A View of Reality from a Chartreuse Couch*: Author Toby Johnson

Author Toby Johnson in San Francisco, 1980. Courtesy image.

“The fact that there are homosexuals, lesbians, bisexual men and women, transsexuals—queer people all—who are proclaiming their presence in society forces everybody to rethink what sex and gender is about.”

 

Gene: So, Toby, we finally get you on the Chartreuse Couch. There are many topics that I want to inquire about. As you have heard, “In-queering minds want to know.” You are an author, which we need to talk about–your books–but I most want to talk about history and that, of course, means gay history. And of course UFOs and world control. So you pick. Where do you want to start? We have plenty of time.

Toby: Let’s start with UFOs.

Gene: I love UFO stories.

Toby: As a boy, growing up in San Antonio in the 1950s on Burr Rd on the edge of Terrell Hills and attending St. Peter’s Prince of the Apostles grade school, I was fascinated with science fiction and psychic phenomena. By the time I got to high school, at Central Catholic, I’d read virtually every sci-fi novel in the San Pedro Public Library, especially Arthur C. Clarke. The idea of alien civilizations, futuristic utopias and different worlds appealed to me, perhaps because on some very deep level, I knew I didn’t fit into the regular world of everybody else.

I have a vivid memory of deciding one day that I’d rather live in an imaginary world in my own mind than that of “normal people.” I suppose I was just being infantile at the time, but that decision turned out to foreshadow my whole life. These were the “Eisenhower Years.” I remember making up a faux parchment Declaration of World Citizenship on oiled onion skin paper to supersede my American citizenship. And I developed a very elaborate explanation to myself that I was really an “alien” from another world—like Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still, who’d been sent here to judge the human race. Since I was also a pious kid in Catholic school, I also knew that when that Judgment Day came, I’d do the Christ-like thing and forgive the whole lot and let the world live.

Gene: That is really great to hear. I hope all that is still in effect.

Toby: I don’t know that it was so much that I believed I really was an alien as that I wanted to be, and to thereby have a wondrous justification for my feeling a little queer and out of it when it came to socializing with the other children.

Gene: I am sure that alien business as a child may be common with a lot of us gay child Earthlings, don’t you imagine? I had a spaceship as a child. In my closet, of all places.

(Closets – a childhood memory.)

Toby: I think you’re right. Very appropriately, one of my good friends at Central Catholic was Whitley Strieber. He and I loved to talk on and on about fringe phenomena, the Twilight Zone, One Step Beyond, and, of course, extraterrestrials and flying saucers. We read all the UFO books. Whitley and I conceived a complex theory of alternate dimensions with a twelve-dimensional metaphysics. We even figured out how UFOs’ anti-gravity drive systems worked—and, one day, thought we’d attracted a flying saucer to try to stop us from interfering with its navigation.

Whitley Strieber, of course, has gone on to become one of the world’s experts on alien abduction phenomena and alternate reality; he’s author of Communion—the book about his own abduction experiences and whose cover gave the world the iconic face of the alien visitors we all recognize now—and more than 30 other books. Whitley has come to understand that these visitor encounters and UFO sightings can’t be the literal space travel of science-fiction, like Star Trek. The Visitors are as much mixed up with ghosts and appearances of the dead as they are with spaceships and lights in the sky. These experiences are clues to the complexities of consciousness.

Gene: Boy, this is really getting into what I like to hear about. I hear Whitley speak on Coast to Coast all the time and he has always got a new alien or world-control tale. Do you think he always tells the truth or just has a very active imagination?

Toby: Both, I think. Whitley is certainly not making this stuff up just as a prank on the world, but because he’s got an inner prankster or something, I think he’s allowed himself to be open to layers and dimensions of reality most other people just don’t pay any attention to.

I’ve come to a similar understanding. For me, the realization that all this science-fiction world was myth began late in high school when I felt I had a vocation to Catholic religious life. I joined the Brothers of Mary, who teach at Central, and was involved with religious life for about seven years. Deciding to be a Brother meant giving up the fantasy of being an alien, but it also freed me from dating and all that stuff that had to do with girls.

