OUTstanding Virginians 2014

Dr. Walter Sheppe – Biologist, Retired, Richmond*

Sheppe

Biologist Walter Sheppe grew up Hopewell, Virginia 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. Walter 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 says, “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.

Within professional organizations, such as the American Association of University Professors (as chapter president), The American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Education Association, Dr. Sheppe crafted resolutions and worked to protect the rights of gays and lesbians. Despite his efforts, his own university was slow to change, largely because of opposition from a long-term president. However, when he returned to the campus several years ago, he was delighted to find that many of the policies he had championed were finally in place. “We won out in the end,” he says.