Oral History with Steve Noll, January 25, 2019 (Ms2019-001)

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Interviewee: Steve Noll

Interviewer: Joe Forte

Date of Interview: January 25, 2019

F: We are in Newman Library on the Blacksburg campus of Virginia Tech on Friday, January twenty-fifth, at ten minutes after three in the afternoon. Recording an installment for project collecting oral histories in commemoration of Denim Day, a 1979 Gay Student Alliance event here at Virginia Tech campus. We're interviewing alumni. With us today is narrator Steve Noll. My name is Joe Forte. I'll be the interviewer. And, Steve, if you'd like to introduce yourself?

N: Well, it's James Stephen Noll. N-O-L-L. I was born in old-town Alexandria, 1953. Grew up in the Falls Church, Arlington area there. My grandparents were dairy farmers out in Fairfax. And I went to Catholic school in Falls Church at O'Connell High School in Arlington. One of seven kids. I'm the middle child of seven. Anything else? [Laughter] That's the basics.

F: When you attended Virginia Tech, what years were you here?

N: '71 to '76. And then I stayed in Blacksburg.

F: So, you weren't a student in '79?

N: I was not, no.

F: Okay, gotcha.

N: It was two years later. Yeah.

F: Why did you stay?

N: Have you ever been to Fairfax County? [Laughter] I loved it as a kid. We had the farm to visit all the time, to work on, but once I got down here I just really liked small town living. And I felt a little bit more like I could have a newer life here. I felt kind of hemmed in in Washington with my large family. I had not come out when I came down here. And I did come out in Blacksburg, so it sort of made it a lot easier to live here. It was not an anonymous town or anything. I mean, it was easy to know everybody and feel safer here, actually, I think. In some ways.

F: You mentioned the dairy farm.

N: Yeah.

F: That was a big part of your childhood?

N: Yeah. Huge.

F: Did you come to Virginia Tech for that-

N: No. No, no. There was no expectation to be dairy farming going on in Fairfax County after I left. It was sort of the end of that era. Now, I came here when I was in high school. I think that by that time, of course, I was well-aware of my situation. What life might be like. I didn't really know, but I had no clue how I was gonna manage in this society. Being gay at that time, in the late 60s and the early 70s. I was focused more on just getting by, going under the radar, not being found out. That was the main goal of my life at that time. I wasn't thinking about what I would do when I went to college. I just did it because that's what you did. I came and finished my undergraduate degree and stayed. Found jobs working around town in small businesses and ended up retiring here just a couple years ago.

F: So, you've been here ever since?

N: Well, I took about a year and a half off and stayed at the farm back in the '80s, when my uncle needed some help up there. I came back and, yeah. 48 years, just about.

F: So, you found then that, when you came out, you found acceptance? That's [Inaudible 4:16].

N: Yeah, that was the most surprising thing about it. It was actually a shock that there were people who didn't care. It's not something that you would've expected then. I guess it was an act of self-protection to assume that everybody was out to harm me or get me if they knew. So, it was a pleasant surprise when I found out there were a lot of people who didn't feel that way.

F: What was that community? Was that GSA folks?

N: No, it was broader than that. But it was the GSA--I'm trying to think, now. I had some friends that I came out to before I had anything to do with the organization on campus. And one of those people introduced me to a guy who did have involvement in the organization. But at that time, it was basically just a boy's club. It was very low-key, no politics, just a social organization. I went to one meeting, I think, was not impressed, and didn't go back. The next year I met this fellow who was involved in that organization and he convinced me I should go back. Ya know, meet people and whatever. And that, the year '78 when I went--the fall of '78--for the first time there were women involved. So, it was a much broader community and it was much more interesting to me then. It had a political bent. I remember the first meeting that I attended. Nancy was there, I think, and several other people that I got to be close friends with. I could see that the orientation of the group was gonna be a little more political, which is something that interested me at the time. This was at the time when Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority, and Anita Bryant, were all beginning to coalesce around the subject of homosexuality and attack gay people everywhere they could and every way they could. And it incensed me, and I just decided this is what I have to do. I have to become part of this and do what I can do. They created a safe space, an encouraging space, but I'm not gonna lie to ya', it wasn't something that I-- I didn't wanna become ghettoized in my life and have only gay friends, and only a gay social circle. So, I never really became enmeshed in a solid gay social circle and nothing else. I always kind of tended to, just-- My friends were my friends because they were my friends, not because they're gay. But it was important, giving me the support of being in that group and seeing what other people were going through and how they dealt with it and things like that.

