Pete Fisher, Pioneering Author of “The Gay Mystique,” Dead at 68

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Pete Fisher at an early ‘70s meeting of the Gay Activists Alliance. | RICH WANDEL/ NATIONAL HISTORY ARCHIVE, LGBT COMMUNITY CENTER

Pete Fisher, who with his late partner Marc Rubin and a cadre of fearless comrades in the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) militantly challenged anti-gay bigotry in the early 1970s, has died in Springfield, Massachusetts. The cause was suicide by suffocation, according to his sister Lynne Fisher with whom he had been living for the past several years. He was 68.

His groundbreaking 1972 book “The Gay Mystique” chronicled the early, vibrant post-Stonewall movement and explained homosexuality to straight people and to homosexually-oriented people still coming to terms with themselves. For this reporter, it was a seminal text as a college student coming out and, later, becoming an activist in 1974.

Describing his intense joy marching in the Christopher Street Liberation Day march in 1970 that commemorated the first anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion, Fisher wrote, “There’s no going back after that. You can’t feel those things and take them back to the closet and nurse them. When you know what it really means to be free, you know that freedom is life. Do you know how it tastes to be alive for the first time? Oppression in any form requires the complicity of the oppressed. To come out is to refuse to oppress oneself, refuse to play the game.”

Fisher was writing and agitating at a time when sodomy was still a crime in most states including New York, psychiatry classified homosexuality as a mental illness, and civil rights protections on the basis of sexual orientation were non-existent. He led several of the most famous “zaps” for which GAA was known, taking over the offices of the Daily News when its editors derided gay people as “fairies, nances, and queers” and of Harper’s magazine when its Joseph Epstein wrote, “If I had the power to do so, I would wish homosexuality off the face of the earth, because I consider it a curse.”

When City Councilman Saul Sharison refused to allow the New York gay rights bill to be heard in committee in 1971, Fisher was among those who led more than a thousand people from a dance at the GAA Firehouse at 99 Wooster Street to Sharison’s high rise at 70 East Tenth Street and got clubbed by the police. “It was the most nightmarish scene I had ever witnessed: long, brutal clubs smashing left and right, landing on people’s heads, the crowd panicking, pushing first to the barricades and then falling back,” he wrote. He and Rubin were arrested, but five days later the hearing was scheduled on the bill that GAA put forward as the first in the country to propose protections on the basis of “sexual orientation.”

Veteran gay and AIDS activist Bill Bahlman, 60, who worked in GAA with Fisher, said, “Whenever he spoke at a GAA meeting, everybody listened. He could turn the debate on an issue around. And at demonstrations, he was larger than life.”

Allen Roskoff, 62, now president of the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club and also a GAA vet, paid tribute to Fisher and Rubin, saying, “They were totally devoted to the movement and totally devoted to each other.” He said that neither of the men put much stock in electoral politics, which became a big focus of the movement in later years. Rubin went on to co-found the Gay Teachers Association.

Bahlman said, “Both were S&M activists as well as gay activists. They declared their lifestyle in their dress. There was a dignity and power and demand for justice just in the way they walked hand-in-hand in Central Park.”

Steve Ault, one of the principal organizers of the first two marches on Washington for LGBT rights in 1979 and 1987 and a close friend of Rubin’s, said, “When Marc got sick nine years ago of prostate and brain cancer, Pete did heroic work caring for him.” While he said Fisher “was a very sweet man,” he also said “he was an absolute wreck and lived in a state of semi-breakdown for many years” and even before Marc’s death often considered suicide, something his sister confirmed.

Rich Wandel, GAA’s second president, runs the archive at the LGBT Community Center where the papers of Fisher and Rubin reside. “Pete was in many ways overshadowed by Marc who was a big gun dealing with municipal government,” he said, “but he was there all the time. He was the first chair of the committee to make contact with other groups around the country. In two bound volumes, he saved every flier and newsletter in GAA, and we have them.”

Gay historian David Carter wrote in an e-mail, “Any time a member of the leadership of the Gay Activists Alliance such as Peter Fisher dies, it is important because GAA did more than any other organization to change what we today call the LGBT civil rights movement into a mass movement.”

Perry Brass, a veteran of the Gay Liberation Front, wrote in an e-mail, “I remember Pete as a very handsome, very charismatic, blonde young man. He was always dressed either in leather or a tight, beautifully fitting T-shirt, but he was totally devoted to GAA and the cause of real gay liberation, that is, leaving self-hatred, leaving oppression, and forging a new identity as a gay man.”

