Rich Wandel Interview

Dublin Core

Title

Rich Wandel Interview

Subject

Oral History concerning the early years of the gay liberation movement.

Description

Rich Wandel, the founder of the LGBT Community Center National History Archive, discusses his coming out, his role in the Gay Activists Alliance and Mattachine Society and the legacy of Stonewall and the Gay Liberation movement.

Creator

Christopher Gioia

Source

NA

Publisher

Christopher Gioia

Date

September 2016

Contributor

Rich Wandel

Rights

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.

Relation

NA

Format

MP3 Digital Recording

Language

English

Type

Oral History

Identifier

RichWandel MP3

Coverage

NA

Oral History Item Type Metadata

Interviewer

Christpher Gioia

Interviewee

Rich Wandel

Location

The LGBT Community Center National History Archive, New York City.

Transcription

Rich Wandel Interview

CG: To begin I just want to ask you about some details about yourself, your background…

RW: Uh I was born? No, for the purposes of what we are talking about here, probably, I was not at Stonewall. I came out and came into the movement the following year. I am the second president of the Gay Activists Alliance in New York- for the past, well starting in 1989, planning and opening in 1990, I am the founder and archivist of the LGBT Community Center National History Archive. What else do you want to know?

CG: Uh, that’s sounds good. Uhm, well just for, out of curiosity you moved here in 1970?

RW: Oh no, I was raised in Queens.

CG: Oh you were.

RW: I was not born here; we came back here when I was one year old or something like that. I went away to college came back. I returned back from college, which in my case was a monastery, uh in 19…

CG: See there’s more interesting things under the surface.

RW: Uh, yeah 1970.

CG: Ok, native New Yorker, so that’s good, that always pleases me. So tell me a little bit about what you remember --if you remember the Stonewall Inn prior to the rebellion.

RW: I was never there until after it was closed, till after the rebellion.

CG: Ok

RW: I was there once afterwards when the GAA circa 1970 was looking for a place to make a headquarters. One of the places we looked at was the now closed Stonewall.

Stonewall of course had two sides to it right? Physically, which were still intact as one piece at that time (since then they’ve been divided) at that time one of the most interesting things we found was, we found a piece of stationery on the floor among the debris, as it were, which had a list of advisors or something like that --a board or list of advisory board, I forget the exact title which included the name of the then current state assemblyman from that area by the name of Anthony Passanante. I don’t know exactly what that means but I found it interesting.

GAA did not use it- it was not sufficient size we wouldn’t pursue it further.

CG: Right and then they did find the space- was it in Soho?

RW: The firehouse in Soho on Wooster Street. 99 Wooster Street.

CG: I think the Stonewall actually became a Chinese restaurant didn’t it in the 70’s?

RW: I Think its been a couple of things, um I don’t remember the Chinese restaurant I remember the board-- bed and -- not bed and board, selling wood things like wood bowls and stuff like that. I forget the exact name of it again by- at this time it was half. It was split up into two stores very quickly I think.

CG: Well that covers my second little question but I’ll move on to the third and more important question: If you have any recollections about the riots or when you heard about them?

RW: When did I hear about them? That’s a very good question. I did not hear about them at the time. I was still in, my last monastery place was in Union City New Jersey. I’d gone away for the summer however so at the time they happened I may I was either still in new Jersey or possibly just shortly arrived in Philadelphia which I only spent a month and then I quit the monastery and left and so I came back here, it took my uh, I came out to myself roughly in march of 1970. I quickly discovered the Gay Activists Alliance after that and very quickly joined it so that’s when I would have heard about it I had no knowledge of it at all prior to that it wasn’t really unless you were reading the rat or village voice which I was not you would not have heard about it.

CG: So, um yeah, I mean there’s some stories that talk about military personnel in Viet Nam hearing about it on Armed Forces radio and I wonder if that’s credible.
In your…

RW: Really?! I’m surprised. That would surprise me. I don’t know the answer to that, but I would be pretty surprised because it was pretty poorly covered
It was covered with a sneer in the Village Voice. It was covered in at least one, what was referred to at the time as the underground newspaper, called the Rat. I don’t know if you have you run across that?

