This section of our newsletter is dedicated to the life of intactivist Van Lewis, who passed away Monday, June 6, 2011. You'll find a collection of articles, photos and a video of Van Lewis.
Two young men were arrested yesterday in front of the Tallahassee Memorial Hospital carrying signs and shouting at motorists.
Identified as Benjamin Bridges Lewis of 424 N. Calhoun St. and William Van Brunt Lewis of 3117 Okeeheepkee Road, were charged with disturbing the peace and turned over to county officials.
A leaflet they carried said that an average of 60 male babies per month were circumcised in Tallahassee despite "scientific research which has shown infant circumcision to be physicaly, bio-energetically, sexually, emotionally, and physically damaging."
County Prosecutor John Rudd signed the affidavit with the charges.
Showing Ben's face; my ass. The other side of my sign read, "Infant Circumcision is a Sex Crime. Abolish It."
The article contains two errors. First, we were not 'shouting at motorists', they were shouting at us. I remember two; A man driving by in a pick-up truck, first raised & shakin', yellin', smilin', "YOU TELL 'EM, SONNY!", and a woman in a station wagon filled with screamin' kids, shriekin' at us, "YOU ASSHOLES!" You got the feelin' she thought we should'a been burnin' babies in Vietnam, not fightin' for 'em in America.
The second error is in the article's misquote of our leaflet. We didn't say "physicaly ... and physically damaging", we said "physically, ... and psychically damaging". A new word for the Democrat then, I guess.
Tallahassee soon won't have Van Lewis to call wacko anymore. Or maybe not.
Lewis ran twice unsuccessfully for City Commission in the 1990s, citing his experience as a centuries old Apalachee Indian warrior, Ahunahana, who had been reincarnated in "my clever Caucasian disguise." So you can't rule out an encore.
But the curtain is dropping on this act. Lewis, 68, has advanced pancreatic cancer, a notoriously fatal cancer, which usually claims its victims within six to nine months of diagnosis. Lewis was diagnosed in February.
Yet as is the wont of a man who has been called quixotic, offbeat and, yes, even crazy, Lewis sees his plight as an opportunity.
"Here's the important question: How well can I live while I'm alive? How well can I love the people around me and show them I love them?" Lewis said last week. "(Since his diagnosis), I feel I have grown. I'm not saying I wasn't a loving person before. But this is an intensification."
Lewis is a Tallahassee icon — in a Southern Gothic sort of way: the eccentric son of an eccentric mother.
Clifton Van Brunt was a pretty Tallahassee May Queen, who married a fifth-generation Tallahassee banker, George Lewis. They had four children, famously commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to design their home near Lake Jackson and did all the dutiful Southern things for a while. But in the 1950s, when blacks began to advocate for civil rights, the Lewises joined the movement. At some peril to their standing among Tallahassee's white aristocracy, Clifton and George Lewis spent decades protesting racism, injustice, unfairness and assaults on the less fortunate.
Clifton Lewis, who has retired from the public scene, earned indulgent eye-rolling for her odd tunics, caps and stream-of-consciousness rhetoric. And her second child, christened with his mother's maiden name, William Van Brunt Lewis, has proved equally iconoclastic. He abandoned Harvard after a year, "because I didn't want to lose my fresh mind," and pursued his passions: organic farming, boat-building, seafood selling, solar energy, composting toilets, clam farming, religion, political office — and medical activism.
For more than 40 years, he has been an implacable foe of male circumcision. In 1970, he was arrested for picketing Tallahassee Memorial Hospital, carrying a sign that called physicians who perform circumcisions "Sex Criminals for Hire." He has harangued city, county and state lawmakers. He has written letters to the editor.
Talking about circumcision sends him into spittle-flying, lectern-pounding, top-of-the-lungs fury. His vehemence sometimes scares people — especially on a seemingly arcane topic few ever ponder. Hence, the crazy tag.
But those who know him say it's an unfair perception that ignores his reality away from the soapbox.
It ignores that he's adored by his wife of 38 years, longtime administrator Mary Balthrop, two high-achieving adult daughters and two grandchildren. It ignores that he's been a hard-working businessman, whose family, he says, was never as wealthy as supposed. It ignores that he is a warm-hearted, generous man, beloved by friends. It ignores that his social fervor is born of an extraordinary intelligence and curiosity.
"People see Van out holding a sign about circumcision or whatever that strikes them the wrong way and they draw their opinion from there. But they don't know Van Lewis," said Tallahassee attorney Tommy Warren, a friend for 40 years. "He is brilliant, and the reason he is different is because he's brilliant. Otherwise, he'd be like the rest of us."