“‘The Gay Mystique’ played an important part in my life,” wrote author and book critic Jesse Monteagudo. “It was one of the seminal LGBT books that were published in 1972, written by openly LGBT authors (like Pete Fisher) instead of heterosexual ‘authorities.’... It helped me, a college freshman in 1972, deal with my homosexuality and helped me to come out as a gay man the following year. Pete's passing is another terrible loss for our community in a year that has already seen too many of those losses.”

With Rubin, Fisher wrote the novel “Special Teachers/ Special Boys” based on Rubin’s experiences teaching troubled youth.

Fisher, coming to consciousness of being gay pre-Stonewall, had a rough time. His father, an executive at the New York Times, strongly disapproved and sent him to a shrink to try to turn him heterosexual — partly by forbidding masturbation! Fisher’s counsel to parents in “Mystique”: “The rule with regard to sexuality is a simple one. Hands off — let your child be himself.”

Lynne Fisher said her brother “told me he spent 60 percent of his time thinking about suicide” and made several unsuccessful attempts over the years. This latest successful try was not unexpected. But she also remembers Pete as “exceptiona­lly intelligent, a book writer and a songwriter,” and “a quiet but popular kid.” He was cremated, and his ashes were scattered in her backyard in Springfield with Rubin’s

Peter Randolph Fisher was born on May 19, 1944 in Richmond, Virginia, graduated from Eastchester High School in Westchester, went to Amherst College for two years, enlisted in the Air Force rather than wait to be drafted, and graduated Magna Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Columbia University in 1969. He was pursuing a graduate degree “but resigned to become a full-time homosexual. I have yet to regret it,” he wrote in 1972.

He joined GAA in 1970 where he met Rubin, and their relationship endured until Marc’s death.

In addition to Lynne, Fisher is survived by his parents, Andrew and Cornelia of Vero Beach, Florida, and a brother, Randy. He is also survived by generations of LGBT people who owe much of their self-respect and even their lives to the courageous work that he did 40 years ago. He was part of a group of activists who did not ask for their rights, but took them, and responded to attacks not with press releases but immediate, militant action that got results. His expansive vision in “The Gay Mystique” bears reconsideration by a generation of LGBT leaders in suits pushing a relatively narrow agenda — and not too successfully at that.


Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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Reader feedback

