Printer Friendly

The end of the Experience.

Faced with shrinking attendance and a deficit, the leaders of an influential consciousness-raising group decide to shut its doors

On a March weekend in 1978, about 100 people gathered at the Jack Tar Hotel in San Francisco at the behest of then-Advocate publisher David Goodstein. Among those in the audience were such gay luminaries as Armistead Maupin and Randy Shilts, at the time an Advocate staff writer. The gathering marked the launch of the Advocate Experience, Goodstein's attempt to bring the human-potential movement to gays and lesbians. Over the next 23 years, some 50,000 of them went through Experience workshops. The Experience, as it became known, closed its doors in February, a victim of dwindling attendance and interest.

"We all know and love this work," says Honey Ward, president of the Experience. "This is about personal and spiritual revolution. To close up shop was a very difficult decision to make. But David and [cofounder] Rob Eichberg articulated a vision in 1978 that by the year 2000 it be absolutely OK to be lesbian and gay. The fundamental thing that these two guys articulated has in large measure been accomplished."

The end of the Experience marks the close of a chapter in gay history when self-esteem seemed the key to success. Goodstein founded the Experience after meeting with Werner Erhard, founder of Erhard Seminars Training (better known as "est"), shortly after Anita Bryant's successful campaign to repeal Dade County, Fla.'s gay rights law in 1977. The meeting convinced Goodstein that the real problem facing the gay movement was not political but emotional. Goodstein complained that there was "an awful lot of a syndrome I have defined as `toilet mentality'--that is, a willingness to accept second-rate status as human beings, expecting to lose rather than win, and a constant involvement in petty right-wrong games."

"Goodstein had always felt that gay people had a horrible self-image," says Adam Nagourney, coauthor of Out for Good: The Struggle to Build a Gay Rights Movement in America. "He would argue that [the Advocate Experience] made them happier to be gay and increased their self-esteem."

"David was one of those people who goes up on the mountaintop and says `There are better lands elsewhere,' but he never himself quite got there," says Mark Thompson, a former Advocate editor who was present at the first Experience workshop. "I think his finest work, besides bringing The Advocate up to a professional level, was with the Advocate Experience. He saw the eternal problem of low self-esteem and internalized homophobia and tried to develop a means to counter these ills."

The workshops put a group of up to 100 people together for a weekend and ran them through a series of exercises for 12 hours each day. The early workshops included writing a coming-out letter to the person closest to the participant who didn't know about his sexuality and then mailing the letter. "Honey, aren't you going to mail this?" Eichberg would tell the reluctant. "How full of shit are you? How much are you going to continue to lie to the people closest to you in your life? And if you're lying to your parents, I bet you're lying to yourself, aren't you?" As The Advocate described the workshop in 1978, "Tempers flared. Tears fell. Insults flew. Criticism raged, and issues critical to gay people were raised, often heatedly."

Ward went to her first Experience workshop in 1979. "Just about every single thing you can imagine about me changed, except getting taller," she says. "When I first did [the Experience], I was in a bureaucratic kind of job in a big company and I thought I'd be there forever. [Afterward] all sorts of possibilities showed up. It was all right to be open about who I was and to do that in a loving kind of way."

Another early Experience participant, Jim Curtan, says the workshops helped to mainstream the gay movement. "What the Experience did more than anything else was to bring middle-class white men out of the closet," Curtan says. "One of David Goodstein's major tenets, and it got him in a lot of trouble, was his insistence on holding workshops in convention centers and first-class hotels. A lot of civil rights people said it was elitist." The audience may have been dictated in part by the expense. A workshop cost $150, the equivalent of more than $400 today. Still, Lynn Shepodd, the former executive director of National Coming Out Day who also first attended an Experience workshop in 1979, says the groups were diverse and brought all types of people together for the first time. The workshops were especially good for bringing men and women together, she says.

"Here I was, an openly gay person out for three years, and all I knew were women," Shepodd says. "I wanted to have some guys around. I met great men and great women of all different sizes, types, politics, classes--you name it."

Not everyone took to Goodstein's vision. Some critics dismissed the Experience as little more than feel-good psychobabble. "Randy Shilts, God bless his soul, was really particularly skeptical and really went to heads with the old man about this," Thompson says. Shilts eventually wrote an article for another magazine blasting the seminar.

Nagourney says the Experience had a limited effect on gay politics. While many gay leaders went through the workshops, he says, "beyond that I don't think it had as much impact as Goodstein or Eichberg would have liked to have thought. It was of a moment."

Still, the Experience did have some impact on gay politics. National Coming Out Day was founded by Eichberg and Jean O'Leary, another Experience alum, in 1988. And many of the movement's biggest names, from gay philanthropist James Hormel to Human Rights Campaign executive director Elizabeth Birch, went through the workshops.

By the 1980s the Experience began to lose its momentum. Goodstein died of colon cancer in 1985, and for a while the workshops were run on an ad hoc basis before the Experience reorganized. (The Advocate has not been affiliated with the Experience since Goodstein's death.) "It was run out of an extra room in [Eichberg's] home until he moved to Santa Fe [N.M.]," Ward says.

The basics of the workshops had not changed since the early days. "The essential qualities--about coming out as a full-living being, living responsibly, living with a sense of integrity--those have been the same from day one to now," Ward says. But the key premise behind the workshops--the need to come out--is no longer the loaded issue it was for gays and lesbians when the Experience began. "You still run into people having a tough time coming out, but it's so commonplace these days to run into people who are out," Ward says. "It's not the same challenge as it was in the late '70s."

With changes in society and a drop-off in interest in the human-potential movement in general, the Experience tried to diversify by offering workplace trainings. However, Ward says, companies saw the Experience as primarily a gay organization, which hurt the effort. Finally, with a deficit topping $100,000, the board decided to close up shop. Ward says the group plans to pay off its debt. "I'm not going to walk away from it, because it would not honor the people who participated or founded it," she says.

For those who believed in the Experience, its closing is bittersweet. "The basic tenets about living powerfully, expanding consciousness--those are universal issues," Ward says. But she adds that even with the end of the Experience, the issues will still matter. "In that way this work will continue on forever," she says. "It's never-ending work in its biggest form. It's the journey we're all on."
COPYRIGHT 2001 Liberation Publications, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:gay human-potential movement, Advocate Experience
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 10, 2001
Previous Article:The Real Slim Lady.
Next Article:Three seats at the table.

Related Articles
Take a Wilde RIDE.
After the fall.
Looking for success in the new Washington.
September 10, 1975: Gays at work.
Much ado about changing.
Innovation through the ages.
Bad faith.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters