Boys flocked to the three-story, wood-shingled house on Mountain Avenue in Revere for the teenage version of the Holy Grail: an endless supply of beer and weed. Being drunk and stoned made everything-from the air hockey to the movie watching-significantly more enjoyable. There was also money to be had. The pocket cash came from the local men, who especially liked it when the local boys (hustlers, gay teens, straight teens) lounged around the house with their shirts off.
Then there were smiles all around.
There was also sex. The boys had sex with each other. The boys had sex with the men. All of this was done quietly, because neighbors would later say that they didn't see or hear anything unusual coming from the house. There were no naked boys loitering in the doorway, no drunken men stumbling in the back yard, no obvious signs of depravity. It was a normal house, the neighbors thought, until they learned that it wasn't.
In June 1977, police arrested the house's owner and announced that it was the national headquarters of a sordid, pornographic sex ring. It was a stretch to call it a “ring,” but Suffolk County District Attorney Garrett Byrne declared that the arrests were just “the tip of the iceberg.” There had to be other perverted people in other wood-shingled houses. And Byrne had a way to catch them: A hotline people could call with anonymous tips about molesters.
In fact, man-boy relationships had been flourishing-not particularly secretly-for years in Revere. Revere Beach, on the eastern fringes of this working-class city, was a notorious cruising ground for men and boys. “It's surprising that no one has stumbled onto a 'sex ring' in Revere before this,” Frank Rose wrote in a 1978 Village Voice piece about the scandal.
Everybody was talking about the case, which led to the indictments of 24 men. During an interview on a Boston television station, poet and outspoken boy-lover Allen Ginsberg joked about the scandal. “I had sex when I was 8 with a man in the back of my grandfather's candy store in Revere, and I turned out okay,” Ginsberg declared before being hurried off-stage as the station cut to a commercial.
That moment aside, there was little to chuckle about that year for gays in general, and men who liked boys in particular. In Florida, beauty queen Anita Bryant was pushing her “Save Our Children” campaign, spearheading the repeal of budding gay-rights ordinances. In Toronto, police raided the city's gay newspaper after it published an article entitled “Men Loving Boys Loving Men.” From coast to coast, states began enacting tougher laws against child pornography, alluding to the need to protect children from the clutches of homosexual adults.
Staffers at Fag Rag, a now-defunct Boston-based radical gay paper, decided to fight back. They formed a committee to defend the suspects in Revere and rally against police harassment. Two groups emerged from that committee. One, the Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, is still a respected legal organization. The other, the North American Man/Boy Love Association, would soon become the most despised group of men in America.
Two boy-lovers sit at a small table in a boston coffee shop. “Everyone's telling me not to talk to you,” says one, a gray-haired, 62-year-old NAMBLA founder who goes by the pseudonym Socrates. “I mean, really, what's the point? It may be naive to think that an article that is really honest about NAMBLA can be published in any major magazine in America. We are the poison group. This is the poison story.”
It's a story that began unremarkably enough. In 1978, NAMBLA was just another oddball sexual group proposing another oddball, radical philosophy: Kids should have more rights, particularly the right to have sex with whomever they please. Age should not be a consideration in anything, especially sex and love, and age-of-consent laws should be repealed. It was a more permissive time, a time before AIDS, and during NAMBLA's infancy in Boston (it would later move its headquarters to New York), the group enjoyed the support of a vocal minority in the gay community, who believed that attacks on boy-lovers were veiled attacks on all homosexuals. To NAMBLA's greater surprise, it found that even many straight people were willing to discuss adult-youth relationships without resorting to name calling and finger wagging.
“The '70s were an incredible time,” says Socrates. “We were at a time when things were changing, when our voices could be heard. We began to believe the rhetoric that the revolution was coming, that we were going to create a free society.”
They could not have been more wrong. Twenty-two years after forming in the Community Church of Boston, NAMBLA finds itself close to extinction. It has achieved nothing except brand recognition. Its members live in fear, victims in their own minds, captives of their political blunders, their misreading of popular sentiment, and a sustained, multi-pronged attack from right-wingers, feminists, homophobes, gays, abuse survivors, police, politicians, and the media.