Lewis is living out his final days at Camp Itldo, the open-air, "wooden tent" of a beach house built by his grandfather in 1908 at St. Teresa Beach. A once-sinewy 6-foot, 160 pounds, he is down to 120 pounds and subsisting on juices, broths and mother's milk donated by friends.
In a four-hour visit last week, he was more engaging than odd. He regaled a visitor with stories about clam farming, insights on nutrition, his adventures abroad as a young man and his belief, despite being a lifelong Episcopalian, the universe is ruled by, "I don't know that I'd call it God; I call it love."
Of course, duty required one offer him a chance to explain his crusade against circumcision — which led to a few rants. Lewis considers circumcision to be genital mutilation, which causes trauma that prevents men from bonding with their mothers and leaves them forever psychologically scarred. He ascribes "being a madman" in his mid-20s to his own circumcision. He asserts hundreds of babies are killed every year by infection caused by circumcision. And he has done everything he can to rid the world of the practice, from attending annual rallies in Washington, D.C., to helping persuade Florida legislators in 2003 to stop state Medicaid funding for circumcision.
"It's personal with me," Lewis said. "There is no competent medical claim that it is medically necessary. It is a fundamental violation of human rights. Nobody has the right to cut off your nose because they think you'll look better. The only reason physicians get away with it is because medicine is a business, not a profession."
It is a crusade for which he will be remembered in Tallahassee. And maybe not warmly. But his wife praises him for fighting for what he believes.
"Van is a person who cares deeply about babies, and to take a knife to a baby bothered him on a scientific level and a human level," she said. "The more he learned, the more compelled he felt to have people look at the issue, even if it caused him embarrassment, harassment or discomfort.
"Just because someone thinks you're crazy doesn't mean you are. And you shouldn't let it stop you from doing what you do."
Maybe his crusade is not over. Lewis' interest in reincarnation traces to his teenage days roaming the Lake Jackson Indian Mounds, pondering the fate of the Apalachee Indians who once lived there and thinking, "Maybe I'm here because I was one of those people."
"That an organic, peaceful culture — at least among themselves — would vanish, didn't compute with me," he said. "What did compute is that our bodies stop, but we go on."
And Ahunahana shall return.
Unable to speak Monday morning because of his illness, Van Lewis took a marker and wrote a message on a white board. It was a few sentences about his impending death. It concluded:
"Maybe God's main work with me is done. My body stops. I don't. I'll try to do my job. I'll let God take care of God's."
Apparently, that was the signal God needed. Lewis died Monday afternoon — looking out at the ocean from his house at St. Teresa — four months after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
Lewis, who was the subject of a column in Sunday's Tallahassee Democrat, was 68. He is survived by his wife of 38 years, Mary Balthrop, and their two adult daughters, plus his mother, two brothers and a sister.
"He was a very unique person and he'll be missed," said Tallahassee attorney Tommy Warren, a longtime friend. "He created his own special energy that had a very positive impact on the community."
Lewis was renowned for his sometimes-quixotic social activism. Since 1970, he had led a tireless crusade against male circumcision, picketing hospitals, attending rallies and writing letters to the editor. He called circumcision genital mutilation and said circumcising infants was a "violation of human rights."
He ran twice unsuccessfully for the Tallahassee City Commission (1993, 1994), calling for that board to be expanded from five members to nine members, railing against historic preservation restrictions and criticizing the "tyranny" of local government on several issues.
"Van was willing to say things the way he saw them even when people had a hard time understanding, because he thought it was so important," said David Maloney, a state administrative law judge and a Lewis friend of more than 40 years. "Certainly, he was unconventional. But I admired his conviction."
Lewis was a fifth-generation Tallahasseean; his great, great grandfather founded the Lewis State Bank in 1856, which the family ran until it was sold to a banking corporation in 1974. Lewis attended Harvard for one year before dropping out to pursue a range of passions.
He lived for a few years in Boston and London, and spent one summer on a ship in the Mediterranean Sea working for Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. When he returned to Tallahassee in the late 1960s, he spent time as a boat-builder, crab harvester and organic farmer. For nearly 15 years, he operated a seafood store on Thomasville Road. He started a solar energy company and a company that made composting toilets. For the past decade, he was a clam farmer in St. Teresa, gaining renown for raising a succulent form of clam that won raves from area restaurateurs and national seafood shows.
