<% IssueDate = "12/01/02" IssueCategory = "Interview" %> GayToday.com - Interview
Lige Clarke : Body and Soul

An Interview with Shelbiana Rhein & Jack Nichols
By Raj Ayyar

Camerado, I give you my hand!
I give you my love more precious than money,
I give you myself before preaching or law;
Will you give me yourself?
Will you come travel with me?

---Walt Whitman: Song of the Open Road

Born in the mountains of Southeastern Kentucky, Elijah Clarke, best known as Lige, lived between 1942-1975 in a whirlwind of adventure and excitement. A beautiful, multi-faceted pioneer of the gay liberation movement, he lived out the many paradoxes of his being with an indefatigable aliveness and zest. Fiercely passionate, Lige was also gentle, androgynous and loving. Sharply critical of heterosexist power structures and anal-retentive puritanism alike, he resisted the temptation to relapse into a cheap gay separatism.

From 1964 until his tragic 1975 murder in Mexico, Lige wrote, thought about and fought for same-sex love, for the obliteration of destructive prejudices and boundaries and for a new human being freed from the shackles of traditional conditioning and its resultant moral shackles.

A dreamer and an activist, he was committed to "crushing tyranny" and was ready to "join forces with those who would assist in the utter destruction of the puritanical, repressive, anti-sexual Establishment." (Quoted in Before Stonewall).
Lige was a free spirit who never tired of helping others to realize "the glorious privilege of being independent"
Photo By: Eric Stephen Jacobs

Lige Clarke has been most recently immortalized in two groundbreaking works on gay history: Before Stonewall (edited by Vern L. Bullough, RN, PhD, Haworth Press, 2002) and Rebels, Rubyfruit and Rhinestone: Queering Space in the Stonewall South (by James T. Sears, PhD, Rutgers University Press, 2001).

This interview with Lige's sister, Shelbiana Rhein, and with his long-time 'camerado' Jack Nichols, attempts to evoke and recreate aspects of an idealist, a fighter and a Whitmanesque voyager through many worlds.
Shelbiana Rhein, her son Eric and Jack Nichols at the Great March on Washington, 1987 Raj Ayyar: Lige Clarke's personality was a multi-hued tapestry. Can you talk about some of the threads that went into the weave of his life? What were some of the highlights of his life and work?

Shelbi Rhein: The most vibrant strand in the tapestry of Lige was our mother Corinne, an amazingly colorful tapestry herself. Both she and Lige would have loved your analogy, Raj, as both were unique, creative, physically beautiful, and open to new experiences and growth. Both were delightfully expressive, bringing pleasure to those with whom they generously shared their time. Both had a calming spirituality. And, ironically, because of intrusions from some people who couldn't savor life as much as they, their tapestries were violated before they were complete.

Mother often invited troubled teenagers to stay with our family for as long as they needed, feeding, clothing, and welcoming them as our own. It was no surprise when we came home from school in the afternoon to find that another kid was sharing our rooms. If she heard anyone speak unkindly of another, she gently gave object lessons as to the importance of being appreciative and supportive of others.

The worst punishment I could receive for my rebellious ways was Mother saying, "Shelbi, honey, I thought better of you than that." I don't remember Lige ever needing to be punished. Mother was a courageous, outspoken advocate for anyone in need. She was a kindergarten and Sunday School teacher, a much loved and respected leader in the community. The nursery in our Methodist church in Hindman is dedicated to her.

When he was a youngster, Lige placed his Bible in the cornerstone of the church. Mother had a free spirit for which there weren't many outlets in our small mountain community; and because she was raising three children, often alone, and under the scrutiny of our father's ungrateful and critical family, she was often frustrated.

It's no wonder that she often said to her "big three" as she called our brother George, Lige and me, "Grow up and fly away, little bird; trust your wings and fly." She quoted poetry and sang songs, no matter how tough life was for her. She read the Bible to us, saying occasionally, "Children, tonight we'll skip the begats," or some other passage that would have lost our interest. She encouraged us to grow according to our natures.
Lige Clarke was 17 in 1959

I see now what a great influence our mother had in contributing to Lige's extraordinary colors. Add to the fabric our father Bramlette (Bram or Babe) a really muscular "hunk" with deep blue eyes, curly black hair, a dynamic personality who could sing "hidihidihidi ho" as well as Cab Calloway, whom he adored, particularly after he had had a new nips of bootleg whiskey.