“Today, we are seen as worse than murderers,” says long-time NAMBLA member Bill Andriette, who sits, unshaven and shoulders hunched, across the table from Socrates. Andriette joined NAMBLA in 1981, when he was 15. “But if I was 15 today, I don't think I would join NAMBLA. NAMBLA itself has become pretty irrelevant, except as a symbol invoked by its enemies.”
And there are plenty of those-particularly in Boston. The 1997 murder of 10-year-old Cambridge boy Jeffrey Curley by two men, one a NAMBLA member, and the Curley family's subsequent wrongful death lawsuit against the organization, have stoked popular outrage. While many legal experts describe the Curley lawsuit's prospects as slim, it is another offensive against a group that has spent most of its time defending itself. “That case is probably going to break our back, even if we win, which we will,” says Socrates. “Out of the closet since 1979, today we must hide again in America.”
Could NAMBLA's founders have had any idea that they would become America's symbol of organized depravity? That a group founded mostly by eccentric, boy-loving leftists would come to be considered Public Enemy Number One in the nation's battle against child sexual abuse?
“Never mind the fact that NAMBLA has never been a very large or influential organization,” says Philip Jenkins, a professor of history and religious studies at Pennsylvania State University and the author of Moral Panic: Changing Concepts of the Child Molester in Modern America. “But it fit our need then, and still does today, to think of child molesters as being part of an immense, vast, powerful conspiracy that moves in elite circles. NAMBLA has become the acceptable symbol to blame for a lot of what has gone wrong morally in America over the last 20 years.”
For its part, the organization has tried to point out the hypocrisy of its critics. Americans, NAMBLA argues, go to remarkable lengths to pretend that kids aren't sexual, even as they promote youth sexuality in music, films, beauty pageants, and advertising. Still, if NAMBLA had any chance at even counterculture legitimacy, it wasn't going to achieve it by convincing Americans of their supposed hypocrisy. It would succeed only as a passenger on the bandwagon of gay liberation, which long tolerated (and, in fact, celebrated) the inclusion of outcasts and deviants. While NAMBLA's founders never expected the mainstream gay movement to be as radical as they were, they also never expected gay culture to shed its pre-AIDS sexual radicalism and ditch boy-lovers in the name of mainstream legitimacy.
Meanwhile, NAMBLA and its members made a series of perplexing, misguided, and irrational political choices. Theirs is the story of a small group of unapologetic radicals who badly overestimated both the inclusiveness of gay liberation and the breadth of the sexual revolution.
David (not his real name) is a 62-year-old cab driver who likes, among other demographic groups, teenage boys. More than anything, though, he likes to be left alone to sit on the couch in the cozy, carpeted living room of his San Francisco apartment, where he can watch Monday night football on mute while listening to classical music on high. Today, he's also talking about how it feels to receive telephone calls like this one: “Hey, fuck you and all your NAMBLA friends! You fuck little boys up the ass! I'm going to find out where you live, and I'm going to kill you. I'm going to bash your skull in with a baseball bat!”
That call, which he reported to police, is one of several he has received since anti-pedophile crusader Mike Echols posted David's name, address, and phone number, and those of about 80 other suspected NAMBLA members (David insists he's not a member and doesn't act on his attraction to teenagers), on Echols' anti-NAMBLA Web site.
In small towns and big cities, suspected NAMBLA members are being warned to stay the hell away from kids. In New Mexico, a suspected member had his tires slashed and the word “pedophile” graffitied on his truck. In San Francisco, an 82-year-old former NAMBLA member got a death threat at his nursing home. In European countries, angry mobs have staked out the homes of men convicted of sex crimes with minors, calling for nothing less than public lynchings.
“It's a bad time to be a pedophile, and an even worse time to be a NAMBLA member,” says Tim Painter, an inspector on the district attorney's child sex abuse unit in Alameda County, California. He has worked on several cases involving NAMBLA members. “NAMBLA has done more good for those who want to stop them than they have for themselves. What NAMBLA has done is put a face to the enemy.”
