From Eric Marcus: Two Yiddish words come to mind when I think of the time I spent with Nancy Walker and her life partner, Penny, in December 1989: landsman and hamish. Landsman is a word I heard my Eastern European grandparents use to describe a fellow Jew who came from the old country, someone who felt familiar because of shared roots. That’s how I felt about Nancy. I wasn’t surprised when she told me that she was born in 1935 in the same New York City hospital as my mother, who was born in 1931. The way Nancy spoke—her sentence structure and cadence—immediately brought me back to happy afternoons spent with my grandma Ethel.
Hamish, which means cozy and homey, is what Nancy and Penny’s home felt like as soon as I crossed their threshold. Upon my arrival, I was welcomed warmly into their well-worn Victorian house. Lunch was waiting in the dining room. Tea was offered and served. And then we fell into an easy conversation.
I wanted to speak with Nancy because of her work as a columnist for the national weekly newspaper, the Gay Community News. I’d read that Nancy was a contrarian, a middle-aged voice of reason and moderation in a newsroom steeped in youthful radicalism. Even though I was a relative youth when I interviewed Nancy, I felt a political and spiritual kinship with her.
Despite the power of her words and the passion with which she spoke, I sensed that Nancy was physically fragile and came to learn that she was being treated for metastatic breast cancer. She lived another seven years after that 1989 interview and in the time since her death I’ve had the opportunity to visit with Penny, who has lovingly restored the house she once shared with Nancy, room by room.
To learn more about Nancy Walker, explore the resources that follow below.
Read more about Nancy Walker’s contributions to the LGBTQ civil rights movement in Eric Marcus’s book, Making Gay History. You can read some of Nancy’s prose and poetry in this memorial book, compiled after her death in 1996. Also, listen to our Love Is Love episode, in which Nancy talks about Penny, the love of her life.
The Community Homophile Association of Toronto (CHAT) was Nancy’s first activist home. Learn more about CHAT in this video. Listen to the oral histories of CHAT founding members Elgin Blair and George Hislop, and member Pat Murphy, kept by the ArQuives, Canada’s LGBTQ2+ archive.
Nancy started working for Boston’s Gay Community News (GNC) in 1976. Read more about this important newspaper, which ceased publication in 1992, here and in Amy Hoffman’s memoir, An Army of Ex-Lovers: My Life at the Gay Community News. Watch this interview with GCN co-founder David Peterson. You can check out the paper’s very first issues and many others from the first few years online. The GCN archives are kept at the Northeastern University Archives.
In the episode, Nancy mentions Charley Shively and his infamous bible burning at the 1977 gay pride rally in Boston; read the speech Charley delivered here. You can learn more about Charley here and here, or read an issue of his publication, Fag Rag, online here. Physical copies of Fag Rag’s full run can be found here and at many LGBTQ archives.
In 1979, Nancy attended the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. Learn more about it here, listen to audio from the march here and here, read the program of events, and see it in pictures here.
Eric Marcus Narration: I’m Eric Marcus and this is Making Gay History!
Nancy Walker had a type. She liked the brainy ones. In 1962, when Nancy was in her late twenties, she met Penny. Penny was smart as a whip, wise beyond her 18 years, and she read James Joyce. Nancy was impressed. The two fell in love and became life partners.
By the time Nancy and Penny got involved in the gay rights movement in the early 1970s, they were living in Toronto, Canada, where Penny was attending graduate school. That’s where they joined their first gay organization. In the mid-70s they moved back to the U.S., to Boston, Massachusetts, and Nancy soon volunteered to work at a weekly newspaper called the Gay Community News.
As you know from our previous episodes, the post-Stonewall years saw an explosion of new gay rights organizations. And along with the new organizations came scores of new publications. The Gay Community News—or GCN—was among the more prominent, an influential gay liberation paper with a national readership.
Nancy was in her forties when she joined GCN. She was an outspoken New Yorker and a moderate pragmatist. It’s no surprise that Nancy and the younger, more radical GCN staff didn’t always see eye to eye.
So here’s the scene. It’s the winter of 1989, and I’ve just traveled to the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston, where Nancy and Penny share a classic Victorian house—complete with a turret and peeling paint. They’ve been a couple for a long time, and it shows. While Nancy and I talk, Penny’s on hand to offer tea, chime in, and help Nancy when her memory fails her.
Nancy is sitting in a comfortable upholstered chair. She’s dressed in dark slacks and a light-colored blouse, which is where I clip my microphone. I press record.
Eric Marcus: Interview with Nancy Walker, Sunday December 10, 1989, at the home of Nancy Walker in Jamaica Plains, Massachusetts. Interviewer is Eric Marcus, tape one, side one.
