The boy-lover next door
Meet the new face of NAMBLA: A 30-year old Bostonian who looks and talks like a bookish grad studentby Michael Lowenthal
Bill Andriette pedals up to Espresso Royale, a student hangout near Northeastern University, and locks his bike to a NO PARKING sign. When I offer my hand in introduction he shakes it, but his bashful smile is that of a kid embarrassed to be included in such formalities of the grown-up world. His faded peace-symbol T-shirt is untucked, his black hair shagged from the summer ride.
Inside, we order tea and cookies and look for a place to sit. I expect Andriette to choose a corner table, private enough for the hushed tones I'm sure are required for our discussion topic, but he picks one in the center of the crowded café. He sips from his mug. He could be anyone.
"If pedophiles looked more like Bill Andriette," wrote Jesse Green in a 1994 Out magazine article on NAMBLA, the North American Man-Boy Love Association, " . . . we would be more tempted to tolerate them."
Face-to-face with Andriette for the first time, I'm inclined to agree with Green's assessment. Thirty years old, with thick wire-rimmed glasses that magnify his lambent eyes, Andriette reminds me of the bookish grad students my parents used to hire as babysitters. The longtime NAMBLA spokesperson -- and past editor of the NAMBLA Bulletin -- couldn't be further from the overweight, beady-eyed, raincoated stranger who haunts America's nightmares.
But then perhaps Bill Andriette is America's worst nightmare: an unapologetic boy-lover who looks like the boy next door.
If there were unpopularity contests for organizations, NAMBLA would surely be an odds-on favorite. The sex offender, it seems, is the monster du jour for America's police chiefs and politicians. Witness the new class of sex-offender statutes -- particularly "Megan's Law," under which the offender's address and other "relevant information" can be publicly disseminated by police. The Massachusetts version of the law took effect on October 1.
In this atmosphere, NAMBLA -- as the only group in America explicitly devoted to the rights of adults sexually attracted to youth -- is a constant target of condemnation. The organization has been under FBI surveillance for years (although it has never been found in violation of any law). Its meetings have been disrupted by death-threat-shouting picketers. In 1994, when Jesse Helms learned that NAMBLA was a member of the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA), which in turn held "consultative status" at the United Nations, he proposed a bill to cut all US funding for the UN unless NAMBLA was expelled; the measure passed the US Senate 99-0.
But it's not just social conservatives who vilify NAMBLA. When the ILGA controversy erupted, the leaders of virtually every gay and lesbian group in the county, as well as gay politicians such as US Representative Barney Frank, publicly called for NAMBLA's ouster. NAMBLA is frequently barred from marching in gay-pride parades, and it is the only group ever to have been denied a place at New York's Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center.
Numerically, NAMBLA is a negligible organization. It counts only 1200 members, whose annual dues of $25 each constitute the bulk of its budget. The only "headquarters" is a post-office box. When NAMBLA is allowed to show up in gay-pride parades -- or when its members sneak in, as they did in Boston this year -- the contingent consists of four or five tired-looking nerdy types with a banner. But the group's statistical insignificance stands in sharp contrast to the amount of ire its existence provokes. In a culture obsessed with protecting its children, yet perhaps equally obsessed with the cult of youthful sexiness, this tiny band of misfits serves as a lightning rod for much of our collective ambivalence and fear.
NAMBLA was founded in Boston in the wake of a 1978 sex scandal. Garret Byrne, a local district attorney up for re-election, heard about a group of men in nearby Revere who were allegedly having sex with teenage boys, and in a well-publicized response set up a hotline for concerned citizens to call with incriminating tips. Gay activists, sensing a dangerous precedent, responded by forming the Boston/Boise Committee (BBC), named after a 1950s scandal in Boise, Idaho.
After a year of the BBC's protests, Byrne canceled the hotline and ended up losing at the polls. The approximately two dozen men who'd been charged with sex crimes plea-bargained their way to light fines and probation. Gay activists considered it an important victory, and to capitalize on the momentum, the BBC sponsored a one-day conference on "Man/Boy Love and the Age of Consent." At the conclusion of the event, a caucus of participants formed NAMBLA. (The founders, according to Bill Andriette, consisted of 34 men and "a handful" of teenage boys.)
