Doug Ireland’s Passion and Praxis

Martin Duberman. The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide. Volume 22, Issue 3. May/June 2015.

Who was Doug Ireland, and why is he held in esteemed memory? He grew up with few advantages, had few breaks in life. A large, ungainly child, his impoverished parents were pious followers of Christian Science and refused to provide their son with the usual inoculations. At age ten, Doug became one of the last children to contract polio-so severely that he had to have an emergency tracheotomy and remained confined to an iron lung for a full year; for the rest of his life he suffered from muscular degeneration and bouts of respiratory illness. As the novelist Edmund White has suggested (in City Boy), it was “perhaps not coincidentally [that] Doug became a militant atheist.”

He also became an omnivorous reader. Never encouraged to go to college (though in 1965 he took a few courses at the left-leaning Goddard College in Vermont, including a class called “Contemporary Radical Thought”), he read his way through books with the kind of zeal that most boys of his generation invested in baseball cards. In particular, he devoured works of history and as an autodidact became more learned-but much less dutiful-than many with advanced degrees. He believed the past held lessons for the present and that we were obligated to apply them in active engagement with the unjust world around us. Nothing angered Doug more than complacency in the face of deprivation.

At an early age, he enrolled ardently in the struggle against inequality. While still a teenager, Doug became a New Leftist; by 1963, straight out of high school, he devoted himself both to the black struggle and to Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the radical student organization. Robb Burlage, one of the leading figures in SDS (and himself the son of workingclass parents), picked up on Doug’s passionate intelligence and deep aversion to hypocrisy, became a kind of mentor to him, and enlisted him in the electoral-politics wing of SDS, which was then focused on defeating the presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater. Others soon picked up on the young firebrand’s acuity and at age seventeen Doug was elected to the SDS National Council.

Following Goldwater’s defeat in 1964, Doug redirected much of his energy to working for SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), once getting arrested at a SNCC-sponsored mass civil disobedience action to desegregate an amusement park in Maryland. After SNCC turned towards “Black Power” and urged its white members to organize their own communities against segregation, Doug shifted more of his energy to mobilizing against the escalating war in Vietnam. Throughout the ’60s, he worked as well with various labor groups (the UAW and the New Jersey Industrial Union Council) and on several national Democratic campaigns-including Eugene McCarthy’s anti-war bid for the presidency in 1968. That led directly to stints as the successful campaign manager for the antiwar Congressional candidacies of Allard Lowenstein and, in 1970, Bella Abzug. By then he’d reached the hoary age of 24, had come out as a gay man, and had developed a reputation as a skillful political operative with a developing network of contacts.

Doug’s relationship with Bella Abzug is worth lingering over for its insight into his candor and unimpeachable integrity. He adored Bella for her pragmatic radicalism, her tireless crusades for issues she cared about, and a directness matching his own. He was thrilled when she became the first major political figure to embrace gay rights and to campaign actively for gay votes. Throughout the ’50s, as Doug put it, Bella had “fought the McCarthyites toe to toe in that dark hour when the establishment liberals sponsored their own book burnings and witch hunts, saving themselves from the reactionaries by capitulating to them.” When the two of them went together to an emotional Carnegie Hall tribute to an absent, ailing Paul Robeson on the occasion of his 75th birthday, they had to share a box of Kleenex. Bella wasn’t part of what Doug disparagingly called “the satisfied middle class.” She was, as Doug put it, “too crudely full of life, too much the peasant for our homogenized modernity; in the rawness of her passions lies a reminder of where we came from.”

Bella’s character, as Doug once shrewdly put it, had been “shaped in a different time. … [She was] a product of the immigrant- bred New York Jewish Left, the daughter of refugees from Russian ghetto life.” He was well aware that Bella’s abrasive personality and her “capacious ego” could make her difficult to deal with (after one argument they stopped speaking for months). When she ran for mayor of New York City in 1977, Doug didn’t hesitate to criticize her in New York magazine for “toning down her style to strike what she conceives to be a mayoral demeanor … while the spirit is still there, too often she has sounded false and vague.”

