Speaking ‘Truth to Power’

As a teenager during the 1950s, I knew I was homosexual.

I heard others talking about “queers.” When someone explained what “queer” meant, I realized I was one. “Queer” wasn’t “catchy” and “in” then. “Queer” was a hateful epithet that caused pain. In high school, some of the local rednecks called me “Que-bo” behind my back.

Randolfe WickerI secretly prowled library shelves devouring every book on the subject. Collected “case studies” bore titles like “Sex Deviants.” The “patient” sexual histories dated back to the late 19th century, generally beginning with a student being seduced by a piano teacher. Lesbians were never even discussed. At 17, I read a paperback novel, Rodney Garland’s Heart in Exile. The protagonist describes following an attractive sailor into a gay bar. There were actual bars where homosexuals gathered and socialized? I was ecstatic!

In the 1950s, newspapers and magazines only covered homosexual scandals: Child killers, Leopold and Loeb; Burgess and McLean, British spies who’d defected to the Soviet Union; Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s “hunt” for homosexuals working for the government; police round-ups of “perverts” usually featuring photos of drag queens, make-up askew, sitting in a Paddy wagon.

Only pulp publications like Los Angeles Confidential magazine covered “all the news unfit to print” — about celebrities who engaged in real or alleged homosexual activity.

In 1956, I found gay life in Greenwich Village, a world I’d never dreamed existed one year earlier. “Gay” was an in-group term in those days, a word you’d drop as bait to test another person’s reaction.
In bars, some talked about a “Mattachine Society.” No one could answer my questions about it. I discovered The Mattachine Review and One magazines on a local newsstand, bought copies and subscribed. I read them eagerly during my next year at college.

I had no problem accepting my homosexuality. I only feared discovery. As a college freshman, I kept a diary that detailed the crush I’d developed on a fellow student. My father found my diary and read it. Fortunately, the psychiatrist he consulted advised him that I’d always be homosexual.

Father confronted me. He believed circumstances had caused my homosexuality. He recalled how I’d cried about Mommy deserting me at age 5, when she was taken away by tuberculosis.

“I want you to be the best-adjusted homosexual you can become,” Daddy told me. “I won’t always be here to take care of you. I haven’t told your mother, because she could never accept it.”

In turn, I invited my father to accompany me to Lenny’s Hideaway, a Greenwich Village gay bar, where he would have met an impressive assortment of Ivy League students, young lawyers and other professionals.

“I can accept you,” Daddy said, “but I can’t accept them.”

I eagerly showed my father Mattachine Society literature a few months later and told him I was becoming involved.

“It’s your life to live,” he surmised. “I don’t think you are going to get very far with this. I ask just one thing: that you not involve my good name.”

My given legal name was Charles Gervin Hayden Jr. That day, my father took away the name he had given me. I chose Randolfe Wicker as my new name. That was “really me.”

I fancied myself a modern-day Clark Kent. After work, Charlie Hayden morphed into Randy Wicker, a fearless champion of truth and justice. I dreamed of being Randolfe Wicker 24 hours a day. In 1967, I would merge my two identities and legally change my name to Randolfe Hayden Wicker.

The stereotypes about homosexuals outraged me. All homosexuals were legal criminals. Psychiatrists classified them as mentally ill. They were, among other things, child molesters and Communists, and the public considered them morally corrupt “sinners.”

But the homosexuals I knew were well-adjusted, looked and acted “normally,” held jobs and were generally indistinguishable from others. The Mattachine Society officially was a national growing nonprofit “educational research organization” focusing on homosexuality.

I sought out the New York Mattachine Society in June 1958, lied about my age to meet its “21 or over” age requirement, and joined. Several of the older members were informed, educated and articulate. However, none felt able to be public spokesman. They feared losing their jobs or simply didn’t want their personal lives to be public.

I believed Mattachine had to wage a campaign against the prevailing public misperceptions. I promoted its monthly lecture with signs all over Manhattan. Three hundred people showed up instead of the usual 30. The landlord evicted The Mattachine Society, saying he “couldn’t have an organization like that upstairs” with a bar at street level. (The vice squad had visited him.)

It was illegal to serve a drink to a homosexual or to allow them to gather on a bar’s premises in those days. Several years later, Mattachine activists challenged those regulations by demanding to be served at Julius Bar in Greenwich Village — and the courts overturned them.