Nancy Walker: I had gotten fed up with pretending to be straight. We’d been together nine years and we had no gay friends. So that’s when we first went to DOB in New York, and then when we went back to Canada, we were just on a summer vacation in New York. Went back—
EM: What year?
NW: That must have been ’71 or ’72, I’m not sure. Took us, even though we thought we were big shots, took us a long time to get the guts to go. Remember, we kept finding excuses not to go. It’s always something wrong. Finally we went and we looked around the room and saw people like our grandmothers. I said, “What the hell, is this what we were afraid of?” And that was the beginning.
And then we went to Canada and saw a notice in a little newspaper that talked about a homophile—is what they called it—homophile organization. I said, “Hey, let’s call and see what it’s about.” And we did. That was ’72, I think, when we first got involved in that. We belonged to the Community Homophile Association of Toronto. Better known as CHAT.
EM: And what was the group’s reason for being?
NW: Oh, I think it was an umbrella group for everything. For counseling. For social purposes. They even, I suppose, did some legal work. The law had changed. The law was universally changed to a consenting adult law in Canada. So they had legal advantages that we didn’t have. But they didn’t have the social advantages. It was still terribly condemned. People were very conservative there.
I remember in Canada trying so hard to get any gay publications, to find out what was going on in the world. And there was one little sleazy bookstore that carried gay papers. They had things like that but you had to be willing to go into what was labeled and known to the public as a filthy bookstore.
And when we moved here, there was a little milk, you know, a little convenience store across the street from the apartment we lived in. And I walked in there and, lo and behold, there’s a gay newspaper, the Gay Community News. It was a quarter. So I bought this thing and I said, “Hey, look, it’s out in the open. It’s okay. We don’t have to do sleazy things to be gay.” And didn’t know at the time I was gonna wind up making the newspaper and not having to pay for it. I think the reason I worked for them was I didn’t want to pay the quarter for the newspaper.
EM: When did you join the paper?
NW: In 1976, in May of 1976.
EM: What was GCN like when you got there? What was the operation like, the physical atmosphere, the kinds of people who were there?
NW: It was unbelievable. It was up a long steep flight of stairs into a big open space that was a mess. They had to work very hard to get what little materials they could. They had no money. Never had any money. And there were some scruffy-looking people, very radical people. Any kind of dress you can imagine they wore.
A lot of the people I knew there are now gone because of AIDS or suicide. Um, I mean, the boys had long hair. Every kind of hair. Every kind of everything. It was a real mixed bag. It was not a luxurious place. But it was home. It meant a great deal to all of us.
EM: How do you mean it was home?
NW: Maybe what I’m trying to say, because that’s how I really felt, was that you’re somebody else in the rest of the world. Not fully honest. That you could be yourself at GCN. We didn’t get along with each other at all. Even the people who had the same political persuasions didn’t get along. But still we knew we were among our own.
You know, it’s like a Jewish family. You may not get along, but you know this is your place and the rest of it out there is the Diaspora. It’s not your place. So, that’s how I felt. I don’t know how other people felt about GCN, I just know they loved it terribly.
The paper had to go on no matter what and it went through hell. It went through fire. They burned the place down once, and we just moved over to a place in Cambridge that let us use their space. And we never missed a week. That paper has been continuously published since it started except for two weeks during the year where they have vacations. It’s quite a remarkable achievement.
EM: When was the fire?
NW: It was either the end of the ’70s or the beginning of the ’80s. And it was devastating.
EM: Was it arson?
NW: Oh, yes. It was arson alright. I guess they figured they couldn’t get us any other way, they were gonna do that. But they couldn’t get us that way either.
EM: What was the purpose of GCN?
NW: The purpose?
NW: I think the purpose was to get out a gay, a national gay newspaper. It was. It’s the only gay national weekly that’s gone on since something like 1973. We needed contact with each other.
You know, there were still gay people who didn’t know there was anybody else in the world. It’s hard coming from a place like New York to imagine that. But there are people in Kentucky and Louisiana and places like that that didn’t know there were any other gay people.
EM: I grew up in Queens and I didn’t know there were any other gay people…
NW: Well, I didn’t know there were gay men. I had no idea. I was so delighted the first time I met an openly gay male, I can’t tell you. I said, “Oh, a brother. Somebody I can love.”
EM: You didn’t know there were gay men?
NW: No. It’s something you don’t think about. I mean, I didn’t. I sort of grew up in my own little head. Yeah…
EM: Back to the issue of why GCN existed…
NW: GCN existed… See, it started before I got there. It was only three years old.
EM: But did you feel you had a mission at GCN? Was there a missionary zeal?