And, then, some years later, when I left the Order and moved to San Francisco in 1970, I saw that both my desire to be Klaatu and my vocation to be a Brother were really manifestations of my homosexuality. And, interestingly, I think I’ve experienced my gayness as a kind of vocation—both to be different from mainstream society and to be driven to save the world. The UFOs and the monks AND the gay activists are about realizing life is bigger than most people dare realize. It’s all about the wonder of being conscious.

Gene: This is fascinating. You mentioned Arthur C. Clarke. Do you think he might have been a fellow gay traveler?

Toby: When I was reading Clarke as a youth, I had no idea of that—or even of what that would have meant, though I do believe Arthur C. Clarke had a tremendous influence on me. And I think, in a way, it came out of his own evolution as a gay man. In fact, I developed a correspondence with Clarke for a few years towards the end of his life. He lived in Sri Lanka, but was quite a correspondent with his many fans. I was introduced to him through the mail by Kerry O’Quinn, a sci-fi writer and magazine editor (Starlog, Fangoria, etc.) who’s an Austinite by birth and whom I knew through Liberty Books in the ’90s. I wrote Sir Arthur a couple of letters about his influence on my thinking in the field of gay spirituality and the evolution of religion into the future. My novel Secret Matter is a take-off on Clarke’s great book Childhood’s End, about aliens coming, but in my novel the aliens are gay. Clarke liked that idea.

You know, he joked, as a man in his late ’80s, “At my age, I’m not gay, just a little cheerful.” But, yes, he was discreetly gay; he was very interested in the role gay men played in culture. He left behind a collection of writings he called the “Clarkives” that are not to be opened till 50 years after his death; I bet that’s going to be about his research into gay men as evolutionary leaders. In the late 1990s, he was writing to me about C.A. Tripp’s book on Abraham Lincoln as a gay man.

Gene: OH MY GOSH! Well, now, that will be realllllllly interesting. But since we can’t read that, why do you think “evolutionary leaders” is what he writes about?

Toby: That book, Childhood’s End, predicts the evolution of the human race at the level of consciousness into a collective being of pure spirit, a disincarnate Mind that is then absorbed into a sort of scientific, post-mythological version of God which Clarke called the Overmind. This sudden jump in planetary evolution is monitored by a race of extraterrestrials, called, in an ironic parallel, The Overlords, who arrive about 50 years before the transformation begins. They explain that religious myth, psychic phenomena, mystical experience down through history, have all been clues to this “spiritual” direction in planet development, “leaks” from the deep collective unconscious that can only be explained with symbols and metaphors.

Gene: This is getting really good. I think we should order a pizza! This is so exciting! I am just all ears here.

Toby: Even as a teenager, I thought that made so much sense. Later, I discovered the French Jesuit paleontologist/mystic Pierre Teilhard de Chardin hypothesized that very same direction and outcome to human evolution. Teilhard, by the way, was probably gay, but he was a priest, so the whole issue was moot. But I do think that one of the really interesting questions of our time in history is how the rise of gay/lesbian/bi/trans*/queer consciousness fits into this evolution into “God.” Aren’t we one of the “clues” that there’s something bigger going on than just male and females having babies to propagate the species?

Gene: Have you seen a UFO. I take it you know they are heeeeeeere!!

Toby: I have not ever seen a UFO—unfortunately. Some sightings I have heard about are truly astounding. I’d love to see one of those huge ships move across the sky. But never have. I do think “they are here,” to use your words, but not in the sense of Klaatu and Gort flying across space to get here like in the movie. I think they are “here,” in the sense that they’re experienced in the human mind and they exist in the dimensions of consciousness.

Gene: Apparently both are the case.

Toby: You know, C.G. Jung thought flying saucers were a modern-day version of what people in the Middle Ages called angels. That is, messengers from God were part of their mythology, so experiences that didn’t fit into conventional reality were interpreted mythically. Strange lights in the sky must have been caused by angels. Our current “mythology” includes space ships and flying saucers, so those paranormal experiences get explained within this mythology as space aliens. These phenomena certainly exist in the collective unconscious—to use Jung’s term. The popular notion of aliens flying around in UFOs and abducting some people just doesn’t make any sense in terms of “interplanetary politics.” This is not how real extraterrestrials would act if they actually managed to fly here across space.

Gene: Oh, yes, they would! I go to the movies. I see what they can do.

