Starving for Attention

A San Francisco man fasts for a cause — to defeat California’s anti-gay marriage initiative.


In a corner of San Francisco’s Dolores Park, Johannes Van Vugt has erected a tiny encampment. This is no picnic, though. In fact, Van Vugt hasn’t consumed anything but water since he drank a glass of beet juice on Oct. 11, National Coming Out Day. He is publicly fasting in protest against the Knight Initiative, California’s anti-gay marriage referendum slated for this March’s ballot.

The seeds of the fast were planted four years ago. Working as an openly gay man in the Catholic Church his entire adult life, Van Vugt was on the brink of earning tenure after 10 years as a sociology professor at Saint Mary’s College in Moraga, Calif. Despite strong backing from his fellow faculty for his tenure, says Van Vugt, the college president denied him the position. The promising scholar sunk $60,000 into a doomed lawsuit that was ultimately killed by the San Francisco District Court of Appeals. Van Vugt blames a string of Republican-appointed judges and a legislative loophole that lets religiously-affiliated institutions freely discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, even if the job in question is as secular as his own sociology professorship.

He ended up out of a job, desperately short on cash, and viewed askance by other colleges for having missed his chance at tenure. It’s a danger of working at a Catholic institution, he says, although many are tolerant. “For many people it’s not a problem, but it only takes one supervisor or one employer to be homophobic, and they can ruin your career.”

Devastating as the experience was, it far from killed Van Vugt’s spirit. He compares the incident to when Mohandas Gandhi was thrown off a train in South Africa. It was a call to action.

It’s hard work publicly fasting. Between daily meditations, maintaining his Internet site, working his corner, and distributing leaflets about the Knight Initiative from sunup to sundown, he only sleeps a few hours a night. Despite the lack of sleep and food over the last 10 days, Van Vugt is articulate and thoughtful. The greatest struggle is not fasting, he says, but psychological strain: “The hardest thing has been doubting whether or not I’m being effective.”

He has attracted a few helpers who, while not joining in the fast, make his photocopies and send his faxes. He met his full-time assistant, aspiring Buddhist monk and former Benedictine monk Raven Mahosadha, at a meditation retreat.

Tim, another helper, met Van Vugt while walking his dog in the park. The anti-Knight Initiative struck home for Tim: Bernd, his partner of six years, is a German national, and his work visa will expire in February. If the two could legally marry, Bernd would be able to get a green card to stay in the US, but the Immigration and Naturalization Service is giving him the boot, tearing apart a committed relationship.

Van Vugt estimates he has spoken and given his fliers to 250 people since he started the fast, most of them supportive but not activists themselves. “A lot of people in our society have become complacent. You’re not used to seeing a lot of activists anymore, and one of the praises I’ve gotten from people coming by is ‘I want to bring my kids here so they can see that people are still speaking out for their rights.'”

How long with Van Vugt hold out? “I don’t intend to die,” he says. Noticeably gaunt after 10 days, he plans to listen to his body when it tells him to eat: “When I faint or my mind becomes incoherent, then I’ll know that it’s time to start eating,” he says.