Wendell Walker Interview

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Wendell Walker Interview


Oral history concerning gay life in NYC in the late seventies.


An interview with Wendell Walker concerning the gay liberation movement, the 10 year anniversary of Stonewall, march on Washington and other topics related to the experience of being gay in New York City.


Christopher Gioia




Christopher Gioia


November 17, 2016


Wendell Walker


This recording and transcript is provided for education and research purposes and should not be altered in any way. All Rights reserved, Christopher Gioia (interviewer) with permission from subject.




MP3 digital recording




Oral History Interview


Walker MP3



Oral History Item Type Metadata

Original Format

MP3 digital recording


27 minutes

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16 bit/ 44.1 kHz


Wendell Walker Interview

CG: I’m talking with Wendell Walker on November 17, 2016. Wendell can you tell me just a little bit about yourself to introduce yourself?

WW: My name is Wendell Walker. I’m originally from Mississippi--rural Mississippi, and I grew up there -- got into some issues --racial issues, in Mississippi. (This) doesn't directly relate to this (our topic) --but I was actually evacuated from Mississippi for having a relationship with an African American girl, and had to leave Mississippi overnight to protect my life -- and then went to Indiana for Univer -- DePauw University in Indiana -- to college and that is really when I started thinking about myself as a gay person, at that time.

CG: And what do you do now?

WW: Now I’m a Deputy Director at the Museum of the Moving Image here in New York.

CG: So of course we’re here to talk about New York post Stonewall. Tell me about your relationship-- to your coming to New York and what it was like.

WW: Well I graduated in 1977; actually I technically graduated n August of 1977 in Brattleboro, VT. My final credit was language (he, he), and then right after that I moved to New York. It was actually Labor Day in September that I arrived here. I… and I came here thinking I had an internship at a gallery called Tribal Arts gallery. My intent was to do an internship there. I had studied – I -- my major was studio art, my minor was traditional African art, and I intended to do graduate work in traditional African art, and back in those days traditional African art was considered anthropology. It was not part of art history yet -- but, so, I was an anthropology person -- sort of art and anthropology -- and I had come here for this internship and I had intended to be here for a year working with the Tribal Arts gallery and then do graduate work -- and came here and the internship fell apart and I ended up getting a job at another gallery, and that got me involved -- that gallery was a traditional African art gallery but also showed contemporary art along with the traditional African art… and that got me involved in contemporary art, and one thing led to another and I never left. [Laughter]
And… (um), series of different jobs -- literally one leading to the next and here I am today. But alongside all that was the --I won’t say the birth of the gay rights movement but the -- the manifestation of it in the city here.

CG: What year was that?

WW: Well '77 was the year that I moved here, September of 77 -- and as I mentioned to you before that -- in the University, really in the University is really when I guess I sort of acknowledged to myself and people around me that I was a gay person -- and co-founded along with two other individuals-- a discussion group at DePauw University. Nothing like that had ever been done before. And it was called the Androgyny Discussion Group and we got together and talked about gender, and gender roles and what they meant, and and we talked about gay issues and what it meant to be in the -- a relationship of same sex couple, same sex couples and all that sort of stuff. Then we also -- that was sort of when I became more aware -- and sort of thinking about in the political sense -- and I had heard about Stonewall at that point but I didn’t really know very much about it. I just had heard that there was this event that had happened in New York. It was really when I moved to New York and got to know people here and… ya know, New York was a very different place then, 1977. It was severe economic problems, very high crime rate and living in the East Village back then -- it was a very different world than it is now and -- but there was a, you know, there was a very active gay scene back, in the city back then. Many bars and after hours clubs and all that. Of course I dove into all that. And then there -- it was through that time there -- I learned more about Stonewall and the buildup.

CG: I’m kinda curious, when people, when people brought that topic up what was it --how was it perceived?