F: So, you were still, then, coming to terms with it as an identity or a component of your identity?

N: No, I was pretty firm in what it was by the time I was probably 11 or 12.

F: But it sounds like, early on, because you're saying the importance of the GSA to you was the advocacy, right?

N: Yeah.

F: Almost from the beginning, your take was, there's something wrong with the world, not me.

N: Yeah. Absolutely, yeah. That happened probably-- I probably made that adjustment in my mind after I had my first crush. [Laughter] Ya know? Which couldn't be reciprocated and which I couldn't even tell the guy I had the crush. At that point, something just clicked. I said, oh, it's not really me. It's them. And that changed everything. I mean, in one minute. I remember the moment, standing in my kitchen, making spaghetti. [Laughter] I'd been through this sort of trauma of developing this emotional attachment to this guy who didn't even know it and couldn't reciprocate it. I guess it became a sort of a crisis for me in my development as an adolescent. And all of a sudden, I just realized that this is the same kind of feeling, the same kind of emotion that heterosexuals have. I said, there's no fucking- Excuse me! There's no difference! That awareness kinda slapped me in the face that day, and I said, wow. It's not me. And that changed everything, just that knowledge, that awareness. And made me more open to the world. I was a little more belligerent.

F: Did you meet any form of persecution here in Blacksburg?

N: I don't think it was any different than I would've encountered anywhere else in America, except for maybe gay havens like San Francisco, or Fire Island, or whatever, ya know, Key West. I didn't feel particularly put-upon being here. I've never felt comfortable anywhere to the degree where I could completely let down my guard and always feel safe. It's just something that gay people don't get to experience, I think. At least, people my age are just aware of the possibilities of what could happen if you're too open. As nice as it is, as good as it's gotten, I always have that lingering lurking suspicion, I guess. I think I'll always have it. I'm not constantly nervous and feeling in danger, but I'm just aware. And there were episodes and events here in Blacksburg that fed that, but they could have happened anywhere. Harassment -- just personal harassment, violence against people I knew and things like that.

F: Did you experience violence?

N: Myself?

F: Yeah.

N: No. No. But I had friends who were killed, murdered, beaten here in Blacksburg, and that was enough. Yeah, yeah. And there was always just the ambient hostility that you end up basically ignoring it after a while.

F: Were you aware at all, or did you consider it all a relationship between what you describe as your belligerence and the ambient hostility?

N: Yeah, yeah. I mean, you couldn't have one without the other, I don't think. I think it was just a natural protective stance. And I think most gay men, at least, and probably most gay women and trans-people all experience that. They never quite feel--there's a lot of defensiveness early on. And really that was early on. I adjusted pretty well, I think, to it. And became less belligerent. I wouldn't even call it belligerent. Militant, maybe? I don't know. More understanding of people's prejudices and how to approach them and what works and what doesn't. Ya know, hostility engenders hostility and you have to break that cycle at some point. I really feel like coming into this group, like I said, and getting to know people like me and then getting into a position where straight people started to know me and know more gay people, I felt less hostile. I felt more comfortable, and there was a much more positive response. That's continued like that, I guess. But there's always somebody, ya know?

F: Yeah.

N: Yeah.

F: That change coincides with your, sort of, re-acquainting yourself with the GSA and that community?

N: How do you mean?

F: You weren't active in the GSA when you were a student, right?

N: There was no GSA. [Laughter]

F: Oh, there was no GSA?

N: Not really. Not that I was aware of. There was a small social group that didn't really advertise itself as a student group. It had no recognition as far as I know.

F: Oh, I see.

