Remembering Jeffrey Escoffier, Queer Socialist Pioneer

With Jeffrey Escoffier’s passing this week, the world has lost a great thinker who took sex as seriously as politics and never lost sight of their intimate connections. Farewell to a titan of the queer socialist left.

Jeffrey Escoffier was a brilliant public intellectual at the center of radical queer politics and thought.

Reading and cruising, Jeffrey Escoffier once wrote, “are not such dissimilar techniques.” Both require sustained and dialectical interpretive practices, and he enjoyed them both greatly. He forged this connection while doing both in the mid-1960s: devouring the entire corpus of sexual sociology while pursuing the pleasures of the flesh in New York City’s Washington Square Park.

With Escoffier’s passing this week, the world has lost a major thinker of the queer socialist left and a pioneering scholar of sexuality, one who took sex as seriously as politics and never lost sight of their intimate connections. Modeling an engaged, community-based scholarship from the dawn of gay liberation to the development of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), Escoffier was a brilliant public intellectual at the center of radical queer politics and thought.

Gay (Marxist) Liberation

Born in 1942 and raised on Staten Island, Escoffier’s dyslexia prevented him from reading until the age of ten, but books and sex marked his teen years. He was just in time to ride the waves of the ’60s, and he did so with gusto. High on Kerouac, Burroughs, and amphetamines, he hitchhiked to Mexico in the summer of 1963 and then enlisted, bodily and intellectually, in the cause of the sexual revolution after discovering the work of Herbert Marcuse and Norman O. Brown.

Coming out was a process. He began graduate school at Columbia and, by 1967, recalled “roam[ing] the East Village holding hands with a man,” but only after the June 1969 Stonewall rebellion did he publicly adopt the word gay (“I had long known that I was queer — that is, a homosexual,” he wrote). Moving to Philadelphia in 1970 to study economic history, he brought with him a great deal of theoretical knowledge but little practical activist experience, which didn’t stop him from stumbling into the presidency of the local Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) chapter.

These were the heady early years of gay liberation, inspired by the militance of the Black Panther Party, the anti-imperialism of the antiwar movement, and the anti-capitalist analysis of modern social relations. But Philly was different from New York or San Francisco, smaller and less anonymous. The GAA led the city’s first gay pride march in 1972, near Rittenhouse Square, and Jeffrey later recalled claiming the public sphere as “one of the most exhilarating things I’ve ever done.” In the spirit of the times, they also held “zaps” against homophobes, pushed for a municipal antidiscrimination ordinance, and held dances and other social events.

Jeffrey helped found the Gay Alternative in 1972, and in the paper’s opening editorial, he declared coming out “an essential political act.” Its rich coverage included everything from politics to sports to a 1974 cover featuring John Waters’s film star Divine, but his most sustained theme was always socialism and sexual liberation. A long 1975 article on Oscar Wilde’s politics — “The Homosexual as Artist as Socialist” — passionately argued for the need to include Wilde in the history of the gay left, even as it criticized his reductive vision of politics as a matter of aesthetics.

As the feverish burst of post-Stonewall radicalism subsided in the face of a more reformist gay and lesbian politics, being a gay Marxist could be lonely. Escoffier cobbled together one issue of Gay People in the Labor Force in 1974, and it might have been a landmark periodical, had anyone read it. By 1976, when he put up a poster for a gay Marxist study group, only one person attended.

Toward a Materialist History of Sexuality

In the late 1970s, Jeffrey moved to San Francisco, where he joined the founding cohort of the San Francisco Lesbian and Gay History Project, which also included Allan Bérubé, Amber Hollibaugh, Gayle Rubin, and other important thinkers of the queer left. The project was marked by a commitment to public and community-based history rather than work walled off in an ivory tower, and it eventually formed one of the bases of the still active GLBT Historical Society.

He also became executive editor of Socialist Review for most of the 1980s, publishing numerous pieces about queer politics and the AIDS crisis, alongside familiar names such as Barbara Ehrenreich, Noam Chomsky, and Winona LaDuke, and cutting-edge leftist work such as an early iteration of Michael Omi and Howard Winant’s theory of racial formation. One of Escoffier’s own signature pieces appeared there in 1985. “Sexual Revolution and the Politics of Gay Identity” offers a still useful synthesis of the genealogy of thought on the emergence of gay identity, locating the sharpest analysis firmly within the gay left. Generous in his citations — to sociologist Mary McIntosh, the British Gay Left collective, historian John D’Emilio’s landmark “Capitalism and Gay Identity” (1979), and more — Escoffier also brought his training in economic history to bear on the history.

