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John Mitzel, owner of one of the country’s last LGBT bookstores, Boston’s Calamus Bookstore, has died. Mitzel died at home in Arlington, MA during the early morning of October 4th from complications resulting from an earlier cancer treatment.
Miztel was a fount of knowledge when it came to Boston’s gay history, as well as an active participant in shaping that city’s queer cultural identity. Mitzel was also a prolific writer; he wrote ten books encompassing fiction, poetry, and nonfiction.
From the Boston Globe:
Before opening Calamus Bookstore near South Station 13 years ago, Mitzel worked for years at the now-defunct Glad Day Bookshop in the South End. He knows gay history, in part, because he’s lived it. In 1971 he co-founded the radical newspaper Fag Rag, and in 1978 he helped organize a gay rights fund-raiser at which Gore Vidal spoke.
An in depth article about Miztel, written last year by writer Mark Thomas Krone, provided context and insight into Mitzel’s pre-Stonewall coming out process and his entrée into the gay political community:
Raised outside Cincinnati, “a beautiful city but very right-wing”, Mitzel’s parents divorced before he reached his teens. Both parents went on to marry two more times. In high school, Mitzel was popular and his grades were good. He had every reason to expect a bright future. There was however, just one problem. He began disappearing on nights and weekends, often returning in the early morning hours. At first, his mother was puzzled. She soon decided to hire a private investigator, who informed her that John was going to gay bars and bus stations and picking up men. Determined to halt his nocturnal activities she decided to forcibly admit him to a mental hospital. A distraught and confused Mitzel sought out the hospital psychiatrist assigned to him. “I asked him, why am I here? He said, ‘Well, obviously your mother does not like you being homosexual.’ If you were queer back then, psychiatry and institutionalization was very standard.” Mitzel was institutionalized twice more that year until finally, he ran away from home, moving to Boston in 1965.
In 1968, Mitzel was drafted and had to return to Cincinnati. As he stood in his underwear with several dozen other men, he was handed a questionnaire that included the famous line asking about homosexual tendencies — not asking if you were a homosexual–but if you had homosexual tendencies. “I thought, clever writing — someone had read Kinsey.” Mitzel checked the box “yes” and was promptly sent to the psychiatrist. “So I sat down in his office, and crossed my legs. I tried to do my best Natalie Wood impression. And he said, ‘You have homosexual tendencies. Are you actively homosexual?’ I looked at him and flirted with my eyelids, and said, ‘Not as active as I’d like to be.’ He laughed and said, ‘You’re 4-F Freddy.” Deemed unfit for service, Mitzel was free to go. It was one year before the Stonewall uprisings. “It was good timing because Judy Garland died six months later and the gay revolution started. I didn’t want to be off in Danang shooting Vietnamese.”
Mitzel enrolled at [Boston University], where he studied with Howard Zinn, among other professors. He attended a Student Homophile League meeting there in 1971, where he met gay scholar Charley Shively.Mitzel and Shively both believed that the Boston gay community needed newspapers. They co-founded the radical newspaper, Fag Rag in 1971. “We published political essays, manifestos, movie and book reviews, and lots of poetry.”
Calamus Books will be hosting an in-store event celebrating Mitzel’s life on Friday, October 11 at 7 p.m. at 92B South Street, Boston, MA. Call 617-338-1931 for more information about the event.
Photo: John Mitzel via Vimeo