N: The Cooper House on campus was like a haven for them. They offered space for them to meet. And I'm not sure if they ever had university recognition when I was in school. I was almost--I don't even remember being aware of them, but I believe something started on a very small scale in the very early-70s. I'm not sure about that. I'm sure the archives- Somebody could figure that out. And it was the original group that I talked about having visited the first time. It was very underground, not secret, but lowkey. Not interested in getting any attention because it would've undoubtedly been hostile. Yeah, it would've been ugly, any kind of attention they got from any other groups on campus or anything. It would not have been supportive. There was a great guy--Woody Leach, Reverend Woody Leach--who was the Presbyterian minister on campus, I think. He opened up the Cooper House for a group to meet sometime in the early 70s. And at that time, I was still so closeted that even if I knew about them I wouldn't have gone.

[Break in recording]

F: So, then it was 1978 when you became more aware and more willing to engage with what you then knew as a group that was then calling itself the GSA that now included women.

N: I think it was, yeah. It's a little foggy to me, ya know, being 40 years ago. Yeah.

F: And you're no longer a student.

N: No, no. I was no longer a student. Working in a bakery on campus, I believe. Yeah.

F: On campus?

N: Yeah. They had a great bakery in the food service here. I'd go to work at four o'clock in the morning, but it was a really neat job. Fed the whole food service on campus.

F: So, bread for the dining hall, that kinda thing?

N: Bread. Bread, desserts, rolls, everything. All kinds of baked goods. It was great. And it was the first--well, it wasn't really the first job I had. Prior to that, I did the same thing. It introduced me to the local people in Blacksburg. I got a real taste of Appalachian culture and people that I'd never really had living in Northern Virginia. It was fantastic. And I came out while I was on that job.

F: To your coworkers, you mean?

N: Yeah, in '76 or '77. It was probably around the same time that I started going to the GSA meetings. And that was an adventure. I mean, we're talking very rural, very Christian people. But it was great. [Laughter] I don't know how to explain it.

F: Can you say, specifically, what you found so compelling about Appalachian culture?

N: Well, it was just not urban. [laughter] It wasn't what I grew up with living inside the Beltway. And my grandparents were not really what I would call rural people. My grandfather was college educated, and my grandmother was more DC-oriented--the old city. Her father worked on the Hill for many, many years. So, they were not country people, really, even though they lived out in Vienna and they rode the street cars into Washington back then. So, they weren't your ordinary country-bumpkin-type farmers.

F: Yeah, that was the dairy farmers.

N: Yeah. So, this was a new experience for me. To meet people--real, real, real country people. Blacksburg then was a little more diverse that way. You had the townspeople who were born here in their old families that were here for hundreds of years or whatever. And then you had the people who would come into town to work. They weren't coming from the woodland hills, they were coming from Craig County and they were doing the menial jobs on campus. And it was just the culture around here of Tech or "the college" as they called it. Over on the college. People worked over on the college. I mean they were just great people and some of them were not welcoming and friendly toward me, [laughter] but most of them were when I came out. For them, it was just more something for them to joke about. And I'm still friends with several of them today, those that are still alive. That's more than 40 years ago.

F: Do you have many friends from school that stayed?

N: I have a couple, yeah. This guy that lived right across the hall from me in the dorm, Rash Hall, that's been replaced by one of those giant stone dorms now. He lives over in Christiansburg. Tommy Jones and several other people. Well, from the dorm, he's probably the only one. Most of the other people that I've stayed friends with in Blacksburg were not people that I met through classes or through school or the dorm, it was just from living downtown for years and getting to know people who also stayed. And yeah, that's about it. Most of my friends are also immigrants. [Laughter] Not all of them, but yeah.

F: So then, as someone who's no longer a student, living in town, working, becoming part of the community and starting to engage with ostensibly a student group--the GSA--what was the nature of your involvement with them?

N: Well, the meetings of course--that's how I got to know everybody, they had a regular weekly meeting, or something like that. Maybe every other week. My involvement immediately really started to focus around public speaking. Nancy and I. The first time I did it, I did it with Nancy. We spoke to some humanities class. Anthropology, which I don't think they offer anymore. They were looking for volunteers. Some professors and instructors were asking for people to come and be available to talk to classes, answer questions, not really give a presentation but just be available. And I said, well, "I'll do that." That sounds interesting. And it was. The first one was pretty horrible. The professor was hostile--really hostile--and pretty much encouraged some of the guys to just attack us verbally and make it difficult to carry on the presentation. And, I have a friend today who was in that class, who I did not know at the time. We've had a friendship now for over 40 years and it was all based on that one experience of him being embarrassed at what was going on, ya know, of the situation for us when we were in that class. But Nancy took care of it by bringing up an incident that she had been involved with before she came out of the closet. She'd had a roommate who was in a class that was also inviting gay people to come and speak, and Nancy pointed out that, when she went, she was the one making these nasty remarks to the guests.

