Village Preservation Oral History: LGBT Activist Richard Wandel
It’s Pride Month!! Today we look at Richard Wandel, someone who has been instrumental in archiving LGBT history and who shared his story with us through our Oral History Project — read or listen to it here.
Richard Wandel is a former President of the Gay Activists’ Alliance (GAA) in New York, and the founding archivist at the LGBT Community Center at 208 West 13th Street. Richard was born in 1946 in Milwaukee, moved to Queens when he was a year old, and then moved again to Suffolk County as a teenager. Richard was raised Catholic and attended Catholic high school. After graduating high school in 1963, Richard matriculated into a Catholic seminary in Hartford, Connecticut. He recalls in his oral history being partially motivated to join the priesthood by the idea that he might avoid matters of sexuality there—although he explains that he did not truly know himself to be gay until after leaving the seminary.
While in seminary, Richard began to participate in civil rights and anti-war demonstrations. One day, he stumbled on a gay rights demonstration in Times Square organized jointly by the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and their splinter group, GAA. Richard then quickly became very involved with GAA, which he believed was a more effective organization than the GLF. Rich served as president of GAA for one year, in 1971. Among other actions, he led a march from New York City to Albany, stopping and staying in little towns along the Hudson River the entire way. After serving as President of GAA, Richard moved to Bradford, Pennsylvania. After five years in Bradford, Richard decided to return to New York in the late 1970s. He lived first on 99th Street in Manhattan and later moved to Astoria. In 1989, Richard was nominated to run the LGBT Center’s nascent archive. In order to accept the offer, he matriculated into New York University, where he earned his M.A. in history with a specialty in archival management. Consequently, Richard was able to take on a new day job, working for seventeen years as an associate archivist at the New York Philharmonic. Richard had this to say about his experience as the archivist for the LGBT Community Center:
When we started, of course, the rate of people dying was still very high. People would get a diagnosis and be dead three months later. So I would, oftentimes, get a phone call that would run something like, “My brother, my lover, my son had all of these Advocates [an LGBT news magazine]. Do you want them?” And of course, The Advocate needs to be saved, but it’s not exactly rare, ok? And so then I would extend the conversation: “Did he have snapshots? Did he save letters? Did he write a journal of any kind?” Stuff like that. And oftentimes the answer would be yes. People don’t automatically think of their stuff as having historical value because it’s new. Right? Or whatever, alright, or “Because I’m not a famous person, it’s unimportant.” And at first—of course, I did that—but to a certain extent, it made me uncomfortable, until I realized that in effect what I was saying to this lover, son, brother, whatever, was that “His life was valuable. We want to preserve it.” So in a strange way, or maybe not so strange way, for that brief moment of time, anyway, I was an effective bereavement counselor. And that remains true. It may not be HIV as much, any longer, but that remains true. That’s when you say that somebody’s record of their life is valuable and useful to other people. You are, you are indeed giving them the honor that they deserve, regardless of whether they were a totally unknown person or the President of the United States.
In his oral history, Rich goes on to explain the nature of the archive and its holdings, which are distinct from other gay history collections housed at larger institutions. He discusses the great influence of Walt Whitman’s poetry on his understanding of sexuality. He discusses changes in New York’s gay community over time, specifically noting that it is less concentrated in the Village than it used to be. In these reflections, Richard emphasizes the diversity of gay experiences and identities.