Noting that sexologist Alfred Kinsey’s infamous 1948 and 1953 reports on human sexual behavior carried enormous effects on gay and lesbian visibility, he also argued for “the sexual contradictions of Keynesianism” as a key structural factor in the development of queer communities. Basically, the US welfare state was intended to shore up the traditional patriarchal family of breadwinner capitalism, but the “affluence and consumption ethic” that accompanied it simultaneously undermined the stability of the nuclear family by affording unprecedented individual sexual freedom. These are classical Marxist dialectics in action, but it was an important intervention to insist on such structural causes alongside the cultural.

Another of what I consider Jeffrey’s most crucial works builds on this theme. “The Political Economy of the Closet: Toward an Economic History of Gay and Lesbian Life Before Stonewall,” written about a decade later, ambitiously confronts what was then an almost complete absence of archives. Paraphrasing Gwen Verdon from Damn Yankees and building an analytic framework from “a little thisa, a little data,” Escoffier charts “the high cost of a double life” in what he calls the “closet economy” of the Cold War era — costs that were not only psychic (though certainly that too) but also profoundly material.

It’s impossible to precisely quantify the career costs, for instance, of the workplace rapport lost by not discussing partners, vacations, etc., around the office watercooler, but they were clearly significant. Likewise, the need for protection — either mafia, police payola, or both — for gay bars, bathhouses, and bookstores during that period of intense criminalization also redirected the majority of community spending away from the community itself, keeping it shackled to extortion. The urban “gay ghettos” (as they were then conceptualized) of the 1970s had deeper roots, but could only fully emerge when the post-Stonewall liberation economy replaced the closet, Escoffier contended.

After leaving Socialist Review, Escoffier helped found OUT/LOOK, a national gay and lesbian quarterly that ran from 1988 to 1992. This period witnessed the coalescence of queer as a radical oppositional identity emanating out of AIDS activism, and also queer theory as an intellectual project dedicated to dismantling heteronormativity, and OUT/LOOK, perhaps better than any other venue, captured these shifts.

Jeffrey had always maintained an inside-outside relationship with academia, teaching everywhere from Berkeley and Barnard to Rutgers-Newark at various points, but always as contingent faculty; he primarily supported himself as an editor, literary agent, and, after moving East in 1993, director of health media and marketing at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, from which he retired in 2015. So he saw OUT/LOOK as a public sphere connecting the academy and the community, and it was careful to include diverse multiracial voices from across the queer spectrum. Its first issue bore a cover image of Gladys Bentley, the black Harlem Renaissance–era “bulldagger who sang the blues,” and the opening editorial statement declared, “OUT/LOOK is committed to building a bridge between worlds which have often been quite separate.” (A valuable digital archive allows us to experience the vibrant text and layout of the magazine).

Jeffrey recognized and respected the intellectual rigor of queer theory and understood the ways its hyperintellectual prose served as necessary social capital to legitimize LGBTQ Studies in still hostile university settings. But in a controversial 1990 OUT/LOOK article, “Inside the Ivory Tower,” he rued the ways an overly sophisticated (and perhaps sometimes sophistic) harnessing of Lacanian psychoanalytic tropes, Michel Foucault’s biopolitics, and other staples of the early works of Eve Sedgwick, Judith Butler, and others shut down connections to the organic intellectual and political work of LGBTQ communities, which had driven landmark works by Cherríe Moraga, Barbara Smith, and others. He lamented a generational divide between Stonewall-era queer thinkers and the more professionalized, theoretical, and arguably more bourgeois drivers of queer theory.

Escoffier’s call for a more democratic intellectual culture was “gossiped and grouched about,” making him persona non grata in some circles. Even the usually gracious Sedgwick belittled him as “anti-intellectual.” But his critique was in good faith and still reverberates. By focusing “too exclusively on the discursive aspects of knowledge or power and not enough on political and economic domination,” as Jeffrey wrote, queer theory risks profoundly misapprehending the actual historical operations of power — and indeed, at its most glib, when it examines cultural representations without attention to the labor behind them, inadvertently sets the stage for today’s noxious neoliberal intersectionality-minus-class. This remains a productive site of debate, and the gauntlet that Jeffrey threw down in 1990 was taken up thirty years later by, among others, Matt Brim in his valuable book Poor Queer Studies: Confronting Elitism in the Academy.

