Writer and activist Stephen Donaldson was born Robert A.
Martin, Jr. on July 27, 1946 in Norfolk, Virginia. The son of a career naval
officer, his childhood was spent in numerous seaport cities of the eastern
United States, as well as in Germany. His parents divorced when he was seven
years old, and he lived for periods of time in a boarding school and with his
grandparents. While attending high school in Long Branch, New Jersey, Donaldson
acknowledged his sexual attraction to a male classmate and shortly afterwards
decided to "come out" as gay. In the summer of 1965 he ran
away from his mother's home in Florida to New York City, where he met leaders of
the Mattachine Society of New York, an early gay rights organization. Attracted by the relatively permissive
sexual atmosphere of New York, he enrolled at Columbia University.
As a college student, Donaldson was a founding member of the Student
Homophile League (later re-named Gay People at Columbia-Barnard) and was active
in the North American Conference of Homophile Organizations. He was a
participant in the spring 1968 student uprising on the Columbia campus.
Donaldson worked during his college summers as a reporter for the Associated
Press and Virginia Pilot and as a legislative intern in the offices of U.S.
Representatives Howard H. Callaway (Republican, Georgia) and Donald E. Lukens
(Republican, Ohio). He also traveled widely across the United States, often as a
hitchhiker. In diary entries and letters written during these years he described
his political radicalization, his experiments with marijuana and LSD and his
sexual encounters with men and women. Inspired by many aspects of the sexual
revolution of the late-1960s, Donaldson increasingly identified himself as
bisexual. He began to publish short articles and poems in gay publications,
occasionally under the pen name Stephen Donaldson. (Though he never legally
changed his name, he increasingly chose to identify himself by this pseudonym,
particularly during the 1980s-90s.)
After his 1970 graduation from Columbia, Donaldson enlisted in the U.S. Navy.
He shipped to Italy, where he served as a radioman on a NATO base. At this time
Donaldson also became a practicing Buddhist and explored the religious
traditions of the Society of Friends, also known as Quakers. In 1971 the Navy
announced its intention to release him by General Discharge on grounds of
suspected homosexual involvement. Donaldson mounted an unprecedented public
campaign against his discharge, and won the support of U.S. Congress members
Bella Abzug and Edward I. Koch. Though he lost this fight and was released in
June 1972, he later won an upgrade to Honorable Discharge.
Donaldson settled in the Washington D.C. area and worked as Pentagon
correspondent for the Overseas Weekly, a privately owned newspaper
distributed to American servicemen stationed in Europe. He became increasingly
active with the Quakers, and would eventually lead the group's bisexual caucus.
In 1973 he was arrested at a Quaker peace protest at the White House, and was
subsequently raped by inmates in the Washington D.C. jail. This experience, and
incidents which occurred during later stints in prison, led to his outspoken
activism on the issue of sexual victimization of male prisoners, most notably
with the organizations People Organized to Stop the Rape of Imprisoned Persons
and Stop Prisoner Rape.
From 1974-77 Donaldson did graduate work in religion at Columbia University,
and served as Chairman of the Student Governing Board of the Earl Hall Center
for Religion and Life. In May 1976 he was ordained as a novice monk in the
orthodox (Theravada) Buddhist Order. During the late-1970s Donaldson worked
intermittently as a developer of war simulation games and immersed himself in
New York's punk rock subculture, centered on the CBGB nightclub in downtown
Manhattan. Several personal tragedies, including the 1976 suicide of his mother,
contributed to bouts of psychological depression. In March 1980,
poverty-stricken and ill, Donaldson was arrested in a Bronx Veterans
Administration hospital on a charge of assault with a dangerous weapon. He was
convicted on other felony counts and served nearly four years in federal prison.
Donaldson was paroled in April 1984, and settled again in New York City.
During the 1980s-90s, Donaldson volunteered as a counselor to male victims of
sexual assault, and spoke out publicly in a wide variety of forums on the issue
of prisoner rape. In 1987-88 he visited India and was there initiated in the
Veerashaiva tradition of Shaivite Hinduism. This trip constituted a parole
violation, and resulted in another term in federal prison during 1990. In 1992
Donaldson visited Europe to meet punk rock musicians and fans and to lecture on
the American punk scene. Throughout this period he advanced his career as an
editor and writer. His short essays on such topics as punk rock, prison
conditions, Buddhism and sexuality appeared in numerous magazines and
underground publications, often under the byline "Donny the Punk." Donaldson was
assistant editor of the Encyclopedia of Homosexuality (1990) and
co-editor, with Wayne Dynes, of the thirteen-volume Studies in
Homosexuality (1994). During his last years he served as
editor-in-chief of the Concise Encyclopedia of Homosexuality, a major
revision of the 1990 Encyclopedia. His publisher cancelled the project
just a few months after the manuscript was completed. Stephen Donaldson died of
an AIDS-related illness in New York City on July 18, 1996.
(This biographical statement written for the Stephen
Donaldson Collection, Manuscripts and Archives Division, Humanities and Social
Sciences Library, New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations. All