Do Ask, Do Tell
Published in The New York Times
July 17, 2007
David Mixner moves to Livingston Manor, New York
"IT’S not the first crime I’ve committed,” said David Mixner as he prepared to toss an apple into his backyard in Livingston Manor, N.Y.
Feeding deer is illegal in New York. But Mr. Mixner is both an animal lover (in winter, when the deer look gaunt, he goes through two bushels of apples a day) and an experienced lawbreaker.
He has been jailed, he said, more than a dozen times, all as a result of fighting to end segregation and the Vietnam War and later to secure rights for gay men and lesbians.
His most famous arrest came in 1993, when he chained himself to the fence outside the White House to protest President Bill Clinton’s policy on gays in the military, known as “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
That incident made news because Mr. Mixner had been a friend of Mr. Clinton since the 1960s and had worked to help him win the presidency. Mr. Clinton’s victory in 1992 was, for Mr. Mixner, a triumph soon followed by anguish over “don’t ask, don’t tell.” And then came a public reconciliation, in 1999, when Mr. Mixner gathered nearly 1,000 gay men and lesbians in Los Angeles to thank Mr. Clinton for his efforts to advance equal rights.
In those days, Mr. Mixner was, according to The New York Times, “the premier gay political impresario” in Los Angeles. He was able to bring in millions of dollars from gay men and lesbians for candidates he favored.
But Mr. Mixner’s roots are in Salem County, in southern New Jersey, an area so rural — and so reminiscent of the Deep South, he said — that when he was growing up in the 1950s it was known as Little Dixie. Though he despised the segregation and poverty of Elmer, his hometown, Mr. Mixner also has fond memories of an agrarian society where neighbors relied on one another.
“If someone’s house burnt down, we took them clothes and blankets — it didn’t matter what race they were,” he said.
By the time he was in high school, Mr. Mixner had found his calling in political activism. Eventually, his work took him to cities: Washington, where in 1969 he helped organize a moratorium against the Vietnam War; Los Angeles, where he founded a political consulting firm; and New York, where in the 1990s he became a media presence. (His memoir, “Stranger Among Friends,” was published by Bantam in 1996.)
In 2004, he decided to settle in Manhattan, where he rented an apartment near Tudor City. “I went to plays, galleries, openings — all of it,” he said.
But he was alone, he said, a result of losing most of his close friends (and one longtime partner) to AIDS. All together, Mr. Mixner said, 286 friends have died of the disease. “I was growing old without peers,” he said, “and nothing I could do could change that fact.”
True, he has a wide circle of younger friends, including numerous gay activists, who regard him as a mentor. But when it came to socializing, he said, “I was no longer willing to do the things that younger people do.” It was time, he said, to plan for the next chapter of his life. And that, he said, meant getting back to nature.
Mr. Mixner, now 60, began looking for a country house. But it wasn’t going to be a second home (he didn’t have the money, he said), and it wasn’t going to be in the Hamptons (same reason).
So he looked in Sullivan County, where many properties sell for less than $300,000. Last summer, he found a ranch house under construction, on a concave mountainside called Turkey Hollow, approximate population 10.
Mr. Mixner was able to buy the house, the detached garage and the surrounding six acres for $273,000.
He moved in last October, just in time for a brutal winter. He knew the place was isolated — there is no cable TV, no mail delivery and only sporadic cellphone service. But those problems were the least of it. The dirt road to Mr. Mixner’s house is so steep that it’s difficult for snowplows to reach his driveway. As a result, he was snowed in for eight days last winter, including one three-day stretch in March.
It didn’t help that Mr. Mixner, a large man, was having trouble walking. He explained that his left leg was injured by police officers with nightsticks during a protest in Chicago in 1968, the right in a slip in his backyard last winter. (For much of the spring, he used a cane.)
But partial immobility had a plus side. He has learned that he can rely on his neighbors. “In the pioneer days, you had to count on your neighbors,” he said. “It’s the same here — we need each other. I have to get to know them, and they have to get to know me. And even if we have political differences, or different backgrounds, we keep it civil.”
Most of Mr. Mixner’s socializing is with activist friends from New York, like Alan Van Capelle, the 32-year-old director of the Empire State Pride Agenda. Mr. Mixner doesn’t cook, but he owns cookbooks: he has been known to e-mail recipe “suggestions” to his friends before they drive up from Manhattan. (The nearest market is six miles away, and the restaurants in the area, he said, close at 7 p.m.)
The house is a modest ranch with a full basement. To make it more to his liking, Mr. Mixner had the exterior painted bright yellow and added a front porch, where he sits in a rocking chair while waiting for visitors to arrive. He also had a screened porch built in back; there, he watches (and occasionally converses with) the deer.
“I thought I’d be living like Thoreau, but it’s more like Dr. Dolittle,” he said. (The porch contains a statue of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals.)
Inside, the cheerful rooms are filled with artwork and memorabilia, including antiwar posters and newspaper clippings. One sculpture consists of the faces of friends who died of AIDS, molded in Lucite and lighted from behind with neon. He never turns it off. “It’s my eternal flame,” he said.
His other eternal flame is the computer screen. Mr. Mixner’s main activity these days is blogging — his site, davidmixner.com, offers a mix of political discourse, arts criticism and folksy commentary on day-to-day life in Turkey Hollow. “People will stop me on the street in New York and ask me about Attila and Kate,” he said, referring to the deer mentioned in many of his postings.
Not that he has forgotten about politics. “I have more political influence here than I did living in the city,” he said.
Last winter, Mr. Mixner endorsed John Edwards for president. The leading Democratic candidates, he said, have similar views on gay rights, but Mr. Edwards, he believes, has the best position on Iraq. Although Mr. Mixner no longer raises money for candidates, he is closely connected to people who do.
But mostly, he said, he is interested in nurturing deer like Attila and young gay activists like Mr. Van Capelle. The house, he said, “is a sanctuary for animals and a sanctuary for ideas.”