Keeping secrets: NAMBLA, the idealization of children, and the contradictions of gay politics

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I first heard the name NAMBLA in 1982, when the New York Post ran a story accusing them of kidnapping a seven-year-old boy named Etan Patz. I was living in New York, and the paper devoted its famous panicky headlines to the case for almost a week. Patz had been kidnapped in 1979, and the Post reported that a photo of a "mystery boy" resembling him had turned up in a "sex den at NAMBLA headquarters" in Wareham, Massachusetts. The police believed Patz was being traded among a ring of pedophiles. As it turned out "the mystery boy" was actually a model from a calendar made in 1968, long before Patz was even born, and there had been no "sex den" at the house, which wasn't NAMBLA headquarters at all but the summer home of the parents of a NAMBLA member. This didn't keep the police from arresting the men, but they had to drop the sex-kidnapping theory. After that, NAMBLA wasn't in the headlines so much. It's hard to understand how so small an organization could have survived the scandal (federal investigations into porn distribution, child prostitution, and sex abuse charges continued for several years after the case), but they did, and periodically the acronym would appear again, usually in a less dire context. [...]

To the men inside the organization, NAMBLA's position looks a lot like that of pacifist Quakers in wartime - they give needed support to men in trouble with the law, express solidarity for the oppressed (in their view, children), and simultaneously advocate for a hopelessly unpopular cause. Any optimism about NAMBLA's future in "enlightenment politics" is necessarily cast in broad ideological terms - I have heard the organization compared to the colonial American revolutionaries, the homosexual-liberationists of Weimar Germany (many of whom ended up in death camps), and the lunch counter protesters of the civil rights movement - but it is rarely, if ever, based in a practical assessment of the current political climate. Fifteen years of police surveillance, prison terms, censure, and ridicule had probably led most of them to hear one newcomer's entreaty to "rewrite the brochure so it appeals to the values of good people and helps us build a broad alliance" as both depressing and somehow beside the point. [...]

Undoubtedly, NAMBLA is a political organization, but it's one that has been forced into the margin and must conduct its business there. Despite their intention to design strategies or carry out some kind of progressive inquiry in support of their cause, there is just no context or good information with which they can do that. In this regard NAMBLA is well along the curve of a trend which is general - the displacement of most political debate from the realm of reasoned inquiry to that of emotional harangue. We care deeply about children. Our resolve to protect them is passionate, some would say extreme. (Interestingly, the immediate gut response of the few NAMBLA members I "confronted" with this fact was the stammering assertion that NAMBLA cares more deeply about kids.) Knowing anything dispassionate, or even remotely well-researched, about the welfare of children has paled beside the burning importance of our depth of feeling for them. It is politics bounded by the bleak reality of a talk-television culture. We are incapable of thinking about kids dispassionately.

This climate of passion that has trapped NAMBLA also lies at the root of their power. NAMBLA is tiny, but that has never mattered. The core of their claims - that some boys want sex with men, and should have it - echoes and enlarges in our minds, like the wind scratching at a sleeper's door, becoming huge and monstrous in the vacuum left when the mind is shut down. When political debate is this blindingly emotional, numbers don't really matter. In fact, we have only ever needed a few dozen men to advocate sex with kids publicly for the country to become haunted by the nightmarish vision of an international ring of organized child molesters. NAMBLA membership might be as high as 4,000 or as low as 1,200. It really doesn't matter. The active body - not just its heart, but its muscle and bones - has never been more than a handful of men, a few dozen at most, with several thousand dollars, a mishmash of programs supporting boy-lovers, and no hope for having any immediate political impact. But the message they send horrifies us. Their defining fantasy is one of our great nightmares. In a talk-television culture, this message holds our attention like the monstrous reflections of a funhouse mirror.

Bill Andriette, NAMBLA's young activist, perceives some kind of power in the impassioned hatred of the press and public. "Politics is really strange in the ways that power can ebb and flow, and I think we're just way too early on in this struggle to ask NAMBLA to succeed as an immediate legislative force, or ask it to be just a political group, or just a support group. A lot of power is obscure or hidden, and I'm happy for NAMBLA to just muddle forward as a kind of demon. I'm actually very optimistic about NAMBLA at the same time as I feel we are sort of tragically doomed to failure."

source: Article 'Keeping Secrets: NAMBLA, the Idealization of Children, and the Contradictions of Gay Politics' by Matthew Stadler;; Published online: 12 October 2016; Originally published in The Stranger; 20 March 1997