He came by his activism naturally: His parents, Clifton and George Lewis, were among Tallahassee's earliest white supporters of the local civil rights movement. His now-retired mother marched in rallies and spoke out on numerous causes; his late father was the first area banker to give loans to black residents.
"(The Lewis family) are a bunch of people who tried to do good in the world," said Tallahassee author Diane Roberts, a longtime family friend. "They're thinkers, they're not content to just go along. Van learned that from his mother and daddy."
Lewis had a strong concern for the environment. In 1975, Lewis expended his savings to buy a lake and surrounding 20 acres of forest in Wakulla County to save it from development. He later sold the property to the federal St. Marks Wildlife Refuge. He spent last summer as an independent contractor, helping to clean up the Gulf of Mexico after the BP oil spill (writing his last indignant letter to the editor on the subject in May 2010).
His wife spent many years as director of Florida State University's London Center, and joked she could never get her husband to move to London because "he has a taproot at the bottom of his feet that keeps him rooted to Florida sand." "Van was very interested in sustainability, whether it was seafood or forestry or building," said David Avant III, a Lewis cousin. "He was just a first-class guy, who was misunderstood by some."
A memorial service is expected to be held in a couple of weeks at St. Johns Episcopal Church.
"It is so sad," Roberts said. "Van was lots of fun and the most gentle person I have ever known. He was sweetness personified."
William "Van" Brunt Lewis, 68, died at home at St. Teresa on Monday, June 6th of pancreatic cancer. Born in Tallahassee on May 17, 1943 to Clifton Van Brunt and George Lewis II, he was raised in Tallahassee and spent summers at St. Teresa.
He is survived by a very large and beloved family: his wife of 38 years, Mary Alda Balthrop, their children, Amara Teresa Hastings, Alda Balthrop-Lewis, son-in-law Al Hastings, and grandchildren, Sarah "Sadie" Teresa and William "Tate" Hastings; his adored mother, Clifton Van Brunt Lewis, and siblings, George Edward Lewis II and wife Mary Ann, Clifton Byrd Lewis Mashburn, and Benjamin Bridges Lewis; aunts and uncles Betty Lewis, Frank and Jean Lewis, Betty Harrison, Bill Lewis, Jenn Van Brunt, and Bunny Van Brunt; 7 sisters-in-law, 7 brothers-in-law, 48 nieces and nephews, 19 grand-nieces and nephews, and many beloved cousins and friends.
He attended Sealey and Cobb, and graduated from Leon High School class of 1961. He attended Harvard College for one year with the class of 1965, and played the conch shell with the Harvard Band. He was granted a leave of absence by Harvard College that welcomed him to return whenever he chose. He remained on leave for the rest of his life, and maintained a great enthusiasm for Harvard and his classmates and attended many reunions with great interest and joy. He had a life-long friendship with his much-loved Harvard Biology professor and mentor George Wald. He learned from George that "the really difficult but exciting and important part of life is sensing what questions are important to ask and determining how to ask them intelligently so that the correct answers come out as a matter of course."
In 1973 and 1974 he worked in East Point as a boat builder's apprentice to Mr. Joseph Lolley, whom he described as a fisherman, boat builder, and saint. He credited Mr. Lolley with teaching him how to live and love and die.
In 1975 he began Lewiseafoods, a seafood business with operations on Thomasville Road in Tallahassee and in Apalachicola which he ran for 15 years with the help of dedicated partners and employees. In 2001 he started a clam farm in Alligator Harbor near his home, providing clams to local restaurants and farmers' markets. His passion for clams was contagious and he relished every opportunity to share his clams and trips to his clam farm. He was an enthusiastic and key participant in recent research and market development of the local Sun Ray Venus clam. His work as a clam farmer continued until the start of his illness in late 2010.
In early adulthood, he began to question the violence of both female and male circumcision and reached the conclusion that these acts, whether practiced as cultural rituals or medical procedure, were harmful to both individuals and the culture. As he studied and learned more, he became aware of general ignorance about the harm of these practices, specifically the trauma of male infant circumcision. As a result, he felt called to become an outspoken opponent of male infant circumcision. He was grateful to his many friends in Jews Against Circumcision (http://www.jewsagainstcircumcision.org) for educating him about how to live faithfully within a tradition while changing it for the better. Determined to remain focused on love even in the face of ignorance and ridicule, he taught passionately in every way he could that male infant circumcision is a medically unnecessary and harmful trauma that violates the rights of the child. For the innocent, vulnerable, and voiceless, he remained a tireless voice until the end of his life.