F: She told us that story.

N: The best defense is a good offence. And that shut them up. But it also, ya know, was an educational experience for me, too. Ya know, don't take the bait, don't give it back. And that worked pretty well after that. We did it dozens--I did over a hundred of them, I'm sure, of these presentations over several years. And not just here, but in Roanoke College, Hollins, Fareham, Radford, for 8 or 9 years like that. That was great. I loved that.

F: Going around to different colleges?

N: Yeah, it was fantastic.

F: Why?

N: Very effective. I mean, people would just come up after the class, sometimes in a state of shock, ya know, that they couldn't believe they'd been so stupid. [Laughter] Just so unaware and it was a revelation. I mean, there were some really emotional encounters with people like that.

F: Is it that they were unaware of the existence of gay people?

N: They had never encountered gay people. They had only encountered the popular conception, which was really negative. Extremely negative. People have no idea now what it was like. I mean, the subject wasn't even discussed when I was growing up. There were no homosexual people 'cept for, basically, maybe Liberace. And that was it. That was it. And, ya know, the popular image was limited to a few caricatures. And there was no ongoing open discussion about gay people that involved gay people. I think it was a shock to a lot of people to find out that gay people were human beings. I mean, I'll tell ya, there was one incident we had. In those days, Squires Student Center had an overhanging roof out the front toward College Avenue that was under the-- I mean, there was space up above it and everything, it's changed so much. But anyway, every year they would have a student organizations fair under there, tables from all the student organizations on campus. And then you'd come and look at them, pick up their literature, and see if you were interested in joining any of these groups. And we were, for the first time--I believe it was in '80 probably or maybe the Fall of '79--we had a table. And I think it was Nancy and I and I'm not sure who else, but we did it for a couple of days. Might've been Sue Anne Brown. Our job was just to sit there and hand out literature to people who were interested. And you have no idea what that was like. It was as if two little aliens had come down and, ya know, sat down in their chairs there underneath the roof. Like, what the hell is this? I mean, people were looking at us like we were not from this Earth. It was amazing.

F: Not thinking you were serious? Couldn't believe you would step out there?

N: Not thinking we were human. Not thinking we were human beings. They were looking at us like, what is this? How can this be in public? How can there be people here talking about this or exposing it to my eyes? They said, how can this be? It was a shock for them. And, interestingly, we were placed--and we don't know who did this--but we were placed between the Baptist Student Union and the Campus Crusade for Christ. In between was the Gay Student Alliance. And they couldn't even look at us. It was as if there was a wall between us. At that time, there was a lady who many old Blacksburg-ers knew and loved, Emily Stewart. She was the founder of--I'm not sure if she was the founder, but she was major force behind the YMCA on campus for many, many years. I had met her on a Y-hike in 1971, when I first came here. She and her husband lead the hike. Bob Stewart. He just recently died--100 years old. But I had met Emily and we were acquaintances, ya know, becoming friends over the years, but she didn't know I was gay. And she happened to be walking into Squires that afternoon while we were sitting there at the table. And she looks at me, looks at the table, and says, "wow! I didn't know that." And then she saw what was happening. She saw the situation, the people on either side of us totally ignoring our existence. And she went up to each of them and introduced them to me. [Laughter] Just to be an agitator for good. But I guess what I remember about that most was just the shock that people experienced when they saw actual living, breathing homosexual people in public being normal. It was an absolute shock. I mean, I can't even--when I think about it, I can't even believe that it was like that at any time.

[Break in recording]

F: Okay, so we've been talking about outreach, right? Visiting the colleges, table outside Squires. It sounds like, generally, you feel like you were accomplishing something positive through those efforts.

N: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. Yeah, yeah. We did a couple of other things, like workshops for local law enforcement in Roanoke, how to handle interactions with gay people. You actually had to do things like that back then, ya know, because law enforcement was the same as anybody else. They had limited positive experiences with gay people and other sexual minorities. So, we did a couple of those in Roanoke County, I remember.