Porn Work as Work

Perhaps in part due to the social fallout of his critique, Jeffrey became something of an academic nomad in the 1990s, but continued publishing prolifically. A 1998 sociological article reflected the high stakes of these debates over power and knowledge by meticulously theorizing the invention of “safer sex” in the 1980s as the product not just of epidemiological research but also the vernacular community knowledge of gay men’s sexual wisdom, forged as much in bathhouses as conference panels. Indeed, ever the public intellectual, Escoffier put these arguments into practice in his public-health work.

Much of Jeffrey’s later work focused on gay male pornography, and here, too, he brought a Marxist lens to a field then dominated by film theory. He was always a bit frustrated by his 2009 book Bigger Than Life, which was rushed to production by a trade press more interested in salacious anecdotes than ideological analysis, though it still remains the go-to citation on post-Stonewall gay male erotic cinema. More expressive of his ambitions were the series of scholarly articles collected in Sex, Society, and the Making of Pornography: The Pornographic Object of Knowledge (2021), which revolve around questions of labor: straight men shooting “gay-for-pay,” gendered wage discrepancies, and the increasing need for twenty-first-century porn performers to diversify income streams with stripping, escorting, etc. I am not doing anything near justice to the nuance and complexity of these pieces — my favorite of which tracks 1970s gay hardcore “homo-realist” films as effectively accidental documentaries of style, affect, and sexual imagination — but long before most academics in porn studies or elsewhere were taking sex work seriously, Jeffrey was laying the foundation for important later work such as Mireille Miller-Young’s A Taste for Brown Sugar: Black Women in Pornography or Heather Berg’s Porn Work: Sex, Labor, and Late Capitalism.

It was through our shared work in porn studies that I came to befriend Jeffrey, and for several years before the pandemic began, he hosted a monthly salon at his Brooklyn apartment that he loved to call the “Tupperware party for perverts,” bringing together a comradely group of scholars and occasional porn workers. One memorable meeting happened at the home of Jerry Douglas, director of the gay-liberation hardcore hit The Back Row (1972), and another time I hosted in my hometown of Newark, taking the group on an excursion to the Little Theatre, one of the last (now closed) adult theaters in the New York City metro area.

I was able to witness Jeffrey’s generous and loving mentorship to a host of graduate students, who will carry on his intellectual legacy. Christopher Mitchell, whose dissertation on gay markets and late capitalism built on Escoffier’s frameworks, calls him a “surrogate parent,” and spent May Day sitting with Jeffrey in hospice care. He was taken there from the ICU, where he spent several weeks after taking a hard fall at home that left him comatose. He never awoke, but he had a steady string of visitors that taxed the hospital’s two-daily quota. On my visit, I read aloud to him from some of his classic essays quoted here, marveling at what a rich body of work he leaves behind.

Indeed, I am certain that Jeffrey would agree that the best way to honor him is to dig into his writing and find something to debate, or something that moves you to action. His final years were a flurry of productivity, spurred on by the sustenance he took from what he called “the company, the intelligence, and the beauty” that his companion Hector Lionel brought to his life. A fruitful collaboration with Jeffrey Patrick Colgan generated a number of works (I was fortunate enough to work with them on a chapter for the collection Intimate States); for the gay communist magazine Pinko, he wrote on COVID-19 and capitalism; and several works remain forthcoming, including a scholarly collection about PrEP.

The vision animating all of this, from the early 1970s through works not yet published, was his belief in the necessity of a “radical democratic coalition” that is “open, pluralistic, and practical,” where identity politics coexist with mass movements and intellectual work with community practices. It’s the only way we will ever achieve a just society, and Jeffrey Escoffier’s life and work ensured that socialism would be just a little more queer, and queerness more materialist. Farewell to a titan of the queer socialist left.

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Whitney Strub is the author of Perversion for Profit: The Politics of Pornography and the Rise of the New Right. He teaches history at Rutgers University-Newark and is a proud member of the Rutgers AAUP-AFT and North New Jersey Democratic Socialists of America.

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