WW: Well it was, it was -- was more like storytelling, you know? It was just like… you know, there were all -- there were many different stories about it -- and most of them exaggerated, you know, what actually happened -- and you know there’s a lot of hearsay about it. Nothing -- it hadn’t really been documented at that point. It was a lot of people’s memories and of course there were a lot of people around then who had been a part of it.

CG: Right.

WW: I used to hangout at Julius’ at 10th Street and Waverly in the West Village, which was right around the corner from where it happened, and there were a lot of older people there that, you know, the old guys -- and you'd hear stories from them about it. I never thought about -- and maybe that’s just me, but I don’t think people thought of it as a political thing at all then. It was more like, (um)… something people were really proud of-- that it that it happened. It was, it had a certain bit of… (um) like, ya know “and we showed them” or something. There was a little attitude with it. I don’t think it… I don’t remember anybody talking about it as an agenda or something about laws being passed or any -- and it just wasn’t involved…

CG: Or symbolic of anything yet?

WW: It was more like we’d had enough and the queens got up and came back at em. You know? And there was lots of jokes about it and you know at the same time -- you know the people that took part in it were considered brave, notorious people but they, but they -- it was a different context. I think the (um)… when the tenth anniversary march on Washington happened I went to that with Leon, my partner, and that was, that was a whole different awakening because suddenly it was um… Stonewall became a landmark event after that in a way -- cause it was the idea of marking it with a tenth year anniversary. But that was the first big, I don’t know, I think there were other marches and things in Washington before that, but that was the first sort of national thing that was organized in that way.

CG: What year was that? In -- oh 69, 79…

WW: 69, 79 yeah, yeah…

CG: So, but when you came here in 77-- just curious -- or maybe in 78, cause you came in August. Was there a pride march? Do you remember a pride march?

WW: I don’t remember a pride march. I don’t know if there was -- well I came in September, so my first pride march would have been…

CG: The next year.

WW: In June of '78, I guess. I don’t remember one if there was, and it may have just--I mean the city was a very different place then of course we…

CG: You may not have…

WW: Didn’t have text messaging and Facebook and it may have happened and I didn’t even know about it.

CG; Right, but the next year you did, so how did that, how did you become aware of the march on Washington?

WW: Well I mean when that happened-- the bars put up -- there was an effort to make that happen you know? Also the layout of the-- the layout wasn’t different, but you know the East Village was a high crime area. There wasn’t any nightlife here or anything, it was all on the --the gay nightlife was all in the West Village. There were clubs allover the city back then but it was mostly the West Village. And like I said I used to hangout at Julius’. I live on Tenth Street. I’d walk down Tenth Street and go there. I think that was probably where I first heard about the march on Washington.

CG: I’m just curious, had you ever been to the Oscar Wilde Memorial bookstore?

WW: Yeah absolutely!

CG: You did, really?

WW: Yeah, I loved it. Yeah, you know, I would go there and look around even if I didn’t buy anything because it was just so cool that that existed.


CG: So tell me about the march. Something, anything you remember about it.

WW: Well, I remember going there and being there -- and amazed by the number of people there -- and the fact that we were all in Washington--that we were all visible, publicly visible, identifying ourselves openly in the public with you know --with press and pictures being taken-- as gay people marching and I remember that was a big deal. I mean for me it really changed my perspective on it, brought -- it brought the political element into my way of thinking about it cause I -- it made me aware of -- it wasn’t that I wasn’t aware of the legal issues, I mean obviously this group that I had been -- was involved in in college was that—we, we touched on those issues. But I think it was what made me a little more politically motivated in a way too… realizing that the importance of electing the right people and what those people could do in -- and of course back then nothing was talked about openly in the way that it is done now, so you had to sort of read between the lines about who, who would be supportive. And you know the --they didn’t come out. Politicians didn’t come out publicly and announce that they were in favor of gay rights issues. But you could sort of read between the lines. I remember Pat Schroder from Colorado. I think she was around in that era, she was someone you knew who was a supporter even though she didn’t come out and say things about it. But all that changed, I think -- or started changing after that march.