F: So, what did you tell them?

N: Well, we-

F: What were the misconceptions, I guess, that you encountered?

N: In that situation, I don't even know how helpful I was in that particular one because most of their interactions involved drag queens on the market and things like that. But, basically, just--well, at that time, there laws against gay people--homosexuals--dancing in public, things like that. Same-sex couples were not allowed to publicly express affection. There were a couple places in Roanoke that were known as gay social clubs or whatever. And the police would virtually--literally--come right in, walk around while people were having a beer or whatever at the table or just enjoying their company, the company of their friends. The police would just regularly walk in and just mill around through the tables to intimidate people. And then they'd leave. And no one would dance. If you were dancing, you had to stop dancing or you'd be arrested 'cause it was against the law. And, um-- What was the question? [Laughter]

F: [Laughter] It's fine, you can just continue this.

N: Yeah, yeah. I don't know where I was, though. Sorry.

F: What was the penalty?

N: Oh, it was probably like $150 fine or something. I really couldn't tell you.

F: But there was an arrest? There wasn't-

N: Yeah, there probably would be an arrest. I mean, I never witnessed one, but we were all aware of it being a possibility. And you couldn't expect any kind of fair treatment, ya know, from police at that time. I think it's changed enormously.

F: Well, looking back, you seem like you're amused to look back on sort of the ignorance, the lack of awareness that people are human beings and that kind of thing.

N: Yeah, it was a shock to a lot of people that we were. [Laughter]

F: Did you have the same amusement then? What was your reaction in the moment?

N: Well, I remember, sitting at that table, I was somewhat amused, especially when Emily came up and did what she did. Well, it was sort of amusing, I mean, in that it wasn't born of malice. It was born of ignorance. And I think I'm just kinder to people who are ignorant than to people who are malicious. Yeah. I think so.

F: So, is that, then-- That's the context, then? You're doing some outreach, feel like you're making some positive accomplishments and also taking this tack of forgiveness.

N: Yeah.

F: And addressing ignorance in a constructive manner. Is that the context within which you participated in and how much did you participate in the planning of the Denim Day?

N: I guess as much as anybody in terms of us trying to come up with something. Everybody contributed their thoughts and ideas. I can't remember that I had any particular specific suggestion to make or anything or if I went along with what I thought were some really good ideas. It intrigued me. Ya know, I definitely wanted to do something. But I think Nancy and some of the others, who were in there before me, ya know, who had brought this group together earlier, not long before I joined it but originally, they were the real dynamos in the Denim Day and Gay Awareness Week. I mean, Nancy and several people. I don't know how many of them, some of them aren't still alive, but I don't know who will be here to still meet, but there's quite a few people. I wasn't on campus, I wasn't really a student, but I was as much as anybody, I guess, as part of it.

F: Did you have expectations as to how it would go?

N: I think it went exactly as I expected it would go. [Laughter] Outrage, stupidity. More ignorance. Reaction, which was really what we were after. We were after a reaction. We were after getting people to think about it, ya know, for the first time in their lives. And maybe actually be able to think about it in the context of real human beings, that they would meet in the course of this exposition, this week of exposing ourselves to the community. Like, whether you like it or not, we're here. And you can actually look at us, and hear us, and talk to us, if you want to. And, ya know, I didn't expect a wholesale change of heart and we certainly didn't get that. There were certainly a lot of people motivated to come out and support us. And that's a seed. And you plant a seed like that and I think it had a tremendous effect on campus and in the town. In the town, the kids at the high school did a Denim Day at the same time. In Blacksburg High School, yeah. But of course, it was completely negative. [Laughter] But it brought the subject up in a context it would never have been presented. Homosexuality and talking to high school students about it? Unheard of. And we didn't have to do a thing. They did it themselves because we were in the papers, we were on TV, and when people became aware of the activity that was gonna be going on that week, it spread to the high school--the local community.

F: So, some students at the high school took it upon themselves to oppose Denim Day?

N: Yeah, yeah. [Laughter] I can't remember exactly how. I think Nancy knows more about that. I can't remember. They did something, they made some gesture--I can't remember what it was--to show they didn't support gay rights. [Laughter] But it had the effect of generating discussion. A two-sided discussion instead of just one. So.

