Sunday, October 26, 2008

jim nickoff: in memoriam

recently i found out from a college friend that one of our mutual friends died at his ranch in woodside, california on december 16, 2007. jim nickoff, a founding equality california board member, ended his life on that day with a gunshot wound to the head. he was 44 and served as served as eqca’s treasurer for the five years preceding his suicide. creating the entire financial structure for that organization, he helped manage those systems as it grew (from about $180,000 to just under $4 million). jim was a key player in the financial success of gay civil rights organizations and several political campaigns—including those of barbara boxer, mark leno, harry britt, angela aliotto, leslie katz and a host of others. in addition to his work on those campaigns, he served in financial positions with the national task force on aids prevention, project open hand, pacific business group on health, the federation of gay games, and the harvey milk lgbt democratic club.

born and raised in lansing, michigan, jim attended michigan state university and earned a bachelor's degree in accounting there in 1987, and pursued graduate studies in business administration at golden gate university. it is in lansing that I got to know jim—he lived a couple of doors down from me in a heavily student neighborhood off campus. on thanksgiving weekend 1980, i took jim on his first excursion to a bathhouse: we drove down to detroit to the tnt in those more innocent days before aids overshadowed the very act of making love.

after bruce, my friend in long beach, told me about jim, i “googled” him, and was so pleased and grateful that jim’s commitment to the community was so recognized and appreciated. i still appreciate the kindness that he showed me. what, i wondered, could make him feel so hopeless that he would put a gun to his head? unfortunately, i don’t have to go far for the answer. here he had survived the worst darkness of the aids epidemic, and had lived to see so much progress. sad to say, he is not unique in that. in many ways, i think those of us who felt we didn’t “measure up,” never get over our scarred self-images. jim came out at the age of 15 in the late 1970’s, which was an amazing thing for such a young person to do—no matter where you lived. jim was forced to confront so much anti-gay bigotry so soon. he was kicked out of his home at 15 and had to work as a dishwasher and do odd jobs to survive and put a roof over his head. there was no “will and grace” or “ellen.” how can that not have a horrible impact? while our stories are quite different, i can identify full well with jim’s feelings.

when I graduated from msu in june 1982, i circulated an autograph book among friends, acquaintances, and political colleagues. jim’s entry was short: “from the tubs [referring to our bathhouse excursion] to the ms dance.” the latter referred to the dance-a-thon sponsored by delta tau delta fraternity to raise funds for multiple sclerosis research. because they excluded same-sex couples jim and i were part of a large lesbian and gay dance-in to protest that policy. jim was not the only gay man in that autograph book to commit suicide: i know of at least two others. that doesn’t even include those of us lost to aids and murder.

there are two group photographs in my album that include jim and me. they speak volumes about his bravery and commitment. one was taken in may 1981 at the east lansing police station. a host of joe six-packs attempted to violate a large party celebrating msu lesbian & gay pride week: we fought back and filed charges against the rabble. one of our compatriots showed his bruises in the photo. the other was taken in october 1987 at the march on washington for lesbian and gay rights. we were all smiling and holding a large michigan flag.

however, jim will always loom large in my heart for standing up for me [with another mutual friend named phil] in early spring 1982. in the winter of that year, a bunch of us took on the thankless task of reorganizing msu’s lesbian/gay council [now called the lgbt alliance]—complete with a new, and very thorough, constitution. we unveiled the new structure at the beginning of that spring term—including provisions for two at-large board members. the director of the council appointed his boyfriend to the at-large male position. as an outgoing senior, i had hoped for that position. while saying nothing, i was crushed. the next morning i received an outraged phone call from jim, who was furious at what happened. his call to the director must have worked. in less than two hours i was named to the position. i’ll never forget his kindness, sensitivity, and willingness to jump into the fray. when I visited east lansing in the spring of 1986, jim came to where I was staying and woke me up with his usual beaming smile.

reading the obits about jim in san francisco newspapers, i learned that he was a talented athlete who had won several medals in martial arts at the 1994 gay games in new York, 1998 gay games in amsterdam, and the 2002 gay games in sydney. he had black belts in the martial arts of hapkido (3rd degree), tangsoodo (2nd degree), and taekwondo (1st degree)—and taught martial arts to youth. it was during the period of the gay games in new york (which coincided with the stonewall 25 celebrations) that I last saw jim. he was on the other side of a very large crowd, and I wasn’t able to say “hello.”

jim was survived by his partner, dave lawson. i was pleased to find out that he and his partner were the seventh couple married at san francisco city hall during those frenetic days in february 2004 when mayor gavin newsom jump-started the fight for marriage equality in a “winter of love.” in celebration of jim’s life, the jim nickoff student internship fund was started in care of the equality california institute. the internship will provide lgbt youth, who too often suffer isolation when coming out in high school, an opportunity to connect with the community.