As Remembered by Roy Birchard
I have a clear memory that in the two years I was active in the New York Gay Activists Alliance (1970 – 1972 when Howard Wells dragged me out of it) Arthur ran for president twice and was defeated twice by Jim Owles. With Marty Robinson, Arthur was one of our two predominant media GAA faces and was ubiquitous at all the famous GAA zaps and all the cutting-edge stuff that they did. And in addition he wanted to be the GAA president, but the members wouldn’t elect him.
And the reasoning as I heard it back then was that Arthur was “just too extreme.” And I go beyond that myself to say that there was an element of divine madness in his public performances. In a way, his ferocity was a great thing for us, but in another way he sometimes seemed mentally unbalanced. And the GAA members preferred the calm and sober and uncharismatic Jim Owles as president even while they/we were happy to follow Arthur and Marty around doing public zaps. And then Bruce Voeller and Jean O’Leary led a schism from GAA to the National Task Force and firmly rejected the unruly activist mode of performance.
Which leads us to the god Dionysius and Arthur’s affinity for him. In the 1980s after I came to San Francisco I read several books by Jungian Christians, particularly a book on Dionysius by Robert Johnson, then an Episcopal priest and Jungian therapist in San Diego. You can’t read that book and Arthur’s book about Dionysius and whatever else you can lay your hands on about that scary Greek deity and not be impressed with how appropriate an interpreter -- and maybe even priest of Dionysius -- Arthur himself was.
Since 1988 I have been living at Hayes Street & Ashbury, four blocks north and on the other side of the Panhandle of Golden Gate Park, a neighborhood that is safely out of the Haight proper, but I have been buying produce and groceries in those years at a market actually on Haight Street and plowing through the global tourist and druggie crowds as they flash their cameras and post at the street corner. And I have been grateful all that time that I lived where I did, and I do actually understand why Arthur’s location really drove him over the edge – an edge to which, like a good Dionysian, he was clinging with some insecurity.
If you read books about the god Dionysius, you will read that he is the Greek god of wine and madness and his followers, the Bacchae, are crazy ladies who can sometimes eat people alive. Arthur’s curse, if you will, was that as a good Dionysian he landed an apartment at Ground Zero of Dionysiandom in the City of St. Francis, the world-famous home of drugs and sex and madness. And then he couldn’t afford to move away!!! So in his rants in letters to the editor Arthur was raging against the shadow side of the religion of which he himself was interpreter and maybe even priest! The god Dionysius is a powerful and terrible god who drives his followers insane. I fear that Arthur got his divine wish to live at Ground Zero of where all that happens and he himself was drawn to live out the myth.
In all the time I was acquainted with Arthur, both when we were young and in the 20+ years we were kind-of neighbors on the 33 Stanyan bus, I never knew Arthur to hold down a job. In New York he was a Ph.D. student for a degree he never finished and here [San Francisco] he mysteriously survived without visible means of support. For a long time after I came here I assumed he must be a trust fund baby given his attitudes toward the homeless poor. But the parental situation described in the obituary doesn’t sound like that, nor is there mention in later years of his financial patron when young. Which raises the possibility at least to me that maybe he was living on SSI disability – something that if true, he would never have wanted to admit publicly. And I mean SSI disability due to mental illness.
You may think I have gone WAY OVERBOARD mythologizing this situation, but I assure you Arthur was very much part of my own education about his deity, the city of St. Francis and its role in American LGBT life and I regard the avatar Arthur with fondness, fear and awe. When I met him in New York he was a graduate student at Columbia working on a Ph.D. degree on the theology of the theologian Dionysius the Pseudo -Areopagite. But he never finished it, because along the way he met the real Dionysius!