Toby: Now another possible explanation for UFO experiences is that the universe outside Earth uses other forms of communication beyond radio waves; maybe the reason we don’t pick up radio and TV from space is because most planets use some other system that we don’t know about yet, just as people 200 years ago didn’t know about radio waves. And maybe what the real aliens use is more like “telepathy”; it happens in the mind. And Earth is picking up signals from space all the time, just like Project Ozma and SETI are looking for. But instead of being radio waves, they are “experience waves” that get “received” by human beings’ minds.

Whitley’s abduction experiences, for instance, might be explained as his brain resonating with these “experience waves” just like a radio receiver resonates with FM radio broadcasts. Either way, though, the “aliens” exist more in the mind than in physical space.

Gene: I want to get back to the “evolutionary leaders” business. Do you think we are doing that? And if not, why?

Toby: I’m currently assisting Raymond L. Rigoglioso with publishing a book titled Gay Men and the New Way Forward. It is all about this phenomenon of gay men being evolutionary leaders, in the sense of being the ones who are experimenting with new ways of living and, necessarily, struggling to get over the repressive—and violence-inciting—conventions of traditional human culture. Somebody has to be experimenting with how humans will live in the future, especially now that we’ve over-populated the planet and our psychological sophistication has shown us that traditional gender roles create social problems.

Gene: Really? Problems? Why, I cannot imagine how man has caused problems on Earth.

Toby: It’s all about men fighting men over who’s more manly. Successful gay men show you don’t have to be manly to contribute to the human race. But I also think the “evolutionary leadership” happens beyond—and even in spite of—individuals. It is the “gay movement” itself that propels evolution, i.e. the fact that there are homosexuals, lesbians, bisexual men and women, transsexuals—queer people all—who are proclaiming their presence in society forces everybody to rethink what sex and gender is about. It’s not just Dick and Jane on the playground; Bruce and Lilith and Pat* are joining the game. Everybody’s going to have to rethink the rules.

Gene: I’m not sure Betty and Judy would agree with this. Betty and Judy don’t always play well with others. I mean we still don’t see Betty and Judy in the White House?

Toby: Give it a little time. The Revolution has only been going on 50 years. In the grand scheme of evolution, that’s only a flash. The progress that has been made in the last 50 years or so is amazing. There may not be a lesbian president yet, but there’s been a black president and against all the incredible racism in this country, he’s been elected twice and he has changed the world forever. He’s not gay, of course, but he’s very close to being a “metrosexual,” isn’t he? By the way, a term I’d like to promote is “mesosexual”; it’s not living in the city that makes modern men less polarized, it’s balancing masculinity and femininity in themselves because they see that balance as attractive in the gay men they know. This is where the revolution is happening.

Gene: Are you speaking of the “modern gay revolution?” It has a history that goes back farther, as you know.

Toby: Of course, and part of our modern gay revolution is proclaiming all that history that has been kept hidden ’cause people were squeamish about sex, and especially sex between men. And, Gene, I am not arguing that the progress will be that gay people get to step into those positions of power. That’s a patriarchal notion of power that maybe shouldn’t apply. Maybe the mesosexuals we’ll encourage will run things a totally different way. What would be important is not having a homosexual president, but having a president who is so sensitized to issues of sex and gender from his gay friends that he respects women and values the contributions of non-gender-conforming members of society. What matters is that we have a president who won’t think looking macho to our enemies and going to war is the solution to foreign policy.

Gene: I’m seeing a lot of progress in attitudes. Finally.

Toby: And I think it isn’t so much that we are leading evolution as that evolution is producing us as manifestations of how humanity is moving into the future. A necessary next step in evolution has to be overcoming the binary polarization of a world obsessed with male and female, because out of that obsession arises all the other conflicting polarities: “good and evil,” “right and wrong,” “black and white,” “us and them.” As a planet, we need to learn to accept the shades of gray. Since queer people are all in the shades of gray area, making the public recognize us and our issues makes them expand their consciousness beyond the black and white.

“What would be important is not having a homosexual president, but having a president who is so sensitized to issues of sex and gender from his gay friends that he respects women and values the contributions of non-gender-conforming members of society.” 

 

Gene: Well, now, I disagree about this basic gray theory. I believe we have the rainbow flag and the Chartreuse Couch.