CG: What about Koch? Do you remember?

WW: Yeah

CG: His, I mean there were some controversies.

WW: And rumors.
I mean he-- he, he was very adamant publicly: I’m not gay!
And he --he didn’t -- I don’t remember him doing anything as mayor that went one way or the other.

CG: I think he did -- he did sign something into law, but I’d have to look it up to tell you exactly what and when, what year. It may not have been until later (Clears throat).

WW: I mean -- I remember David Dinkins as being the first mayor I thought of as really -- I thought of as really supportive of me as a gay citizen of New York. Its not that he did anything, but he talked about it.

CG: Right, he was more open-- yeah, he was more accepting in my memory and I remember it too because I was here then -- he had raised a very diverse, you know…

WW: And then of course there was Elizabeth Holtzman who ran for the senate and everybody thought, assumed she was a lesbian. To my knowledge she’s never come out. I don’t know if she is or not. She ran for the senate in 1980 and I got very, very involved in that. We were in her campaign headquarters, like daily. Like (haha) doing mailings for her. Stuffin envelopes and I was a poll watcher during 1980 also… But that kind of activism came out of that march. That was what got me motivated about stuff, when I did that march in '79.

CG: Now the march in '79 was actually -- was probably after Harvey Milk was assassinated too, right?

WW: Yeah, I don’t remember -- what was the date? I don’t remember. I’m not remembering the sequence of that…

CG: But that might have actually fueled that that march, you know? That large effort.

WW: Maybe, yeah, but it was -- but it was before then -- when was he assassinated?

CG: It was 79 and I think it was May of 79? But I’m not good with dates either.


WW: You know its funny, I never though about that.
I wonder…

CG: I mean, that could have really had an impact on that, on the -- the effort to really…

WW: Yeah.

CG: I mean you were mentioning that they actually organized a train? Tell me about the train?

WW: Yeah! They had a train. There was an Amtrak train that was chartered that was for the march so we -- and it was like a gay train!


WW: And like I mentioned before, Al Franken was on it. But, yeah it was -- everybody was very serious to go down and it was a party coming back. You could not get into a bathroom anywhere on the train!


WW: But that was also a big deal-- having this train that was --I think it had a sign that was on the side of it. I think so. It was it was a big deal.

CG: So, but the West Village -- I mean you mentioned that the East Village was kind of like a, you know, it was the ghetto-- well it was like a dead zone in a way…

WW: Yeah, yeah.

CG: I mean-- but the West Village by then was already like the center of gay life. So what was it like in the late seventies? I mean…

WW: Oh it was bars everywhere, nightlife, after-hours clubs and of course there was the piers down on the water -- you know the dilapidated piers --that was the back room for the neighborhood, basically. And you know, again, the city was very different then, you know, it sort of felt like no rules applied.

CG: Did you have fear of the police though at that point?

WW: It was more fear of mugging and being robbed.
You didn’t…

CG: So there really wasn’t any longer any organized effort to raid bars?

WW: I don’t remember being aware of police even back then, you know? Police were in cars, you know? They-- you never saw police on the streets. You know, all that changed with David Dinkins. David Dinkins created community policing --and Guiliani came in and took credit for it, but its actually David Dinkins that did that. And that was really, from my perspective -- that’s what brought police out on the street and got them involved in their community and the neighborhood and really changed the way it all functions. But back in those days I don’t remember being aware of police officers in New York. You could kinda do what you wanted and others could do to you what they wanted and that was a part of the whole crime thing cause, you know, it was -- and that whole thing changed, there was always a risque element to nightlife back then whatever you did-- whatever club you went to -- getting there was some risk -- the meat packing district was, was not at all what it is now with the Whitney there. It was a very different world and the Mine Shaft and all those sort of places and -- but you know the streets were dangerous. But that was -- I guess in a way, I mean -- I didn't think about it back then, but that was part of the thrill of it. It was all risqué. Getting there was risky and what you did when you got here was risky, so there was this whole flavor to all of that that I think was very present throughout the city. I mean not-- you know what I’m saying? Not just in the gay community -- but in general our society was more -- I mean you know, there was not only the gay bath houses but there was the straight one -- the straight bath house on the Upper West Side. Plato’s Retreat, I think…

