Rainbow History logo

Search Rainbow History Site:

Community Pioneers | Oral History Program | Collections | Additional Resources | Membership | Donate | About Us

Jack Nichols, March 16, 1938 - May 2, 2005

Jack Nichols had great affection for the works of Robert Burns and Walt Whitman.  Burns spoke to Jack's Scottish heritage but Whitman was a special mentor.  As Jack wrote in 1997 "Leaves of Grass  announced that those like the poet could be most convincing when they effectively used what is known as personal presence. A favorite Whitman line Lige [Clarke] whispered to me whenever gay and lesbian activists fell into heated arguments, said 'while they discuss I am silent and go bathe and admire myself.' "  Whitman also wrote, in words that evoke Jack Nichols:

I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.

-- Walt Whitman

Jack Nichols, gay civil rights pioneer and a steadfast agitator for civility and dignity, died May 2nd of cancer in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Washington, DC and the LGBT community nationwide have lost a longtime champion of our civil rights, an instigator and agent provocateur, and a humane good-humored friend.  He was most recently in Washington, DC in June 2004 when he read from his latest book and spoke at a Rainbow History Project Talking History program about the gay Washington of his youth and about his many years as an activist.  Rainbow History nominated Nichols for a Hero of Pride award in 2004 and honored him at a dinner during his visit.

Jack was a native Washingtonian, raised in Chevy Chase, proud of his Scottish heritage and fond of the verses of Burns and Whitman.  His last work, The Tomcat Chronicles, is a unique portrait of the life of a very 'out' young gay man in and around Washington in the 1950s and 1960s.  The book provides many vignettes of both the social life of gays and lesbians and of Jack's increasing involvement in the active campaign for gay civil rights.  Jack co-founded the Mattachine Society of Washington with Dr. Frank Kameny.  Writing of his early association with Dr. Franklin E Kameny Jack wrote, "I quickly saw that the federal bureaucracy's treatment of Kameny as just another gay victim would rebound on its own head.  It fashioned in him a tireless thorn in the side of anti-gay policies and unwittingly played midwife at the birth of militant gay activism. Kameny and I talked regularly discussing new strategies. As admirers of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we spoke often of King's inspiring activism.  I became Kameny's cohort and figuratively, if not literally, the organization's second charter member when he announced on November 15, 1961, the formation of The Mattachine Society of Washington."

During the 1960s, Jack's involvement in the Mattachine Society led to work to rescind the APA's definition of homosexuality as a disease, to building discussion with clergy on the subject of homosexuality, and to outspoken protest and picketing of major government sites.  He appeared on several early television programs discussing homosexuality and spoke at the 1965 ECHO conference.  His work organizing the first ecumenical discussion of homosexuality led to the creation of the Washington Area Council on Religion and the Homosexual.

Jack met his lover, Lige Clarke, at the Hideaway in DC and built a partnership that led them to New York City where they published Gay, the first weekly national gay newspaper in the early 70s.  Jack and Lige published two of the earliest books portraying happy same sex relationships, I Have More Fun With You Than Anybody (1972) and Roommates Can't Always Be Lovers: An Intimate Guide to Male-Male Relationships (1974).  Late in the 70s, Jack between an outspoken advocate of men's liberation, writing a basic text on the subject, Men's Liberation: A New Definition of Masculinity (1975) that was used for many years in courses on the topic.

Jack's career in journalism continued following his move to Florida, as he continued providing columns and articles for the gay press.  In 1996 his riposte to the right wing, The Gay Agenda: Talking Back to the Fundamentalists was published.  For seven years he edited and wrote for the online magazine, Gay Today, and most recently for the 365Gay.com website.

Jack Nichols is survived by his mother Mrs. Mary Lund of Cocoa Beach, FL, his friends Scott Hall, Steve Yates and Gary Comingdeer of Cape Canaveral, FL and a host of friends and colleagues in Washington, DC, New York City, and around the nation.

Jack's biographer, J Louis Campbell III, has written an obituary for Jack.

Memories of Jack Nichols: if you would like to contribute your thoughts, please email to info@rainbowhistory.org.

1955: Jack & Ted Richards
© Nichols

1971: Lige, Jack, Frank Kameny, Barbara Gittings
© Kay Tobin Lahusen

1972: Lige, Barbara, Kay Tobin Lahusen, Jack
© Nichols

1987: Perrin Shafer, Jack at March on Washington
© Nichols

1994: Jack in Florida
© Nichols

2002: Jack in Florida
© Nichols