These days, NAMBLA's face fronts for little more than a publishing collective and several hundred scared, paranoid members. There are no more annual conventions, no more public appearances, no more city chapters, no more NAMBLA contingents in gay-pride marches, no more eager new recruits. Times are so bad, in fact, that most NAMBLA members would just as soon not talk about them. Of the 50 members (or suspected members) contacted by phone, mail, or e-mail for this story, only a handful agreed to talk. Others wrote responses like these:
“I'm under court order not to have anything to do with NAMBLA, so I would appreciate it if you didn't send me anything else, or I could get in a whole heap of trouble.”
“I got your letter today. . . . I would imagine we will want to use encryption to e-mail each other as it is easy for someone to read our e-mail. I do not know how to use encryption. You will have to instruct me.”
Encryption? The need for silence and pseudonyms is particularly agonizing to NAMBLA's founders, who have historically been open about their attraction to boys. Only seconds after sitting down at an Upper West Side restaurant in New York, “Steve,” a NAMBLA founder who asks that his real name not be used, says: “I absolutely hate having to be not up front. I find this very painful. But I think the climate has really gotten bad, and I have no doubt that I would be fired from my job if it came out that I was a NAMBLA member. What's so sad is that it didn't used to be this way. We used to celebrate our lives.”
That was before NAMBLA began its baffling pattern of self-destruction. The group, somehow unaware, or unconcerned, that police might want to infiltrate its meetings, unwittingly voted undercover law-enforcement officials to its steering committee. “Working against NAMBLA members is like stealing candy from a baby, only easier,” says Echols, seated at a seafood restaurant in Dallas and never failing to plug his two true-crime books about child sex abuse (Brother Tony's Boys, I Know My First Name Is Steven). He says he personally infiltrated several NAMBLA meetings and also got his hands on the group's “top-secret” membership list.
Perhaps hoping to improve their image, several NAMBLA members cooperated with the making of a 1994 documentary about them, Chicken Hawk: Men Who Love Boys. It was a rare chance to show the world that they weren't nearly as despicable as people made them out to be. Typically, NAMBLA blew that chance. Several members came off as unhappy, childlike, nerdy, predatory, even delusional. The film's undisputed star is long-time NAMBLA member Leland Stevenson, a 55-year-old former Mormon missionary who is seen chatting up boys at shopping mall pay phones, interpreting their aloofness and resistance as flirtation and saying things like “Okay, that will be our little secret.”
If NAMBLA members were bad at security and public relations, they were even worse at staying out of jail. Members (and those “with NAMBLA ties,” as prosecutors and the media described them) were arrested for possession of and distribution of child pornography, statutory rape, and molestation. In 1989, at least one NAMBLA member was arrested in Thailand after police said he was running an orphanage that served as a front for child prostitution. (NAMBLA member Bill Andriette insists the organization had no knowledge of the purported orphanage, a claim police reject.)
Arguably most damaging to NAMBLA, though, was its refusal to change its position calling for the repeal of all age-of-consent laws, despite the argument made by a vocal minority of members that such a stance-with its implication, sometimes stated and sometimes not, that a prepubescent child can consent to sex-was political suicide.
“I have been trying to convince the NAMBLA people for years that they should argue for an age of 14 or 15, something that people could see as a little more reasonable,” says William A. Percy, a professor of history at UMass/Boston and the author of Pederasty and Pedagogy in Archaic Greece. “But they're a small group of inbred and fanatical ideologues. They only talk to each other. They won't listen to ideas of compromise.”
They also failed, for the most part, to attract boys to their cause. While an occasional voice seconds NAMBLA's outrage over age-of-consent laws (“They are just one of the countless ways we discriminate against gay people and treat teenagers like second-class citizens,” says Mike Glatze, an editor at Young Gay America, an Internet magazine for young gay men and women), the question is clear: Just where is the army of boys backing NAMBLA and fighting for the rights of teens to have sex with whomever they wish? The short answer is that there is no army. The North American Man/Boy Love Association is, and always has been, remarkably short on boys.
“I am an ethical man,” says Socrates, sitting in the kitchen of his modest Boston home, next to several framed pictures of former teenage lovers. “I never hurt or manipulated the boys who have been my lovers. And they were my friends, not just my lovers. They are all part of what I consider my family.”