During our early years, Daddy was a rambler and a high-rolling gambler. During World War II he was a Merchant Marine and later, he and most of the townsmen went to various places to find work. He later built our home and his store in Hindman. It was a large general store where people could congregate around the gas stove and catch up on all the news. Except for the annual swimming trip to a nearby lake, when Daddy invited the entire town to climb aboard his big truck and go with us to celebrate my birthdays, I can't remember my family doing anything together. Most mountain men and women traveled in "different circles" else the men would have been considered "henpecked."

On a cold winter night in February, Daddy held me on his lap and taught me a ballad as we listened for the stork. We finally heard tiny noises and he took me into his and mother's bedroom to meet my baby brother, Elijah. There was one winter that Daddy gathered us around the fire and read Uncle Tom's Cabin to us; all of us cried throughout. He was an excellent provider and encouraged us to go to college. I'm sure he loved us and admired us -from afar. To his great credit, he was a generous man who gave bags of candy, which I helped fill, every Christmas to all the children in all the churches in the entire area. When my brother George and I visit our hometown, numerous people say to us, "George (or) Shelbiana, if your daddy hadn't given us our food, our family would have starved. He preferred the Old Regual Baptist Church and sometimes attended alone. Like Mother, he sang when he was troubled, which was often.

Lige was born and reared in these rolling Kentucky hills Daddy's contribution to the tapestry was a mixture of bright and dark, happy and sad colors, with rough and smooth textures - and somehow parts of the strands were missing. Add to the threads the fun we had on our farm as children with freedom to explore all in our environment; add our wonderful neighbors, Maggie Fugate with her "young'uns," the Blount kids from down the road, and the children living further into Cave Branch holler; include loving aunts on Mother's side of the family who added to Lige's doll collection and gave him fabrics for his "fashion" creations.

Lige was exceptionally popular with his peers; I believe he was appreciated rather than teased for his creative expressions. In our town, where everyone knew everyone, we were innocent of prejudice. We played with children of women of ill-repute, as well as with those of more affluent families.

Despite the lack of museums, dance studios, and other advantages children on the "outside" of the mountains enjoyed, we grew up in a nurturing environment with a rich culture of mountain ballads, art, simple values, and people who cared about each other. It's a culture to which George and I and our families return when we have the opportunity.

Lige Clarke in Greenwich Village, 1969 Jack Nichols: Some of the highlights of Lige's work? Well, he helped organize the first gay protest at the White House in 1965. As an early member of Washington Mattachine, he was also a founder of Florida's Mattachine Society during that same year. He co-edited America's first gay weekly newspaper, GAY and was always working to wed-in his writing and in his life-- the personal with the political. We wrote two pioneering books together-but the energy and persistence that went into them were his alone. He wouldn't allow me to procrastinate. Lige traveled across the globe during 1974, the year before his murder. He said that "traveling is ecstasy."

When he was only a toddler in the Kentucky mountains, Lige's mother repeatedly advised him: "Your mama won't always be here. You must learn to fly far, far away from this nest." She instilled in him an awareness of the parochial and the provincial, encouraging him to transcend them. Still, he said to me, he'd learned almost everything he knew about human nature in that tiny mountain town. He often called up good-natured hillbilly humor to throw cold water on too painfully-serious ideological debates in the big cities.

He'd decided he never wanted to perceive himself as judgmental. He critiqued cultural nonsense, yes, but he seldom had even one bad word to say about anybody, except Richard Nixon, perhaps. He had an amazing, easy-going kind of self-awareness marked by a depth I've never since encountered in others.

He was utterly self-contained, and yet he was the most kind and loving man imaginable. After we'd lived together for two years, I realized how very patient he'd been with me. He taught me how to bypass my overactive intellect, helping me to enliven myself within my own body and in my relations with others. In 1968 he started teaching Hatha Yoga. Kay Tobin Lahusen, Barbara Gittings' life partner, became one of his regular pupils. The two of them got along famously.