Perry Brass says:
Thank you, Andy, for this really moving tribute to Pete. It was hard to read it without tearing up, not just for Pete—and I am so saddened by the depression that haunted him in the later part of his life—but for a period that seems now too long ago. I hope we get some of that spirit back, some of that indomitable spirit. Perry
Aug. 16, 2012, 3:14 pm
Billy Glover says:
I am sorry I did not know him but that is hapily ecause our cause grew each year from its start with early Mattchine in 1950. Now there is so much going on, we are missing many people and events we wuld like to know and thus miss many who would have made our personal life better as they made and are making our life as a movement and community better. Those who knew him are blessed. and that his community family as well as sister stood by him is good.
Aug. 24, 2012, 4:08 pm
Hal Offen says:
Thanks, Andy: I'm so glad you wrote this. I thought about doing so, but didn't, and his passing most certainly deserves informing the community. I spoke to him a day before he died, knew that he was troubled, but didn't get how close to the edge he was. I remember him performing in Central Park at a Gay Day stage, singing and playing the guitar, perhaps 1976. Have pictures somewhere. Terrible loss of an inspiring role model and dear friend. You did an important service.
Sept. 14, 2012, 4:10 am
Hal Weiner says:
I just happened to check in here today. No one bothered to tell me that he died in August. I hope we are planning a memorial to him and Marc Rubin. As the Founding General Counsel of the Gay Activists Alliance, Inc., I valued them both as good friends. I am truly sorry that he was so depressed as to take his life at such a young age. To me 68 is still middle aged. Although that is the age of most of my law school classmates, I was out of the loop for ten years from college until law school, with a 4 year plus stint in the Navy as part of it.... Pete will be missed sorely by those of us who knew him.
Sept. 15, 2012, 11:02 am
Raphoel (Cambridge) says:
Met Marc and Peter while vacationing on an island in Maine. Noticed that they were wearing matching wedding rings, which at the time seemed like an Einsteinian-type breakthrough, certainly men ahead of my time. They left me a copy of their recent book Special Teachers/Special Boys when they left the island. After reading the book, and being impressed by the positive outlook of the gay lifestyle depicted, I wrote a book review which was published in Gay Community News, The strength and possible weakness of the book was its idealism, but it was a time when hope was needed. Was invited to visit them in NYC and then joined them on a march in Washington DC, Dazzling to see such a large gathering of gay men. Later I'd be on a planning committee at Harvard Diviinity School to set up meetings and workshops involving humdreds of gay and lesbians seminarians from around the US.. They heard about a Gay Theology, shared their struggles, tears and fears.and no longer felt isolated.. Marc Rubin and Peter Fisher were pioneers in gay liberation, they inspired others, and helped us to respect ourselves. Thanks guys.
May 18, 2013, 11:32 pm
a long-ago NYC girl says:
On the day when SCOTUS struck down a key part of DOMA and cleared the way for same-sex marriage in California in its Prop 8 ruling, I wanted to acknowledge the sadness I've felt since I learned last month of Peter's death. When the musical "Hair" first opened, Peter thanked me a number of times for my taking him to see it. We went to the show during the time when I think our families hoped we would date. There was a reticence about Peter that even I, as a very naive 19 year old girl, picked up on right away. Although we'd known each other since childhood, our going to the theatre had an extra anxiety about it that should not have been there. Dating was not, I knew that night, going to be in our future although I would not have been able to explain why. In fact, when Peter would tell me years later that seeing “Hair” had changed his life, I was so clueless I didn’t compute what he was trying to tell me. Of course, what he was trying to tell me was that the show gave him the internal strength and confidence to be himself. Theatre does change people’s lives. I know this. And in the month since I learned of Peter's sad death, I have wished, have wished harder than anyone can imagine, that I'd kept in touch, so that I could have taken him to see "Kinky Boots" and could have shouted at him repeatedly that that show would not be possible without his years of advocacy. Today, in the wake of the life-changing Supreme Court rulings, my post here is a small reminder that Peter's hard work, the arc and artistry and success of his life, bore fruit today. May he and his Marc and all his friends always be blessed. thank you, Peter.
June 26, 2013, 6:11 pm
Michael says:
   I found myself getting news fatigue about the supreme court ruling on gay marriage so i decided to buy a book. I found a well used copy of Rudyard Kipling's The eyes of Asia. I was drawn to the book because it had character, stains with a smell of old books that I enjoy so much. I read it not thinking about prop 8, Doma or politics. As I finished reading I was unimpressed by the story itself but I wondered about the stain. Was it a careless reach for a cup of tea?, or perhaps a drowsy bathtime reading session? For some reason my imagination was running free . I was intrigued by the signature of ownership on one page, Peter Fisher, just below the Books & Things of Wilmington Delaware price sticker.  I was wondering how it ended up in a Out of the closet thrift store in Berkeley California. In one of those coincidences of the universe I Googled Peter Fisher and was surprised that he was an activist who was championing gay rights. I was reminded of the equality struggle once again. I took my cue from the universe and acknowledged the importance of the ruling. Thanks Peter in a round about way.
June 27, 2013, 5:46 am
Mister Roboto says:
I'm glad somebody wrote an obituary for an activist and author who planted seeds that grew into such a beautiful orchard beyond anybody's expectations. I mean, seriously, think about it. When Peter was writing TGM, homosexuality was something of which one only spoke in whispers, if at all, in polite society. Now, forty years later, rainbow flags fly from lamp-posts in major American cities both on the coasts and in the heartland, and millenials are easily the least homophobic generation that has ever existed in the history of this country. Books such as TGM were a major part of giving young gay men the understanding of their situation and the positive self image to be able to come out of the closet and make such a dramatic sea-change in society's attitudes possible. This book was seminal for me as well, and I find it really sad that this book frequently fails to get the recognition and accolades it so thoroughly deserves four decades later. Any LGBT book-collection that doesn't have TGM somewhere in it is a sorry excuse for an LBGT book-collection.
Nov. 12, 2013, 11:09 pm
DMAH says:
I especially appreciated Peter Fisher's book for its broad embrace of all kinds of gay people -- from the leather boys to drag queens -- and his insistence on that kind of inclusiveness. I regret that I never got to meet him.
Dec. 12, 2013, 4:16 am
Alan LaPayover says:
I have been trying to track down Peter Fisher for years to no avail. Today I came across your spot-on obituary and was devastated to find out that he had died. When I was 19 I came across "The Gay Mystique" in the public library and devoured it. I always credited it with saving my life -- because of it and Peter I was able to not just come out, but come out angry and proud! Peter and I corresponded a couple of times and I have (and still) treasured his 2 letters to me as loving tokens of an older "brother" to a young man struggling to figure himself out. I have always wanted to thank him and tell him what he and his book meant to me. I guess I finally have. Thank you Peter.
June 4, 2014, 9:30 am

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