An Amazing Escape

John Brand takes a look at James Randi – the celebrated Canadian-American stage magician and scientific sceptic – who, earlier this year at the age of 81, came out as gay.

On 21 March, through an entry on his blog, Swift, and an interview on For Good Reason – the Internet-based interview programme, hosted by D. J. Grothe, which promotes “critical thinking and scepticism about the central beliefs of society” – James Randi came out of the closet.

Douglas James Grothe
Douglas James Grothe

I believe that every gay person should be out of the closet, and my first reaction was to wonder what had taken him so long. However, I quickly realised that I was being a little mean spirited. As someone who was born in more enlightened times, I can’t begin to imagine what it must have been like growing up gay in the 1930s and 40s, and living most of your adult life pretending to be something other than you are.

This is what Randi posted on the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) website:

Well, here goes. I really resent the term, but I use it because it’s recognized and accepted.

I’m gay.

From some seventy years of personal experience, I can tell you that there’s not much “gay” about being homosexual. For the first twenty years of my life, I had to live in the shadows, in a culture that was — at least outwardly — totally hostile to any hint of that variation of life-style. At no time did I choose to adopt any protective coloration, though; my cultivation of an abundant beard was not at all a deception, but part of my costume as a conjuror.

Gradually, the general attitude that I’d perceived around me began to change, and presently I find that there has emerged a distinctly healthy acceptance of different social styles of living — except, of course, in cultures that live in constant and abject fear of divine retribution for infractions found in the various Holy Books… In another two decades, I’m confident that young people will find themselves in a vastly improved atmosphere of acceptance.

Before publishing this statement, I chose to privately notify a number of my closest friends and colleagues — none of whom, I’m sure, have been at all surprised at this “coming out.” I’m prepared to receive the inevitable barrage of jeers and insults from the “grubbies” out there who will jump to their keyboards in glee to notify others of their kind about this statement, which to them will be yet further proof of the perfidy of the rationalist mode of life that I have chosen. Those titters of joy will be unheard over the murmur of acceptance that I confidently expect from my friends.

This declaration of mine was prompted just last week by seeing an excellent film — starring Sean Penn – that told the story of politician Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California. I’m in excellent company: Barney Frank, Oscar Wilde, Stephen Fry, Ellen DeGeneres, Rachel Maddow, are just a few of those who were in my thoughts as I pressed the key that placed this on Swift and before the whole world…

I should apologize for having used Swift as the venue to publish this note, an item that is hardly the focus of what we promote and publish here, but I chose the single most public asset I have to make this statement. It’s from here that I have attacked irrationality, stupidity, and irresponsibility, and it is my broadest platform. Here is where I have chosen to stand and fight. 

And I think that I have already won this battle by simply publishing this statement.

Sadly, Randi’s announcement tells us much more about our society than it does about a single individual. However, I think it’s wonderful that he has lived long enough to see a time when acceptance of who we are is beginning to emerge, and I congratulate him on his honesty.

James Randi
James Randi

Now best known around the world as a challenger of so-called pseudoscience and claims of the paranormal, Randi, as the Amazing Randi, enjoyed a long career as a stage magician. He retired at the age of 60, and switched to investigating paranormal, occult and supernatural claims, which he refers to, collectively, as “woo-woo”.

Randi has written a number of books, including Conjuring: Being a Definitive History of the Venerable Arts of Sorcery, Prestidigitation, Wizardry, Deception, & Chicanery and of the Mountebanks & Scoundrels Who have Perpetrated these Subterfuges on a Bewildered Public, in short, MAGIC! (1993), An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural (1995), which includes an introduction by Arthur C Clarke, The Truth About Uri Geller (1982), and, with Bert Randolph Sugar, Houdini, His Life and Art (1976). In 2003, he wrote the essay, “Why I Deny Religion, How Silly and Fantastic It Is, and Why I’m a Dedicated and Vociferous Bright”, and has recently published the e-document, A Magician in the Laboratory.

In 1996, he founded the not-for-profit organisation, the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF). Its aim is to “promote critical thinking by reaching out to the public and media with reliable information about paranormal and supernatural ideas so widespread in our society today”.

The Foundation’s goals include:

  • Creating a new generation of critical thinkers through lively classroom demonstrations and by reaching out to the next generation in the form of scholarships and awards
  • Demonstrating to the public and the media, through educational seminars, the consequences of accepting paranormal and supernatural claims without questioning
  • Supporting and conducting research into paranormal claims through well-designed experiments utilizing “the scientific method” and by publishing the findings in the JREF official newsletter, Swift, and other periodicals
  • Providing reliable information on paranormal and pseudoscientific claims by maintaining a comprehensive library of books, videos, journals, and archival resources open to the public
  • Assisting those who are being attacked as a result of their investigations and criticism of people who make paranormal claims, by maintaining a legal defense fund available to assist these individuals.

Click here, to read Randi’s essay on religion, “Why I Deny Religion, How Silly and Fantastic It Is, and Why I’m a Dedicated and Vociferous Bright”.

To listen to an extensive discussion on being gay and coming out of the closet, listen to Randi’s appearance on For Good Reason.

Related links
James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF)
James Randi (Wikipedia entry)
Swift
For Good Reason
D. J. Grothe