He was even tougher on three of the candidates who outpolled her. He dismissed the incumbent Abe Beame as “hopelessly bereftof substance”; excoriated Mario Cuomo (the eventual runner-up) for remarking that “we’re at a point now in society where you have to be as primitive as talking about how we lock up the animals [i.e., blacks] who threaten us”; and denounced the winner, Ed “Fast Eddie” Koch, who-after the famous blackout that summer and the citywide looting that followed-shifted to a “law and order” platform and was rewarded for his shameless “right-left fan dance” with victory. Doug’s wit was as razor-sharp as his intellect: on another occasion he referred to Cuomo (who in general he admired) as “a politician able to hide behind his own candor.” And of Koch he made the devastating comment: “I refute the fact that Ed Koch is a closet gay man. He is a closet human being.”

Starting in the mid-’70s, Doug increasingly felt that his talents and his opportunity to influence events lay not in direct-action politics but in journalism. As he put it in one of the first of many articles for the then hip, now defunct, SoHo Weekly News (Jan. 26, 1978):

I used to be in the politics business. Running campaigns for people. Helping them ornament their public personalities, and ordering their person, private and public agendas, and like that. … The politics business is, after all, a trade based upon the manipulation of people. So those skilled at [it] … are usually quite adept at ordering their own personalities in such a way as to mask completely their own real identities … people who would like to be nice people but don’t quite know how-and [also] people whose closets are entirely empty: there’s nobody home at all.

He worked briefly for a wire service, then got hired at The New York Post in its pre-Murdoch days, when Dorothy Schiffwas still the owner and it had the reputation for being the most liberal paper in the country. In addition to writing for the radical SoHo Weekly News, he went on to become, for seven years, the chief media critic for what was then another genuinely alternative source of news, The Village Voice. Over time he would write as well for New York, In These Times, the L.A. Weekly, The Nation, POZ, and, later still, the on-line site Tom Overseas- he lived for most of the ’80s in France-he wrote for Libération and for the investigative blog Bakchich.

A long list of publications, yet Doug never found a true home in any of them. One reason was that he insisted on writing about the struggle for gay equality, though editors and friends would admonish him, telling him that it would hurt his credibility as a journalist: “We want you to be taken seriously” is a line Doug often heard. It reminded him of André Gide’s response to friends who tried to dissuade him from publishing Corydon, his pioneering treatise on homosexuality. Gide would quote Ibsen: “Friends are dangerous not so much from what they want to make you do, but because of what they want to prevent you from doing.”

Also at issue was Doug’s combative refusal to dilute his commitment to radical politics. Micah Sifry, Doug’s editor at The Nation, recalls that “it was often a struggle to get his writing” into the magazine. During the Clinton administration, Sifry adds, “Doug’s politics were to the left of the magazine’s. It was not a happy relationship. There was a time when everyone expected Doug to be the next Jimmy Breslin, but he couldn’t be the next Jimmy Breslin because he was too true to his principles and wouldn’t cut those corners.”

John Berendt, Doug’s editor-and lifelong friend-at New York, tells a similar story. Doug published less than a handful of pieces in the magazine, his tenure cut short over a political spat. He was part of a team effort putting together a feature piece about Andrew Stein, then running for Manhattan Borough president, when Stein’s influential father, Jerry Finkelstein, got wind of Doug’s participation and raised hell about what he assumed was going to be a hatchet job. Finkelstein was given “assurances”—and Doug resigned in protest.

If the press lords as a group found Doug toxic, many of his fellow reporters valued him highly. Bruce Shapiro recalls first meeting Doug in 1981 when he was “holding court in the conference room at The Nation.” Its editor-in-chief, Victor Navasky, had enlisted Doug’s help in putting together an AmericanWriters Congress based on similar leftwing gatherings in the 1930s. Shapiro also worked on that Congress and remembers Doug as “an immense, rumpled, bespectacled owl … regaling a tableful of interns and editors” with sardonic yarns, “gleefully report[ing] every ancient sectarian faction fight, sexual imbroglio and barroom brawl in New York, inviting us to picture the blood-and-feathers mayhem that would ensue if Novelist A was put on a panel with Historian B.” Alternately, Doug held court at Jimmy’s bar, the Lion’s Head (a favorite hangout for journalists) and Elaine’s, the celebrity mecca. At all of them Doug ate, drank, and talked with flamboyant enthusiasm.[dagger]