Lige sure could smile. Ear to ear. He had the most beguiling, intriguing smile I ever saw. A woman who'd known him since childhood and who spoke at his Kentucky funeral said she was sure he wouldn't ever want people to weep and that if he were here, he'd advise, "I am not dead. Smile, for I'm just away." Such an attitude comforted me almost perfectly as I came to terms with his mysterious murder.

Raj Ayyar: Shelbi, you and Lige were close, both growing up in the hills of Kentucky. Can you share some memorable moments of his childhood and youth?

Shelbi Rhein: There are so many glorious pictures of Lige in my mind - the little gifts of perfume or beads he bought for me at the dime store with his weekly 10 cents allowance, his thin little body and legs as he twirled in a skirt he had fashioned from an umbrella; his clinging tightly to a grapevine as I swung him over a ravine as he played the role of Boy to my being Jane in my Tarzan scenarios; his cutting the blades off my ice skates and nailing them to the bottoms of his shoes; using my pink ballerina music jewelry box for his rock collection.
Lige Clarke on Cocoa Beach, 1974

His calling "bye, bye Georgie, Bambi" over and over until we were out of sight on our way to school. So many memories as we grew up - his defending me from a boy who was mean to me when I was a teenager; his taking me to see Rudolph Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn dance Romeo and Juliet as my college graduation present; the joy he had while visiting me and my children; his sprinkling rose petals over my head in a blessing as I sat at the table in his and Jack's apartment; the day we parted on a corner in New York City to go our separate ways and I heard him call "Hey Shelb!" When I turned the sun was shining on him as he waved his hand high into the air and called "Remember who you are!"

Raj Ayyar: Lige Clarke was a world explorer who visited many countries during his all-too-brief life. Whenever I read about him, I'm reminded of Whitman's "Allons! The road is before us!" Where did this wonderful wanderlust come from? Was it a restless, generous spirit that refused to be 'cribb'd and confined' to any one place or relationship?

Shelbi Rhein: Lige was definitely a "restless, generous spirit" that could not be confined. This wanderlust might have been genetic; after all, those of our ancestors who weren't Cherokee came here from Ireland, England, Scotland and France. Some of our aunts and uncles were adventurous wanderers, and Mother would have enjoyed seeing the world if she had had the opportunity. Both my children, Jamie (who with her family has lived in several different countries) and Eric, are world travelers. I'm fortunate that they sometimes like to have me tag along with them. George takes his family on long trips. (I often begin my e-mails to him with "Oh, brother, where art thou?"

When Lige decided to go "trapisin," it seemed that he was simply returning to places he had been in other times and lives. He had no fear, as he viewed the entire world as his neighborhood where he was comfortable and felt welcome.

In his journal he kept while a steward on the liner Vista Fjord, Lige wrote of having learned to say "Good morning" in several different languages. Regarding "Allons! The road is before us!"-During Lige's visits with me in upstate New York, he and I often took walks in the woods, exchanging ideas, and discussing many things. We would climb atop a boulder beside a waterfall, sing songs and quote poetry.

He amazed me as he recited lengthy passages from Whitman. We would dance and gather leaves as we returned home. When I retrieved Lige's bloodstained leather bag after his murder, I found his favorite books, including Leaves of Grass. During the ceremony when my daughter Jamie and her husband Steve Murray married before moving to Singapore, I read from Lige's book, "Allons! The road is before us!"
Lige Clarke visited five continents in 1974

Jack Nichols: Wow, Raj! Wouldn't you know that Lige himself eagerly memorized Whitman's Song of the Open Road in 1969. And when he wrote me in 1974 during his year-long world travels and when I was writing Men's Liberation, which I dedicated to him, he ended one of his letters to me with that very same Whitman quote you've affixed at the beginning of this interview. During the decade we lived together, we continuously returned to Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet and The Way of Life According to Lao Tzu. Lige was carrying all three of these books when he was gunned down.

Raj Ayyar: Lige's passion for human rights exemplifies the best in America--an impatience with old shibboleths and imprisoning dogmas, a broad-chested inclusiveness of the 'Other', a generosity toward the stranger and the outcaste and a fierce concern for civil rights everywhere. What would he have to say about Bushian America post-9/11, where so many Americans appear to have shriveled into a contracted, mean-spirited paranoia that is suspicious of the Other, that discriminates against Brown people and that wants to ride the world stage like an unfettered bully?

