Eric Rofes, who was instrumental in starting a queer studies program at Humboldt State University, was among 50 LGBTQ leaders recognized at the end of June when a new national LGBTQ Wall of Honor was unveiled at the historic Stonewall Inn in New York City.
Two of the oldest LGBTQ organizations in the nation — the International Imperial Courts of the USA and the National LGBTQ Task Force — dedicated the wall June 27, honoring notable people who fought for LGBTQ rights.
“This National LGBTQ Wall of Honor will remind our community whose shoulders we stand on and the pioneers, trailblazers and heroes of our civil rights movement,” said National LGBTQ Wall of Honor founder Nicole Murray Ramirez. “Indeed, a movement that does not know where it came from does not really know where it’s going.”
Rofes — whose legacy includes a queer multicultural center at Humboldt State that bears his name — was called by an HSU provost “one of Humboldt State’s best and brightest faculty members.”
But he was much more than that.
He was a prolific author with more than a dozen books to his name. He chronicled the AIDS crisis that gripped gay America in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. He also covered its aftermath. He led several LGBTQ organizations, including the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center in the 1980s and the Shanti Project, an AIDS organization in San Francisco. And he was passionate about sharing LGBTQ knowledge with the next generation.
Todd Larsen, one of the founders of Queer Humboldt, said he feels lucky to call Rofes a friend and notes that Rofes helped pass along knowledge about activism that helped the local group fight for change in Humboldt County.
“He was such a great mentor,” said Larsen. “He was helping my partner with the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. He was instrumental in coaching us in activism.”
He also said he had no idea what an impact Rofes made on the world under he attended Rofes’ funeral in 2006.
“I had no idea how important he was until he died,” Larsen said Wednesday. “He died writing a book on a sabbatical on the East Coast. So I went to his memorial in San Francisco. I saw Equality California, I saw all these names we’d seen in print and they were all there. I thought, ‘This guy must have been someone.’ “
Rofes’ colleague Christina Accomando, who teaches women’s studies and multicultural queer studies at Humboldt State, said he left a lasting legacy.
“One of his really visionary achievements happened right here at HSU,” she said in an email. “Eric brought together diverse faculty, students, staff and community members to create a groundbreaking interdisciplinary minor program in Multicultural Queer Studies. The MQS program was the first of its kind in the nation, designed as a rigorous academic program and as a space to build intellectual, emotional and political community across all sorts of differences.”
She added the program was used as a model across the country for queer studies.
“This dynamic minor program helped to pave the way for HSU’s Department of Critical Race, Gender and Sexuality Studies, which was formed after his death but owes much to his vision of intersectional analysis and fusing academia and activism,” she said.
She described Rofes as someone with contagious enthusiasm who had “a rare combination of revolutionary vision and down-to-earth pragmatism.”
Rofes place on the wall of honor is among many of the heroes of the LGBTQ rights fight from all walks of life. The list includes notables such as artist Keith Haring, poet Audre Lorde, slain San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, and Masha P. Johnson, who played a critical role in the fight for rights as a part of the Stonewall riots themselves.
Rofes, himself, referred to the work done by all as heroic.
“I love that he saw the daily grind of community activism as heroic,” said Accomando. “Eric believed fervently in the possibility of social change and institutional transformation. He also knew it doesn’t happen overnight. It takes commitment over the long haul, the ongoing hard work of organizing, and the often uncomfortable engagement in genuine coalition building. This work can be frustrating and thankless. But Eric knew it was also heroic. And he knew we could all be heroes.”
It seems fitting he is recognized as one of the heroes.
“I want to be a voice affirming the value and heroism of long-term commitment to democratic processes of community organizing,” he said in a speech that is often quoted. “We may hate the endless meetings, be sick of licking envelopes, feel frustrated working across different identities and political visions, and be drained by community cannibalism, but we’ve got to continue doing the work.”
OUTspoken publishes (mostly) weekly in the Times-Standard. Ruth Schneider can be reached at 707-441-0520.