He was an environmentalist who cared deeply about the health of our planet. He became interested in organic farming in the late 1960s, taught biointensive agriculture as a FAVACA volunteer in multiple Caribbean nations, and was president of the Florida Organic Growers 1993 to 1995. He was a visionary protector of natural areas. He and his wife purchased 20 acres around Silver Lake in Wakulla County with the intention of saving it from development. They later sold the land for inclusion in the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge.
A dual citizen of both the United States and the Republic of Ireland, he loved to travel and experience other countries and cultures. But his primary loves were St. Teresa, the Gulf of Mexico, Franklin County, and spending time roaming Alligator Harbor and the Dog Island Reef with his much-loved wife Mary, Amara and Al, Alda and David, his grandchildren Sadie and Tate, nieces and nephews, and any other friends or relations he could safely fit on his boat Wild Thing. He was a playful man who loved to share stories, dance, and especially to sing. He said he was "basically just a family man."
His family would like to express their appreciation to the many caring professionals, friends and family who assisted them during his illness by sharing expertise, donating mother's milk, growing organic vegetables and wheat grass, cooking and cleaning, and most of all expressing your love to him.
A memorial service will be held at St John's Episcopal Church, 211 North Monroe, on Monday, June 20th at 3 p.m. His remains will be buried in a private burial at his home at St. Teresa.
In lieu of flowers, please send donations in Van's honor to any of the following organizations whose work he valued: NOCIRC (National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centers, PO Box 2512, San Anselmo, CA, 94979-2512, http://www.nocirc.org), Attorneys for the Rights of the Child (2961 Ashby Avenue, Berkeley, CA, 94705, http://www.arclaw.org), or Doctors Opposing Circumcision (2442 NW Market St., S-42, Seattle, WA, 98107, http://www.doctorsopposingcircumcision.org).
I want to thank my dear friend Mary Alda Balthrop [Van's widow] for doing me the great honor of allowing me to honor the memory of Van Lewis today. If we can write a man’s memory with a special pen capable of recording his feelings for others and theirs for him, a pen able to inscribe the immeasurable value he added to our lives, Van Lewis left a legacy of love that would stretch around the world and back again. I saw that love all around him—his wonderful wife, his many colleagues, and now, today, in his innumerable beloved relatives and his legion of close friends. I also saw it in his honorary status as the beloved grandfather of a large group of people around the world devoted to an issue that was close to his heart for 41 years.
With just days left to live, Van remained focused—as he always was--on love. He said at that time: "Here's the important question: How well can I live while I'm alive? How well can I love the people around me and show them I love them? Since my diagnosis, I feel I have grown. I'm not saying I wasn't a loving person before. But this is an intensification." Van knew himself well; he was always a profoundly and deeply loving person. Even near the end, at first he was going to decline to be interviewed about his life for the article recently published in the Tallahassee Democrat, but then he changed his mind when the thought occurred to him that some readers might read about his work and some babies might be saved from circumcision. Always thinking of others.
So how did Van get so deeply enmeshed in what for many is a strange issue, fighting circumcision? Mary summed it up as only she could: "Van is a person who cares deeply about babies, and to take a knife to a baby bothered him on a scientific level and a human level. In early adulthood, he began to question the violence of both female and male circumcision and reached the conclusion that these acts were harmful to both individuals and the culture. As he studied and learned more, he became aware of general ignorance about the harm of male infant circumcision. As a result, he felt called to become an outspoken opponent of male infant circumcision. Determined to remain focused on love even in the face of ignorance and ridicule, he taught passionately in every way he could that male infant circumcision is a medically unnecessary and harmful trauma that violates the rights of the child. For the innocent, vulnerable, and voiceless, he remained a tireless voice until the end of his life.”
Great leaders create great followers. Sometimes in a very specific way, as there were other activists who modeled themselves after Van and started similar campaigns in other places, learning from his trailblazing work. Often the lessons and inspiration were more general. Van led all of us in teaching us about living an inspired life, tenaciously and relentlessly fighting for what you believe in, fashionable or not. And about having a good belly laugh as often as possible.
Van said, “If laughing is healthy, then I will live to be 100 years old.” Well, he didn’t make it to the century mark, but that irrepressible, frequent, hearty laugh of his is still resonating in my ears. As I know it must be in many of your ears as well.
Nobel Laureate George Wald was Van’s mentor at Harvard. In fact, Van introduced Wald to the issue. Great leaders create great followers! After Wald gave a talk at Florida State in February 1975, Van offered at the reception to drive him to the airport. During the drive, Van asked him if he had ever thought about the circumcision issue, and he said he had not but would do so. Six months later, Wald sent Van a typewritten manuscript entitled, “Circumcision.”