Shelbi Rhein: Lige would be ever mindful of the poverty, disease, and political corruption he had seen during his travels, including throughout the USA. He would be sickened by America's wasting our resources. He would have been proud of Jamie who has joined advocacy groups in countries where she has lived, and of Eric who donates his art work to help support PWAs.

As for Bushian America - he would feel the entire world is endangered. Lige would endeavor to live his own life fully, concentrating on meditation, breathing, movement, dance, music celebrating life, celebrating the earth and its wonders. He would feel that if he kept himself focused, he could help lift others to a strong spiritual consciousness where we could overcome the insanity of warmongering and greed. Lige didn't have a need to prove anything; he could influence people by speaking softly and rationally, without carrying "a big stick."

Jack Nichols: Following his 1974 travels around the world, Lige's view of America changed radically. He used to say we must keep our passports at the ready to escape quickly should the Republican zealots get too scary. I'm sure if he were here today that his concern about America's GOP leaders would probably be far more intense than in that earlier time.

Raj Ayyar: Jack, in an era of separatisms within and outside gay communities, its refreshing to recall Lige's words written after Stonewall: "We hope that 'Gay Power' will not become a call for separation but for…integration." Any comments?

Lige Clarke taught Hatha Yoga in Manhattan

Photo By: Roy Blakey
Jack Nichols: The most media-noticed statement in Dr. Alfred Kinsey's famous report about sexual behavior in the human male-according to a chapter describing Kinsey in Before Stonewall-- was that 1 out of 3 males we pass on the street has experienced an orgasm at least once in concert with another male during adulthood. Lige poo-pooed the idea that same-sex love is a minority condition. He said that it was a natural human inclination, and that like the much-maligned and very universal sex act that we call masturbation, same sex love and affection has been discouraged by a Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition that has harmfully turned it between men or between women into a stupid taboo.

Raj Ayyar: Shelbi, how did the 'locals' react to Lige when he visited home? I gather some whispered that there was "something 'quare' about the Clarke boy. Ain't natural for a man not to get married."

Shelbi Rhein: People in our home town were "family." While there were long-standing animosities among some families over forgotten indiscretions, everyone claimed everyone else as their kin in times of adversity. Certainly, people asked Lige why he wasn't married; they thought it was their right to ask, and, besides, that was a good way to begin a conversation for people who didn't have much to talk about with someone who was familiar, yet foreign to them because he lived in Washington, D.C. or New York City. They certainly welcomed Lige home with invitations to "come on up and sit a spell" and "come to supper when you get a chance."

Raj Ayyar: Lige waged passionate war against puritanism and stiflingly conventional moral codes. Can one apply some of his insights today in the context of a new post-AIDS sex-phobia where the 'plague' is often used as a rationalization of sex-phobic discourses, action and politics?

Shelbi Rhein: With sex, as with any other facet of relationship, Lige felt there must be no feelings of obligation, possession nor guilt. He enjoyed a song about a honey bee that buzzed from flower to flower. I've forgotten the title. He would certainly not have confined himself to a single type of flower! In this age of AIDS and other STDs, Lige would have been a responsible lover for himself as well as for his partner. He was concerned with keeping his body healthy. If someone tried to possess Lige, he would have graciously ended the relationship.
Lige and Jack: Pride in Central Park, 1972
Photo By: Thane Hampton

Jack Nichols: In an AIDS-related sex-phobic era, Lige would never have consented put a damper on healthy sexual enthusiasms. However, he'd have discouraged the kind of attitude that culturally-bound folks demand when they insist on goal-oriented sex. He used to say that the means is the end and that kissing, for example, isn't just a prelude to sex, but that it truly is sex. And he'd probably have appreciated the late Michael Callen's enthusiastic approach, encouraging lusty non-penetrative contact…even in groups. There are many ways, between two or more participants, in which sexual satisfaction and excitement can flourish.

