we are is not bad,’ says one longtime reader, speaking for many. ‘It was alight in the dark by which we could navigate.’”
It was to this vehicle of liberation that Mark devoted two decades of his life.
Mark was also on a spiritual quest, which flowered into full bloom when he met Mattachine Society founder Harry Hay in San Francisco in 1979. The two became lifelong friends, even as Mark and Malcolm moved to Silver Lake and Harry and his longtime love, John Burnside, moved to West Hollywood. His trilogy, Gay Spirit, Gay Soul, Gay Body, was proudly promoted through White Crane publishing — as was his photography exhibit “Fellow Traveler.”
“’Fellow travelers’ for me means being in the company of like-minded companions: Brave brothers who are building a community, moving forward together! It is also a sly reference to the use of the phrase during the early days of the Cold War when people who were accused of being communist sympathizers were dubbed “fellow travelers.” It was a coded word used pejoratively, so I wanted to redeem that and give it a more positive application for today, “ Mark told interviewer Bo Young. “Fellow Travelers is divided into two sections: Guides and Tribes. Some of the iconic individuals, or ‘guides,’ who have influenced or touched upon my life in significant ways include James Broughton, Ram Dass, Harry Hay, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Paul Monette. There are many others, of course. The Tribes section contains dozens of pictures taken at various Faerie gatherings held across Western lands during the 1980s and early ‘90s. Some of the images from the first Black Leather Wings Radical Faerie gatherings will probably be controversial to some readers.”
In advance of the celebration of what would have been Harry Hay’s 100th birthday on April 7, 2012—for which Mark helped organize the dedication of the Mattachine Steps in Silver Lake — I reprinted his essay on Harry and John Burnside from his 2009 memoir Advocate Days & Other Stories (QueerMojo).
“The first thing Harry Hay ever told me was to pull off my ugly green frog skin of heterosexual conformity. It was May Day, 1979, and I had just left a plane from San Francisco, where gay people danced naked in the streets. There wasn’t too much hetero-imitative behavior as far as I could see. And as for that ugly green frog suit, well, perhaps only as a really bad piece of drag,” Mark wrote. “Who was this character? A gay father figure with an overly active imagination? Or some kind of queer sage, a little too bent to fully comprehend? I decided to keep on listening. And I am so glad I did.”
Harry and Mark met in a small apartment near the Hollywood Hills to discuss upcoming plans for the first-ever Spiritual Conference for Radical Faeries. “Nobody quite knew what a “radical faerie” was (including, I’m convinced, the organizers of the gathering). Yet it sure sounded grand, even romantic enough to capture the attention of readers. It did. Nearly two hundred gay men from across North America arrived at a remote Arizona oasis by summer’s end, kick-starting an international movement that flourishes to this day,” he wrote.
“Nothing escaped [Harry’s] attention, particularly if it informed his theories about gay consciousness. His central idea–as revolutionary then as now–is that gay people have a special role to play in human evolution. He was the first to insist that we are a separate, distinct minority with certain traits and talents, mainly in the areas of teaching, healing, mediating opposites, and creating beauty. Harry’s notion or “call” as he put it, seemed fuzzy to a lot of people, especially those unable to differentiate between different and special,” Mark continued.
“As Harry made clear–no more painstakingly than over long hours at his kitchen table–being different meant ‘neither better nor inferior–but athwart.’ He loved using five-dollar words like that. What he was basically saying is that the ‘gay window’–our unique and often deeply ironic way of seeing–has something essentially wonderful to offer humanity.”
I was introduced to Mark in 1990 at The Advocate offices in Hollywood by editor-in-chief Richard Rouilard. I was struck by his décor: Native American drums, a long Talking Stick with feathers, sacred totems and leather garb, which resulted in his delightfully discussing the naked-dancing Radical Faeries. As an aging “Flower Power” Woodstock hippie, I loved the idea of finding freedom through gay spiritual consciousness. I was a former mainstream journalist, now doing my part for “the cause,” but I knew little of LGBT history. Harry Hay, Jim Kepner, Morris Kight and Connie Norman were among my teachers, with Mark serving in another editorial capacity explaining the “truth” and the behind-the-scenes motivations and personal agendas behind all the fascinating stories.
He used to quote A.J. Liebling’s famous line: “The freedom of the press belongs to him who owns one.” But as reporters and editors, Mark and I felt a responsibility on the frontlines to discern what stories were real, what was spin, and how to report on a controversy with both color and an ethical obligation to the larger context. It wasn’t always easy, but he took the struggle to heart, apologizing profusely when another, more senior editor changed the title of one of my stories to make it more snarky—and incredibly sexist.
Mark didn’t abide sexism. In fact, he was close with many lesbians who would have shorn his dignity if he disparaged women—lesbians like Ivy Bottini, Robin Tyler, Torie Osborn, Terry DeCrescenzo and Betty Berzon.
“Mark was a solid rock of human understanding and had an open heart. He lived a spiritual life as he understood spirit. I have lost a long time friend,” Ivy said upon hearing of Mark’s passing.
Mark also helped recognize pioneer writers at The Lambda Literary Foundation’s 25th anniversary of Outwrite! in April 2013, that recognized literary pioneers Rev. Malcolm Boyd, Lillian Faderman (pictured above), Katherine V. Forrest, John Rechy and Patricia Nell Warren.
Mark and the late activist, writer Jeanne Cordova were particularly close, especially after Malcolm passed away. They last saw each other at Malcolm’s memorial last year. As Jeanne’s spouse Lynn Balin told me in an email: “Jeanne was in the middle of chemo – so not well enough to visit Mark – but she wrote asking him if he was comforted by a belief in God like Malcolm had.”