Toby: Well, so long as you’re expanding the possibilities, I’ll go along with you. That’s the point: There are so many ways of being. The notion that there is only one right way to be is the problem. It’s certainly what we’re seeing with the Islamic Fundamentalists and the Christian Fundamentalists—they think there’s only One Way and that they’ve got it and they’ll get rid of anybody who doesn’t do it their way. That’s what “gay consciousness” witnesses to: There are multiple ways of being a good and contributing human being.

Gene: Gosh! Holy Cow! I thought being gay was so simple. You have made it into a graduate program.

Toby: AND how we differ as gay is at the level of consciousness, we force the public to be aware of consciousness and mind. This is the great evolutionary development happening in our time: awareness of ourselves as conscious beings who create our own worlds of experience in our minds.

There’s another way, of course, that gay people have indeed been evolutionary leaders for a very long time. The philosophers and religious leaders and especially the artists have been disproportionately homosexual. People we’d now think of as gay are the ones who created culture and civilization.

Gene: Well, let’s just talk about culture and civilization. I just love culture and I know San Antonio does, too. We now have a new culture center named after a well-known gay man, Robert L.B. Tobin. What kind of culture do you support?

Toby: Well, you know the aspect of “culture” that I’ve always been most interested in is myth and religion. This sensitivity to something bigger than one’s individual self is the basis of most of what’s called culture and art. This is another aspect of gay leadership. We’re forcing the world to rethink religion. It’s so much bigger than just the few sentences in the Bible, but to use the Bible as an example, for modern-day people to acknowledge the existence of and dignity of homosexuals, they have to explain to themselves that the Bible comes from an ancient society with ancient ideas of propriety; they have to accept that some verses simply have to be ignored. Modern-day humankind is more civilized and cultured and more moral than the society that composed the Bible. 

Gene: Are you sure about this? They didn’t have MTV. So maybe you’re right.

Toby: The important teacher in my life, you know, was Joseph Campbell, the comparative-religions scholar who occasionally still shows up on PBS in those interviews he did with Bill Moyers called The Power of Myth. I was part of the crew that worked his appearances in Northern California during the 1970s, and so got to know him personally. The main thing I learned from him was that to understand what religion is about, you’ve got to include all the religions and you’ve got to develop a theory that covers them all. And, of course, the theory that does that is that myth and religion are like poetry. The stories are metaphors and symbols for aspects of human consciousness. They teach values and virtues, but they’re not about facts or history or metaphysical truths. In that sense, they’re pretty much like the space aliens we were talking about. They exist in the mind as clues to the deeper, grander nature of mind. But they’re not “real.”

Gene: This is what your books are about.

Toby: I’ve written a couple of books about “what I learned from Joseph Campbell,” including a couple that apply this comparative religions stance to gay people’s religiousness, i.e., what I call “gay spirituality.” And I’ve written four novels, that is, stories about the meaning of gay lives. For, after all, “storytelling” is the real basis of religion. So, Gene, my experience of culture, I suppose, is being a novelist and storyteller.

Gene: Well, moving right along. You know there is a movie in the works about Anita Bryant and she will be played by Uma Thurman. I want to know what your assessment is of Anita and how she changed the game board?

Toby: When I was a teenager, I had a 45rpm record of Anita Bryant singing “Paper Roses.” It’s about a girl complaining that her boyfriend’s affection is only imitation, like paper roses are imitations of flowers. She had a pretty voice. It’s ironic, isn’t it, that her song was about the pretense of love. That’s what we’d say about her “Christian love” that sought to oppress gay people. Though, I suppose, she started off just pushing the traditional morality that everybody had been believing. I think, in her world in Florida in 1977, opposing homosexuality was like supporting apple pie and motherhood. I bet she had no idea what she was getting herself into by agreeing to be a spokesperson against the Dade County gay non-discrimination act. And, of course, ironically, she helped move homosexuality—and especially all the misconceptions, like the confusion of homosexuality with pedophilia—into the political arena. It was her support for Save Our Children and then for the anti-gay Briggs Initiative in California that politicized the Castro in San Francisco and gave Harvey Milk his entry into politics. Milk is quoted: “Anita’s going to create a national gay force.” And, indeed, that happened. You might say she was the inadvertent godmother of gay liberation.