The lounge lizard's bar-side query, "Just what do you like to do in bed?" Lige considered a kind of insult - because it places the asker's insistence for performing a particular sex act ahead of any real appreciation for the person he queries. This approach tends to keep people apart from each other rather than bringing them together. He hoped to encourage more inclusive perspectives.

Raj Ayyar: Jack, in many ways your relationship with Lige went way beyond tame little bourgeois labels like 'friend', 'lover', 'spouse' etc. Walt Whitman's 'Camerado' comes closest--loving without possessing, soul-brothers as well as fellow wanderers and sex partners. How did you manage to avoid the little pigeonholes and the thrust toward possession in your relationship?

Lige and Jack, 1973
Photo By: Eric Stephen Jacobs
Jack Nichols: When our relationship first began in 1964, I had some very conventional expectations. It was Lige who patiently taught me that love does not "expect" nor does it "assume." We both discovered over the years that being able to laugh together, sharing our values and our highest hopes constituted our relationship's best cement. Lige knew, as Walt Whitman did, that no documents, no agreements on paper can hold two people together. And like Lao Tzu explained, "Things which go together naturally don't need to be tied."

Kahlil Gibran wrote: "Love one another, but make not a bond of love." Our relationship always evolved, giving us each "the glorious privilege of being independent." By letting go, as the Zen approach teaches, we gravitated ever-closer together. We never smothered each other. We gave each other room. We took interest in each others' discoveries and findings, growing thereby together.

Raj Ayyar: "While adults praised the Lord inside the church", said Lige, "we young 'uns enjoyed automobile orgies in the parking lot out back." Lige apparently felt that in the Kentucky mountains, "at least we had learned to fuck wildly at an early age, both heterosexually and homosexually." Shelbi, is it true that there was less puritanism and more freewheeling body exploration in those mountains when Lige was growing up?

Shelbi Rhein: Evidently, my brother was much more sexually advanced than I. While Lige was having his "orgies" in the parking lot, I was abandoning our Methodist church to pray with the Baptists across the street. I was in great need of redemption for committing such "sins" as skipping school or hiding out behind my Uncle John's theatre with my best friend, smoking stolen cigarettes and drinking beer. I doubt that my brothers, friends, and I were any different from youngsters in any other place in the U.S. Lige bloomed early. He had some serious girlfriends who wanted to marry him. Since I was five years older, I didn't often notice what he was doing; if I had known what he was "up to" in the parking lot, I would have dragged him home.

Raj Ayyar: Jack, you and Lige were privileged to live in Manhattan and the Village in the '60's. Whitman's 'city of orgies, walks and joys' came alive with an explosion of liberationist ideas and movements in the '60's. Can you share some of the moments of that whirlwind, some of that excitement with us?

Jack Nichols: Lige insisted-four years after we'd met in Washington, D.C.-- that we move to the Big Apple so that, to quote The Unsinkable Molly Brown, we could be "up where the thinking is, up where the jokes are going on." We rented in the colorful hippie part of town where we hobnobbed with all of the fascinating luminaries of the counterculture movement, both gay and straight, people like the poet Allen Ginsberg and Dr. Timothy Leary. Al Goldstein, the straight publisher of SCREW magazine asked us to write a "gay corner" for his groundbreaking and outrageous paper's first issue in 1968.

SCREW was the first newspaper on the stands to publish frontal nudes, making it-and our gay column by extension-very well-known. John Lennon and Yoko Ono posed in bed reading SCREW for a back-cover ad. Our weekly column continued for five years and in 1969 was the venue for the first post-Stonewall "call to arms" that we wrote. We penned that "call" on the fifth anniversary of our meeting, a week after the famous rebellion.
Lige Clarke at the opening of Walter's Apartment, an East Side restaurant in Manhattan, 1972

At that point, Lige and I had already been activists together since we'd met, and so we fell easily into editing GAY together for the next four years. GAY was full of the enthusiasm and joy of a never-to-be- forgotten period in American history. Even Allen Ginsberg contributed a poem, as did most all of the wonderful activists and pioneers of that time. Dr. George Weinberg, who coined the term "homophobia" wrote regularly for GAY. Kay Tobin Lahusen was its first news editor.