Mark wrote back: “The idea of God is always open to interpretation, but the reality of there being a Divine Spirit that infuses every aspect of our inner and outer worlds is something I have always embraced. I believe it is better to say ‘Yes’ in these matters than to deny. Who really knows in such matters? I believe it is better to be on the side of the angels–just in case they happen to be here.”
Mark’s relationship with Malcolm, who was 30 years his senior, was miraculous in their shared love and mutual respect, especially concerning their different spiritual and religious beliefs. Their union officiated by Episcopal Bishop Jon Bruno at the Diocese headquarters in Los Angeles was as controversial within the Anglican Church as was the elevation of Gene Robinson to bishop in 2004. But Mark loved how his poet priest could be feisty—wanting to meet with new Pope Francis over pizza and chianti to explain the glorious love shared by same sex couples.
“Malcolm and I met and began this relationship this month, February, in 1984,” Mark told me Feb. 27, 2015, sitting in the lobby of Good Samaritan Hospital after I came to say goodbye to Malcolm. Mark noted that Malcolm was then 62, the age Mark was sitting across from me. “I have an ever-new appreciation for who he is.”
Mark recalled asking himself what he was doing—falling for an Episcopal priest 30 years his senior! “But once I looked into those incredible eyes, I was gone,” Mark said, with a mischievous twinkle in his sad eyes.
“We’ve been committed partners for 31 years. We got legally married in our living room with just a few friends and somebody from City Hall once Prop. 8 was resolved in July 2013. But, of course, there was our famous community blessing in 2004 that made the front page of the Los Angeles Times with the church, Bishop Bruno and Malcolm deciding to make that stand.”
They decided to make that stand for marriage equality because President George W. Bush advocated for a federal marriage amendment to prohibit giving same-sex couples the constitutional right to marry in his State of the Union address.
“It was a very courageous act on everybody’s part,” Mark said.
“Malcolm and I were together for over three decades. We had no secrets. But because of the times and places from which we came, it was sometimes difficult. We had to work extra hard to resolve our differences. But always there was love and reaching for a higher ground,” Mark said. “The last years of our lives have been sublimely perfect. Even I am amazed at his breadth and commitment on so many levels of humanity.”
“My spouse, Mary, and I were very close to Mark and Malcolm through the years. We loved them, and their legacies of writing and art now live on for future generations. It was my honor to perform their wedding ceremony at the Cathedral Center, and together we helped take a stand for marriage equality that is now the law of the land. We are so grateful for the courage, leadership, friendship and inspiration of this remarkable couple,” Bishop Bruno said in an email.
In 2012, Mark wrote about how that day— May 16, 2004—came about for a piece in the Huffington Post entitled: “A Blessing of Vows: How Two ‘Stonewall Era’ Gay Guys Finally Got Married.” Here’s an extended excerpt:
—— ““Get married!” I nearly shouted. “And in a church? You’ve got to be out of your mind!” I vehemently told my partner the night he came home from work with his grand announcement. As a four-decades-long gay civil rights activist, the thought of one day actually saying “I do” to the man I loved had never seriously crossed my mind. There were just too many other concerns to worry about — from reforming antiquated and damning laws, to finding a cure for AIDS, to fostering the belief in LGBT youth that their lives were worth living, to … to … well, the agenda was a long one.
Besides, as a “Stonewall era” gay man I wasn’t even sure if getting married was on my list of politically correct activities. But then I thought, who ever wrote that stupid list in the first place?
My hubby, a pleasant but stubborn man, quickly rejoined to my every protest.
“Well, first it won’t be an actual marriage because that is still not legal in California. It will be a blessing of vows.”
Then he waited a moment before dropping the headline news. (And headlines it made too, on the front page of the Los Angeles Times the very next day!) “It won’t be in a church. The ceremony will be performed as a large public event in the Cathedral Center of the Diocese of Los Angeles by none other than our dear friend and spiritual leader The Rt. Rev. Jon Bruno.” I could feel the blood rushing from my brain.
All this meant it would be an historic event and a very political one, too! For it would be the first time in the United States that a sitting bishop would officially bless the union of two quite publically open gay men — and in his own Cathedral Center. It was a lot to think about. Being a gay man, and a rather meticulous one at that, my very next question was, “But what am I going wear?”
Malcolm just laughed at my obvious panic. “Don’t worry, everything will be alright. Bishop Jon really wants to do this. He’ll take care of everything. All you need to do is show up.”
And so I did show up, along with about 150 of our closest friends, including my younger brother, John, who served as my best man. I looked splendid in a new blue suit, but I don’t think I had ever been so nervous in my life. I was certain the crowd could see the swarm of butterflies buzzing around my head. The date had been selected to commemorate the 20th anniversary of our union, so accordingly the pomp and circumstance was finely applied.
There were hymns sung, and incense pots swung. We exchanged our vows before the assemblage and then my brother stepped forward with a carved wooden box containing an antique silk scarf that Malcolm’s mother had painted with the image of two crane birds several decades before. Although Beatrice was no longer alive, I could feel her spirit in the room as a palpable witness. The Bishop careful removed the delicate cloth from the box and then clasped our hands together with it. With that act complete, he then declared our union blessed in the eyes of the Holy Spirit and the Church.
The applause was thunderous, the exit music sublime as we all made our way into the adjoining Great Hall for a feast fit for a lifetime. Love was truly in the air that day — as it should always be no matter whom you chose to cherish as your one-and-only amigo, comrade in arms, soul mate and eternal treasure.” —
However Mark died, I cannot imagine he died alone. I see Malcolm swooping down to lift him up, aided by Jeanne Cordova and Paul Monette and Michael Callen and scores and scores of friends who cherished his sweet spirit over the years. Mark Thompson is now truly on the side of the angels.