On March 24, 2017, the ACLU of Virginia lost a longtime friend and supporter when biologist Dr. Walter A. Sheppe, Jr. died at the age of 89. Dr. Sheppe was an early and effective leader in the gay rights movement, dating his involvement back to 1959. He was unrelenting in his quest to end discrimination against LGBT students and faculty in colleges and universities. In 2014, Dr. Sheppe was recognized as an OUTstanding Virginian by Equality Virginia, and the following article about Dr. Sheppe and his work was published at that time. We hope you’ll read about this early pioneer in the gay rights movement and recognize that our present is defined in part by his past work. May his memory be a blessing. -- The following profile was originally published on GayRVA.com on March 21, 2014. Reposted here with permission from GayRVA and Equality Virginia.
Biologist Walter Sheppe grew up Hopewell, Va.,in a new subdivision, which provided lots of pools and puddles of water for catching tadpoles and crayfish. A gifted student, he was told by a grade school teacher that one day he would be President, but science not politics was to be his passion. Sheppe received his B. S. in Biology from William and Mary in 1949 and nine years later a Ph.D. from the University of British Columbia. After serving in Germany in Army intelligence Sheppe held teaching posts at Vassar and the University of Buffalo. He taught biology and ecology at the University of Zambia before settling into a long tenure at the University of Akron from 1968 to 1988. Even after retiring, he maintained an office at the University of Akron until his move back to Richmond in 2008. He authored a history book, First Man West, as well as numerous journal articles.
Dr. Sheppe began his foray into the gay liberation movement in 1959, making him an early pioneer. He was a card-carrying member (Membership No. 1072) of the Mattachine Society, one of the earliest homophile organizations in the United States, and worked in their San Francisco office as a volunteer. Today, he looks back on this unique group and ponders its historical significance.
“The later organizations, after Stonewall, were more active and produced more,” he said, “but I wonder if we weren’t useful in setting the stage for Stonewall.”
In San Francisco, he met many activists of the day, including some of the contributors to One Magazine, the first widely circulated pro-gay magazine in the U.S. In the 1970s, Dr. Sheppe was an activist and member of the Gay Academic Union, which opposed discrimination in schools and universities. During their annual conferences in 1974 and 1975, Walter presented an Academic Gay Bill of Rights, focusing on the rights of sexual minorities at colleges and universities. The conference, at New York University, was inspiring. “Things were clearly changing,” he recalls; “students felt comfortable coming out.”
Back in Akron, Dr. Sheppe was out to faculty and students and advocated for adding sexual orientation to the university’s non-discrimination policy. He helped found the LGBT Union at the University of Akron and served as its first advisor. He was also a member of Akron’s HUG (Homosexual Unity Group) and the Kent Liberation Front at nearby Kent State, a more activist school.