July 14, 2006
Volume 34
Issue 28
search only SGN online
Saturday, Dec 05, 2020



Past Out by Liz Highleyman
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, after which he was sent to live with relatives in Berlin. 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 at age 18, with a baseball teammate.

In 1965, Donaldson moved to New York City, where he lied about his age to join the Mattachine Society. He was adopted as a protege by pioneering activist Frank Kameny, and soon immersed himself in the local Gay social and sexual scene. Before long, he discovered he could finance his education working as a hustler.

Donaldson enrolled at Columbia University, where he studied political science. As a sophomore 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). During the summers, he worked as a reporter for the Associated Press; he also began writing for Gay publications, which is when he adopted the name "Stephen Donaldson."

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. Author Randy Shilts, in his book Conduct Unbecoming, credits Donaldson as 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. Suspecting that he planned to write an expose of jail conditions, the wardens assigned him to the most violent cellblock. He was gang-raped some 60 times over two days, so brutally that he required reparative surgery. 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 also was ordained as a Theravada Buddhist monk. Throughout his life, Donaldson remained deeply enamored of youth counterculture. He did two more stints in jail for possession of marijuana and LSD, where he was raped again. He immersed himself in New York City's burgeoning punk rock milieu and, later, the antiracist skinhead scene.

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. Released in 1984, Donaldson traveled to India, where he was initiated into Shaivite Hinduism; the trip violated his parole, however, and he was sent back to prison.

Over the years, Donaldson continued his activism against male-on-male sexual assault; he 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 developed between a "punk" and his cellblock protector. Though he had numerous sexual relationships outside of prison - often with young punk rockers and skinheads - he regarded J.D., a woman he met in the 1960s, as his life partner.

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) and Studies in Homosexuality (1994). As operator of the Stop Prisoner Rape website, he was one of 20 plaintiffs in the 1996 ACLU v. Reno lawsuit challenging the Communications Decency Act, an attempt to ban sexually explicit content on the Internet. That same year, he ran for president, pledging to attend his inauguration in the nude and deliver all televised speeches wired up to a lie detector.

Donaldson contracted HIV, likely in prison, and he 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.

Throughout his life, Donaldson was a man of many contrasts: a proud sailor and a peace activist, a Buddhist monk and a punk rocker, an activist against prison rape with a nostalgia for intimate jailhouse relationships. "I like to live intensely," he told an interviewer toward the end of his life. "I'd much rather have that than an even, suburban lifestyle where the worst thing you have to worry about is whether you're going to miss your favorite TV show."

Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics. She can be reached care of this publication or at

International Readers
We want to learn about you and have you tell us about Gay Life where you live.
Please click here

Seattle Gay Blog
It's new!
A blog created
by the SGN staff
so you can be heard

working for the freedom to
marry since 1995

copyright Seattle Gay News - DigitalTeamWorks 2006