That would have made a great story if it stopped there, but of course we all know that the words “stop” and “Van” cannot be grammatically used in the same sentence. Van did painstaking work extending over a number of years with Wald’s widow until the paper was finally presented by Van in 2004, 39 years after it was written, and was finally published in 2010. Van first saw the piece last October while at his 45th Harvard reunion and he was over the moon to see the article by his admired mentor finally in print.
Van painstakingly collected the names of boys who died after circumcision. For forty-one tireless, astonishing years, Van was a leading crusader on the behalf of all children. So he wasn’t just a man who loved like there was no tomorrow and who inspired the same in the world. He was also a man of stunning accomplishment.
Fellow activist Patricia Robinett said, “We lost a valiant warrior. van was the best... he could tease & scold & tear apart an argument... and then soothe the defeated with a smile and his soft southern drawl.”
At the mention of Van Lewis’ name, activist Ron Low weeps, even if he happens to be speaking on a radio show. Now, I’ve known Ron Low for a number of years. He is a well-grounded businessman, not one particularly prone to excesses of emotionality. Until Van’s name comes up, that is.
Van had that effect on many of us. He was the greatest of men, the sort of man who called up the very best each of us had to offer, and saw us for the best we had to offer too.
I know I was decades behind many of you, but I first met Van in April 1999 in Chicago. Somehow we quickly became friends and when I saw him and his wife Mary in Washington, DC in 2001, we spent some time together that will live in my heart forever. Of course, both Van and Mary did things the hard way and pulled it off. Mary flew over from London and Van drove up in his beloved truck from Florida. It was as if time stood still. Can life be this wonderful, I asked myself. Can such amazing people really exist? And why am I lucky enough to know them, even to be friends with them? Van inspired these kind of thoughts, this kind of love.
Van didn’t do things the easy way. Let me tell you another of his exploits, this one a recent one. Last December 17 was the fortieth anniversary of his first demonstration against circumcision, when he was arrested and held in jail for several hours. In Mary’s words, “On this day, Van went by himself to the exact spot at the hospital where he demonstrated in 1970. His signs in 2010 had the exact same messages as in 1970. It was raining and cold that day and Van began to have the nausea that he later learned was associated with his cancer. But he went anyway. He was so cold and tired that night but he was also so very very happy that he had been able to do his demonstration on the exact 40-year anniversary.”
Van and I in some ways were oil and water. A lawyer more or less forced by my position with Attorneys for the Rights of the Child to represent serious, establishment thoughts could have clashed with a let-it-all-hang-out, religiously observant clam farmer from Florida. But Van always was able to see the real person underneath my seemingly solid disguise. (It always amused both me and Van that we two fringe characters both spent time at Harvard.) I couldn’t hide my heart from Van any more than anyone else could. Van, a true lover and man of many passions, always saw and brought out passion in others.
Van’s activist strategies sometimes got him into trouble with others in the movement who thought he might be making us look bad. Van was the sweetest, kindest, gentlest, and most loving soul I have ever had the privilege of knowing--until he got to writing about cutting babies' genitals, and then he became ferocious. Marilyn Milos said, “Because of his ferocious commitment to his beliefs, even people who agreed with his message didn't necessarily appreciate the way he delivered that message. When they began to criticize his activism, Van called to tell me he no longer wanted to serve as a NOCIRC Center director because he didn't want to cause animosity in our movement and he certainly wasn't going to keep his mouth shut!” But in the end Van Lewis did the impossible and ended Medicaid payments for circumcision in a Southern state, sometimes banging on tables to get there, and in the process saving Florida $2.7 million per year, no chump change.
At the Berkeley symposium last year, Van led the signature collection drive for a petition to the government. Van also webmastered a different [Ashley Montagu] petition drive. Both the signature collection and the webmastering of the petitions were such appropriate things for him to do, given his ability to reach and touch the hearts of so many.
Leonard Glick is a distinguished anthropology professor, a man of careful, nuanced language not given to overstatement. Len said, “Saying that someone's eyes twinkled is a cliche, but that comes first to mind when I remember Van. He would look at me with that soft gentle gaze and deliver an impossibly optimistic proposal for what I might do next to end circumcision. But I knew that nothing seemed impossible to Van - not if it might save a few more infants. He was one of a kind. I wrote and sent a card. He responded when there was little time remaining, speaking about the importance of love.”