The first was James Dubro, now a Canadian crime writer and documentary filmmaker. In 1961, Dubro was an openly gay, sexually active 14-year-old living on Beacon Hill, and Socrates was a 22-year-old college student just coming to terms with his attraction to boys. The pair met in a Charles Street coffee shop, where Dubro stopped every day after school to sell copies of the Boston Record-American.
“[He] chatted me up and offered to buy the five or so papers I had left,” Dubro recalls. Socrates took the teen back to his college dorm room, where the pair had the first of many sexual encounters and began a friendship that continues to this day. “[Socrates] is extremely loyal to the boys he has had relationships with,” says Dubro. “And a lot of the boys could not have survived without his assistance. To my personal knowledge, he has never abused anyone Â— and is, if anything, too trusting and self denying to a fault.”
Socrates is attracted primarily to teenagers 14 and older, and men in their early twenties. He is the legal adoptive father of one of his former lovers, considers himself a surrogate father to another eight, and says that about 30 young men have lived with him at one point or another. Socrates travels often to meet with his three current teenage lovers in a foreign country (all three are at least 18, he says). “Today, it's too dangerous in America,” he says.
That danger has sent some NAMBLA members, and many boy lovers, running to Internet boy-love communities, where men of all ages post tortured poetry about their 10-year-old neighbors, debate the best place to take a 13-year-old on a date (WWF wrestling matches, toy stores), and share advice about how to charm unsuspecting mothers.
Many of NAMBLA's founders and key members insist that they now avoid sexual relationships with underage boys. Chris Farrell, a long-time NAMBLA member, made that decision after serving four years in prison in the early 1990s for sodomy with three boys, ages 15 and 16. “For me, contact with young people was not only a means of sexual satisfaction, but an enormous and important part of my broader social relationships,” Farrell says, standing in the cluttered Manhattan office of his mail-order book and video company. “But to have those relationships so severely truncated is a difficult thing. And it's so hard to stomach. For years, in many societies, my love for boys was valued.”
That hasn't been the case since the early 1980s, when America discovered, with much media sensation, that its day care centers seemed to be run by perverted Satanists. There were convoluted tales of children being flown to cult-like churches, where they were raped and videotaped by chanting, mask-wearing preschool teachers. While abuse did occur in some cases, these stories were often as unbelievable as they were wrong.
A decade later, the discovery of the Internet as a powerful and very real tool for the sexual abuse of children only served to heighten national anxiety over child sexual abuse, making it nearly impossible for anyone-least of all, NAMBLA-to engage the country in a discussion about youth sexuality.
“We live in a culture that's hysterical about children and assumes they have no sexual agency or desire,” says Dan Savage, an author and nationally syndicated sex columnist. “But anyone who can remember what they were like when they were 11 knows that kids are sexual, and whether it was messing around with their cousin, playing doctor with their neighbor, or making passes at people 10 years older, they were horny. So NAMBLA steps out to articulate all this, albeit in its usual highly dysfunctional and creepy way, and because we know what they say to be true on this issue, we've got to label them as insane perverts. Any attempt at rational discussion about youth sexuality and intergenerational sex is simply shouted down.”
Which may explain what happened in 1998, when a journal of the American Psychological Association published the results of a study of college students who, as youths, had been involved in sexual relationships with adults. The study found that the harm done was less than generally believed, and that some people-particularly males who had been involved in the relationships as teenagers-didn't view those relationships as abusive. In fact, many valued them. Finally, the study suggested that not all such instances should be automatically labeled as “abusive” and the youths involved as “victims.”
Predictably, Dr. Laura Schlessinger was aghast. So was the House of Representatives, which took the unusual step of condemning (by a 355-0 vote) a scientific study. The resolution's sponsor, Representative Matt Salmon of Arizona, called the study “the Emancipation Proclamation of pedophiles.” The APA, under intense pressure, distanced itself from the findings, saying it should have considered the “social policy implications” before publishing it.
“The reaction surprised us tremendously,” says Bruce Rind, one of the study's coauthors and an assistant professor of psychology at Temple University. “But I think it goes to the heart of the extent of America's current insane moral panic.”