We were at ground zero during the counterculture period, something I'm proud to be able to say. Dr. Rodger Streitmatter, professor of Journalism at the American University, celebrated GAY in his recently published textbook, Voices of Revolution: The Dissident Press in America (Columbia University Press, 2001) and in his landmark history of the gay and lesbian press, Unspeakable (Faber & Faber, 1995).

Raj Ayyar: You know, Jack, one of the first books I read when I first surfaced in the U.S. back in the '70's was your book Men's Liberation: A New Definition of Masculinity (Penguin Books, 1975/1980). It made a tremendous impact on me at the time and helped me understand and come to terms with my sexuality better. Did Lige's personality and ideas shape the book in any way?

Lige Clarke on Fire Island, 1974 Jack Nichols: I dedicated that book to Lige because he taught me, through our experiences together, the principal themes in it. The fact that he'd finished reading it in galley form and had seen its dedication to him about three days before he was murdered, was later another great comfort to me. I've always felt that that book's approach to life was Lige's spirit marching on.

Raj Ayyar: Jack, how did Witter Bynner's translation of Lao-Tzu impact Lige's thinking and yours?

Jack Nichols: Well, as I've said, Lao Tzu, Walt Whitman and Kahlil Gibran were our best buddies living in book form. In Men's Liberation they're all quoted and heartily recommended. I particularly recommend Bynner's translation of Lao Tzu above all others. When we gave a copy of that translation to Angelo d'Arcangelo, the author of 1968's famed groundbreaker, The Homosexual Handbook, he wrote in his next tome, Lovebook: Inside the Sexual Revolution (Lancer Books, 1971) that whenever he picked it up to read it he gave himself a little party.

Raj Ayyar: Jack, Walt Whitman was an inspiration and a point of departure for you and Lige. In what ways did Whitman's vision of America help mould Lige's life?

Jack Nichols: Yes, we were Whitman's comerados and we were Whitman's "two boys together clinging." I'll never forgot how Lige recited aloud to folks from Leaves of Grass. I can still hear his voice:

Listen, I will be honest with you. I do not offer the old smooth prizes,
but rough new prizes. These are the days that must happen to you: You
shall not heap up what is called riches. You shall scatter with lavish hand
all that you earn or achieve. You but arrive at the city to which you were
destined, you hardly settle yourself to satisfaction before you are called
by an irresistible call to depart. You shall be treated to the smiles and
mockings of those who remain behind. But what beckonings of love you receive,
you shall answer with passionate kisses of parting. You shall not allow the hold of
those who spread their reaching hands towards you.

Raj Ayyar: Jack, with regard to Lige's tragic murder, you said that you were "convinced that he was a victim of machismo's homophobic influences." Can you elaborate?

Jack Nichols: I also said I've no idea who really murdered Lige. There were four or five theories. Shelbi mentions a Mexican newspaper clipping indicating that some rural bandits had been caught, but there was no real proof that they'd killed Lige. The Mexican police insisted there'd been a connection between our newly-met neighbor on Cocoa Beach and the CIA. Our neighbor had offered his Pinto as a getaway vehicle for a two-week jaunt to Mexico. He told us he'd been fired by the Post Office, but when I later checked this story, they said he'd merely gone on leave. That, and the fact that his nearby apartment was empty of furniture, just a sleeping mat, seemed suspicious. He was a North Carolina hick who, strangely, talked in left-wing political jargon, which, in hindsight, I thought, could have been his way of attempting to befriend us. Lige Clarke in the Lotus Position
Photo By: Roy Blakey

And then there was Juan, a somewhat questionable early Mattachine member who'd joined the Society in Washington, D.C. and who, during the previous two years, had supposedly been working with the Peace Corps. Juan told us he'd been ensconced in a downtown Bogata high rise before he showed up unexpectedly in Cocoa Beach asking to accompany Lige and our North Carolina neighbor on their jaunt to Mexico.

Lige didn't believe for a minute that Juan had been working with the Peace Corps, but treated him warmly, anyway. Juan, originally from Havana, was mentioned briefly in our 1972 memoir. We'd joked that to hear him speak of his "magnificent" Havana domicile prior to the revolution, was like hearing Scarlet talking about Tara before the war. I hoped Juan could translate for Lige once they got to Mexico. Apparently on the road they disagreed about accommodations and Juan, who'd always valued rich surroundings and comfort, opted out of the trip before they reached the Mexican border. Lige and our neighbor continued on, however.