F: So, then, as a non-student affiliated with the GSA, you didn't have to deal directly then with some of the official campus backlash?

N: I did, actually, because they eventually made me the president. [Laughter] A non-student. I don't know how they managed it, but the interactions I had were pretty much limited to the hierarchy. I remember the second year we were gonna do it, we had to make budget requests from the Student Activities Committee, and I had to wrangle some of that money, myself and some other people. And it was pretty contentious, but we did get it, and we had a second Gay Awareness Week and used the funds from the university. Like, student activities funds.

F: What was that second?

N: Oh, we had a film festival, we had a dance, we had a panel discussion, and then, they wouldn't let us do Denim Day again. So, we had "Pray for Our Oppressors Day" or something like that. I can't remember what it was. "Gay Prayer Day," that's what it was. [Laughter] 'Cause, ya know, not to be nasty towards people of faith, but the most obstinate and obnoxious people on the Student Activities Budget Committee were fundamentalist Christians. And they made it clear that we were not fit to have any of their money, even though they paid tuition.

F: So, you prayed for them.

N: Yeah, we prayed for them. [Laughter] Kinda wicked, huh?

F: What do you think it was about Denim Day that made that so?

N: It was such a neat trick because we know everyone wears denim and that was the one place you could get 'em. You could irritate them, you could make people react, and make people notice and pay attention. It was when they picked their clothes out in the morning. There's nothing simpler. And I don't know who came up with it, I think it had been done before, elsewhere, maybe at Old Dominion University in Norfolk? This is just off the top of my head. I have some memory that they had had a similar thing, it was the first time in the state that anyone had done anything like this. I think we got that from Old Dominion. I could be wrong, but I think--if my memory doesn't fail me--that that was the first example of it and maybe that's where we got the specific idea of Denim Day. Yeah. I don't think it was an original thought, although others may claim it. [Laughter]

F: Do you take the subsequent prohibition in the following year as a testament to the effectiveness?

N: Oh, yeah, absolutely. The governor got involved, sent many state legislators, threatened the university about funding cut-offs and things for certain activities if they allowed it to go on. Yeah, it stirred the pot considerably. Agitated a lot of people.

F: Was there any difficulty generally, perhaps more so in the aftermath for the GSA to organize or meet at all?

N: No, not at all. No, no, no. And it became-- I guess, I don't know how true it is of other organizations. It seems to me that it might be a natural lifespan of groups like this, that you reach your peak and then you fade. And I think that the gay organizations on campus had many iterations, from the ones that I didn't even know about when I first came here, it was so hush-hush and quiet, to the Gay Alliance, which was the loudest and most vocal. And then after that it became much more part of the scenery, I mean, groups that came after that were more--they got the university to change its protections and things like that, its policies towards gay people. And they were more--they didn't have to be as loud. They didn't have to be as in-your-face to actually get things done and they did. There was Lambda Horizons and I can't even remember them all, but they went about doing pretty much the same thing without the show, without the big events. And I guess gay activism became a little more mainstream during those years. And then there was the AIDs epidemic, which was a real crisis, I think. That's when people started feeling really intimidated and fearful in town, on campus, everywhere. There was a lot of anger, there was a lot of reaction to the AIDs crisis on the part of homophobes threatening gay people and things like that. And that's when there was a real blank space here at Tech. I was doing these classes on my own for a while, for a couple years.

F: Were you visiting the classes?

N: Yeah, yeah. Me and maybe one or two other people.

F: Because there was a much smaller participation-

N: Yeah, the organization died, really. The GSA just kind of fizzled away. No one would come forth from the campus community to be officials of it. And I couldn't do it, I couldn't continue to run a student organization not being a student.

F: How long did you stay being involved?

N: Until 1987, I guess. When I went up to the farm. I came back in '86, I went back in '87. When I came back I did one more class, someone called me from the Cranwell Center and I did a presentation with foreign students, international students. And that was the last time. But, by that time, the new group was beginning to coalesce. I think it was Lambda Horizon, I'm not sure.

F: Sounds right.

