Past Out – Who was Stephen Donaldson (aka Robert Martin)?
Stephen Donaldson founded the first gay student organization, was one of the earliest out bisexual activists, and was the first sailor to contest a discharge for homosexual conduct. Because he was so eccentric, however, he has never received recognition as a respected pioneer of the LGBT movement.
Donaldson, the son of a career naval officer, was born Robert A. Martin Jr. on July 27, 1946, in Norfolk, Va. At age 12, he was expelled from the Boy Scouts for performing oral sex on fellow campers. He attended high school in New Jersey, where he was a student government officer and class valedictorian; he fell in love for the first time with a baseball teammate.
In 1965, Donaldson moved to New York City, where he lied about his age to join the Mattachine Society and immersed himself in the local gay social and sexual scene. Before long, he discovered he could finance his education working as a hustler. As a sophomore at Columbia University in 1966, he started the Student Homophile League, the first-ever gay student organization. Two years later, he was named an officer of the North American Conference of Homophile Organizations (NACHO).
As an open bisexual, Donaldson said he “took a lot of flak” from gay activists for his opposite-sex relationships - including one with New York City Daughters of Bilitis leader Martha Shelley. His growing alienation from the movement contributed to his decision to join the Navy in 1970. While he was stationed in Italy, the Navy discharged him for suspected homosexual activity; he was the first sailor to publicly contest such a discharge, which was later upgraded to honorable.
In 1973, Donaldson was arrested during a Quaker pray-in for peace on the White House lawn. The wardens assigned him to the most violent cellblock, where he was gang-raped some 60 times over two days. Upon his acquittal and release, he called a press conference, becoming the first man to speak out publicly about prison rape.
With a strong interest in spirituality, Donaldson returned to Columbia in the mid-1970s to pursue graduate studies in religion. He was ordained as a Theravada Buddhist monk, and later was initiated into Shaivite Hinduism. Throughout his life, Donaldson remained deeply enamored of youth counterculture, immersing himself in New York City’s punk rock and antiracist skinhead scenes.
In 1980, unemployed and distraught over his mother’s suicide, he threatened a doctor with a gun at the Bronx Veterans Administration hospital and was sent to federal prison. By now, he had learned he could hook up with stronger prisoners and trade sexual favors for protection. He was released in 1984, but violated his parole with a trip to India and was sent back to prison. Donaldson continued his activism against male-on-male sexual assault, and was named president of Stop Prisoner Rape in 1988. But he also expressed conflicted feelings about life on the inside, speaking fondly of the tender relationships that sometimes develop between a “punk” and his cellblock protector.
During the 1990s, Donaldson focused more on writing and editing for both mainstream and underground publications, often using the pen name “Donny the Punk”; he was assistant editor, with Wayne Dynes, of the Encyclopedia of Homosexuality (1990). Donaldson contracted HIV, likely in prison, and experienced increasing bouts of ill health in his later years. He came down with meningitis and died of multiple organ failure in July 1996, a week shy of his 50th birthday.
Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics. She can be reached at PastOut@qsyndicate.com.