The William Way Community Center has long been a linchpin for the community. Fortunately for us, even through this difficult time of isolation and social distancing, the center has found ways to keep in touch with the community it serves. We spoke this week with the (relatively) new Chief Operating Officer, Ally Richman about what’s happening at the center.
I understand that you’re from rural Pennsylvania?
I am! Yeah, I grew up near Allentown in a little town called Schnecksville, which is exactly as small as it sounds. My greatest dream was to go to college in New York City and get out of small-town Pennsylvania but that didn’t work out and I ended up going to Penn State, which is also in small-town Pennsylvania. So yes, I’ve spent a lot of time in rural Pennsylvania.
What’s the name of that town again?
Schnecksville. My understanding is that it was named after the Schneck family.
[Laughing] Oh sure, the Schneck family, of course!
Yes, who doesn’t know the Schnecks!
Ha, forget the Schnecks. Tell me a little about your family.
I’m from a pretty small family. My parents were both from Washington State and they moved away from their parents to come to the East coast. I have a brother and a sister, both younger than I am, and it’s just the five of us here. We don’t have any extended family nearby, so those of us here are pretty tight.
What did you guys do for fun in Schnecksville?
Oh gosh. In rural Pennsylvania it’s definitely different. We spent a lot of time outside, my siblings and I would run through cornfields. We’d play hide and seek, chase each other and get lost, play with the cows, things like that.
I think that’s a city dweller’s nightmare. The last time I was in a cornfield, I was horseback-riding in the country and my roommate was talking about a movie she saw about a mentally challenged man who was being hunted by the townsfolk. To hide him, his mother put him in a cornfield dressed up like a scarecrow. The folks found him and murdered him and later he came back to life to get revenge. Of course, as she was telling the story we looked up to see a big scarecrow in front of us. A loud sound from the cornfield spooked both us and the horses. It was probably just a deer, but I think I could have won the Preakness if they timed my speed galloping back to the stable!
[Laughing] It’s true, cornfields are placed prominently in many horror films.
But back to you, tell me something about your parents?
My parents are great; they’ve been married for a million years. They were high school sweethearts who got married really young. They were nineteen and twenty and they’ve been together ever since. They live in Maryland now, so they’re pretty close by and they are really fantastic grandparents, which is fun to watch. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen them much because of the pandemic, though we did have one socially distanced picnic in our yard. Other than that we haven’t been able to see them in person but they have been able to figure out how to FaceTime with the kids so that’s been fun.
Were they academics as well?
My dad was an engineer, though he actually ended up changing careers when I was in high school. He decided to go into marketing. Now, as an adult reflecting back, I recognize what a weird thing that must have been to do at the time, to completely switch careers midstream. My mom is a teacher, she’s always been a teacher. She taught different grades but mostly middle school.
So I guess that’s where you got your love of learning.
Yes, I was a professional student for a long time.
It seems to have paid off! From my notes, it looks like you went for a degree in English first.
That I did.
What did you think you were going to be when you grew up?
I thought I was going to be an English professor. That was my plan. I was going to be an English professor because I loved reading books and I thought, “Hey, I can go to college and just sit and read novels all day!” It sounded like the most perfect thing, so I did and it was wonderful, but my senior year I did an Honors thesis on a lesbian author named Djuna Barnes. In the late 90’s we had this moment when she was being rediscovered. An LGBTQ canon was kind of formed as we rediscovered a bunch of people who had previously been ignored or hidden, and she was one of them. I realized that I wasn’t super interested in spending my time doing deep readings into these novels, which is what I’d been taught how to do. Instead I was much more interested in thinking about the social and cultural context in which these authors lived and wrote and what they were thinking. So I finished my English degree and then shifted gears to study sociology.
So let’s get into your sociology. When did you come out?
Well I came out a few times…I think that’s kind of typical. The first time I actively remember telling someone else was to my best friend in college. I remember we were going for a run and we’d stopped and were talking and I asked him, “How do you know that you’re gay?” and he said, “How do you know that you’re straight?” and I said, “I actually don’t think that I am.” That was the first time I had articulated it. There was a girl in college who was also an English major and she was in all these classes with me and I had the biggest crush on her but was struggling with understanding what that was. Where I grew up I didn’t know of anyone who was gay. We had a history teacher who was rumored to be a lesbian but everyone hated her. She was not beloved at all because of that and that was the only model that I had. There weren’t any other examples of what it meant or looked like to be a lesbian. So I ended up getting married right out of college, to a man. He was someone I dated in high school. He was my best friend and someone I’d known for a long time and it was just inertia. Our families were happy and it felt normal. We were married for a while and had an amazing son and then we split up and it became very clear to me that I was a lesbian and wanted to be in a relationship with a woman.
What brought you to our fair city?
Grad school. I was living in California, where I’d gone to get my master’s in sociology, and I was working as a case manager there. I decided that I wanted to go back to school, so I started applying to schools on the East coast so I could be near the family. I chose Temple because it was the closest to everyone. I got my Ph.D. from Temple and absolutely fell in love with Philadelphia. The city just sucked me in and I can’t imagine being anywhere else.
I do love this city too. And now I understand that you’re married again.
Yup, my partner and I have been together for a long time and we got married in 2013 when it became legal in New Jersey, which is where we live.