Because the group evolved in the context of a community-wide activist initiative, NAMBLA's early leaders hoped it would remain allied with the larger gay-rights movement. But the organization's explicit focus on promoting acceptance of sexual attraction between men and boys soon led to rifts (which are still being played out, nearly two decades later, in situations like the ILGA-United Nations controversy). And, as if in reaction to its increasing rejection by the mainstream gay movement, NAMBLA established itself as the fringiest of the radical fringe, deeply entrenched in a rebellious "anything goes" mentality. The group's m.o. has thus been somewhat schizophrenic: desperately seeking legitimacy and acceptance, while at the same time seeming to do everything it can to preclude attainment of these objectives.
NAMBLA's foremost goals, as expressed by the title of an early position paper, are to "Abolish All Age of Consent Laws and Free All Men Incarcerated for Non-Violent Sexual Offenses." Couched in these legal terms, the debate seems clear-cut enough. But like a man in quicksand whose every squirm traps him further, NAMBLA's positions get stickier with each attempted articulation. The same position paper speaks of the hope that "by allowing the natural impulse for youth and adults to connect in the myriad ways they themselves will choose . . . the systems of erotophobia and homophobia will be diminished." Terminology is immediately a problem. How old is a "youth"? What does it mean for a man and a boy to "connect"? What does it mean to "choose"?
NAMBLA spokespeople have traditionally provided deliberately evasive answers to these questions. The focus on inequality between men and boys is a red herring, they have protested. After all, life is filled with unequal relationships: parent-child, teacher-student, boss-employee. Another standard NAMBLA comeback is that statutory-rape laws -- originally written so that fathers could keep their daughters virginal until an appropriate marriage was arranged, thus protecting the future of their land holdings -- are anachronistic and oppressive.
NAMBLA has also muddied the waters by tacking onto its primary objective a list of position statements, including one against compulsory schooling and circumcision and another supporting children's right to vote. When faced with this hodgepodge of oddball causes, even those in sympathy with NAMBLA's goals have found it difficult to defend the group.
But Bill Andriette -- a generation younger than the gay liberationists who founded the organization -- is quietly trying to change that. The studious, mild-mannered editor is no less committed to the ideals of man-boy love than his predecessors. But he is willing to retire some of the loonier manifestos, and to engage in candid discussion of what he considers a pressing moral conundrum. In his rigorous philosophical attempts to defend pedophilia, and in his critiques of both the radical right and the gay-rights movement, he is seeking a greater level of political legitimacy. Bill Andriette is the new face of NAMBLA.
As their critics are quick to point out, NAMBLA's membership is notoriously skewed towards M's rather than the B's. Its chorus of praise for man-boy love resounds with too much bass. What makes Bill Andriette unique as a longtime NAMBLA organizer is that he joined the group as a boy.
"I realized I was gay when I was 12," says Andriette, who was raised in Levittown, New York, in "your basic liberal, suburban family." Two years later, he was riding the Long Island Railroad into Manhattan's Greenwich Village on weekends to meet his first boyfriend, a 22-year-old. "He would come in from New Jersey and we'd rendezvous," Andriette fondly recalls, "breaking all sorts of federal laws."
On one of his visits, Andriette screwed up the courage to enter the gay Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop, where he found a copy of Gay Community News, then the national paper of record for the gay-liberation movement. He read an article about NAMBLA and was "immediately intrigued . . . I already felt alienated from the typical gay aesthetic I was seeing on Christopher Street, beefy clones with mustaches. My erotic ideal was much more about boys. I knew this would be up my alley."
Andriette wanted to contact NAMBLA right away, but receiving private mail was problematic; his father, who shares his name, often opened his letters inadvertently. It took a full year before Andriette found a friend -- a lesbian schoolmate -- who would let him use her address, and when the package arrived, he was "completely thrilled." The information included the notice of an upcoming NAMBLA meeting at New York University's student center. He and his friend told their parents they were going to the library, then rode the train into the city. Andriette, at 15, was the youngest of the 20 or so attendees.
"Obviously, I was the object of some attention," he remembers with a suggestive laugh. And in the following months he did end up having sexual relationships with a few of the older men. But Andriette was as drawn to the theory as to the practice of man-boy love. "NAMBLA in those days was a vibrant political organization," he says. "There were real ideological debates and clashing perspectives among smart people with all sorts of political experience. It was very much a learning experience for me."
By the time he was 17, Andriette was a member of NAMBLA's steering committee. Aware that he was perceived as a "token boy" -- and that his effectiveness as a spokesperson relied to a great degree on his youth -- he nevertheless remained focused on his own motivations. "Anything I did" he insists, "I did because I wanted to."