That panic, argues James Kincaid, the author of Erotic Innocence: The Culture of Child Molesting, is a result of America's love-hate relationship with stories about gothic sexual demons. “If we didn't have NAMBLA, we would undoubtedly find a new national monster,” says Kincaid, an English professor at the University of Southern California. “We need an enemy, because the endless talk of child sex abuse allows us the vicarious, titillating thrill of talking about children and sex, while at the same time allowing us to shake our heads at someone else's depravity. And while we find a threat to loathe and deplore, we will continue to promote child sexuality [in entertainment], and we will continue to position at the center of our national desirability women Â— and sometimes men Â— who look 14 years old.”
As much as a 10-year-old can, Jeffrey Curley owned his East Cambridge neighborhood. Charming, mischievous, and always a handful, Jeffrey liked playing hockey and baseball, speeding around town on his bike, and bragging about his two older brothers and the many girls who invariably wanted him.
Still, on October 1, 1997, it was two young men-Charles Jaynes, 22, and Salvatore Sicari, 21 Â— who wanted Jeffrey Curley most. Jaynes was an auto detailer and lifelong outcast who was deeply disturbed by his obesity. He made occasional appearances at Boston-area gay-youth group meetings and became a NAMBLA member in 1996, receiving copies of the NAMBLA Bulletin, the group's quarterly magazine. In his diary, Jaynes wrote poetry about his love for boys.
Sicari was a pale, dark-haired house painter who lived near Jeffrey with his mother, two sisters, younger brother, and a stepfather he did not like. Nicknamed “Salvi,” he strutted through the blue-collar East Cambridge neighborhood wearing hooded sweatshirts and trying to act tough. Sicari could be violent, and in 1997 he confessed in court to beating his girlfriend. A year later, Sicari's 17-year-old brother, Robert, was found guilty of raping a 10-year-old boy he lured to a parking garage with the promise of a bike.
At about 3:15 p.m. on October 1, Jeffrey left his grandmother's house wearing a maroon and gold football jersey with the number “32” on it. Reportedly lured by the promise of a new bike, he joined Jaynes and Sicari in Jaynes' 1983 gray Cadillac, where several copies of the NAMBLA Bulletin were in an envelope behind the driver's seat.
The three drove to a grocery store in Newton. There, Sicari later told police, Jaynes dragged the 4-foot-7, 80-pound boy into the back seat and tried to sexually assault him. Jeffrey struggled to get away, police said, but the nearly 300-pound Jaynes sat on him, then suffocated Jeffrey with a gasoline-soaked rag. “Don't fight it, kid, don't fight it,” Jaynes told the boy, according to Sicari.
The pair drove to Jaynes' apartment in Manchester, New Hampshire, where Sicari says Jaynes sodomized the boy's dead body. They then stuffed the body into a container, drove to Maine, and dumped it from a bridge into the Great Works River. Two days later, Sicari correctly sensing that the Curley family suspected him, confessed his role to police but pinned the murder on Jaynes. Police charged both with kidnapping and murder.
The alleged act of necrophilia was quickly reported as fact, even though Maine's chief medical examiner found no evidence that the body had been sexually abused.
“It went from 'Sicari said' to 'police said' to simply being fact, and there wasn't a shred of evidence that it happened,” says Jaynes' attorney, Robert Jubinville. “The way the sexual aspect of this case played out in the press was absolutely ludicrous.”
The reports outraged the public. Declaring that Sicari and Jaynes “should not see the light again,” Governor Paul Cellucci joined a campaign to reinstate the death penalty, falling one vote shy (80-80) when a Democratic legislator changed his mind at the 11th hour. Sicari was eventually convicted of first-degree murder, while Jaynes got second degree. Because Jaynes had copies of the NAMBLA Bulletin in his car, NAMBLA quickly became a focus of the story. Sensing yet another PR disaster, the group issued this statement: “The alleged actions of these two individuals run absolutely contrary to everything we believe in and stand for. NAMBLA condemns the use of threat or violence against anyone.”