CG: Yeah, Plato’s retreat…

WW: And I remember when my sister came to visit once and went there. She couldn’t resist. She had to see it, ya know?


WW: So it was very different in many ways. I mean we’ve become so much more controlled in a way, ya know? And I think there are good and bad things in that but -- I think when you are thinking about all of this, its important to think about that context, right? Cause it…

CG: Yeah its interesting that …

WW: While there were more -- while we have laws now that protect us against certain things --and there were laws that prevented other things back then, but they didn’t really enforce them.


CG: Exactly.

WW: Of course I think it's also important to think about what was going on with the women’s issues in the seventies and how much that played in to this --ya know-- I used to work at the First Women’s Bank, which was on 57th street between Park and Lexington. The First Women’s Bank was the first institution in this country to offer equal credit to women. That was in the mid-seventies I think -- that the laws changed. In the period of Jimmy Carter’s presidency the laws changed. But a woman, you know, who… her husband died, she didn’t have any credit. The credit was all with the men -- and you know there’s not a direct connection to the mindset then --but that’s part of the environment that all of this is happening in -- and I think that’s very important-- to think about that context of it.

CG: Yup.

WW: Yeah.

CG: But overall when you think about -- think about, after your involvement in the march and -- (um) so what, what -- if you can articulate a meaning or how you feel about what, what you feel Stonewall represents to the Gay rights movement –- the LGBT liberation movement.

WW: I think what’s happened is -- we’ve used it in a very good way to make us aware of our situation over the years. And I think that started with that -- for me it started with that march in '79. But I think that started with a lot of people then -- and there was something about that landmark -- ten years and here we are. I mean Jimmy Carter was president then and -- Jimmy Carter was a fairly progressive person for that era in many ways. I mean he’s not thought of as that now -- that much looking back on him but -- you know, he was very unpopular of course, at the same time he did among certain people…

CG: I found that he was more unpopular than I realized because of his southern Baptist kind of -- you know, people thought of him kind of in a way I never thought of because I wasn’t old enough at the time. But, yeah.

WW: But I don’t know if he ever said anything? I don’t remember him even saying anything about gay issues or anything.

CG: One way or the other, right?

WW: But I was confident that he was a supporter. I somehow knew that, and I think -- you know, his four years, you know it was after Watergate and he comes into office -- he makes… he brought a different tone in. I think that was also instrumental somehow -- and the things that happened during that period -- and you know when Reagan came in it was such a graphic contrast to him. I think that also was a big motivating factor in this. You know, suddenly there was… I mean Stonewall happened then there’s Reagan. I mean Stonewall, the tenth anniversary, that gathering happened, and then Reagan. I don’t know, a lot happened then and then AIDS came into the picture and the way Reagan didn’t handle it and denied it. And I feel like it started with that tenth anniversary up until the end of the Reagan term -- that’s when all of this --the movement was born really --but it was-- was fed, it was fed on that legend…

CG: Well it was a different movement -- was born in the eighties I think, right? Completely different agenda I think.

WW: But it was all fed out of that energy that came out of Stonewall. I think… I think that was the landmark that was already referred back to. What happened that night, what happened with the raid on that bar and everything. That was always the reference point --that was what you always looked back to and the fact that our community fought back that night. And that’s what gave the energy to deal with these things -- and yeah they all took different turns and obviously they’re going to take different turns now [laughs] because we have different issues now. We’re gonna have different issues. We have the right to marry but what are they going to do to that right now that we have this crazy person in as president?