CG: No.

RW: They have copies of it at NYU at Robert Wagner Archive.

RW: Even in the Advocate, the advocate predates the Stonewall at that time being called the Los Angeles Advocate. It rated about an inch and then a couple of weeks later maybe rated about 6 inches in the Advocate. So it was not widely known. Apparently there was some Daily News coverage of the riots which I did not see. I know all about this, all of this I know from later, not from the time.

CG: Right, and the Times just had a little, the New York Times had a little square.

RW: The Times did have, a week before Stonewall, there was an incident in Queens which produced a Times editorial.

CG: In the park…

RW: Yeah, in the park, which produced the Times Editorial, so you know about that.

CG: Well yes, but you can tell us about it…

RW: Well the coverage I’ve seen of it, which I’ve seen in an archive not at the time, was in local newspapers, which you can find at the Queens Public Library’s archive, which told the story about that. A cruising area in or around Forest Park and the locals in an attempt to stop that actually cut down trees apparently with the tacit approval of the local precinct.

And then, of course, and indeed Mattachine and or others had called for a meeting here in the East Village at the Electric Circus to decide what to do about it and in the meantime Stonewall happens so that meeting still took place but it came to be more about Stonewall rather than that Queens incident.

CG: So when you did learn about it, at GAA, um I mean was it still fresh in people’s minds? What was the, um significance or was it just something that was just talked about in passing?

RW: Well it was spoken about in terms of its time to do something in general not “I was there and this is what happened” kind of talk, about but now is the time to stop taking this shit and to organize and to move forward. So in that sense it was spoken about a great deal but not in the sense of telling the story of the riots themselves.

CG: But it definitely was -would you characterize it as the –- well tell me a little bit-- I’m sure you were involved in the planning for the Christopher Street Liberation Day parade.

RW: Not really. I was a member of the organization by then, the early ones of course were CSLDC. Ciseldik: Christopher Street Liberation Day Committee. Committee because it was a coalition of representatives from various, the handful I guess, of now we would call LGBT, but in those days we just said “gay” organizations in the city. So certainly GAA had their representatives there, I think probably notably our Paul Martin, probably. But I was just new in the organization. I wasn’t rising up in its ranks by any means at that point. So no, I’m not being much help I know, but heyyy!
But unlike some other people I can think of I don’t make it up.

CG: Um, well just if you can, go back to that time when you first joined GAA and if you did hear stories about Stonewall what was your initial reaction? Did you…

RW: Well they were usually referred to as riots as opposed to rebellion. Either way is fine by me that’s not an attempt to tell you or me how it should be referred to. They were referred to as riots. The images I have, probably at the time, came at the time was we would refer to the TPF, the Tactical Patrol Force and their baby blue helmets. I’m sure very early on I heard the “we are the Stonewall girls” story. But we were concentrating on what we were doing now.

CG: Yeah, the action. Um, well in that regard maybe you can tell me about this idea um, some have suggested that Stonewall is or was a particularly New York phenomenon. That it becoming this galvanizing event was really something that only, maybe, could have happened in New York.

RW: Well I can talk about why it happened here. I don’t know if I would say only necessarily. That is a really wild speculation in either direction

CG: Right, well it’s just a good way to introduce the concept.

RW: Alright, of course as you undoubtedly know it was not the first gay riot so the question indeed does arise, well what is it different about this? Why did this become the event rather than just you know, okay, and certainly the early press coverage to the extent that is was assumed it would be, a flash in the pan event.

Well you had already had some organizing been done both nationally in terms of Mattachine starting in the 1950s and the Daughters of Bilitis. You had already had picket lines in Philadelphia the annual picket line.

CG: The Annual Reminder.

RW: Yes, at Independence Hall. You already had, with Mattachine, you had already had a picket line at Whitehall Street, the draft place. The issue being not that gays should be allowed in the military but that they should not be given dishonorable discharges. Which is perhaps a subtle but important difference.