NW: Oh my god, yes! Oh, if anything was holy it was GCN. It was, had a tremendous sense of mission. And we loved it and protected it.
But what it meant to me was, finally, all my life I said, I’ve got these great ideas, and I would like somebody to know about them. So finally I got a place where I could write and other people could read it.
EM: Nancy, let’s go back to the beginning of my interview with you, the beginning of my questions. What year were you born?
NW: 1935. I was born on St. Patrick’s Day. And I think it’s just terrific because I wound up in a city where just in the city of Boston it is a holiday. So I always get my day off on my birthday.
EM: Where were you born?
NW: At Flower Fifth Avenue Hospital in New York.
EM: My mother was born there in ’31.
NW: Yeah, you see? I could’ve been your mother!
EM: That’s right. Um, where would you have been in 1945 on V-J day? Do you have any recollection of that?
NW: On the day itself? I know I was in Merrick, that’s where I lived. And I was terrified throughout the war because I had a warped perception—then maybe not so warped—of what was going on with Jews. That they were being put in ovens. And all I could think about was being put into an oven. So I was quite a nervous wreck until the war was over.
EM: Huh. So you thought they might come to get you.
NW: Oh, I was sure if we lost the war I was gonna get cooked. So that’s part of the reason why I love this country so much. That whenever my, my ex-colleagues would knock the country, I’d think, Hey buster, I am a Jew, there’s no way I’m goin’ anywhere.
And when I met Jewish people in Canada, they said, “You know, you are so aggressively Jewish. There’s nowhere else in the world but in America that Jews are open about being Jewish and proud of it.” She said, “Here you keep your mouth shut.” I thought, what an awful way to live. There’s all these goddamned closets all over the world. I have to be closeted about being Jewish? I got enough trouble, I’m sorry.
So I was always, all my life, conscious of being Jewish and being thankful that I was here. And being a lesbian, also, I’m still thankful I’m here. With all due respect to my more progressive friends, this country isn’t the enemy. Our system works. It may be the newest country in the civilized world, but it’s the greatest one, in my opinion.
EM: So you were…
NW: It’s a great place…
EM: I can hear how you could be at significant odds with your comrades at arms at GCN because there were a lot of…
NW: They were much younger. They hadn’t lived through the war. They didn’t have the really intense feeling that if I hadn’t been in this country I probably wouldn’t exist at all.
But when I was a kid I had a terrible time surviving my family. I wasn’t what they wanted. My mother was a perfect lady. And she wanted a little… When she got a little girl, she thought, Oh, a little me. Well, I wasn’t. I wasn’t at all like her. She wanted to dress me in pretty little pink dresses and I would climb trees and my underwear would be hanging out of the tree. And I would pick up worms and put them in my pockets and… I was a real tomboy. And they couldn’t break me. I would defy them. I cannot remember a time when I didn’t.
And I really felt at odds with the world and I didn’t know why. And I didn’t think I was gay because I certainly liked boys. And then I met the fellow I finally married at college, who was a totally different type. He was Gentile. Born in Massachusetts. A perfect gentleman. He wouldn’t say shit if he had a mouthful. I don’t know what he wanted with me. I never did understand that. I kept saying, “Go away, go find some nice shiksa. What do you want with me? I’m going to ruin your life.” He loved me, he thought. I don’t know.
EM: Did you ruin his life?
NW: No. He got married again… to a woman much older. He really wanted a mother. His mother… You don’t want to hear this. This is complicated, and not gay.
EM: When did you realize that you were in fact gay?
NW: I was already married. I was 20 years old. I had met a girl at a conference of Christians and Jews—National Conference of Christians and Jews—and I met a girl from the Bronx who was going to Hunter College. Her name was Valerie. She was blonde. Very dynamic. Ta, ta, ta, ta, ta, ta, ta… Talking all the time. She was the first person I really, really loved. And the minute I knew that, I went to Jeff and said, “You want a divorce?” And he said, “No, you’ll outgrow it.” Well, I never did outgrow it.
And then she got married a couple of years after that and went to California, and I thought the world had come to an end. And then five years after all that, this one—she shows up.
And it was like deja vu. And I thought, How can this be happening a second time in my life? I can’t lose it again because I’ll go nuts. But this one stayed.
We fell in love. Oh god. Did we ever. That was before gay liberation. Before we got involved in it anyway. It was 1962. Who knew from gay liberation? I just know boing when I met her. It wasn’t that I didn’t like men. I do like men. And there was no sexual problem about men, but the overwhelming emotional involvement was with this young woman who got away and this one who didn’t.
EM: Did you know why that was in, this is 1954?
