'Chicken Hawk': The Controversy

For a documentary, it's got a little of everything: sexual aberration and family values, radical sodomites and rabid reactionaries, ancient Greece and Allen Ginsberg. And when it was shown last March at the New York Underground Film Festival, Adi Sideman's "Chicken Hawk: Men Who Love Boys"--a 55-minute documentary about the North American Man-Boy Love Assn.--started the feathers flying.

Founded in Boston in 1978 and currently claiming 1,500 members, NAMBLA celebrates sexual liaisons between adult men and underage boys. Not surprisingly, its existence has provoked every response but ambiguity: Conservative groups loathe the NAMBLA-ites; most gay groups despise them because their predilection feeds into the oldest homophobic stereotype about gays in general--that they are, by nature, child molesters; and even those who would ordinarily defend the civil liberties involved are put off by NAMBLA. The group holds meetings, operates a hot line and publishes a newsletter, all in the face of a dearth of public support.

So it might be surprising that a film would give such a group a platform, allowing them to air their positions while showing them being threatened, reviled and going about NAMBLA business.

But amid the protest marches, angry press conferences and widespread fury about NAMBLA--something that is certain to follow the movie to Los Angeles when it opens Friday at the Los Feliz--director Sideman sat in a sea of relative calm. Because, with the exception of his NYU film school professor--who questioned whether the film was socially responsible, and then gave him an A on the project anyway--no one on either side of the issue has had a bad word to say about it.

"I'm pro-'Chicken Hawk' and anti-NAMBLA," said Tom McDonough, 47, founder of the conservative, anti-homosexual organization Straight Kids USA, whose virulent opposition to NAMBLA is a major component of Sideman's film.

"I'm glad they're getting their 15 minutes of fame," he said. "I'm glad they're getting this exposure, because they're an organization that's out to do harm--dropping the age of consent laws is what they really want to do--and a lot of the members are involved in child pornography. They only did this movie if they were allowed tell their side of the story, and it really makes them look evil."

Chimes in Don Rosenberg, 46, of the New York-based National Traditionalist Caucus, "We thought the movie was very fair. I think Adi did a very good job of letting Leyland Stevenson (the film's central character) and his cohorts hang themselves."

Stevenson, 55, a spokesman for NAMBLA, was the focus of much criticism when the film opened in New York July 6 as perhaps the most riveting example of NAMBLA-ism. Shown in the film smiling beatifically as he discusses his sexual preference for young boys, or trying to wheedle his way into a boy's confidence at a small-town strip mall, Stevenson comes across as a man who savors his sexual encounters with unbridled joy.

"It's a positive movie," said Stevenson, who has been arrested for possession of child pornography and describes himself as an investor. "It presents flesh-and-blood human beings, as distinguished from stereotypes. It does not attempt to represent man-boy relationships with some absurd preconception that all such relationships are wrong or bad. It simply shows a few people who happen to be members of NAMBLA, and happen to be interested in boys, as what they are: People who have a system of values, a set of ethics and a set of priorities about what's worth doing in life, on their own terms."

For Sideman, 23, who came to the United States from his native Israel, discovering the existence of NAMBLA was only slightly more surprising than has been the reaction to his film.

"The Straight Kids people are happy with it because they think it shows the kind of atrocities NAMBLA is about, how evil they really are," Sideman said. "And NAMBLA loves the film, because its members think it shows how humane they are. It's something I never expected. But both extremes have found a way to use it for their own political reasons."

That there is such unanimity of opinion between warring factions is testimony to "Chicken Hawk's" coldly objective point of view.

"I never had a script, or an agenda," said the director, now an NYU senior. "I didn't set out saying, 'I'm going to crucify these people.' I knew that were going to do it to themselves." He laughs.

"What are we supposed to do?" he asks, of those who, like his professor, would call "Chicken Hawk" an apology for NAMBLA. "Should we shove it all under the carpet? If we simply say, 'These people are monsters,' and don't discuss it, they may very well just act like monsters."

McDonough's pursuit of--some might say obsession with--NAMBLA helped break a March, 1993, WNBC-TV story revealing that member Peter Melzer, who is seen in the film, was teaching at the Bronx High School of Science. He has so far focused almost exclusively on the organization, but sees its existence as symptomatic of larger issues.

"What we're trying to do is help stem the tide of gay propaganda that's been going on in America," said McDonough, who calls his Straight Kids USA a "sexual identity support group." "Homosexuals have hundreds of support groups to make them feel comfortable about being a homosexual. Now, if you feel comfortable about something, there's no need to change. So these groups are actually helping to keep them homosexual. We want to make straight kids feel comfortable about being hetero sexual."

"What a lot of nonsense," responds Stevenson. "As if the vast 90-plus percent of society was not already promoting that particular lifestyle."

Stevenson and McDonough never meet on film; McDonough and members of the National Traditionalist Caucus are seen demonstrating outside the home of Renato Corazzo, the voice of the NAMBLA hot line (whose recorded message urging callers to "be safe, be brave, be proud to be a boy lover" been been played repeatedly on the Howard Stern radio show). NAMBLA members are seen being castigated by civil-rights groups at the gay march on Washington. A father is heard saying of Leyland Stevenson, "If he came near my kid, I'd kill him."

Ginsberg, who is seen briefly, issued a statement following the release of the film, saying that he'd joined the group in the mid-'80s as a "matter of civil rights and free speech," and as a response to the "self-righteousness" of the news media's judgment of the group. "To my knowledge, he hasn't seen the film," said Ginsberg associate Bob Rosenthal. "Allen is not a pedophile. I have many times trusted Allen in the company of my sons. His NAMBLA membership was purely about civil liberties."

While some may want to distance themselves from the group, or the movie, Stevenson--whose frankness about his sexual preferences earns grudging respect even from McDonough--holds firm.

"If I have any particular courage," he said, "it is simply to acknowledge that truth has a much higher value than the approval that other people may or may not give one at a certain point. If it's necessary to be politically incorrect--and in this society it seem absolutely essential if one is even going to approach truth--then I'm going to be as radically politically incorrect as necessary to further that objective."

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