Van wrote a long article about Christianity and circumcision, filled with Bible quotations and his thoughtful meditations on the subject as he concluded that the Bible and Jesus call for Christian action to struggle against a practice he found abhorrent.
Along those lines, activist Michael Steffe may have some insight into what Van is currently up to, in case any of you were wondering: “As much as I know Van, instead of resting in peace he is now up there waking up God from a long afternoon nap to ask Him if he could use His power to send lightning bolts (of enlightenment) to strike those that have the nerve to mess with Mother Nature and to change His perfect Creation.”
Great lovers create great lovers. When I saw Van at the Berkeley symposium a little under a year ago, I had no idea that was the last time I would see him. I guess I assumed Van Lewis, beloved friend and colleague to so many of us, a force of nature, could no more pass on than the sky could die or the wind could go away forever. Van didn’t seem subject to ordinary rules and limitations. And his greatest gift may have been that he taught us, by word but more importantly by example, to love beyond what we might have thought possible and to shine gloriously and bravely in our lives, as William Van Brunt Lewis shined in his unique, wonderful, miraculous life.
An Episcopal memorial service was held for William Van Brunt Lewis (Van Lewis) at St. John's Episcopal Church on Monday afternoon, June 20, 2011.
St. John's Episcopal Church, which was constructed in 1888, is a large, beautifully-appointed brick church in downtown Tallahassee, Florida. It is flanked by live oak trees festooned with spanish moss.
The Lewis family is a prominent family in Tallahassee and they have many friends. The sanctuary was absolutely packed for this service.
The service included the Eucharist or Communion. J. Steven Svoboda of Attorneys for the Rights of the Child delivered a splendid eulogy.
A reception was held in the parish hall after the memorial service.
J. Steven Svoboda, David Wilson of Cocoa Beach, Florida, Randall Delaware, and I were the intactivists present at the memorial service.
Van's human remains had been cremated. His family had chosen to inter his ashes the previous day, Father's Day, June 19, 2011, at St. Teresa Beach, an unincorporated community on U. S. Highway 98 in Franklin County about 30 miles south of Tallahassee, where Van had a home and where he was a clam farmer and which he loved.
Van worked very hard on getting the Florida legislature to remove Medicaid funding from circumcision. He was successful. By his work, he must have saved many thousands of Florida boys from circumcision.
Florida is one of few states east of the Mississippi where only a minority of boys are circumcised.
Van, as many now know, motivated one of the greatest biology researchers and teachers the world has ever known, the beloved Harvard biologist George Wald, to examine circumcision in the light of his vast knowledge of almost everything. Professor Wald did so, and wrote about it in 1975. We just got it published in the 10th International Symposium proceedings, some 35 years late. What a committed Jewish male, who is also a great teacher, philosopher, and humanitarian, not to mention Nobel Prize winner, thinks about the act of removing the foreskin should be of interest to everyone who has the least interest in this procedure, whether for or against it. Read it with care, and tell others about it. It is all right to copy it for your personal use.
Crying here in Vancouver, what a wonderful man. He ran such a good race. A life well lived. Gloria Lemay
I met Van at some of the protests outside AAP and/or ACOG meetings and his tale of being arrested protesting outside a hospital had a lot to do with my being cautious starting my protest outside the U of Chicago Hospital. (7 years now - began June 15th, 2004).
Of course, not wanting to get arrested, I first went to the U of Chicago Police to tell them about my intentions. I was told I was welcome to exercise my 1st Amendment right to protest. I wouldn’t mind going to jail for this cause if I could get fed, housed, and laid at taxpayer expense. However, I’m not good looking enough to go to jail. So, all I’d get is fed and housed.
Van Lewis made a powerful first and last impression on me! At a NOCIRC conference, at Georgetown University in Washington, Van strode into the room with an enormous bright red sign, carefully hand painted, which read, INFANT CIRCUMCISION IS A SEX CRIME, ABOLISH IT.
Van told his story, explained that this sign was a replica of the original that the Tallahassee police had destroyed, when they arrested Van and his brother Ben, for protesting infant circumcision outside hospital in 1970.
Despite the grim subject matter at the core of his presentation, Van brought warmth, wisdom and humor to the issue. Around the room people listened intently, we were all spellbound. He finished to thunderous applause.
I imagined photographing Van with his vivid sign up against some classic Washington monuments, ideally in front of the Lincoln Memorial or the Supreme Court, if that were possible. That busy afternoon we were too far from the mall and time wouldn’t permit so we went outside and we made some photos in front of the University buildings.