So you’re following in your parent’s footsteps with a long partnership and marriage.
Yes! Unlike them, I’ve had some stops and starts before getting to this point, but we’ll be together forever. It was a little difficult at times, because when you have parents who have been together for a long time and you leave a marriage, just like being a lesbian, there was no model for me as to what it looked like or how to figure out how to co-parent with my son’s dad. We do and it’s amazing, and his wife is phenomenal, but we built that without having anything to base it on. We’ve been very successful figuring out what a queer family looks like, and I’m very proud of that.
And now you’re working on building the Community Center. Were you familiar with William Way before you got there?
I actually found William Way as a grad student when I first moved to Philadelphia. Back in 2005/2006 I attended a couple of book club meetings. It fell a little to the wayside as I concentrated on academia. I also worked at Temple for a while and Rowan University in South Jersey. Then I came back to Philly and back to non-profit work. I worked at Philadelphia Fight for four years and through that I got re-acclimated with William Way. I’ve been with William Way since November, but it’s been interesting since we had to close the building in March.
Well, at least you got a few months under your belt. What’s a favorite aspect of working at William Way?
I think for me the best part is not being invisible. For many queer folks, when we go to work we hide part of ourselves. Even if we’re out we may censor the way we interact with other people. And our co-workers often either make assumptions about our straightness or ignore who we are. At William Way, I never feel like parts of myself are invisible.
I understand the Center is not fully opened, but it’s still very active.
Yes, we are providing services, they’re just not drop-in services. We’re doing a lot of virtual programming. A lot of the groups that used to meet here are now meeting online, groups like TransWay, Mornings Out which is a 50+ group, and the Rainbow Book club just resumed their meetings online. There are still a lot of support services happening, and as of July 13th we restarted admin hours with folks staffing the front desk at the center. You can’t come in but people can call and get referrals or find out about programming. There’s someone answering the phone Monday – Friday from 11am to 5pm. One thing we’re excited about is that we’ve moved our peer counseling program online as well.
That’s great, I’m sure a lot of people are in need of someone to talk to during this time of isolation. How can people sign up?
You can go to the website www.waygay.org or you can call the main number which is (215) 732-2220 for information. We also have a calendar online which is updated with events that are happening virtually.
We also have a fun informational program that is happening every Monday and Thursday via Zoom and Facebook Live. We call it “Queering the Quarantine” and it’s an hour long session where staff members host and we interview different guests who are doing cool queer things in the area. That’s been really fun!
What’s the craziest thing about being at the Center?
I have to say that the building is a little bit wack-a-doo. I was not quite prepared for the reality of working in a building that is basically two buildings cobbled together, If you go to the archives on the 3rd floor, there’s a giant beam that comes down from the ceiling and another one that comes up from the floor, so you have to make your way up and over, stuff like that.
You mentioned that you were a big reader, what was the first queer-themed book that you read?
The first one that I remember reading was “Stone Butch Blues.” I re-read it pretty frequently and I’m always moved and newly surprised. I find I take something different from it with each new phase of my life. And in undergrad I wrote my thesis on “Nightwood” which was a strange, experimental book.
Outside of the Center work, what do you like to do for fun?
AR: I spend a lot of time with my family. I have three kids: two teenage boys and our daughter who is the youngest. They keep us busy. I’m super nerdy, and as I mentioned I read a lot. I also am a knitter. There’s actually a kind of queer subculture of knitters that’s pretty great.
Three kids, you expanded!
[Laughing] My partner Jenn and I each came to the relationship with a son, in fact, they’re 9 months apart! That’s actually how we met, we both had toddlers at the time. And then we have the youngest, our daughter who is 10.
Have you traveled a lot?
Not really, we’re big road trippers. I got married right out of college and had my son when I was 25 which was when a lot of my peers were doing their traveling in Europe. But I’d love to do that when I get older and the kids are grown up.
What would you travel back in time to see?
I wish that I could have known my grandmother when she was young. She was a phenomenal woman. She just passed away in her early 90’s but she grew up in rural Idaho and Montana and the lore is that she rode a pig to school. I don’t know if that’s true, but I would love to see her at that age and find out more about her.
What’s a favorite holiday?
I always really liked Halloween growing up. My birthday is Nov. 1, the day after Halloween, so we would always have costume parties since everyone already had one, or sometimes we’d celebrate on Halloween. I used to be more creative and go all out but now I’m a cat every year.
What were your best and worst costumes?
My mom was an amazing sewer and crafter, and one year she made me this incredible soda can costume. Wait no, the coolest costume was probably when I was about my daughter’s age and went as a teenager. I had an old phone which I spray painted, I put my hair in a side ponytail and wore a lot of makeup. I thought that was the coolest thing ever.
If you had to do a love scene, who would you choose?
When I taught, I used to tell this coming out story to my students. Back when MTV was the big thing — and actually showed videos — I remember seeing the k.d. lang “Constant Craving” video and being like, “Oh my gosh! That is the most beautiful man I’ve ever seen!” and then I forgot all about him until later when I learned, “Oh, k.d. lang isn’t a man at all!” and then several years later when I was in college and coming out I thought, “Ah, this makes so much sense now…” So I have a special place in my heart for k.d. lang and always will.