‘A contrarian with joie de vivre’

Remarks given by Andrew Lear at Bill Percy’s memorial gathering in the Fens in Boston, December 10, 2022

Bill Percy was a big personality: to use a phrase he might not have liked, he was a great example of someone who “lived large.” Bill was extremely energetic (sometime perhaps compulsive) and self-dramatizing, and the self he dramatized was often created by contrast with sides of society that would limit people’s freedom. That is to say that Bill was a contrarian. But he was a contrarian with joie de vivre. He loved having other people around, he loved to argue with them. And he clearly enjoyed provoking them into argument – and never took it personally, even if they had conniption fits at him.

A lot of people now – to make clear what I am saying – think of Bill as right-wing. He said a lot of racist things over the years, defended the Old South (of which he presented himself as the heir), had right-wing friends that no-one else would invite to dinner, and supported Donald Trump (though not after January 6th, by the way, for those who didn’t know him at the end). But first of all, Bill always said pro-Trump things with a twinkle in his eye. He loved having anti-Trump friends to spar with; in fact, I think he liked best to have the right-wing and left-wing over at the same time, to let them argue with each other. But to understand all this, you have to know that Bill started off on the political left. He had some experience as a young man of the KKK, and he hated it. He fought for desegregation in the 1960s, along with opposing the Vietnam war. And he always hated religious fundamentalism. In short, Bill had a troubled relationship with the South. I think that he started to play up his Southernness when he was at prep school in Massachusetts, as a way of provoking his Yankee friends. It was only long afterward, when the gay rights movement was well underway, and the left veered off in a prudish direction, that Bill started protesting, or embodying a protest, against the left.

Because above all, Bill stood for freedom, freedom of speech, and freedom of sexuality. He lived for a long time as a gay man in world in which gay white men were discriminated against, had to hide his sexuality (until he was over 50!) and possibly suffered the effects of discrimination himself. And unlike more conformist personalities, he continued even after gay white men became fairly acceptable to make common cause with other sexual outlaws, defending (as we probably all know) what he called “the six P’s” (later seven, then eight): promiscuity, public sex, pornographers, paraphernalia (i.e. sex-toys), prostitution, and pederasty. This was not because these were characteristic of Bill’s own sexuality, but because he felt that people were being oppressed by prudery and laws based on it.

In fact, Bill brought together all of his sides – his high energy, his insistence on freedom, his provocativeness, and his gregariousness and generosity – into the fight for sexual freedom, which was the core of his concerns from the 1990s, when he wrote a book about ancient Greek pederasty, to the foundation of the William A. Percy Foundation in the 2010s. He also brought these together in personal acts of generosity toward those who were suffering because of the oppressive sexual regime, and I will conclude by introducing you to Tom Kenny, who wants to speak to you about Bill’s generosity.

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