NW: I met Valerie in ’54…
EM: Did people talk about what homosexuals were…?
NW: No, there was no real discussion of it. It was just interesting to me to see that there were lesbian couples. So I knew they existed and I knew I was one of them, though I couldn’t relate to the things they did. I didn’t like bars. I never drank. I couldn’t understand this butch-femme stuff. And there were some very tough women. Switchblade knives and things. And that was not for me. The woman I liked would be an intellectual who lived in the Bronx and then went to California. And then this one, who didn’t go to California.
EM: How would you characterize the stuff that you wrote?
NW: The column was just sort of like our lives or whatever happened during that week.
One of my favorite columns is the one about “A” people and “Z” people always getting together. I squeeze the toothpaste from the bottom of the tube very carefully. She just goes whoosh! And everything along those lines. It was a funny column.
The next one I wrote was about bananas, about the fact that we would buy a certain number of bananas, get down to the last banana and she won’t eat it because she wants me to have it and I won’t eat it because I want her to have it. So the thing gets blacker and blacker and blacker and more disgusting and finally gets thrown out. And I managed to stretch that out for a number of pages. And after that for quite some time I would find bananas on my door knobs. And people left me bananas all over the place. And they were hysterical. It was a very funny article. It’s also true. And I ended it with, “Mother has just sent us some grapefruit and we’re gonna go through the whole thing all over again with the grapefruit.”
EM: So your column was…
NW: It was mostly us. Sort of like The Perils of Pauline, humorous mostly. But every once in a while I had a real opinion and they didn’t like it.
One gay pride day a fellow named Charley… Charley Shively. Terribly, terribly radical. He and a number of other fellows have a group—I don’t know if they still have it. They write the most outrageous stuff deliberately to upset people. What was the group that Charley and Mike—?
Penny: Fag Rag.
NW: Fag Rag. Oh, god love you. I can’t remember anything.
Penny: This is very unusual.
NW: No it isn’t, I have been losing names and things the past year or so.
Penny: Ah, you’re getting old, what are we gonna do?
NW: Uh, Charley tore up his Harvard degree, burned the bible, made such a stink, that I hit the roof and went and wrote a “Speaking Out” column.
EM: This is at a gay pride rally?
NW: Yes. It was a big deal. And Charley was wearing his Harvard robe or something and burnt all this stuff. I was livid. I wanted to kill. When I got back to the office and I… I think smoke was coming out of my typewriter.
I thought that was the most deathly thing he could have done. I said here we’re trying to achieve something and this guy goes and does what’s the most offensive thing he can think of to do—never mind Harvard, but burning the bible is not such a smart thing.
Then we found out he did not burn or destroy his diploma. It was a photocopy. So there, that’s the kind of shit that I can’t stand. So I was very angry. I don’t remember what I said, but it was quite clear that I was angry. And Neil Miller, who I think was the news editor at the time, Neil said, “They’re gonna call you a Nazi.” I said, “I don’t give a shit what they call me, just publish it.”
EM: Call you a Nazi for what?
For denouncing Charley, for god’s sake. So it was a terrible fight. The whole office was split on this.
EM: What was wrong with your position. Why were people fighting?
NW: They were very radical.
EM: And so what did that mean?
NW: I would say at least 90 percent of the people at any time at GCN were thoroughly radical and then some of them were mostly radical.
EM: What did radical mean, though?
NW: Oh, radical meant burning the bible. Radical meant denouncing the government, hating the country. And I was… Those were the kind of people I would say, “Go. Go live in Russia. See how long you last.”
Theoretically, we shared a common goal. We wanted gay liberation. But what does it mean? Does it mean equal rights? To me, that’s all I wanted. They wanted to be able to fuck in the parks. Well, that’s wonderful, but I wouldn’t take my children there either.
Sexual freedom isn’t the thing we need now. We need some other things. That’s what I meant. How far is sexual freedom supposed to go? Are you allowed to have intercourse on the street corner here because it’s what you feel like doing? How does that make you better than a dog? And I don’t know that we’re better, but different. What happens to civilization when people lose all their socialization and have sex when, where, and with whom they please? We have to have a little, little bit of self-control. I’m sorry. I’m not interested in sexual freedom. I’m interested in human beings being able to live.
Why constantly offend the larger portion, the majority, to whom you have to go with your hat in your hand if you want anything? We don’t have to kiss asses, because I think that’s undignified. But you have to deal with these people in a way that makes sense. That’s how I thought.
I also believed that without the radicals to push, to spearhead the movement, nothing is gonna happen. Because you can write a nice polite letter to your senator saying, “Please vote for gay rights.” And they can say, throw it in the garbage and that’s as far as it gets. But if you make enough of a stink they have to pay some kind of attention to you.
