Remembering Howard Williams: Warden of Gay Culture in the Age of AIDS and the Internet
Remembering Howard Williams: Warden of Gay Culture in the Age of AIDS and the Internet
by Lawrence D. Mass
presented at a Memorial Service for Howard Williams at the LGBTQ+ Center in New York City, Feb 3, 2024, arrangements and introductions by Todd Mick, Richard Morales and Sarah Schulman
Special thanks to Howard’s husband and my friend Todd Mick, to Richard Morales and the Center, which has generously provided a home base for community custodians like Howard, events like these, and for us all.
Howard and I met 30 years ago at the Dugout bar on Christopher Street. The bar is still there, just across the highway from the fenced off rubble of concrete and steel where homeless Sylvia Rivera, the legendary Stonewall activist, found shelter and that became today’s gleaming riverfront park.
In those days, the Dugout was a leather-ish bar that was becoming a hangout for the emerging subculture of the bears. On Sunday afternoons the crowd would spill over to the outside “pen” where, “behind bars,” we could cruise passersby and they us.
Howard was a big sexy bear. He was also a thinker and culture maven with a keen interest in his professional career of technology and the media. His previous lover had been a singer with the New York City Opera who shared Howard’s passion for New York City.
Past an initial flirtation, Howard and I became friends. Over time, we attended many events together — films, plays, but especially concerts and operas, and we corresponded regularly by email.
Howard was what used to be called a Renaissance man or polymath. In addition to his interests in arts and culture, he explored his own techno-creativity with photography, notably for holiday cards that were original, beautiful and telling of the world he saw, and of those he knew, sometimes in mercilessly pixeled close-ups. One he did of me from Fire Island, where he and Todd spent summers, made me acutely aware of my emerging turkey neck, now hidden by my beard. Memorably, he signed off on these cards with his trademark flourish: “Of course, Howard.”
In retirement, it’s Howard who explained to me that if you want to establish Florida as your primary residence, they monitor you by cell phone. If they find you’ve spent one more minute than allowed out of state, it’s off with your head. Which of course you’re otherwise at risk of losing in Florida now for saying anything progressive or even the word “gay” within earshot or eyeshot of children.
My last emails with Howard were enthusiastic. He and Todd were in Wilton Manors for Halloween — gay Ramadan, as we used to call it. I’d heard that they’d gotten up in costumes. Tutus, someone quipped. I wanted Howard to send me pics, which didn’t happen because of his untimely death.
Back in New York, I marveled at their bravery in participating in any major public community event in Fla. And I marveled at the bravery of the greater gay community of South Florida for holding the event, having cancelled others for fear of state-condoned violence.
Though Howard and Todd weren’t in female drag, they, and the rest of us, seemed acutely endangered by Florida’s extremist far-right governor and the militias he’s been training to enforce a fascist agenda that, at the start of this New Year, is set to be enforced.
As an incentive to send me his pics, I’d sent Howard a photo from an earlier Wilton Manors Halloween I attended with my husband, Attila. We were wearing prisoner and cop outfits, which we switched at the last minute when we discovered that our chosen costumes didn’t fit.
Coincidentally, the picture I later got from Todd shows Howard dressed in the uniform of a corrections officer that dated back to his years in Michigan. And Todd was wearing a Las Vegas Crime Scene Investigator uniform that everyone mistook for being a prisoner jumpsuit.
Gay gallows humor, one might call these cisvestic waltzings with enemies old and all too familiar to gay life — of law, enforcement and incarceration.
Though Howard and I were both opinionated, critical and often in disagreement on particulars, our discourse grew richer. We would emerge from our little intellectual skirmishes — what Bill Hoffman called “fairies’ basketball” — sometimes a bit battered but chastened and always the better for them.
In the heyday of the epidemic, I was overloaded with trying to juggle my own writing with full-time work as a physician. I mention this because I now recall that Howard gave me something he had written that I relegated and then lost track of. I no longer remember what it was. But it now seems eerily prescient that in that last email exchange, I would make amends to him for that old failure of friendship.
In retrospect, that he didn’t pursue his own writing seems a shame because Howard might well have been as original and interesting a writer as he was a thinker and arbiter, organizer and presenter of new writing. As such, he became best-known for leading the Center’s Second Tuesday series, featuring many luminaries of LGBTQ+ life and literatures.