N: They started talking to classes. And I guess, ya know, it just continued from there. And by that time, I didn't feel like I needed to be part of a gay organization.

F: Right.

N: Everyone in town knew who I was. [Laughter]. Knew who I was and it just wasn't that big a deal.

F: Were you ever working for the university at this point?

N: No, not other than the job in the bakery. No, no. I worked for a homebuilder in Blacksburg. My old roommate actually started his business. I retired from it two years ago.

F: So that's what you did, and you worked?

N: Yeah, yeah. Carpentry. Painting, drywall, and various other fieldwork.

F: What'd you build around town?

N: Shelter alternatives. On Progress Street.

F: Oh, okay.

N: Green buildings. Yeah.

F: So, you talked about the evolution of the student organizations and your moving away from them.

N: Yeah.

F: And you were here in town for all of it. And part of the evolution is the evolution of the general community response and the broader cultural response.

N: Yeah.

F: And, um, you said earlier on that things are so much different now than they were then. How's that change been for you? Surprising at the pace, or too slow, or-- What's the way that you conceptualize your observations, your experience of that change?

N: I guess, I'm not shocked, I wasn't surprised by the pace. Well, I don't know. I don't think it's been anything exceptional or unusual. The pace of it seemed to me to be just very natural, just a natural growth as the country changed, the culture changed, Blacksburg changed, campus changed. It wasn't faster or slower than anywhere else far as I could tell. It's always a pleasant surprise. It's not so much anymore, it's not so much of a surprise. But it was always a pleasant surprise to see an expression of support or of understanding that I just never saw when I was growing up happen. I mean like I was talking to somebody a couple months ago, a young guy, a couple guys--probably in their 20s--and we were at The Cellar. And we were talking about this kind of thing, ya know, about what it was like. And this guy, who I guess is in his early 20s said, yeah, ya know, this is just like--and these were straight guys. He says, this is just like, you had Martin Luther King and Civil Rights, and we have this. I'm like, they actually--it was a shock to me that they actually considered my struggle, our struggle, to be their struggle. That it was the big success of their lives. Ya know, that it was the big success of their lives in civil rights to see same-sex marriage. Like, I never in my life thought that I would hear heterosexual people thinking of that as an improvement in their society, ya know? And then I realized, this is really setting in. People really are changing. And it's pleasant. [laughter] It's been like that for all that time, just gradual advances then all of a sudden you don't realize how far it's advanced until a whole new generation of people have a completely different way of viewing it.

F: Yeah.

N: Yeah.

F: Yeah, it seems there was a tipping point some time recently where, like, even progressive politicians had to say, oh, marriage is between a man and a woman, but, of course [inaudible 44:18].

N: Yeah, yeah, very recent.

F: And all of a sudden-

N: Yeah, yeah. What the hell happened? I take credit. I don't know why. [Laughter]

F: So, then, what is your life like now here in town?

N: It's great. I'm retired. I had to retire, I was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease about a year and a half ago -- two years ago. I got pretty good control of it. But I couldn't work anymore, it was too dangerous, actually, to do a lot of the work I did. Ladders and things like that. So, I'm just a townie. Retired townie. It's great. [Laughter] Wish it didn't have to happen the way it did, but--

F: When you look back on Denim Day and other events and GSA, your time at Tech, in town with those organizations, do you feel differently looking back on those events than you maybe did in the moment?

N: No, no. No, I don't think that I would've done anything differently. Well, I see them now as being much more consequential than I thought they were at the time. I could see some immediate consequences at the time, with people actually coming up to me and verbalizing how their minds were changed and their hearts were changed. It kinda sneaks up on you. Before I knew it, the whole society had changed. So, I realized it was those little things that people did that really add up. You don't have to be Martin Luther King. You can be Rosa Parks and just not get up, or do one little act of defiance or compassion for people's ignorance. You don't have to change the world, you just have to push it in that direction a little bit.

F: That seems like a great stopping point, unless you feel there's something else you'd like to--

N: No, no, I don't think so.

F: Well, great. Thanks so much, this has been a pleasure.

N: Good, great. I look forward to seeing it. [laughter]

[End of interview]

Transcribed by: Melissa Velez Nazario, March 1, 2019

Audit Edit by: John R. Legg, March 6, 2019