Last year I had the opportunity to see Van again and we taped a video interview. You can see what a marvelous storyteller his was, and how passionately he dedicated himself to the issue of human rights to genital integrity.
Van Lewis was a great human being. He inspired me and I will miss him greatly.
It was our beloved Intactivist friend Van Lewis who convinced Florida Medicaid not to pay for cutting up baby boys’ genitals anymore. He actually slammed his fist onto their table to wake them all up. We are all blessed that we had him as one of the smart, fearless and outspoken leaders in this movement and I was lucky enough to meet this extraordinary gentle man and yet fierce fighter for children's human rights a few times in my life. He was one of the first people I met through the Internet after I woke up and thought I was all alone with my disgust against those that strap or hold children down with force to attack them in the genitals. He always gave me compliments for the strong words I chose to defend the children and he always encouraged me to express myself the way I do; to show my anger and my sadness and to speak exactly the language that I am speaking. He was my mentor. He once replied to something I sarcastically wrote about circumcisers. “If laughing is healthy then I will get a hundred years old.” He made me laugh too and he made my day.
As much as I know Van, instead of resting in peace he is now up there waking up God from a long afternoon nap to tell him what’s happening to his children here on earth and to his creation; he will ask him if he could use his power to send lightning bolts (of enlightenment) to hit those blatant liars and evil demons that stick knives into children’s genitals or Centers of Love; to bring to justice those that have no compassion and no respect for the other; those that have the nerve to mess with Mother Nature and to change his perfect Creation. (If it was me I would just ask for lightning bolts to evaporate them.)
He came to visit me in California and we made up signs and slogans for a demo at the SF Pride Parade. He marched with us in crotches even though he still had a hurting and unhealed wound from the tail of a dead Stingray that penetrated all the way through his boot and food some weeks before he travelled.
We all miss you Van. You are a hero.
You will now have wings to see this barbaric atrocity of child genital torture and mutilation coming to an end. Something you always hoped to see in your life time. I think we are very close to that goal. You are now our ally from heavenly realms and you may still want to telepathically inspire us with your wisdom, love and knowledge.
You will live in our hearts forever.
All the baby boys and children in this world and the adults they are becoming will thank you once all people realize what they have done to children and this dark part of human history is history forever; when the world will be filled with the light that once sparked in your heart and that you carefully nourished with your love for children and all people.
Thank you for the actions you took when you realized what had been done to you as a small defenseless child that grew into a strong man that announced the resistance against those that do this most despicable sex crime on helpless children. You almost killed your circumciser but you decided to carry a sign instead. It was a sign so clear and full of truth that the penis butchers inside this hospital called their mutilated slaves and still blinded victims to get you arrested. The movement would not be where it is today if you would not have been among us to wake up the blinded and to say NO to the oppressed oppressors.
Thanks for all you have done. You will never be forgotten. Once you told God what some misguided souls do to his children – rest in peace in the Kingdom of no more pain. I am sure God reserved a very special place for you.
We all love you.
Your friend Michael Steffe
Van brought to the movement against infant circumcision a level of energy and authenticity that we who heard him could never forget. He had the fire of the truth about him. Reason, humanity, and passion were there in all that he said and did.
The college we both attended has always had a one-word motto, veritas, that Van honored every day of his great life's work.
Harvard Class of 1962
The Tallahassee Democrat has published a long story by reporter Gerald Ensley on Van Lewis' activism and life. The article was published on December 14, 2011 to coincide with the 41st anniversary on December 17, 2011 of Van's first protest on behalf of children's right to genital integrity.
I was interviewed for the article, the text of which appears below. A PDF of the article including a photograph from that 1970 protest is attached to this email. I was deeply honored to be asked by Van's family to deliver a memorial speech in honor of Van at his service in June, incorporating the input of many activists who knew Van and admired his work.
Our best wishes go with everyone in this holiday season and especially with the memory of this great man and phenomenal activist.
Attorneys for the Rights of the Child
Saturday was the 41st anniversary of his first protest. Last year, on the 40th anniversary, he re-enacted the event. But while Van Lewis won’t make this year’s anniversary, it seems a good time to remember his favorite issue: male circumcision.
For four decades, Lewis waged war on the practice of cutting off the foreskin of male children, whether shortly after birth or as part of a pre-adulthood ritual. Lewis staged protests, published papers and harangued city, state and national officials.
He launched his campaign on Dec. 17, 1970, when he and his younger brother, Ben, marched in front of Tallahassee Memorial Healthcare carrying signs and talking to motorists. They were arrested and charged with disturbing the peace. This newspaper headlined the protest “Men’s Lib Picketers Arrested.”