So I think there’s a place for that. But I don’t think burning the bible when every camera in the city is focused on you is a good idea. So I was furious. Not that burning bibles offends me. No, I’m not at all religious. I just thought that from the point of view of trying to accomplish A, B, and C, burning the bible was setting us back.
EM: You were really a thorn in the side of those who held what they believed to be the only view about what gay rights should be.
NW: Maybe. I was unpopular for another thing that I truly believe. That we should deal with gay issues and not try to spread ourselves all over the world. Like that rainbow coalition stuff. I was not interested in dealing… When I was dealing as a gay person looking for gay civil rights I didn’t want to get into women, I didn’t want to get into blacks, I didn’t want to get into South America. I wanted to deal with gay issues. Oh, I was wrong for that, too. So I was wrong. And maybe it is wrong. But that’s how I felt.
EM: You left GCN in 1984?
NW: I think so. Wasn’t it? ’84?
EM: What did you leave over?
NW: I was really tired of the hassle at GCN. Everything was a big battle. I had no freedom. I had to constantly fight to put the thing in. They would always tell me they didn’t have space, they couldn’t run the column when they were supposed to. It was supposed to go every other week. And it finally got to be too much.
I think I disliked being there because it was uncomfortable. But I don’t dislike them. I think they’re wonderful and I think the paper is the single greatest thing that I know. And one of the most wonderful experiences was when we were in Washington and everybody was marching with their groups. And people saw GCN’s banner and, oh, they came over and told us how wonderful they thought we were.
NW: Was it ’79? Must have been. Yes, it was October, wasn’t it? October of ’79, yes.
EM: And that felt wonderful.
NW: It was quite something, yeah. People who didn’t know us except through the paper ran over when they saw the banner.
All the way back, driving back along route 95, we’d have to stop periodically to go to the bathroom. And you’d go into a Howard Johnson’s and you’d see all these people with their buttons. We hadn’t taken our buttons off so we saw all these people that were there and had shared this experience.
I think the single most moving experience that I’ve had in terms of the gay movement was that march on Washington, where as far as you could see there was a sea of gay people. It was very peaceful. It was a wonderful feeling.
EM: What was so remarkable about seeing all those gay people in one place?
NW: It wasn’t only that it was in one place because they had huge marches in New York. It was that it was Washington. It was the capital of our country. And remember how I feel about this country. Being there, being who we were, not being machine-gunned, um, it was just a moving experience. We had finally gotten there. And things were gonna be different. We were never gonna get shoved back in the closets again.
We still have a long way to go, but I think we certainly have made progress since the time when we first got involved in the early ’70s. And we certainly met some gay people. We finally did it.
EM Narration: In addition to writing her GCN column, Nancy Walker also managed the paper’s classifieds section for several years. Not the most glamorous assignment, but Nancy made it her own. Each week she kicked off the personal ads with a short poem to Mousie Mousie Wildflower from Porcupine—sweet and silly, sometimes wistful notes, with inside jokes or more profound ruminations. Mousie, of course, was Penny. The doting, if prickly, Porcupine was Nancy.
In the spring of 1983, Nancy published several Mousie poems that suggested that perhaps all was not right in the Mousie-Porcupine household. Alarmed readers across the country wrote in their concern, forcing Nancy to reassure them that, no, Mousie had not wandered off into a stranger’s bed. That was just a foray into fiction, and queer rodent love was indeed alive and well.
After Nancy left GCN in 1984, she wrote for Bay Windows, a more socially oriented gay newspaper. She also continued her work as a secretary for special education in the Boston public school system.
Nancy Walker died from complications of breast cancer on May 20, 1996. She was 61 years old. Penny still lives in the house they once shared.
Many thanks to everyone who makes Making Gay History possible: senior producer Nahanni Rous, producers Josh Gwynn and Janelle Anderson, deputy director Inge De Taeye, audio engineer Jeff Towne, researcher Brian Ferree, photo editor Michael Green, and our social media team, Cristiana Peña, Nick Porter, and Denio Lourenco. Special thanks to Jenna Weiss-Berman and our founding editor and producer, Sara Burningham. Our theme music was composed by Fritz Meyers.
Making Gay History is a co-production of Pineapple Street Studios, with assistance from the New York Public Library’s Manuscripts and Archives Division and the ONE Archives at the USC Libraries.
Season six of this podcast has been made possible with funding from the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Calamus Foundation, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, the Small Change Foundation, Irwin and Andra Press, and our listeners, including Rick Fiori. Thanks, Rick!
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So long! Until next time!