So I mean the --whatever the movement is -- the group that you are a part of has to adapt to that, but Stonewall was that moment that we can all look back to when it came to life, when it came -- when it came to --to people actually taking action and I think that’s what’s so amazing about it.

CG: And its interesting the -- well bringing it up to the current election I see so many people activated in a way that I’ve never seen before. And it -- when I started this project I had no idea the correlations or the similarities that would develop, you know, to the period that I’m studying. It's kind of remarkable to see the turning point happening again. Well anyway… thank you so much for sharing your stories.

WW: I just remembered the other amazing thing about this. I had a great aunt. Her name was Helen Tippy -- and she was --she graduated --she’s said to have been the first women to graduate at the top of the class -- of the class (not just the women but of the class) from Stanford University law school in the teens. She was one of the few women that was there, even. She became-- she was very interested in the labor movement and at that time, the women’s right to vote, of course. And she got involved with the Mother Jones movement. Mother Jones had basically retired at that point, but Mother Jones was still alive and somehow she got to know Mother Jones a little bit, and became the lawyer for the movement and met another woman named Frieda Ryker. Frieda was an activist who was Russian -- a Russian Jew who had left Russia after the revolution and had come to this country and gotten involved in the labor movement. They [Helen and Frieda] met at a demonstration in Chicago in the twenties and became lovers --and were together throughout their lives. And so growing up, Helen and Frieda were my aunts. And --in the seventies, when I moved to New York, they -- and Frieda had a -- I think she was a niece -- and they used to come to New York [and stay with Frieda's niece]. And they, they -- after their activities in the twenties, Helen had become a lawyer in the labor department and they lived in Washington most of their lives, but when they retired they lived in Florida -- but they used to come to New York once a year. And -- I think it was around the same -- I don’t remember the exact year, you know -- this visit when they came here -- it was after the Stonewall (march) and… they came to New York and met Leon and I -- and Leon is African American –so, we were, we got together with them and went to the Guggenheim --and we were walking around, walking down the ramp to -- [in] the Guggenheim and Leon and Freida were in front and Helen and I were walking together -- and she was just telling how amazing it was for her to be standing here with me, her openly gay, you know, nephew -- great nephew with his African American partner -- openly walking through the Guggenheim talking about it. And also she talked about Stonewall and what that meant for her and you know that through their lives -- what they had gone through -- their relationship in the twenties -- and here they are in New York City with this gay couple and that they could now be an open couple and that this was now a political issue and it was -- that was just so amazing for them. Just -- you know --for what they had been through with their lives. So, so, amazing.

CG: Yeah.

WW: Anyway…

CG: Yeah, no its -- incredible to think about the difference -- how everyone lived just below the surface…

WW: Yeah, yeah, yeah…

CG: …probably until just about 1967 or 8, there really was no way to acknowledge or be open about it.

WW: Yeah, but think about what that meant for somebody like them who, since the 1920’s had had this relationship that was secret and that they had to hide and then something like that happens. What that, I mean --the perspective on that -- I mean, I don’t know how you even go there, how you grasp what that meant for them.

CG: Right, but I think --this is the thing I’ve come to realize in the last month --its that, think about -- think about it Wendell -- think about how much we hide still…

WW: Yeah, that’s right. Yeah, you’re right

CG: I mean just to make it easier…

WW: Just like that little Facebook conversation the other day. Yeah, yeah…

CG: …just to make it easier for everybody else we hide just below the surface.

WW: That’s right, that’s right.

CG: And it’s not even acknowledged. We make accommodations every single day.


CG: Thank you.

WW: I think that’s all for now!


Christopher Gioia


Wendell Walker


New York City

Time Summary




Christopher Gioia, “Wendell Walker Interview,” Stonewall: Riot, Rebellion, Activism and Identity, accessed May 23, 2024, https://stonewallhistory.omeka.net/items/show/13.


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