Accidental Sexologist

When he was young, William Simon wanted to change the world. The late University of Houston sociology professor changed the way we view sex instead.

In 1978 Santos introduced Bill to Lynn Randolph, whose paintings meld magical realism with social and cultural criticism. The two were almost inseparable after their first date, Lynn said. "After he met Lynn, I think he became a more mature person," said Jaffe, his friend and former colleague. "He took himself more seriously."

Bill began to write about the arts and photography and to explore individual psychology, a preoccupation of Lynn's. He took off half a year to reread everything Freud had written. Between 1986 and 1996, he wrote and revised the only book he published under solely his name, Postmodern Sexualities.

Meanwhile, Bill seemed to be enjoying his status as an elder statesman of sorts. He continued to testify in court cases, including one in the early 1980s against Texas A&M University, in which Gay Students Services sued to be recognized as a campus organization. Toward the end of the trial, Texas A&M's lawyer asked Bill out of the blue, " "Professor, have you ever engaged in homosexual conduct?' " The gay students' lawyer, Larry Sauer, said Bill shot back: "Not since early adolescence," quoting research that showed a significant fraction of adolescent boys similarly have transient same-sex contact. "Most people," Sauer marveled, "wouldn't be so honest."

Bill, says a friend, took himself more seriously after meeting painter Lynn Randolph.
Bill, says a friend, took himself more seriously after meeting painter Lynn Randolph.

"You should have seen him in the courtroom," said Chicago lawyer Burton Joseph, a special counsel for Playboy. "He had a thorough, almost encyclopedic understanding of the research but discussed it in a way that was not the least bit pretentious. What I liked about Bill as an expert witness was that he recognized that judges and juries have prejudices, like all of us, about explicit sexuality, but he'd make each judge and member of the jury examine those biases. He did it in a gentle but forceful, intellectual way, and often with a twinkle. He was serious but not somber."

The last case in which Bill testified for Playboy involved a challenge to section 505 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act regulating adult cable channels. It had to do with what's known as signal bleed, specifically in Playboy's case the fleeting exposure on blocked cable channels to partially perceptible images of sexual activity. The U.S. government contended that these half-glimpsed, indistinct erotic images would have a harmful effect on children.

In that trial, testifying before a three-judge federal panel in Delaware, Bill "totally demolished the government's so-called expert witness," said attorney Joseph. In reviewing the expert's testimony, Bill concluded that she had either misinterpreted the academic literature she cited or reported very selectively from it. Bill also said there was very clear evidence that came to an opposite conclusion from hers. "After Bill testified, the court dismissed her testimony almost out of hand," said Joseph. "It was a close case, a tough case. I don't think there's any question that Bill Simon's testimony made a crucial difference."

Bill testified in May 1998, and the panel's decision came down in December 1998. Before Bill testified, said Robert Corn-Revere of Washington, D.C., another lawyer for Playboy in that case, the three judges had rejected the Playboy's motion for a preliminary injunction. After it, the same three judges granted the motion for a permanent injunction. Last spring the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the panel's decision in favor of Playboy.

In the five months or so since his cancer was diagnosed, Bill seemed especially appreciative of his biological legacy. All three of his sons, including the eldest, David, a California electrical contractor and Buddhist convert, seem to have acquired Bill's eloquence and his political perspective. "Dad picked the right fights, even though they weren't always winnable," said son Jonathan, a University of Miami law professor who recently won a George Soros's Open Society Institute grant to show how the war on crime has corrupted our system of government. Bill also delighted in the career of his youngest son, Adam, a Hollywood writer and director who cut his directorial teeth making several Roger Corman horror films, including the cult classic Braindead. More recently, Adam was responsible for the TV documentaries The Typewriter, the Rifle, and the Camera about the influential B-movie director Sam Fuller, and American Nightmare, a close examination of the horror movie genre.

As his time grew short, Bill told his wife, Lynn, "I fucked up a lot of things in my life. I'm going to do this right." By "this," he meant dying. She added, "He did, too." When a crisis landed him in the hospital the third week in June and he saw that further treatment would only prolong the inevitable, Bill checked into a room at the hospice at the Texas Medical Center. As the end neared, his sons spontaneously began to sing him some of the songs he had sung to them when they were young. Then, as he died, Lynn, Jonathan and Adam held him and sang "We Shall Overcome," the famous civil rights anthem. They paused after the first verse because they didn't know the second. Then, as if out of nowhere, a hospice nurse with a rich, gospel-trained voice appeared and led them in a verse beginning, "He shall wear a crown." Recounting the scene later, Adam mused, "If this were in a movie or play, it would have seemed completely over the top. But for Bill, it was exactly right."

A memorial service for William Simon is scheduled for October 20 at the A.D. Bruce Religion Center on the main campus of the University of Houston.

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