Doug Ireland: Remembering a Radical Voice
Author: Donald Weise
May 18, 2015
When the late, radical-left political journalist Doug Ireland used to write me, usually to praise a new book I’d just published (would that that happened more often), the salutation was always “Comrade Don” or “Brother Don,” no matter that we’d never met and only admired each other’s work from afar. We shared the same political beliefs, however, and that alone would have bonded us had he not been gay and a writer. In addition, we also admired many of the same authors, the two most discussed in our emails being his friends Gore Vidal—who in one message Doug defended against rumors of having had sex with minors—and Martin Duberman, who to Doug was “an unwavering beacon of light and my personal candidate for sainthood.” I can’t speak with certainty to the claims against Vidal, but having spent the past six months working side by side with Martin—or Marty, as he’s known to friends—I can attest firsthand to the fact that Doug was on to something, as I think you’ll see.
It wasn’t until Doug died in 2013 and the press began to circulate articles about his life and career that I realized how little I knew about him. Basically, all I was really aware of was his political views as expressed through his weekly column in Gay City News. So I was therefore surprised (but at the same time not) to see that Doug had in the 1960s been agitating for civil rights as a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), even serving on the National Council of SDS. From there, he went on to manage the Congressional candidacies of leftists Allard Lowentstein and Bella Abzug. He became a sometime admirer of Mario Cuomo and an all-the-time hater of Ed Koch, of whom he once said, “I refute the fact that Ed Koch is a closet gay man. He’s a closet human being.”
But it was Doug’s career not as a political manager but as a political journalist that would distinguish him. He was so far left that he could easily eviscerate Republicans and Democrats alike as well as third party leaders such as Ralph Nader whom he denounced as a presidential candidate because Nader refused to condemn the Defense of Marriage Act; Nader, in his own words, “wasn’t interested in gonadal politics.” Gay people and organizations weren’t spared Doug’s wrath, either. He found former New Jersey governor James McGreevey shameful for not coming out on his own volition but instead being “dragged out by a jilted extortionist.” Doug’s view of the Human Rights Campaign was similarly contemptible. He detested the group for catering to wealthy constituents and then presenting itself to the public as the voice of the gay community. If Doug’s strong opinions about what he disliked were unequivocal, so were his feelings about those people he cared for and the issues that mattered to him. Doug wrote extensively and compassionately on sexual and racial equality, the rights of the poor, immigrants and AIDS, though admittedly, his writing was more often used as a sledgehammer against injustice than it was as a valentine to friends—but sometimes, his writing could be just that, at least for me.
Doug was inimitable as a writer in a lot of ways, but one way I found personally touching was that he’d mention me by name in his reviews of my books. He began one review, for example, by singling me out as “the great Don Weise” and then praised my work as an editor-publisher for a paragraph before getting around to the book or its author. Needless to say, book reviews don’t typically start by applauding the book’s editor and publisher. As much as I appreciated Doug’s generous words, I’m embarrassed by public recognition of that kind, but at the time, work was going badly, and I in turn felt badly, about everything, so much so that I tore the section of the review with my name on it from the newspaper and carried it in my wallet for months the way you would an affirmation. Even if “great” was the last thing I was feeling about myself back then, Doug felt that way about me, and it meant the world that he said so in print.
I regret that he and I never had the opportunity to work together. But it wasn’t for lack of trying. From time to time, he’d publish an in-depth article, often the length of an entire newspaper page if not longer, on gay human rights atrocities overseas, reports that I often saw nowhere else, not even in the gay media. Since these stories were news to me—and I imagine to most other people, too—I’d email Doug asking if he’d consider writing a short book on the topic—on the persecution of gay people in Iran, Iraq, Russia, et al.—or, failing that, would he put me in touch with the source of his reporting so I could approach that person directly? Alas, nothing ever came of any of this. From what I gather, Doug was in worse shape than he ever let on with me. To read his outspoken, take-no-prisoners opinions every week, you’d think he was some robust bear of a man that nothing could topple. It was only toward the end, when he began referencing illness in emails, that I saw more clearly what he was up against. Still, I didn’t expect him to die so suddenly, and I was knocked over by the news when a journalist wrote me to say he was sorry to hear Doug had died, because he knew I held Doug in such high esteem. You get an email like that, and you look at the computer screen and say out loud, “Fuck,” because you can’t articulate in that moment the tremendous loss. I felt bereaved. I mourned his death the way you do any writer-provocateur-truth-teller, one who you know can’t be replaced.
