The counterculture astrology of Gavin Arthur

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SAN FRANCISCO – Few people have heard of Gavin Arthur (1901–1972). Yet, he played a central role in modern astrology, the counterculture, and radical gay spirituality. He cast the horoscope that determined the date for the Human Be-In of 1967.

An early advocate for gay liberation, Arthur was part of a chain linking Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassidy, Edward Carpenter, and Walt Whitman. His grandfather was Chester A. Arthur, President of the US (1881-1885). Recently, The Wild Hunt spoke with Joey Cain, an independent gay historian and curator about his research into the life of Gavin Arthur.

Besides what is described below, Gavin Arthur had a fascinating life that touched on many critical events. He traveled to Europe to take part in the Irish War of Independence (1918-1921). He founded an artist colony. In 1930, he acted in a film about an interracial, mixed gender love affair, “Borderline.” That film marked Paul Robeson’s film debut. He became friends with Neal Cassady, the model for Dean Moriarty, in Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.” Gavin Arthur should be better known.

Cain described Arthur’s world as one of constant flux. “The occult and the neopagan community all flowed into one another. The hippies, the sex radicals, the psychedelic cultural radicals, and even the left wing” mixed together. Cain stressed the excitement of that period, “Where things are just pouring in, you’re not going deeply into anything because all this new stuff is coming at you.” In Arthur’s world Pagans, Yogis, Sufi Muslims, and Occultists mingled and energized each other.

In that world, identities had greater fluidity. Gavin Arthur wrote about his male-on-male sex activity. He never self-identified as gay but advocated for sexual freedom. Married three times to women, one a lesbian, Arthur had no known children. He died just three years after Stonewall. Cain identifies Arthur as bisexual.

Astrology and the Human Be-In of 1967

By the 1960s, Gavin Arthur had become a well-known and respected astrologer. In 1966, some Bay Area activists, cultural and political, began to plan a transformative event. They wanted to unite the cultural radicals of the Haight, and the political radicals of Berkeley. Those plans led to the Human Be-In.

Gavin Arthur, in uniform, and wife Esther Arthur in 1942 [Public Domain]

In order to have maximum astrological impact, its organizers asked Arthur to determine the most auspicious date. Arthur determined that January 14, 1967 would have the greatest impact. Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg, Dick Gregory, Jerry Rubin, Alan Watts and others spoke that day. Performers included the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead.

In the culture of the 60s, the Human Be-In acquired legendary status. Its full title was “A Gathering of the Tribes for a Human Be-In.” While common in the 60s, that use of the word, “tribes,” now has more than a hint of cultural appropriation.

In 1968, Arthur and Dane Rudhyar held a debate on how to date the start of the Age of Aquarius.

The Circle of Sex (1966) by Gavin Arthur

According to Cain, Arthur had two “gurus,” Walt Whitman (1819-1892) and Edward Carpenter (1844-1929). Both were poets with radical critiques of the mercantile “culture of greed.” The writings of both were steeped in homo-eroticism and spirituality. Carpenter was out and still alive, but in England. Arthur had traveled to Europe in the 20s and visited Edward Carpenter and his boyfriend. During that visit, Arthur and Carpenter had sex.

Few people today know about, Edward Carpenter. People have called him the “godfather of the English gay left.” Carpenter was a writer, a poet, a philosopher, and a socialist. In 19th Century England he advocated for gay liberation. He influenced D. H. Lawrence, Sri Aurobindo, and E.M. Forster. Carpenter traveled to the US in the 1870s and spent considerable time with Whitman. Hinduism influenced Carpenter spiritually.

from 1905 now in public domain

Edward Carpenter in 1905 [Public Domain]

Later in his life, Arthur discussed that visit with Allen Ginsberg. In the 70s, “Gay Sunshine” published an interview with Ginsberg. In that interview Ginsberg repeated Arthur’s story of sex with Edward Carpenter. In 1967, Arthur wrote about his encounter with Carpenter. He gave that article to Leyland Publications who printed it in Gay Sunshine Interviews, Vol 1. In this article, Arthur also asked Carpenter if he had had sex with Whitman. Carpenter said that they had. Many people immediately challenged that story demanding more proof.

Cain’s research

The “Gay Sunshine” article, and its skeptics, prompted Cain to start researching Arthur’s life. In 2005, the “Walt Whitman Quarterly Review” became involved in this debate. According to that article, the “Gay Sunshine” story matches an earlier version in Arthur’s 1962 book, “The Circle of Sex.” In this book, Arthur plotted sexual variations on a circle. This model differed from Kinsey’s linear scale, ranging from “0” (exclusive heterosexuality) to “6” (exclusive homosexuality).

Cain wrote published his research on the Arthur- Carpenter-Whitman connection in the Edward Carpenter Forum. In that article, Cain uses Arthur’s birth name, “Chester.” Later in the 1930s, Arthur changed his first name to “Gavin.”

According to Cain, Carpenter also discussed his time with Whitman. In his letters, Carpenter wrote about how he had the most transformative experience with Walt Whitman. Cain considers this about as “close as we are ever going to get” to hearing a guy saying in 1876 that he had sex with Walt Whitman.

Cain pointed out that any such “proof” from the 1870s would have exposed the people involved to persecution and prosecution. No one requires proof that that married mixed-sex couples have had sex. It is just assumed to be true.

A second, serendipitous event further spurred Cain’s interest in researching Gavin Arthur. Cain found a used copy of Carpenter’s “Towards Democracy” in a used bookstore for $3.00. It had a lot of writing in it. Cain noticed the following lament among the notes in the book, “This is one of my Bibles, please return. This volume is the third I have had to buy, people being so dishonest about books.” Then he looked below and saw Gavin Arthur’s signature and address. The writing belonged to Arthur. The book in his hand had once belonged to Gavin Arthur. He went up to the cashier who said, “It’s a shame about all this writing in it.” Cain replied, “Let me pay for it first, and then I’ll tell you about this writing.”

Cain considers Gavin Arthur to be in the tradition of radical gay politics and spirituality. While centered in gay experience, it radiates outward to “contain multitudes.” That tradition originates in what Cain calls Whitman’s “social and spiritual program to counteract the culture of greed that has become so embedded in US democracy.” Cain feels that this “broader vision of gay liberation needs to be rediscovered.” Learning about Gavin Arthur, along with Whitman, Carpenter, and Ginsberg can help to reconnect with it.