Gene: I did think that at the time and still do, and I always thought she was never the problem, anyway. She was just doing what a male-dominated religion and government told her to believe. I was always “let’s go after the real problem” and then, also, “the Lord moves in mysterious ways.” Who would have thought the next thing to hit the fan was AIDS and Catholic pedophilia? So she was a harbinger of things to come. She did get the dialogue out in the open. There was no going back.

Toby: It’s an interesting question whether gay rights should ever have been politicized. In the 1970s, I was an activist in San Francisco, but in the arena of culture and psychology, not politics. In the gay liberationist world I was in the politics didn’t really matter much; what was important was how we thought about ourselves. As a peer counselor and later a licensed therapist in a gay clinic, my effort was to help gay men and lesbians improve their self-image by improving their understanding of what it meant to be gay or lesbian. Of course, it was important to stop homosexuals from being persecuted by anti-gay laws and so all the political activity has been useful, but in the long run I wonder if what has been the successful strategy has really just been gay people coming out. What has changed the hearts and minds of Americans is discovering they had gay friends. Human rights and freedoms should never be put to the vote; it’s a terrible blot on the U.S. that the same-sex marriage issue (which was usually brought up by our enemies) allowed people to vote on homosexuality. That’s like voting on gravity.

Gene: Voting on gravity. That is an interesting thing to say. Like voting on sunshine. But you and Kip were the first couple to get married in Texas. Recount that event for us.

Toby: Well, to be accurate, it wasn’t “getting married.” We were the first male couple to register as “Domestic Partners” in 1993 when Travis County created a registry so that county employees could register a partner to receive benefits for spouses that come with county employment. Within a couple of months, there was a referendum that abolished the partner benefits. But the registry actually still exists.

Gene: Yes, but that is still an important bit of history for future researchers to know happened. Mt Rushmore was created one chip at a time. Actually Gutzon Borglum used dynamite to remove what wasn’t needed.

Toby: Oh, was our going down to the Court House like blowing up dynamite?

Gene: The whole gay civil rights movement is a process of chipping away at the ignorance and bigotry a little each time. So when we are finished we have a work of art. The process is as important as the final product.

Toby: Maybe in some people’s minds… I always wonder about those people who say allowing homosexuality will cause everybody to turn gay and world will die out. What kind of sexual feelings do they have? Is their heterosexuality that fragile?

Gene: Maybe.

Toby: So let me recap a little. I left San Francisco the summer of 1981 after eleven years there. That summer I helped clear the land for a Buddhist retreat center outside Asheville, North Carolina. I was living in a little shack out in the woods without water or electricity. Then as winter was approaching, I returned to hometown San Antonio. I quickly became friends with Michael Stevens and Patrick Kerr who were organizing the San Antonio Gay Alliance (SAGA) and publishing The Calendar. I was Michael’s apprentice and protege as Secretary of SAGA, and then later Male Co-Chair (with Nancy Hauser). I had a small private practice in psychotherapy with Frank Scott. Kip and I got together in spring of 1984. I’d met him at Bexar County National Bank where he worked; he soon left the bank and went to work at my family’s business Texas Wholesale Floral Company—which was wonderful because it made him part of the family and my mother loved him. That was an important time in San Antonio’s history; though names have changed and the people come and gone, most of the basic gay community organizations got started around that time, including the AIDS-related organizations and service providers. Your buddy, Hap Veltman, was a founding Board Member of SAGA.

Gene: Yes. Thanks for that history about SAGA.

Toby: In 1988, I retired from mental health work after 14 years. I’d published a couple of books by then and was friends with Tom Doyal who’d started Liberty Books in Austin. That summer Tom asked us to buy him out so he could focus on his work as a gay rights attorney with LGRL. So we moved to Austin. We always joked that we moved to town at the top of the social ladder, as owners of the gay bookstore, but without climbing any of the rungs. But we got to be pretty well-known as a couple because of that role in the community. In 1991, Rep. Debra Danburg (D-Houston) was submitting a bill to the Legislature to delete references to gender in the state’s marriage laws; LGRL was going to hold a zap for Valentine’s Day with forty couples coming to apply for marriage licenses so that the County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir, a great supporter of our community, could make a declaration of support for Danburg’s bill. At the last minute the zap got cancelled because the bill had not gotten to the Legislature. But a few months later, LGRL called again and asked if we’d still come to the County Court Building and apply for licenses. We said sure. They told us to dress up cause the “Press” might be there. Well, it turned out only two couples were involved this time, Kip and me, and Danalynn Recer and Pamela Voekel. AND CBS National News showed up, so we got outed nation-wide. It was a hoot. And Dana DeBeauvoir got to give her speech.