Mexican customs inspectors had kept Lige waiting at the Brownsville border checkpoint for 3 hours, our neighbor told Shelbi and me, while they examined his few goods. Our neighbor was somewhat effeminate. But when they were attacked, he was grazed ineffectually by a bullet and said that he pretended to be dead. He later wrote to Shelbi that the customs officials at the border had been spooked upon discovering the two gay books that Lige and I had written together, the most popular being I Have More Fun With You Than Anybody. That book was the first non-fiction memoir ever written by a male couple (St. Martin's Press, 1972.)

Whoever gunned down Lige with automatic weaponry knew ahead of time that he'd be on that highway. There was a midnight roadblock waiting for him. At first we had all thought it had been bandits who were to blame, but nothing much was really stolen from the car. One other possible theory involved my estranged father, now deceased. A macho-maniac athlete, my Dad had been a Special Agent of the FBI for 25 years. After the first White House gay protests in 1965 and right in front of Lige, he'd threatened my life with his service revolver. I told him I never wanted to see him after that. He was very homophobic. I'm pretty certain that he kept a wary eye on our perpetual public ridiculing in print of his dear president, Richard Nixon, and so I later imagined-just a speculation-that he could have finally made a move to punish us. But that's just one theory among several.

Raj Ayyar: Shelbi, how did Lige's family react to the news of his murder?

Sheli Rhein: All us were almost destroyed when Lige was murdered. Mother had been dead for a few years and the loss of Lige was a contributing factor to our father's death not long after. It's painful to imagine what effect such a violation of Lige's essence would have had on our mother. George grieved in silence, and like the rest of the family, he still cries sometimes when we talk of Lige. I wrote letters to a woman in the American Embassy in Mexico; I wrote to Lige's murderers quoting Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. while wishing them peace; I wrote to our legislators, stressing the need for gun control; I wrote to friends and strangers whom I admired; I typed until my hands cramped and my fingers turned blue with bruises. Although reports and newspaper articles gave the identify of the men who had killed Lige, I wouldn't learn their names because they then would have become objects for me to hate, which would have further desecrated all that Lige stood for. He would have wanted me to focus my energy in positive ways instead.

When Lige's body was finally at home, I couldn't let myself see him dead, even though I planned his funeral. I wanted to keep the image of his golden essence waving to me as we parted from each other on the corner in New York. Lige was the favorite of all our aunts, cousins, and neighbors. All were broken-hearted that he had been so violated.

The townspeople were lovingly hospitable to Lige's gay friends who traveled to Hindman for his funeral, served as pallbearers, and carried his coffin up the hill to our woodland family cemetery; they welcomed his friends into their homes, provided them with home-cooked meals, and invited them to visit often. People in Hindman still remember Lige and speak of him with admiration and love.

Lige Clarke co-edited GAY, America's first weekly newspaper, published in Manhattan
Photo By: Eric Stephen Jacobs
Raj Ayyar: Shelbi, how and when did you learn of your brother's sexual orientation and his gay activism? Was it easy for you and the family to accept it?

Shelbi Rhein: In one of Lige's and Jack's books, Lige wrote that when he told me he was gay, I looked like I had been stuck in the head with a rusty screw driver. He was mistaken in thinking I was surprised, because I had begun to suspect that his feelings for Jack went deeper than a close friendship; it was clear that Jack was smitten with Lige.

The day Lige told me he was gay, he, George and his family and I and mine had gone on a picnic on the farm where we had lived as children. We were all wading down the creek, with Lige and me moseying along behind everyone when he gave me his big news. I was grateful that he trusted me enough to confide in me. I didn't know much about homosexuality, and I was concerned that Lige wouldn't settle down and have a family. In my small conventional world I had a narrow concept of family. Wow! Has my vision changed!