That did not appease the Curley family, which has filed a $200 million civil suit against NAMBLA Â— specifically, purported members Roy Radow, Joe Power, David Thorstad, David Miller, Peter Herman, Max Hunter, Bill Andriette, Denny Mintun, and Arnold Schoen, most of whom were singled out because they were listed in the NAMBLA Bulletin as part of its publishing collective.
The suit claims that, “As a direct and proximate result of the urging, advocacy, conspiring, and promoting of pedophile activity by . . . NAMBLA . . . Charles Jaynes became obsessed with having sex with and raping young children.”
Curley family attorney Larry Frisoli flatly compares NAMBLA to the Mafia. “NAMBLA is a criminal organization that teaches its members how to rape kids,” he says in a conversation in his Cambridge office. “To say that age-of-consent laws should be changed is fine; it's legal. But to actually encourage and assist in the abuse of children is illegal. If you look at The Godfather, in the '40s and '50s, the Corleones always got up there and said, 'We don't exist.' Yet they did exist. And NAMBLA does exist. And it has tiers of membership. And like the Mafia, the question becomes how much can you blame the Godfather for what the foot soldier on the street is doing?”
Many question the extent to which NAMBLA can be called a criminal organization, let alone one that resembles the Mafia. The FBI and local law-enforcement agencies have been trying for years to find NAMBLA in violation of laws against the sexual exploitation of children. The most organized attempt, which included a year of police infiltration in the mid 1980s, produced nothing, and the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations found that NAMBLA did not engage in criminal activity.
The Massachusetts chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which is defending NAMBLA, agrees. “This lawsuit is akin to someone getting killed by the permissive attitude of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll, and then suing Rolling Stone for creating a climate when the murder was possible,” says John Reinstein, the lead ACLU attorney on the case. “NAMBLA is not the Mafia.”
On a hot and sunny Sunday afternoon in San Francisco, NAMBLA the Clown sits on the stage at the Folsom Street Fair, a popular and eclectic yearly gathering of leather daddies, bondage lovers, drag queens, ravers, and curious gay suburbanites. NAMBLA the Clown looks exactly like he said he would: Hell Raiser after a messy shopping spree at the Home Depot. He wears a heavy black robe, eight-inch mirrored platform boots, pushpins in his head (complete with fake blood), and black make-up to accentuate harsh black eyebrows.
The self-described “post-modern joke that dare not speak its name,” NAMBLA the Clown is actually a real person. His name is Ggreg Taylor (he spells it with three Gs), and he is a celebrity of sorts in San Francisco's artistic gay circles. “There are two things that really scare people in this world: NAMBLA and clowns,” he says, sweating, as he leans over the side of the stage. “So, being the twisted guy I am, I thought I would combine them and create some real mental havoc. Unfortunately, I am a joke that a lot of people don't get. Some people think I am in bad taste.”
Many of those people are gay people. Standing next to a booth selling X-rated videos, vibrators, and glow-in-the-dark dildos, a young man wearing only tight leather shorts says, “NAMBLA has no place in gay culture. Gay culture celebrates everything, as long as it is consensual. Fucking kids is not consensual.”
The Folsom Street Fair is a collection of gay culture's fringiest elements, and there was a time when NAMBLA shared a place at their table. That table is the freaks' table, where everyone not quite ready for prime-time television has taken a back seat to a mainstream gay movement concerned with looking respectable, and all-American, and decidedly not after the little boy next door.
In the early '90s, the gay community watched in horror as the Christian right used NAMBLA's presence in gay-pride marches to attack gay-rights legislation and tell Americans that homosexuals were after their kids. The tactic worked. “Starting in 1994, it would have been easier for Jerry Falwell to march in a gay-pride parade than for NAMBLA,” says Echols, the anti-pedophile crusader.
Today, as gay organizations fight for the rights of gays to marry and adopt, they officially condemn NAMBLA. Even XY, the national magazine for young men that champions teen sexuality and argues for a lowering of the age of consent, published an opinion piece by writer Karen Ocamb in 1998 that dripped with anti-NAMBLA anger: “I watched the NAMBLA creeps [at the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots] rub their hands in glee. . . . My skin crawled as these pasty-white, nerdy, hunched-over men scurried away from my tape recorder like cockroaches afraid of the light. . . . These men aren't gay, and we mustn't let them co-opt our movement. . . . They are simply perverts who like to fuck children, using the gay community as a Trojan horse to storm the barricades of legitimacy.”