Gene: You are just a joy to give us this history.

Toby: Then two years later, when the Domestic Partnership registration passed for the County, we were invited to be one of the first two couples to sign up for the registry.

Gene: Anything else?

Toby: I understand the legal reasons for wanting same-sex relationships to be included in all the laws that apply to opposite-sex relationships, but I also think that gay relationships are fundamentally different from traditional heterosexual marriage for the purpose of having children. I like the idea of Domestic Partnership better than marriage. It’s a better model for our kinds of relationships. I don’t think gay people merge into each other’s “other half” the way straight people are supposed to, with specific gender-determined roles and responsibilities. The “merge” model is based on the biology of reproduction. I’m not sure it’s actually a very good model for straight people anymore. The world has changed—in great part because of the visibility of gay and lesbian lives; that’s the evolutionary leadership I was speaking of earlier.

Gene: You know I have not been all that convinced that marriage was the way to go either. I agree. The gay community is different. I want us to be different.

Toby: What I would have liked rather than gay marriage—which runs up against the Church and apple pie and motherhood—was a method for legally declaring “next of kin.” If straight people can choose a next of kin (by marrying) so gay people should be able to determine the significant people in our lives. Kip is obviously my next of kin, though there’s no legal status like that. You know, Kip and I celebrated our 30th anniversary last year. Our partnership—both domestically and in business—has been a wonderful part of our lives. I am REALLY happy to have been a gay man in this lifetime, and to have had Kip Dollar as a companion. And being able to say that, I think, is the fulfillment of that gay liberationist effort to transform what we gay people ourselves think of our homosexuality.

Gene: Now tell us something about your books, and then you get to ask me a question. I always let my guest ask the last question.

Toby: Very briefly then: Secret Matter, set in the near future, is a science fiction novel about aliens whose patterns of culture reveal basic truths about homosexuality. Getting Life in Perspective, set in both the 1880s and the 1980s, is a ghost story about a fictional gay utopian colony in the Rocky Mountains based on Edward Carpenter’s Millthorpe Farm in England. Two Spirits, set in the 1860s, is a fictionalized history of the Navajos during the Indian Wars focusing on the role of “two spirit”/berdache shamans; it was a collaboration with Walter L. Williams. The Fourth Quill, set in 1988, is a sci-fi medical thriller about AIDS and the nature of evil. Then I’ve got two books on gay spirituality titled: Gay Spirituality: Gay Identity and the Transformation of Human Consciousness and Gay Perspective: Things our [homo]sexuality tells us about the nature of God and the Universe and my first two books about Joseph Campbell and modernization of religion: The Myth of the Great Secret and In Search of God in the Sexual Underworld—the latter is about a study of gay teenage prostitution I worked in through that mental health clinic in San Francisco. And I edited a book for Lethe Press called Charmed Lives: Gay Spirit in Storytelling. The picture on the original cover was of Kip’s and my hands drawing a long straw. I’ve always thought that in the straw-pull game of life being gay is drawing a winning straw.

Gene: Most impressive list of books.

Toby: Well, Gene, so I get to ask you a question. Sticking to the topic of evolutionary leadership, let me ask you about how you see your role as San Antonio gay archivist as furthering the movement and/or how Hap Veltman helped force San Antonio into the modern world. I think those are two sides to the same coin, as it were. You’re certainly propelling cultural evolution—right here on this Chartreuse Couch of yours!

Gene: Oh, my role as archivist is pretty simple. I just think someday those gay and lesbian Texans will want to know something about us and I want some documentation to be there for them. It is really as simple as that. What goes on around the Alamo is important. Gay history is important.

 

OISA_ChartreuseCollage*My Own Private Alamo

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