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Richard Walker led Front Runners New York 30 years ago, when AIDS darkened the landscape, Gay Games was just gathering momentum, and the idea of an international Front Runners conference was just that. He started as treasurer in 1983-1984, served as vice president in 1985 and then president in 1986 and 1987. This interview was conducted by Fred Pfaff in February 2016.
How did you come to join Front Runners?
When I moved to New York in my twenties, I enjoyed my newfound freedom in the city perhaps a little too avidly. Consequently, I reached the point where I wanted something more than just going out to bars, so I volunteered at Gay Men's Health Project, a small STD-screening clinic organized by gay doctors who realized that many men were hesitant to talk about being gay with their straight doctors. Believe it or not, I met my first partner there. He was a Front Runner and he introduced me to running as a sport and to the club.
What was the tenor of the club at the time?
The AIDS crisis was looming over our lives, yet club members stepped up, whether they were visiting people in the hospital, taking care of sufferers’ private matters, or organizing memorials. The club's collective support helped each of us get through that worrisome and mournful time. I recall one outgoing, fun-loving member, Tom Cook, did not want most people visiting him because he did not like the way he looked with Kaposi Sarcoma’s lesions. But he allowed Front Runners to come visit. The Front Runners may not have been his biological family, but we were his logical family.
In the 1980s, there were still members who were closeted except when they were at Front Runners. Many people chose to opt out of being listed in the membership directory, fearing it would fall into the wrong hands. I remember TJ Storch walked around the block three or four times before he got the courage to drop off his bag at the restaurant where we met before we went to run. Front Runners was part of his coming-out process, and he later served out-and-proudly as vice president during my terms as president.
What did it mean to be a Front Runner then?
Front Runners represented a healthy lifestyle – a place to gather that was not focused on the bar scene, but on welcoming people of all athletic abilities. Regardless of whether you were a gay man, HIV negative or positive, lesbian, bisexual, or whatever racial origin, it did not matter. Front Runners was a place where you could focus on health and camaraderie.
The club fostered friendships that extended beyond running. When we ran each other wearing business attire during work hours, we’d whisper, “I didn’t recognize you with your clothes on.” Meaning, of course, we’d only see each other in running shorts.
What are you proudest of during your tenure as president?
At Gay Games II (San Francisco, 1986), most of the running events were devoted to track and field. None of the Front Runners New York was particularly adept at track and field events, so we hired our first coach who helped us learn about sprinting and other track techniques. I'm proud to say the club showed up quite well in the number of medals won. The next year, we held the very first global Front Runners Conference in New York. We had been doing trips to visit with the Boston, Philadelphia and Washington D.C. clubs. After the Gay Games where we met Front Runners from all over the world, we felt it important to bring people together so that there was cohesiveness, camaraderie, and collaboration among the clubs. We had Front Runners members coming in from all over North America for the conference. I think that event helped foster Front Runners not as a collection of individual organizations, but more of a cohesive group of affiliated clubs.
What was the biggest challenge you faced at president?
There were three big challenges. First, we had some very lean financial years and we needed to build up the treasury, so that we could make deposits on items that we were had to rent or purchase for the Pride Run. Number two was participation by women. We had a handful of women who came dutifully, in snow, rain, heat, and gloom of night, like the old postal service motto. We realized that we needed to request one more favor of them, which was to reach out to other women to ask them to run with the group because peer-to-peer invitations were the most effective. I think the third and most ominous challenge was the AIDS crisis and the toll it took not just on the gay community at large, but on Front Runners members. I’m proud that both the gay men and lesbians of Front Runners stepped up to be caretakers or to help with fundraisers.
What encourages you most about the club’s evolution?
I feel that Front Runners is truly a national brand now. You don’t have to know the origins from The Front Runner, the book by Patricia Nell Warren, to feel the camaraderie of being a Front Runner, regardless of what city you are in. As I look through recent photos of Front Runners New York, I'm very happy to see a larger group of women. And I’m happy the club is on a much better financial footing than we were in 1985 and 1986.
What does Front Runners mean to you?
Front Runners means the support of community. The place where I found a healthy lifestyle, solidarity and friendship. Although I don't run anymore, I still proudly wear my Front Runner New York jacket on special occasions. And I have made close friendships that have lasted for decades. To me, Front Runners represents some of the best of the gay community. You never know who you're going to meet ... a new friend, a business colleague, or even a celebrity (I met actor George Takei and his husband Brad through Front Runners). You never know what adventures and enriching experiences will come from club events. While I wouldn’t recognize many faces, I feel as though I could walk into the basement of Rutgers or meet for a Central Park run and feel at home. Front Runners is an essential part of who I was – and who I am today.
In 2004, when then San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom opened up marriage to same-gender couples, my partner and I went down to the courthouse. We were asked by an Associated Press photographer and reporter if they could follow us through the process of getting married. The story and photographs were picked up in newspapers all over the world. I believe that my tenure as a member and officer of Front Runners New York helped prepare me for coming out on such a public scale.
What advice would you give the club now?
We're facing a period of trends and counter-trends – one in which our rights toward full equality are going to move ahead, while another societal movement continues to demonize the LGBT community. Consequently, I think it's important that Front Runners keeps focused on sports, health, and camaraderie, providing a positive image of LGBT individuals. We don’t need to be a political club, but our visibility by its very nature is political. We’re running every step toward equality.