Micah Sifry emphasizes the serious side of Doug’s Falstaffian conviviality: “He was probably the most knowledgeable person I had encountered on the ins and outs of New York politics and national politics. I was always learning at his knee.” The writer Christopher Hitchens (“Hitch”) was another profound admirer. When they met in the late ’70s, Doug was one of the few mainstream journalists who’d come out as openly gay. That took guts in a notoriously homophobic profession and Hitch admired him for it. He made a point of telling Doug that the most emotionally intense-and sexual-relationship of his own life had been with another teenage boy at school.

In sharing that confidence, Hitch opened up a level of trust with Doug which was never shaken thereafter, even when Hitch, to Doug’s horror, defended the invasion of Iraq. The two men had much else in common: both were socialists, militant atheists, and incisive wits, and often they’d leave parties together and continue to drink and talk through the night. Doug went through Hitch’s painful divorce from his first wife, and Hitch, in turn, was there for Doug during one of the darkest periods in his own life-the death of his beloved companion Hervé Couergou.*

Doug had had a previous relationship with the much older Jonas Mekas-often called “the godfather of American avantgarde cinema”—but when a filmmaker friend in Paris introduced him to Hervé, who was twenty years his junior, his “intelligence and rebellious spirit” (as Doug later wrote), his “visceral compassion for the poorest and most oppressed of any color,” captivated him. Hervé was the son of Catholic workingclass parents who were also communists-thus, as Doug put it, “doubly homophobic”—and Hervé had left home at fifteen, hoping to succeed as a writer. After a year of seeing each other constantly, Doug was certain he’d found what he called his “One Great Love” and the two made a lifelong emotional commitment to each other; they talked about “what it would be like to grow old together, making plans for a cottage in Brittany and, perhaps, for raising a child.”

It was not to be. Their dreams were cut short when Hervé was diagnosed as HIV-positive. Hervé told Doug that he wanted to see the States before he died, and Doug returned to New York to lay the groundwork for Hervé’s arrival. Just two months before the move was to take place, President Clinton renewed George H.W. Bush’s executive order barring admission to any non-citizen who was HIV-positive-an action that turned Doug’s dislike of Clinton into hatred and fueled a series of venomous articles about him. Hervé was able, on a tourist visa, to make several brief trips to the U.S., but as his health deteriorated, he could neither work nor travel. France had a decent public health system, but it didn’t pay for all Hervé’s medical expenses, nor, of course, did it cover rent and living expenses. To provide those, Doug had to stay in New York most of the time to work the political scene. He found the separation “unbearable.” He longed to nurse Hervé himself, to provide “the loving presence and moral support that are so crucial to fighting AIDS.” Hervé died alone in 1994, and Doug fell into “a black hole of depression,” seriously contemplating suicide.

He credits Hitchens with holding him back from the brink. He “knew me well enough,” Doug later said, “to have sussed out, without being told, that I was seriously considering ending my own life.” Hitch spent hours and hours with Doug trying to make him understand what a disservice it would be to Hervé’s memory-how deeply ashamed Hervé would have been had he known he’d caused Doug’s death. Hitch’s argument worked, and Doug drew back. Ever after he credited Hitch with saving his life. Doug also credited him with never turning down his request to help with this or that queer cause-even after the two came sharply to disagree about Iraq. Hitchens denounced homophobia in print, once writing: “I say that homosexuality is not just a form of sex, it’s a form of love-and it commands our respect for that reason.”

Doug was never able to claim the same responsiveness for two of his other friends, Gore Vidal and Susan Sontag. Not that he ever wrote a critical word about their refusal to identify with or lift a finger for the gay political movement. That would have gone against the grain of his totalizing view of friendship. Once Doug clasped you to his bosom, he showered you with hyperbolic praise, seemingly incapable of admitting any evidence of human folly or frailty. His treatment of Sontag is a case in point. On her death, Doug wrote about her “humor and wit … her capacity for lucid self-analysis”-and how amusing she could be “in recounting her own amorous adventures with women.” Praising her as “the epitome of the intellectuelle engagée,” he claimed that “she never shirked the responsibility of living in her time.” Yet “her time” included the rise of the LGBT movement, from which she kept a rigidly fastidious distance.