And you had already had the sip in or whatever they were calling it at Julius’ uh which Mattachine, Dick Leitsch and others did -fighting back against the liquor authority and control of gay bars. In addition to that you had -- by 1969 you had a consciousness of rebellion if you will, of having had enough. Whether you’re talking about, I mean somebody of my generation --and I was at the time of Stonewall, what? I would be 23 or something like that. Well, what was I raised on? Well I was raised on images of the civil rights movement in the south I was raised on very importantly I think, the police riot in the 1968 Chicago convention. Uh, so there was that consciousness. There were at least the beginnings if not more of the anti Viet Nam, of the anti war movement and in New York itself you had people, you had an existing organization in Mattachine and Daughters of Bilitis. You had people like Craig Rodwell and Martha Shelley who were (especially Martha) probably kinda on the left to begin with-- who could, recognized this as an event that should be taken advantage of and continued on. And they did. So the reason why it didn’t evaporate in my opinion is indeed because of people like Martha Shelly, Michael Brown, Craig Rodwell who uh, I’m gonna say the next day, that’s probably literally true but its at least figuratively true, had flyers on the street about not letting this end about taking this forward and then very quickly founding the GLF here in NY.

CG: Yeah and that critical mass as well, I mean it seems like NY at the time --there were many other groups. Do you think that those outside groups, not gay and lesbian groups contributed to the movement?

RW: They were problematic. The left in general was still very problematic. They weren’t our friends with rare exceptions. I mean a year or so later Huey Newton of the Black Panthers was an exception to that but a notable exception. Really underline exception. The left were traditionally and at that time as much against us as anybody else. And the early, in my opinion, the early people of the left -gay people of the left were overly concerned about being accepted by the left, which they were not --again with the notable exception being Huey Newton. So that…

CG: So you don’t think that the early demonstrations or the parade --you don’t think that it engaged a larger activist community?


RW: By the time of the parade perhaps, but GLF, no, the GLF was a decidedly left organization and seen as that. They literally spent more time and money on defending the Black Panthers than they did on LGBT rights. Ok, now, there is a real distinction at that time between the men and the women of GLF they, as illustrated by, when the Black Panthers had their People’s Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, which is probably 1970? (But you could check that, alright?). Both the GLF men and GLF women went down to that. They were treated like shit all right? The women walked out. They said enough of this crap. The men did not because there was such a concern about being accepted by the left, which was not happening at all. GLF was very much, as it had to be-- it’s a beginning organization-- you don’t walk into the door of an organization and suddenly drop all your internalized homophobia etc. It doesn’t happen that way. It’s a process and GLF is extremely important in getting it all started alright?

And in beginning to see actually the different parts of the community who were very divided within our own community, now GLF saw itself as more, as a coalition. There was very little structure so that a sub group could form their own cell or caucus and still think of themselves as part of the whole but in fact they’re already very separate, such as gay youth, such as radical lesbians at that time, such as people of color cell etc. But, so that it had the sense, the overall sense of being one organization but wasn’t. This is not a criticism. This is what had to be at that time. Alright, which is why when GAA came along, GAA came along from two points of view. It came along from the point of view that you had to have structure to get anything done. And GLF had very, very few demonstrations of any kind. They weren’t together enough to do that, they didn’t have -what was voted up today could be voted down tomorrow. The women of GLF were complaining that consensus was a nice idea but the male voice, partially because of its tone, partially because that’s what we’ve been trained, always overwhelmed the women, all right? So you had all those kinds of problems. So GAA-- Marty Robinson, Arthur Evans, Jim Owles uh Arthur Bell and I think Phil Rhea, anyway, the first group of them, members of GLF, but they said a structure is needed to get anything done and the second thing they said was we have to be a single issue because we have to gather our forces together. So if you look at the first leadership members of GAA, even within the leadership, never mind the membership: Arthur Evans is an avowed socialist, Jim Owles is a fan of Ayn Rand, I mean literally, literally this is true. If you look even lower than that into the general membership, very quickly, uh you have again, you don’t walk into the door and suddenly drop your racism, your classism, your misogyny it just doesn’t happen that way. Alright, so most were racist or misogynist in kind of the general liberal level- in other words unconscious, not knowing kind of thing but we had one or two who were out and out misogynist or out and out racist. I mean that’s what it was, alright, at the time. On the other hand the people who stayed a while began very quickly to see the connection to re-learn, recognize first and then re-learn their attitude about such things. So at the time the one issue really worked -it would be very wrong today. Alright? But at the time it really was necessary to get everything together. And then they were very, very active, loud disruptive, non-violent, but loud and disruptive. More than that if you look at the GAA preamble it doesn’t say please give us our rights, or you ought to be nice to us or don’t pick on us. It says, it declared that we had these rights (written mostly by Arthur Evans) it declared that we had these rights. Now, that doesn’t sound so radical to us today but the Mattachine Society in earlier years certainly would have rather -- were much more of an attitude of “Ok we’re sick but you shouldn’t pick on us.” Really. Really quite quite literally.