For me, an example of Howard at his most thoughtful occurred in a back and forth we were having about demarcaters of the Gay Liberation movement.
I’d said I considered there to be three that were most important: The Sexual Revolution, the Stonewall Rebellion, and the declassification of homosexuality as a mental disorder.
The Sexual Revolution I was talking about wasn’t the American party scene of Playboy Magazine and Plato’s Retreat, or even the fast-lane gay sex world Larry Kramer was always so up in arms about. Rather, it was the greater movement for sex education, sex research, women’s and minority rights and health care, and sexual liberation that had its origins in the Russian Revolution of 1917, and that sexologist John Money called The Birth Control Age.
As Larry and I fought about it, “this sexual revolution,” as Ned Weeks puts it in The Normal Heart, would “be the death of us.” As I saw it, this greater sexual revolution was our best hope for the future.
In addition to those three, Howard suggested another great demarcater of gay liberation — the internet. It’s the internet, I had to agree, that as much as anything else, has demonstrated the great fluidity and diversity of communities hitherto collectively known first as gay, then lesbian and gay, and eventually as today’s LGBTQ+ community.
Remember the old days when, despite Freud and Kinsey’s findings in the 1950’s, we believed everybody who claimed to be be bisexual was really just in the closet about being gay? Nothing has put more nails in that coffin than the explosion of sex and the networking of it on the internet.
When I spoke for the Center’s bookstore series, Howard was there. And I was there for various Second Tuesday evenings, going back to the period of Howard’s predecessor, Mel Wolfe. When Mel passed away in 2007, Howard took over the series. [Second Tues — Past (secondtuesday.org)]
I cherished Howard’s delight and curiosity in the new. He was genuinely interested in what younger writers and artists were saying, and notable in helping to give them public voice.
In the recent period, Howard visited with me at our second home, an over 55 apartment in Florida still in post-hurricaine disarray. I’d wanted him to meet Attila, who was at work, and I’d wanted to introduce him to Hollywood’s Boardwalk, the nicest in South Florida. Its parade of hot flesh, Howard had to concede over our lunch there, was indeed a feast.
I also wanted Howard to meet our cat. Having lost his own cat some years earlier, I recalled his tenderness in trying to soothe the obvious pain of his tumor-ridden kitty and knew he would be delighted to make a new friend.
Tragically, Howard’s sudden death from a heart attack was on the eve of the 25th anniversary of his marriage to Todd, in celebration of which Howard was on a flight, on the first leg of what looked to be a spectacular trip to Asia.
Just prior to that time, Howard and I met for lunch back in New York in Abingdon Square at my haunt, Cafe MeMe, steps from the park, where we ended up talking for 4 hours!
I don’t think either of us ever knew why we were speaking so intensely and at such length. I’ve little memory of what we said. Except that he seemed more interested in my own story of recent years than of my efforts to posthumously publish Arnie’s novel and collected poems, or the forthcoming installment of my Jewish Wagnerism Series.
While there may not have been much clarity of purpose to our dialogue as it was happening, there was a conclusion and aftermath. At the end of that time together, Howard expressed his opinion that there was a big story in my life that remained untold — that of my relationship with Attila.
Attila is my Hungarian husband, an undocumented immigrant and itinerant laborer who I’ve shepherded on his long, arduous, perilous journey of immigration to America — from our marriage in 2017 in Wilton Manors to his current application for citizenship. He became our extended family. Arnie and I remained life partners for 40 years, until his passing 2 years ago; we had never married because of insurance considerations.
Attila with me, Arnie, now deceased, our cats, most now deceased, and the Trump-DeSantis years in Florida. Yes, there’s a real story there. It’s in this sense that my last memories of Howard seem most precious. However challenging, Howard was like the dog whisperer in being a writer listener and whisperer. He was an apostle of writing and community whose departing gift to me was the inspiration for my next book.
“Make yourself available for good things to happen,” read the daily wisdom at a recovery meeting. I’m glad Howard and I did that with each other. Helping each other to keep coming out-within ourselves, with each other and in society, to foster writing and creativity, to be of service. That’s what friends, family, recovery and gay liberation are for.
Howard Williams, warden of gay culture in our age of AIDS and the internet, may you now rest in peace. You’ve touched many lives past, present, and future. And for that — of course, Howard! — we are grateful and indebted.
Farewell and Godspeed.