In his later years, Doug was himself a sharp critic of the organized gay movement, in particular the Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBT political group. Doug denounced it, accurately, as “corporate oriented” and hell-bent on assimilation, on winning mainstream acceptance at the cost of denying the invaluable “differentness” of gay people-and being just as indifferent as the mainstream to the plight of the poor, gay, or otherwise. He indicted LGBT people in general, not simply their organizations, for their ignorance and lack of interest in the widespread, ongoing persecution of LGBT people in countries like Russia, Iraq, Indonesia, and Uganda. The provincialism of gay Americans infuriated him.

For his pains, Doug was himself criticized for judging other cultures according to the degree to which they did or did not conform to Western notions of “gay identity.” Widely read, Doug was delighted to discover that most Arab countries had a strong tradition of male-to-male love and lust, though it typically co-existed with opposite-gender attraction. Doug resisted any automatic acceptance of cultural relativism in the name of certain universalist claims. It is never right, he’d thunder, to hang two adolescent boys (as happened in Iran in 2005) for “heretical sodomy”; one can never justify clitoral surgery for young girls as essential to teaching them their “proper” gender role. For Doug these were criminal acts, and no theocratic or historic justification could excuse them.

Saints or Sinners-the dichotomous approach sometimes looms large in Doug’s political writing (as well as in his personal friendships).Yet his critics from the far left were much more likely than Doug to avoid shades of gray. This was particularly true of those who denounced him and, by implication, all those who occasionally blurred ideological categories (meaning most social democrats), for swinging between the hope that they could “work within the system” to bring about progressive change and their gut-level awareness that only a far more drastic stance-nonviolent revolution? anarchistic localism?—held out any real chance for substantive social change.

In working with anti-war Democrats like Al Lowenstein and Bella Abzug and thereby encouraging the belief that electoral politics could ever dislodge corporate capitalism’s predatory domination, some critics accused Doug of bolstering the iniquitous “permanent government” and sabotaging the socialist vision to which he rhetorically adhered. To this Doug would reply that the conservative mindset in the U.S. that continued to blame individual “failure” on a lack of ability and/or effort rather than on structural obstacles relating to race, class, and gender, dictated a step-by-step pragmatism, a willingness to choose “the lesser of two evils” as the only alternative to despair and retreat. To Doug theoretical purity was a form of snobbism.

The last half-dozen years of Doug’s life were full of suffering. Afflicted with PPS (post-polio syndrome-the return of the disease many years after recovering from the initial viral attack), Doug’s health inexorably declined. There’s no treatment, let alone cure, for PPS, which involves progressive muscle deterioration, accompanied by pain. Doug developed chronic sciatica, and then a veritable plague of ailments-two strokes, diabetes, weakened lungs, and kidney failure-necessitating frequent hospitalizations. He’d long since given up booze-and-talk marathons with political buddies, but toward the end he was rarely able to leave his shabby East Village apartment-nor able to pay the rent for it. Long-time friends kept him this side of homelessness.

Yet to the end, his voice gravelly from muscular debilitation, he continued to work the phones and-somehow-to write occasional reports and reviews for Gay City News. When Hurricane Sandy hit in 2013, John Berendt sent a car to collect Doug from his blacked-out apartment and installed him in a bedroom in his elegant townhouse. Doug reported to the political consultant Ethan Geto, his friend of many years, that the food was “very good” and that he wouldn’t mind staying. Courage and humor, not complaint, were Doug’s stock-in-trade. Another old friend, Sean Strub, the founder of POZ, dropped by one evening and reported that despite the muscle deterioration that made it difficult for Doug to hold his head up, intellectually he was in scintillating form-so much so that Sean regretted not having brought along a tape recorder to memorialize what was “a master’s tutorial” about “the global political environment.”

After returning to his apartment from his stay at John’s, “Dougie”—as his close friends affectionately called him—rapidly declined. He died on October 26, 2013. A voice of uncommon clarity and charm went silent, his passion and wit emptying into the void.