As far as accepting Lige's sexual orientation - it wasn't for me to accept or reject any part of his being. Something either is or it isn't. It's very simple; Lige was gay, he was my brother, I loved him. I didn't know whether or not Mother knew Lige was gay; she knew of some girlfriends who wanted to marry him. I do know that she would have welcomed anyone into our family who loved her children. Daddy must have known, although Lige didn't "come out" to him. When Lige was killed, Daddy and Jack sat for hours holding hands, crying, and talking during visitation time at the funeral home.

Raj Ayyar: Shelbi, I gather that Lige had a close relationship with your children. Has he been a role model for Jamie and Eric? Did he have any impact on Eric Rhein's art and his life?

Shelbi Rhein: Jamie and Eric adored their Uncle Lige; he danced and sang with them, had in-depth discussions with them, played imaginative games, gave thoughtfully chosen gifts from his travels, and was genuinely interested in and appreciative of them. While visiting him and Uncle Jack in New York City, they were treated to amazing things - experiencing everyday life in The Village, visiting art museums, the zoo, Central Park, eating exotic foods, meeting exotic people, and sailing around Manhattan on the Circle Line. When Lige visited us, there were walks in the woods, laughter, dance parties in the living room. Like Lige, both Jamie and Eric dance with abandon.
Shelbiana Rhein, Lige's sister, and her openly gay son, Eric Rhein, with one of his creations on display

Both children were profoundly affected when Lige was killed. Eric, who was in seventh grade, answered the phone when my uncle in Kentucky called and told him that he had bad news for me about his Uncle Lige. He immediately went to bed to grieve. Jamie, who was a junior in high school, wrote thoughtful, beautiful poetry about Lige, some of it addressed to his killers. One poem dealt with Lige's immigrating to another star. Last January 1st, when Jamie gave birth to a wonderful baby boy, she and Steve named him Elijah Cyril.

Around the time Eric was in 6th grade, always perceptive Lige told me not to be surprised if he were gay; thus, when Eric confided in me when he was around 19, I was ready for a good discussion.

Jamie, Shelbi's daughter
I see Lige's influence in both Jamie and Eric; both are artists and writers, Jamie is a full-time teacher and free-lance writer; Eric sometimes visits art classes in high schools and colleges as guest teacher or lecturer. Both are courageous outspoken advocates for justice; both have kind natures and a certain innocence akin to Lige's.

As to Lige's influence on Eric's art - Eric has been an artist since the moment he was conceived and his expressions come from his own imagination and experiences. His relationship with Lige became part of him, as have all his experiences. Read Whitman's "There was a Child Went Forth".

As Lige was, Eric is comfortable in his body; much of his work graphically deals with his or society's concepts of sexuality. In a presentation Eric will give at a college next week, he will be expressing some ideas that are contained in Whitman's poem, "These I Singing in Spring" Although Eric was not aware of the poem at the time he was creating his Leaves project, a work of more than 150 pieces which honor people he has known who have died of AIDS, his artistic expressions and the similarities in sentiments of both Whitman and Lige are astounding.

Raj Ayyar: What is Lige Clarke's legacy for today's gay generation and for people of any sexual orientation here and now?

Shelbi Rhein: Whether dealing with sexuality or any other facets of one's life, Lige would encourage people to be - to do - to love - to give and receive freely without fear of what others think. He would encourage us to live fully each day; and, he would say to us, with his broad smile, "Remember who you are."

Lige and Jack as they appeared on the cover of their second book, 1974
Photo By: Eric Stephen Jacobs
Jack Nichols: Love becomes most magical when it's unconditional. It's better to give love than to receive it. Nor does loving unconditionally mean we allow a lover to become dependent. In the second of the two books we wrote together, Lige explained: "A loving union assures that each member is self-regulating so that if one partner or the other withdraws or dies, the other will be equipped with his own strengths."

Lige knew to stop worrying about such matters as unrequited love and that we're far more likely thereby to experience love's unexpected joys and satisfactions. Walt Whitman once said there's no such thing as unrequited love. The payment, he believed, is sure, in one way or another. To be unduly possessive or jealous of anyone destroys love's best promises. And, of course, the gender of one's love object remains forever immaterial. Only the spirit reflecting through our most intimate ways of being present is what counts. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s wisdom indicated what Lige thought to be worth practicing: "Unconditional love," said King, "will have the final word in reality."
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