Indeed, Andriette proved himself more than willing to stand up for his beliefs, and to suffer the consequences. As an entering freshman at Cornell University in 1983, he was accepted into a special scholarship program that provided free room and board. When the program's supervisors learned of Andriette's NAMBLA involvement, they rescinded the scholarship. Andriette responded with an op-ed piece, "Defending NAMBLA," in the Cornell Daily Sun. "Children," he wrote, "must be imbued with the sense that as human beings they have inalienable rights . . . not merely the right to say `no,' but to say `yes' as well."
Thrust into the public sphere by the article (and by being quoted that year in Time magazine in relation to a separate child-sex incident), Andriette received death threats and was forced to take a leave of absence from school. His parents' house in Levittown became the target of vandalism.
And yet he was not deterred. In the decade since, Andriette has remained at the forefront of NAMBLA, often acting as something of a one-man boy-love band. This summer, after six years in charge, he turned over editorship of the NAMBLA Bulletin to another group member. He continues to edit Gayme, a magazine that he says "deals with youth sexuality," and which is distributed to NAMBLA members. All this with virtually no support, no salary, and the constant threat of harassment.
Whatever you think of Andriette's sexual tastes and his advocacy of intergenerational romance, it's hard not to admire his perseverance. He's a man driven by his principles, and he's clearly in this for the long haul.
When I remind Andriette of Jesse Green's vote of confidence ("If more pedophiles looked like Bill Andriette . . . "), he flinches.
"I didn't really like that," he says. "Since then, I'm much less inclined to play the `good pedo' and more inclined to sound like a terrorist."
But try as he might, Andriette seems incapable of breaking from his painfully sincere bookwormishness. In a 90-minute conversation, he never raises his voice or appears angry. Though NAMBLA publications often screech about "witch hunts" and "pogroms" and the need to combat the "life-denying and pleasure-hating authorities," Andriette never veers into such incendiary rhetoric. Nor does he suggest anything remotely salacious about adolescent boys.
In fact, he takes trouble to distance himself from some aspects of NAMBLA's past. "NAMBLA shows the markings of the period from which it came," he says with a hint of apology. "The people who wrote [the early NAMBLA position papers] were motivated by good impulses, but I basically disagree with their theories."
What Andriette objects to is the focus on children's rights and the 1960s-style application of liberal theory to sexuality. "I have a certain attraction for the kind of radical `anything goes' approach," he says, "but it can be dangerous. The supposed liberal concern for individual rights can mask a really invasive agenda; the French Revolution turns into the Reign of Terror. So I'm becoming more and more of a conservative in the traditional Burkean sense. Instead of overthrowing all institutions and traditions, I'm more respectful of them as safeguards against tyranny."
And so Andriette is willing to make distinctions where previous NAMBLA leaders often refused, accepting some degree of governmental intervention in relationships. Rather than insisting on the complete abolishment of age-of-consent laws, for example, he focuses on middle-ground positions. "There are a lot of approaches that would make more sense to try than the current one," he says. "One approach which they're now using in the Netherlands is that if somebody is between 12 and 16, the police and the social workers can't initiate an investigation. The complaint has to come from either the young person or a parent or guardian. Another is to distinguish between kinds of sex. In Canada -- until last year when this was shot down -- a distinction was made between anal sex and everything else. The distinction between penetrative sex and non-penetrative sex seems a reasonable one."
When Andriette offers these alternatives, NAMBLA's stance seems more palatable: a reality-based approach at reforming an outmoded system of intrusive laws. After all, federal statistics shows that more than 50 percent of Americans have sex before they are 18, and the current state-by-state tangle of statutory-rape laws is clearly ill-equipped to handle this reality. As Jesse Green noted in his Out article on NAMBLA, "An adult man can have (unforced) intercourse with a 13-year-old girl (though not with a boy) in Virginia; in California, the girl must be 18. Two 15-year-old boys may legally have sex in Connecticut, but not across the border in Massachusetts." Greater flexibility in the legal structure, such as Andriette proposes, might prevent such seemingly ludicrous instances as the recent New Jersey case in which a 12-year-old boy who groped his eight-year-old stepbrother in the bathtub is now being forced to register with police as a "sexual offender."
But will the parents of boys be reassured by Andriette's willingness to distinguish between anal and oral sex? Andriette could concoct a periodic table of pedophilic acts, but he would still have to contend with the fact that large numbers of people are viscerally, violently revolted by the thought of men having sex with boys.