Gay bookstores are putting up barricades of their own, choosing not to carry the NAMBLA Bulletin for the first time in the organization's history. At Giovanni's Room in Philadelphia, the store's owner, Ed Hermance, says he pulled the NAMBLA Bulletin off the shelves last year after his staff threatened to strike if he didn't.
“I think it's a strange day for gay culture when we start banning something because it makes us uncomfortable,” Hermance says. “Especially when that thing is a foundation of gay literature. If we pulled all the books that had adult-youth sexual themes, we wouldn't have many novels, memoirs, or biographies left.”
The shirtless kid has a huge smile on his face. After all, he's years away from puberty, about 7 or 8 years old, but he's already shaving. He has a razor in one hand and a glob of shaving cream in the other. He looks happy.
Two shirtless boys stand on a beach. The older boy, about 12 or 13, has spiky brown hair and a surfboard tucked under his right arm. He's talking to the younger boy, who looks about 8 and is holding a toy shovel in his right hand.
Those are two of the images from the October issue of the NAMBLA Bulletin. The Bulletin publishes news pieces, opinions, semi-erotic short stories, and pictures of boys, most of whom have not reached puberty.
“I never felt very comfortable with how the Bulletin had pictures of so many young kids,” says Steve, the NAMBLA founder from an eastern city. “I felt that it was politically stupid.”
NAMBLA members have long disagreed over what they are and what kind of unified front they should show the public. Socrates insists that the group is made up of a majority of pederasts (as NAMBLA defines them, people attracted to boys in or after puberty) and a minority of pedophiles (people attracted to prepubescent children). Yet the Bulletin has rarely reflected that, angering many of NAMBLA's members.
“The Bulletin is turning into a semi-pornographic jerk-off mag for pedophiles,” NAMBLA cofounder David Thorstad wrote in a December 1996 letter to the magazine. “Has the Bulletin forgotten that NAMBLA has always consisted not only of pedophiles, but also of pederasts? In fact, were it not for the pederasts, there would never have been a NAMBLA. . . . What has happened to the political goals of NAMBLA, which are to struggle for sexual freedom and liberation, not merely for the right of dirty old men to get their vicarious jollies?”
The Bulletin's then-editor, Mike Merisi, replied angrily in print: “I well remember visiting Mr. Thorstad's NYC apartment in the early '70s, and viewing in his library books and magazines . . . [that] featured nude boys apparently between 6 and 16, and I can assume Mr. Thorstad has since shredded these artifacts of our culture, at which time he became a good pederast, only interested in age-appropriate teens, leaving the rest of us bad 'pedophiles' behind, in much the same way as the larger gay movement left him.”
Nearly every year at NAMBLA's annual convention, a small faction requested that the organization decide on an age at which the group believed a boy could give consent. Every year, NAMBLA chose not to do so.
“Politically, we made a disastrous choice,” says Socrates. “We were going to lose with that choice, and we did, big time. And while we could have said, 'Okay, we favor an age of consent at 12 or 14,' that goes against our philosophy that the important issues to consider are coercion, manipulation, and ultimately violence, not age. We hoped we could strike a blow to the core of the problems in society. Philosophically, we know we made the right choice.”
The right choice? To everybody except NAMBLA, that choice was dumbfounding both politically and philosophically. “They lost everybody who might have supported them by arguing that [prepubescent kids] can consent to sex with adults,” says Savage, the sex columnist. “The problem with NAMBLA is that it packages reasonable arguments about teen sexuality and age-of-consent laws with irrational, insane arguments about 7-year-olds. That's why the group is where it is today.”
And that's why some NAMBLA members wonder if any of this was worth it.
“I sometimes ask myself whether organizing NAMBLA was a good thing to do,” says Steve. “Because I do wonder if things would be as bad today if we hadn't organized, or if we had tried to approach this topic in an entirely different way. Did we create the backlash? [Socrates] says that we didn't, that the forces of repression didn't need us to bring us where we are today. I don't know. I hope he's right.”