THE MATTACHINE SOCIETY, GAY ACTIVIST ALLIANCE
Two weeks ago, days after our wildly successful This is History Gay Liberation Front panel (June 2023), I told myself I would take a day off from LGBTQ History. I was on a walk, and who did I run into in front of Stonewall? Randy Wicker! This NYC Pride Parade’s Grand Marshal. He was being interviewed by a TikTok influencer whose go-to question is, “Are you a top or bottom?” After their interview, I asked the influencer if he asked Randy about Martha P Johnson. He said, “No. 18-year-olds on TikTok do not know who she is.” I replied, “That’s exactly why you will restart the interview and ask him." The love of his life. It made Randy happy, and we chatted for a couple of hours.
I first interviewed Randy when I moved to NYC in 2016. He’s a man on the move, and I see him often. He’s really far out there, but… he joined the movement in 1958! One of the last survivors from the Mattachine Society and, surely, the longest active gay activist.
Gay liberationist Perry Brass calls Randy “the closest thing we have to a gay saint.” After spending a day with him at last weekend’s Pride Rally, where he spoke, I agree. I was his “escort,” as the corporate Heritage of Pride staff calls it, for the day. After his interview with ABC News, he introduced me and said, “This is August. He’s fabulous.” His comment warmed my heart. Pride Month is hit or miss for me—corporate takeover pushing assimilation values in a city that is too damn expensive.
Randy’s speech was moving. For reflection purposes, he was the only white person, cis man and octogenarian who spoke during the four-hour event. Randy’s latest effort is renaming Sheridan Square (Stonewall National Park) to Equality Square because of General Sheridan’s poor treatment of Native Americans. He’s even launched a petition. He ended his speech at the Pride Rally by talking about how when he was 18, he went to a bar in Phoenix, Arizona, where all of the clientele were boring white men. He found the one Native American, brought him to the desert, and had fun. It was a wake-up call for the kids in the audience. When he asked me how he did, I said, “You did great. Everyone only went so they could learn about your sex life.” When I describe these elders, I say, "They have never followed any rules their entire life. What do you expect?” Randy is a hoot, and I am glad we recently reconnected.
— August Bernadicou, Executive Director of The LGBTQ History Project
Randy Wicker became an activist when he ran for Student Body President at the University of Texas in 1960. He lost—being gay did not help. During this time, he found a copy of One magazine. It took Randy over, and in 1958, he joined the Mattachine Society. His blooming radicalism ran perpendicular to the Mattachine’s inability to lure in younger members like him.
In 1961 Randy co-founded the Homosexual League of New York, which let him distance himself from the Mattachine even though he published some of their events and stances. In 1962, he appeared on a WBAI radio show with a panel of psychiatrists who espoused the sickness theory of homosexuality. This is believed to be the first time an open homosexual discussed homosexuality on the radio.
The list goes on, and he is believed to have organized one of the first gay protests with national attention in America: a picket at Whitehall Street Induction Center in New York City in 1964. In 1966, he participated in the Sip-In at Julius’ bar in New York City because they refused to serve homosexuals. This event was a catalyst for the legalization of serving homosexuals in bars.
After witnessing and dismissing the Stonewall Riots as disorderly, he rejoined the movement with the Gay Activists Alliance. It was through the Gay Activists Alliance that he met Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, whose legacies he has dedicated his life to preserving. His work is not limited to gay causes. In 1965, with Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs and Ed Sanders, he founded the New York chapter of LeMar (LEgalize MARijuana). He remains a cloning advocate.
(right to left) Randy Wicker, Craig Rodwell, Nancy Garden, Renee Cafiero, and Jack Diether at the U.S. Army Building picket, September 19, 1964.
Courtesy of Randy Wicker.
Sylvia began screaming, and I stood in my suit and tie and said, ‘You are not a normal homosexual. You are not a normal homosexual.’
Sylvia dashed out of the back of the room and left. Marsha followed her and said, ‘Sylvia, Randy has given me a home for nine years. Why don't you forgive him? He’s not a bad person. Why don't you give him a chance?’
Sylvia screamed back at her that I was a fascist pig and said she wanted nothing to do with me.
We didn't makeup until Marsha's funeral. When we walked Marsha’s ashes to the Hudson River, I told her we needed to bury the hatchet. We started talking, and ultimately, my archenemy became my best friend.
She moved into my apartment after she got kicked out of living at the Christopher Piers. She was homeless. I also offered her a part-time job at my store, and then I would let her go so she could collect unemployment. We did this for a while. She would work for six months and then collect for six months. Eventually, she became the full-time manager of my store. Then, she worked for the Metropolitan Community Church’s soup kitchen making $25 an hour. For the first time ever, she had some real money coming in. Her next plan was for her and her partner, Julia, to get an apartment together.
Around the time we connected, her passion for the movement became intense again. I was there when she called people from Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, Washington DC, and New York to have the first march specifically for trans rights. On that day, I was a little late getting out of my store, so I took a cab to catch up with them at Federal Plaza in front of the Supreme Court of New York. It was just an amazing thing. She ended up getting over 150 people to march.
"The Gay Activist Alliance was having a demonstration and was going to execute a puppy in front of St. Patrick's Cathedral to prove that a puppy was more important to the public than our community. Of course, it was a front, but the ASPCA and the cops were there to arrest us if needed. There were five people there.
I wrote about the event for all the major gay publications. My article was written with venom dripping off of my fingers. I wrote that ‘Mr. Sylvia Rivera showed up wearing lipstick on one ear.’ I continued with Mr. Rivera this and Mr. Rivera that. My venom was very well hidden because I am a smooth writer. When Sylvia read the article, she saw red.
That was how I unhatched the story in my mind, pulled it out and put it back in. I went through my archive recently, and I reread the article. I only wrote Mr. Sylvia Rivera once.
For the next 20 years, Sylvia refused to talk to me, but in 1988 Sylvia and I ended up on a panel at the LGBT Center in New York. They had her speak first because she said she predated me in the movement. I objected to that because I've been in the movement since 1958.
Randy Wicker and Barbara Gittings at an Annual Reminder in 1966.
She was always so gracious. Whenever she would be given an award, like the Hispanic Activists of the Year award, she said, I'm just a church-going white woman.
I said, Sylvia, if people heard you saying you're just a church-going white woman, I don't think they’d make you Hispanic activist of the year.
When she'd give a talk, she'd always say we must remember and repeat the work of the Mattachine, the people who predated us, like Randy Wicker and Frank Kameny. It was very generous on her part.
Then, suddenly, she was struck down with liver cancer. She had quit drinking. She had sobered up. The last time I saw her, I started to tear up. I said, ‘I always thought you would speak at my funeral service. I never thought I'd be the one that would speak at yours.’ She was a fierce advocate.”