A group of psychiatrists declared they could cure any homosexual with just eight hours of therapy on WBAI-FM, subscriber-supported radio in New York City. I went to the station.

“Those shrinks were simply frauds,” I argued, “seeking vulnerable patients to exploit. We homosexuals were the real authority on homosexuality. We lived it 24 hours a day!”

The producers listened — and, more over, invited us to have a say.

The resulting program, “Live and Let Live,” got a full page of coverage in Newsweek and a story and favorable review by the New York Times, among others. WBAI’s broadcasting license was challenged. But the FCC ruled “homosexuality was a fit subject for public discussion.” Suddenly, radio and TV stations were inundating Mattachine with invites. Mattachine’s sole spokesperson was Randy Wicker.

My first three trips to Chicago were to appear on Kup’s Show. There wasn’t a single homosexual in Chicago willing to take the public stage. Chicago homosexuals suffered terribly. When a bar was raided, both the name and place of employment of those arrested were published.

I was busy, speaking wherever I was invited whether at student groups or humanist associations. I worked with Robert Doty, a New York Times reporter preparing that paper’s first major story about “one of the city’s best-kept secrets” – the “existence of a large homosexual community in NYC.”

I took Doty to several of Manhattan’s more reserved East Side bars. He assured me that he and his wife had many gay friends, yet marveled at “never having seen it at this level before.”

I begged him to mention of the then minority viewpoint that “homosexuality, in and of itself, was not a mental illness.” I gave him Evelyn Hooker’s study proving that assertion. Ultimately, he quoted only “all-gays-are-sick” psychiatrists.

By the mid-1960s, I concluded efforts to turn the struggle for homosexual civil rights into a mass movement were futile. In 1965, the gay movement, founded 15 years earlier by Harry Hay, included only a few hundred. Its existence really depended on a couple dozen activists.

It was a stark contrast from the path that had lead to this point. While attending the University of Texas, in the late-1950s, I’d joined Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement. I’d sat in to integrate lunch counters.

Then, gay activism launched my professional writing career. I’d stepped out of the closet to speak truth to power. Many homosexuals, including most gay activists, believed they would be physically attacked — or worse — upon publicly identifying themselves. I discovered Americans were curious; willing to listen to arguments presented intelligently.

But it wasn’t enough, it seemed. And as the times turned, by 1964, I had joined the anti-war, sex freedom and legalize pot movements.

Publishing “issue buttons” was my hobby. “Equality for Homosexuals” was my first big success. By 1967, my hobby grew into a lucrative business. I opened a button-poster-psychedelic shop on St. Marks Place in New York City. Once again, I was in Newsweek and other publications getting press. I’d become a sloganeer, the “button king” of the hippie era. “Dump Johnson” buttons, targeting President Lyndon B. Johnson’s potential bid for reelection, sold by the thousands. The NYT first started using the term “Dump Johnson” movement with quotes as shown. Ultimately, they simply talked about the Dump Johnson Movement without any quotes. I’d named a movement.

I’d left ghetto politics behind. Or so I thought. Then, the Stonewall Riots happened, with strong numbers of gay and transgender New Yorkers standing up to the city’s police. I realized I had prematurely given up on the community. Reinvigorated, I kept attending the annual Fourth of July demonstration in Philadelphia at Independence Hall, demanding my rights as an American (in 100-degree heat and in a proper business suit). In 1970, I watched that protest become New York City’s first Gay Pride Parade.

“How do you feel about America?” became a subject of discussion at a SAGE (Senior Action in a Gay Environment) group I attend. There were honorably-discharged veterans offended by “Don’t ask, Don’t tell.” Others, with long-term relationships, were offended by the absence of legalized gay marriage.

“I’ve lived the American dream,” I declared. “In my lifetime, homosexuals have gone from being criminals to being a legitimate minority group. We may not have ‘full equality’ yet, but we’re slowly getting there.

“I’ve watched young gay activists go to city hall to lobby politicians on gay issues only to end up being hired by them and having careers as openly gay civil servants.

“I see continuing progress ironing out the shortcomings of our society. Our right to marriage and military careers are simply a matter of time. I love this country. Today, our community’s involvement and progress proves freedom is still alive and well in the United States.”

“Randy” Wicker is a videographer, writer, activist and advisor to the San Francisco-based Immortality Institute. View his blog at randywickerreporting.blogspot.com.

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