If we didn’t ever get to work together, we almost did. Not long before his death, Doug asked whether I’d consider a collection of his writings for publication. It was to be his first book in some forty years as a journalist writing for places such as The Nation, New York Magazine and of course Gay City News. He said that Martin Duberman had been “on his case” to start the project, but Doug wasn’t sure if he “had the force” to undertake the project due to poor health. Then, he added, “When Marty tells me it’s important to do something, I listen.” Without even seeing a manuscript, I was certain the book would be as point blank as Doug himself and I encouraged him onward. Only he died before he even had the chance to get started. So with the news of his passing, it wasn’t just his death I mourned but also the fact that the book he had in mind would never see print, and that Doug and his articles would gradually be forgotten.
It was therefore a delight when about a year later I received an email from Marty himself, who I had met but didn’t know much better than I knew Doug, saying that in a gesture of friendship (the likes of which I’ve seldom seen), he’d amassed a collection of Doug’s work titled The Emperor Has No Clothes: Doug Ireland’s Radical Voice. (All of this he incidentally did in his spare time while completing his latest manuscript.) When I told Marty that I wasn’t in a position to acquire the book, he asked if I would instead help him see the book to self-publication. Marty it turned out was unaware of my conversations with Doug about the book, and his coming to me was pure coincidence. I’d like to think Doug had a hand in this, somehow, and in that spirit, I gladly joined Marty as his publishing advisor.
Combing through decades of journalism, often from obscure and defunct publications both in print and online, had to have been an awesome undertaking. But there it all was, the best of Doug’s writing on issues ranging from presidential politics to global politics to issues on people of color at home and abroad. In short, this was vintage Doug. As his friend, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil author John Berendt put it, “Doug was a moral lodestar of the embattled left.” Marty would agree, and this undoubtedly inspired his unwavering commitment to a labor-intensive and at times exhausting project. The two of us got to work and after a period of months finally had the book completed and the files ready to be printed.
I should add here that one of the rewards of this endeavor has been getting to know Marty. Up till now, I best knew him as a trailblazing gay historian; his collection About Time was in fact the first gay book I ever bought, so working with him held special meaning for me. When you’re a kid at UCLA and just coming out, you can’t imagine that the famous author of the book you’re purchasing will one day welcome you into his home as an advisor. Initially, our visits could run hours before we ever got around to discussing Doug’s project, our common points of connection being that abundant. He’d just published Hold Tight Gently, a book in part devoted to the life of the black gay poet Essex Hemphill, one of my favorite writers, and our conversations on African-American literature and history alone went on at length. (For the record: long, substantive conversations with other white people about African-American literature and history are not for me a daily occurrence.) We also share a radical-left political outlook and happen to be in perfect alignment on the topic of gay sex and the need to be outspoken and unapologetic about it. Only Marty was taking a stand on these issues decades before I came along. As a historian in the ‘70s, he was at the forefront of knocking down barriers for gay people through his work. Marty’s early writings in books like Black Mountain, in which he came out publicly in 1972, (something historians of the period seldom if ever did), were not just bold declarations but well ahead of their time. There’s something about the guts Marty had to go out on a limb, even if it wasn’t—practically speaking—an expedient career move, that I identify with strongly.
One of the more satisfying elements of editing and publishing gay books for so long has been the experience of working with gay people on a continuous basis. Some writers I hold more of an affinity for than others but publishing gay-themed works regardless of the writer or the content has personalized the experience for me in ways I don’t think it would have if my authors were predominantly straight. Working with Marty—and Doug, by extension—drove this home for me. Seeing The Emperor Has No Clothes to print has been one of the most personal projects for me. First, because the book honors Doug’s memory, and both Marty and I were determined to produce what Doug was incapable of assembling. But also, because with Marty I can bring all the parts of myself to the table (to borrow from Pat Parker)—political, sexual and intellectual—with no need to translate, scale down, self-censor or explain my preferences and convictions as I sometimes do when faced with conservative, inhibited gay people, who make up a rather substantial portion of the community, I would argue. It’s rare to have the opportunity to work with someone of Marty’s caliber, and I’m grateful for the opportunity.
With publication of Doug’s book, you might say that his friends are celebrating his return, as if someone of Doug’s accomplishments, strong opinions and ironclad faith in friends could ever truly leave us. To quote Doug as he signed off in one of his last emails to me, “Keep on keepin’ on.” With publication of The Emperor Has No Clothes, the work of Doug is keepin’ on keepin’ on, as it showcases the writing career of this friend and remarkable man.