by Mike Walker
(printed here with permission)
In the late 70s there was a popular apartment house at 14th & I street where a number of gay men and women lived. Although they came from widely different backgrounds, they all knew each other and often would share a bottle of wine or a joint together. It was just a short walk to the popular Topper Club Bar at 1218 K Street Mall. Several of the residents worked at the bar. It was an urban commune. If a relationship went sour, friends from the other apartments provided comfort and understanding. If a few dollars were needed to cover the rent until payday it was usually available from someone in the building. The building could even boast having a resident pastor who had conducted a number of Unions or underground weddings. Clay Shipway had the credential from the Universal Fellowship Church that declared him to be a bona-fide Pastor. Clay did not take his pastoral position too seriously and when asked, quickly admitted that it was a mail-order document which was not recognized by any credible church on this planet.
Clay Shipway was a short pudgy, forty five year old gay man and had done a number of maintance projects for the landlady over a period of several years. He was an intelligent, likable man and finally (after several tries) talked his landlady into giving him the use of a tiny basement room right off of I Street. The room had no plumbing and was too small for her to rent. The tiny room was hot in the summer and cold in the winter but Clay turned it into a gay halfway house for wayward teens (many of whom had been thrown out by their homophobic parents.) There were long extension cords down the backside of the building from his upstairs apartment to provide lighting and an extension phone for his Suicide Hot Line.
The coffee was always on and Clay would try to locate safe housing and even jobs for the homeless kids. He would urge them to call home. Clay had a big phone bill. His ambitious efforts were very under funded. This halfway house (which he called The Way Station) was funded only as far as Clay’s disability check would allow. His was a very grass roots effort. Periodically the Valley Knights Motorcycle Club or other local clubs would approve funds for his telephone or they would buy a case of coffee. Once someone brought him an old duplicating machine that he repaired. This allowed him to print an occasional one page newsletter.
Although he had a slight speech impediment, Clay Shipway was also a member of the Speakers Bureau and would sometimes speak at local schools or service organizations to try to reduce the hate, anxiety and fear of the unknown that was common in the straights at the time. Clay was also a member of Valley Knights Motorcycle club. He fancied himself a Gay activists and that is why he made a very excited telephone call to the club in 1977. According to Clay, gays had won a court case. The courts, he said, had determined that the public schools could not discriminate against gay groups wishing to have meetings or group functions at the schools in the evening hours. Clay felt that gays must assert themselves by having many meetings at the schools thereby affirming the right of equality by doing so.
Clay felt Sacramento’s gay motorcycle club (The Valley Knights) was one of the local groups, which must have a meeting at a local school just to prove that they could do it. The motorcycle club members had never thought of themselves as activists in fact the club by- laws of incorporation forbade political activity. To them the club was organized in 1976 just to ride and party (not necessarily in that order). The Motorcycle Club, surprisingly, did approve the meeting and Clay reserved a classroom at a school at 13th and U Street. This was destined to be a meeting much different from those usually held in darkened bars such as the Underpass (1946 Broadway) or Joseph’s Montana Saloon (7604 Fair Oaks Blvd in Carmichael). On the designated night the leather clad bikers roared up, parked their motorcycles, and realized that there would be no beer, cussing, or smoking anywhere near the school but the meeting did happen. The custodian just yawned as Clay proudly (and loudly) announced that the gay motorcycle club was here for the reserved room. Not interested in activism the custodian was just anxious that the room be kept as clean as possible. He rubbed his beard as he unlocked a classroom for the meeting. When the lights went on it seemed brighter than daylight. In unison the bikers realized that this was not a high school but a grade school with tiny little unusable chairs. The ensuing laughter got the meeting off to a good start. The meeting was very brief and no one sat down.
Throughout the 70s and 80s, as a result of many legal battles and court rulings, Sacramento Gay citizens inched closer to equality. Each time someone somewhere had stood up to conduct the legal effort. Often it was costly and emotionally draining. Often those who benefited never knew who had fought the legal battle.
While there have been many far more sophisticated efforts to establish equal rights throughout the community, Clay Shipway and the Valley Knights Motorcycle Club felt pride in their small effort that evening in Sacramento.
The Valley Knights Motorcycle club never again had a meeting at a school.
At about the same time I learned from a friend that the Gay Peoples Union at Sacramento City College was being denied meeting space. Since my home is just a block from the campus, I volunteered it as a space for the club to continue off campus. The college administration was eventually informed of the legal challenge and permission for meetings on campus was soon restored in fact about 2 years later(1979) the SCC GPU had their first on campus sock hop. It was poorly attended but fine food and fun was enjoyed by all.