When I ask him why this is the case, Andriette seems taken aback. First he contends that the current American "hysteria" about pedophilia -- think of Megan's Law, the uproar over certain Calvin Klein ads, and the Senate hearings on Internet kiddie porn -- should not be interpreted as a universal human disgust with intergenerational sex. It is not a "transhistorical, cross-cultural phenomenon," he insists, but merely a reflection of our zeitgeist. He makes the comparison with interracial marriage: a century ago, the majority of Americans would have been said to be viscerally revolted by the thought of a black woman and a white man coupling, but the response was much more about the socioeconomic and racial dynamics of the time; now, the majority find such relationships acceptable.
"Pedophilia," says Andriette, "as it's currently understood, has burst onto the Western cultural scene in the past 15 years with no antecedents. It's not in my 1976 dictionary." In fact, he points out, "pedophilia" -- which technically refers to attraction to preadolescents -- is misused in the debates about teen sex. "There's an attempt by the ideologists of pedophilia," he says, "to lump all adolescent sexuality into `child' sexuality, which is a sign that they know they're on murky ground if they talk about reality. Boy-love in the way it actually manifests itself very often involves older, adolescent boys. But they call a picture of a naked 17-year-old a `pedophilic' depiction, or `child pornography,' to make it seem wrong, even though most people consider adult attraction to adolescents as normal."
I dispute this notion. Yes, most adults appreciate the natural sexuality of adolescents, and in that sense can be said to be "attracted" to them, but if acting on this attraction were considered normal, why would NAMBLA be so abhorred?
Andriette stumbles again, searching for words. Then he launches into a long argument about the "bad effects of the market economy" and "stratifications of sexual orientation." He speaks of "established constructs" and "mainstream discourse." Far from the common image of the hormone-driven predator who acts without rational thought, Andriette is, if anything, overdeveloped in his ability to expound rationalizations. He is the policy wonk of pedophilia.
Or perhaps policy wank is more apt. In conversation and in his writings, Andriette seems addicted to a kind of mental masturbation. In a manifesto he published recently (under a different name) in Gayme magazine, for example, he pontificates somewhat incoherently about "the penis" and "the boy" as similar "nodes of male desire." A typical passage: "Pederasty is an eroticized pedagogy stemming from a profound and molecular appreciation for what gets transformed and shaped in the process of acculturation and coming-to-personhood."
It's possible that such jargon is a tactic to divert attention from the inescapable questions about boy-love: can a boy truly consent to sex with a man? Even if a boy desires sex in the heat of the moment, how will he feel about it when the passion has waned -- or, later, as an adult?
Given Andriette's own apparently "molecular" sincerity, however, it seems unlikely that he would consciously dodge the real issues. For him, the almost academic aspects of his and other men's attraction to boys are the real issues. But what, one is tempted to ask, about the boys and their feelings? Andriette's intellectualizing is so distanced from the reality of actual adolescent boys (he says he won't personally have sexual relationships with underage boys, given the drastic legal risks) that he seems incapable of understanding their real-world vulnerabilities.
If he seems unpreoccupied with the consequences of man-boy encounters for the boys involved, Andriette is all too familiar with the often dire outcomes for the men. "One of the reasons I've given up being editor of NAMBLA Bulletin," he says, "is that it became psychically disabling just to read the mail. Week after week, it's this guy getting 30 years in prison, this guy losing his eye because some fellow inmate attacked him, this guy getting stabbed." In his farewell editorial, Andriette likened helming NAMBLA's official publication to being "mayor of Sarajevo . . . ringed by snipers and in the midst of the carnage."
Andriette's horror stories of what happens to boy-lovers who get sent to prison are indeed horrifying. And it's his focus on the severity of punishment for pedophiles -- rather than the trickier questions of consent -- that holds the promise of winning him and NAMBLA more allies in the mainstream.
Most recently, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts (ACLUM) has sided with NAMBLA in opposition to the new sex-offender statutes, particularly Megan's Law. Named for a seven-year-old New Jersey girl raped and killed by a neighbor who had previously served time for a sex crime, the legislation requires states to notify communities when a convicted sex offender is released from prison. Before the Massachusetts version of the law took effect, a NAMBLA member drafted an "open letter" to the state's high court, likening the measure to rights abuses in the McCarthy era and asking for a postponement of its enforcement. In addition to John Reinstein, legal director of ACLUM, those who agreed to sign the letter included Paul Shannon of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) and Cathy Hoffman, peace commissioner for the city of Cambridge.
Another law being challenged by both NAMBLA and mainstream civil libertarians, versions of which are on the books in six states, subjects sexual offenders to indefinite confinement even after their prison sentences have been fully served. In Kansas, for example, a civil jury can send an offender to a mental hospital, even though he doesn't fit the usual criteria for "mental illness," to prevent him from returning to society after his criminal penalties have expired. (In June, the US Supreme Court agreed to decide on the constitutionality of the Kansas law.)
