I met Wade Richards thirty years ago this month at the 1987 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. Although our friendship lasted just seven years, it left a strong imprint, one indelibly entwined with the march itself and how the event rippled in collective and individual ways.
I first saw Wade on the subway platform waiting for the Metro at what was then still called simply Washington National. Ronald Reagan was in the White House, his name not yet on the airport. As AIDS had ravaged gay and bisexual men, the president had turned a blind eye. Sandra Day O’Connor, a Reagan appointee to the Supreme Court, had voted with the 5-to-4 majority in Bowers v. Hardwick, the decision that upheld the power of states to criminalize sodomy.
Ralph, Larry, Larry’s sister Diane, and I had flown from Flint to join in a nationwide imperative to organize and protest. Friends Tim, Barry, and Alan would arrive the next day. As the call to attend put it, “For love and for life, we’re not going back!
When I spotted Wade, I thought: Here’s this nice fellow in DC and he doesn’t realize there’s a big gay march going on. Then, when he joked that he was in town for a John Birch Society convention, it was clear he did, indeed, realize. He’d come from California while his partner had to stay home.
It turned out that the friends he was staying with in Virginia were out of town and wouldn’t be back until the next day. At some point in the subway ride into the city, we invited him to sleep in our room at the Ramada Inn Central near Logan Circle, since the rest of our group weren’t there yet.
He was so friendly, with a keen sense of gay and lesbian politics. He’d gone to Duke for undergrad and worked at a museum in Los Angeles. He liked comic books. He was 23, just six months older than me. He and his partner had been together for four years.
So, he tromped around with Ralph, Larry, Diane, and me to various landmarks that first day, visiting the Lincoln Memorial and the Jefferson Memorial. At the Vietnam Memorial, Diane searched through the index for a friend until Larry reminded her that the friend had come back. I remember sitting in the Senate Gallery during debate on a milk bill and Wade pointing out Alan Cranston.
In the morning, as he parted for his own weekend adventures, we promised to keep in touch.
The March itself was phenomenal. As the day of the March got nearer, more and more people arrived in DC, gay and lesbian people in numbers I had never before experienced. On the subway, walking the sidewalks near Dupont Circle, at the Mall, I’d call to folks, “Where you from?” in turn cheered by the “Kansas” or “Wyoming” or “Oregon” called back in reply.
Writing him on the anniversary of the March became an annual tradition and we talked occasionally on the phone. His answering machine greeted callers with k.d. lang’s “Constant Craving.”
On two trips to Los Angeles in 1990 and 1991, he let me stay with him in his apartment near Culver City.
On my first trip to see him, I took the bus from the Amtrak Station downtown out to Santa Monica, a two-hour ride, and caught a connection down the Pacific Coast Highway to meet up with Wade at the Getty Museum, now the Getty Villa, where he worked. I remember him showing me a room with computer screens all around where viewers could peruse the dazzling pages of medieval books. Text and surrounding colorful illustrations penned by the hands of monks centuries before popped from the screen. This was cutting edge technology at the time, made possible by bounties of Getty loot.
Later, he took me out for dinner and I had Thai for the first time. Backwoods boy from Flint, even the bustling gay coffeehouse in West Hollywood left me dazzled.
On that visit, Wade told me that he was HIV+ or had ARC or AIDS. I don’t recall the specifics. He’d become involved in ACT UP/Los Angeles, and thrilled at being arrested.
Wade was the first one I knew to be infected with whom I felt a personal bond. This disease was real. He had just recently learned his status at the time of the 1987 March.
My second time out to see him in LA, he had a new boyfriend and they made me a big special stir fry. I was too sheepish to tell them I couldn’t eat broccoli, so suffered from severe stomach pains while we visited a gay bar “in the Valley.”
We made sure to hang out together for an evening when we both returned to DC for the 1993 March, a night of reminiscing and reflecting on how the six years since had impacted our lives.
I last saw him in the summer of 1994, when the person I was dating treated me to a trip to Los Angeles to see David Drake in The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me. Wade was living with his mom, noticeably thinner in his bathrobe.
Our friendship was fleeting. Nonetheless, he showed me a way to be gay and proud and professional and political in a way I never experienced back in Michigan. Maybe we were each only a slight presence in each other’s life, but for me it’s a presence that made a deep impression, one that I cherish thirty years on.
His sister called me with the news. Wade died from complications related to AIDS on November 25, 1994 at age 31.