Walt Westman's activism
Posted Tuesday, June 2, 2015 12:55 PM

Given all the social and political activism while we were at Swarthmore, I was deeply moved to read Rochelle Diamond's remarks about Walt's activism around homophobia in the workplace and other issues from the early 1980s onwards. She credits him with founding the National Organzation for Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals (NOGLSTP) "because he spoke out, wrote letters." She also tells how "he organized some of the first occasions . . . at AAAS meetings that gay and lesbian scientists could find each other, talk about mutual interests, and more importantly discuss issues that needed to be addressed." 

Walt and I were fellow botany majors at Swarthmore, each with an interest in ecology, which we then pursued in ways that would bring us together at professional meetings over the years. It was only in 1988 that we finally had time after a meeting to spend an afternoon together and reflect on our lives. He told me that he had not known he was gay while at Swarthmore and had only discovered gayness when studying later in Australia. Once he embraced this identity he came out into an at-times hostile professional environment. (I can remember telling a National-Academy-level ecologist in 1976 about being Walt's classmate and being given a look that I only later could properly interpret.) Walt clearly took charge of his situation and worked to open up the workplace and the world to gays and lesbians. He also gave up his tenured position at UCLA to move onto Noe Street, one over from Castro Street in San Francisco, and thereafter to support himself on grants while working at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab. So he took risks of several sorts professionally and personally to fully live the life that he embraced. 

While at Swarthmore Walt supported all the social and political activism, but I don't remember his being part of any of the protests. What is heartening to me now is to see how alive he became as an activist while a working scientist. Hardly one who was radical in college and conservative professionally. Clearly he carried lessons from the activism at Swarthmore forward into his working life. Who else has stories to tell of odysseys and activism like those for Walt?