CG: They were…

RW: I’m getting way - largely away form Stonewall.

CG: They were more concerned about tolerance than equality.

RW: Right and believed themselves to be damaged.

CG: Yeah- here, I’ll pause.


CG: Jumping off from where we left off. Tell me a little about… I know you were not only involved in GAA but also, was it Mattachine too?


RW: Very Slightly after I left GAA for a full year maybe, but at any rate, for a short time the President of Mattachine, Mattachine of course, Mattachine NY was on its last days.

CG: Because…

RW: I was not the last president of Mattachine but probably the second to last. And it wasn’t doing much at that time. We were still doing peer counseling. There was still their library that they have and this is next door to Stonewall above the Lions Head was their offices at that time.

CG: Oh yeah, and who was um, I forget, is it Leitsch?

RW: Dick Leitsch?

CG: Was he still involved?

RW: No he was still in NY and around. He still is now,
But no, he was the President at the time of Stonewall.

CG: So Ok , I didn’t know if he was still active at the time you were there.
Um, well I did have… my general closing question is about “what does Stonewall mean?’ And I see like right behind you on your computer it says Stonewall 2016. I’m assuming that’s about the National…

RW:The National Parks.

CG: The parks yeah.
So, just tell me how, what impact do you think…

RW: To me, To me Stonewall of course as probably everybody would agree, its a turning point, its symbolic of the whole LGBT movement and that’s certainly true but in addition to that when I read the story of Stonewall, notably by David Carter which I think is to date and probably for a long time is the definitive (no history book is ever eternally definitive) but I think will be for a long time.

CG: Right

RW: When I read through that, one of the things that I notice immediately is how many different parts of our community were involved with it. Now there are different parts of our community who want to say it was all them, alright and each of these people saying that were… their communities were an important part of it but not all that. If you look inside the bar it is largely what we would call possibly a yuppie bar (I guess we don’t use that term anymore) but the ah twenty something middle class, white. But within the bar, although that was the majority of the bar, there was also a handful of drag queens and also a handful of women. In fact the first to be arrested apparently was a woman who fought back. Well, ok but that’s the bar. Extremely important to what’s going on in terms of the riots are also the street people, many of whom are homeless or close to homeless. Some of them drag queens some of them not. Some of them drag hookers you know, some of them not and then as you go on other people coming in… people like Craig Rodwell or Martha Shelley, the left taking advantage of it -- its really a wide spectrum of our various parts of the community that are involved and important in Stonewall. And that’s the part I like to emphasize right now because it’s true.

CG: Mhmm, right, it was not just a catalyst for, for you know, one segment. It sort of did engage anyone that was walking by that night.

RW: And an important… each of these segments are important in what happened. Right?

CG: Right. It couldn’t have achieved its significance without, without that.






Original Format

Digital Recording

Duration

23.53 minutes

Bit Rate/Frequency

16 bit/44.1 kHz

Time Summary

NA

Files

Citation

Christopher Gioia, “Rich Wandel Interview,” Stonewall: Riot, Rebellion, Activism and Identity, accessed November 11, 2019, https://stonewallhistory.omeka.net/items/show/15.

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