Andriette and his allies argue that these are draconian laws, grossly infringing on the rights of the offenders by punishing them not for specific criminal acts they've committed, but rather for who they are. "This is a profound shift in our jurisprudence," he says. "These registration laws are creating a new class of people who have to be criminally removed from society. If you're convicted, you're no longer somebody who fondled a 14-year-old boy" -- who can serve the appropriate sentence for the crime and then move on -- "you're a `sexually dangerous predator.' Permanently. You become this category."
Ironically, Andriette views that shift as a direct result of the increasing success of the gay-rights movement, which has long fought to convince people that sexual orientation is a fixed identity. "We've been urged to understand sexual orientation as an abiding characteristic, that people are born a certain way," he says. If sexual orientation is seen an inborn trait, not subject to choice or modification, it follows that men who have been convicted of sexual acts with boys are inherently "oriented" this way, and must therefore be kept under permanent surveillance. Thus, the boy-love-rights movement, which emerged from within the gay-rights context, is now hoist on its own petard of identity politics.
Perhaps because they were initially allies, Andriette reserves a particular bitterness for a gay movement that he feels has left NAMBLA in the cold. He considers the absence of gay-rights organizations from the fight to protect the rights of sex offenders -- which, in its right-to-privacy focus, would seem a natural sister cause -- especially glaring. (While representatives of ACLUM and AFSC signed the Megan's Law letter, the local staffer of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force refused.) As with the ILGA affair, mainstream gay organizations are avoiding the issue for fear of tainting themselves by an association with pedophilia.
"This issue completely transforms the moral significance of the gay movement," Andriette says angrily. "In the old days, you just had perverts, and everyone fought for everyone else." What the gay movement has done recently, he says, "is put that notion of perverts in a centrifuge," so that now there is a hierarchy. The hatred of boy-lovers, he says, is a "reactionary ideology which the gay movement has happily adopted to burnish its own particular identity category. What started as a liberating nationalism has now become like a Serbian nationalism which is as much defined by who it needs to exterminate as by any assertion of its own goodness."
It's an insightful critique, and one that's directly relevant to other communities -- drag queens and transgender activists, for example, who were instrumental in the birth of the modern gay-liberation movement but now contend that they are shoved aside by the "good gays" because they are too threatening to the mainstream. Similarly, many African-American gay men and lesbians have argued that as white, "establishment" gays gain a degree of acceptance, they are more than willing to abandon the black gay community.
But the difference with NAMBLA is that its cause is not just about an identity but about an activity -- intergenerational sex -- that even the most committed humanitarians may reject out of hand. Drag queens might (according to conservative gays) "damage" the movement's media image, but no one claims they cause actual damage to other people. Boy-lovers, on the other hand, are accused of doing exactly that.
And so, coming from the NAMBLA spokesperson, Andriette's political analysis will likely be ignored, regardless of its merits. This seems NAMBLA's perpetual trap: the outcry provoked by the mere mention of its cause is so extreme that the group's actual views are rarely heard.
There's also the problem that people may agree with NAMBLA's positions, but not necessarily its goals. Gay youth groups, for example, share NAMBLA's determination to change or abolish age-of-consent laws; but they do so in the hope that 15-year-olds can more easily have sex with each other, not with 50-year-olds. And so even these potential compatriots keep their distance.
Andriette seems wearied by the apparently lose-lose situation, in which everything he says is either ignored or used against him. "I don't even know why I do interviews like this," he says, and the toll of public exposure on an essentially private man is evident in the slump in his posture. "It doesn't matter what I say. It's always distorted anyway."
As we're leaving Espresso Royale, I try one last time to get Andriette's answer to my question: why do so many people, on a gut level, hate pedophiles? No jargon, I tell him. Gut level.
Andriette shrugs somewhat apologetically and finally offers a revealing response. "I guess I personally don't understand visceral sexual revulsion of any kind," he says. "I'm just not familiar with that feeling."
He intends the admission as something positive: he has broken the fetters of socialized repression. But to his foes, Andriette's statement proves what they've been saying all along: that pedophiles exist with no moral standards, beyond the bounds of civilization.
His detractors would call Andriette's love for boys, and his outspokenness, shameless. Andriette himself might agree: he doesn't think he has anything about which to be ashamed.
Michael Lowenthal is a Boston-based writer whose work appears in more than a dozen books, most recently Best American Gay Fiction 1996. He is the editor of the Flesh and the Word anthology series.