Many of us — especially men circumcised as infants who have never given the matter a second thought — never understood Lewis’ passion about circumcision. But golly, you couldn’t deny he had it.
“Van helped start the movement (against male circumcision) with that protest in 1970; he was one of the top figures in the U.S.,” said Steve Svoboda, founder of the California-based Attorneys for the Rights of the Child, an anti-circumcision organization. “He got Florida to discontinue Medicaid (payments for circumcision). Others helped. But it was his personality, his persistence and his refusal to say no, that did that.”
Lewis, the scion of one of Tallahassee’s pioneer families, died in June of pancreatic cancer. Some 500 people packed St. John’s Episcopal Church to say goodbye to Lewis, 68. He was beloved by those who knew him for his intelligence, his charm, his loyalty to friends and his wide-ranging interests.
Son of two of Tallahassee’s most famous white civil rights protesters, he had grown up in a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, attended Harvard and worked for Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. He ran twice unsuccessfully for the Tallahassee City Commission. He was a seafood merchant and clam farmer, whose passion for the benefits of the Sunray Venus clam nearly rivaled his passion about circumcision.
But his public image was that of an odd duck — because of his fervent opposition against circumcision. Whether speaking at public hearings of the City Commission or protesting the 2000 presidential election at the Capitol, he could turn almost any discussion into a harangue against circumcision. And he did it with a volubility that could be scary.
A week before he died, I spent several hours with Lewis and his wife of 38 years, Mary Balthrop. The already slim Lewis had dropped 40 pounds to his disease and spent most of the visit lying in a hospital bed.
But whenever the topic of circumcision was broached, he sat bolt upright — and argued his points ferociously. The topic was, as he emphasized, “personal to me.”
“It’s a fundamental violation of human rights,” Lewis shouted that day — and then began quoting the Declaration of Independence. “Nobody has the right to chop off your nose because they think you’ll look better.”
Svoboda is a graduate of Harvard law school — where he was in the same 1991 class with President Barack Obama, “who I knew pretty well back then.” A patent attorney in Berkeley, he and his organization seek to raise awareness in the legal community and public about “the harm caused by genital cutting.”
Svoboda said circumcision became popular in the U.S. in the 1800s when it was considered to “stop every disease under the sun.” But he argues the evidence shows circumcision affects a man’s sexuality and takes away the immunological protections of the foreskin. Most of all, he seconds Lewis’ point, saying circumcising a boy is a violation of human rights.
“It takes away a boy’s right to decide what to do with his body before he reaches adulthood,” Svoboda said. “It’s an elective procedure by parents, and that’s where the violation of human rights occurs.”
Circumcision opponents fight an uphill battle to end the practice. They are accused of being anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim, because circumcision is a practice of both religions. They encounter apathy because most see circumcision as “something that’s already happened and you can’t do anything about,” Svoboda said. A petition to put an anti-circumcision measure on last year’s California ballot was deemed illegal before it went on the ballot — which “I’m not sure is legal,” Svoboda said. “Usually you vote on a petition then decide if it’s legal.”
Svoboda notes some countries (Sweden and South Africa) have passed laws against circumcision. He said male circumcision is often caught up in the debates over female circumcision, also called female genital mutilation, which is practiced in many African countries though banned in the U.S.
“One (male circumcision) seems natural to us and the other (female circumcision) doesn’t,” Svoboda said. “But I don’t think it’s natural. We don’t have female murder and male murder. We just have murder.”
Svoboda gave the eulogy at Lewis’ funeral. He had known Lewis since 2001, when they met at the annual Genital Integrity Awareness Week in Washington D.C. Svoboda allowed Lewis could be “dif- ficult to work with.”
“Van was not one of those guys you could say, ‘I agree with 99 percent of what you say, but not this 1 percent,’ and have him say ‘Yes, that’s OK.’ He was going to focus on that 1 percent (and keep arguing),” Svoboda said. “There aren’t too many people in the movement who didn’t sometimes feel frustrated and say, ‘Come on, Van, we’re all in this together.’ ”
But Svoboda said that didn’t diminish people’s affections for Lewis.
“(Lewis’ contentiousness) wasn’t one of those things you had to put up with to get to the good parts: His personality was Van; it’s what enabled him to do so much,” Svoboda said. “He was a true individual.”
Indeed, he was one of the indelible characters of Tallahassee — no matter how you felt about his favorite topic.