Will Walters: An Accidental Activist Finds Purpose



By Thom Senzee

When police and security officials at the 2011 Pride festival allegedly decided to violate the civil rights of Will Walters by having him arrested (no charges were ever filed by the city attorney) because a police officer declared him “borderline” nude, they had no way of knowing they had picked a young, would-be civil rights activist who would refuse to let the issue drop until he’s sure no one will ever suffer the same humiliation he did. 

San Diego LGBT Pride and the San Diego Police Department may indeed be regretting their officials’ actions against Walters. Last month, a federal judge denied Pride’s motion to dismiss Walters’ charges that the organization violated his fourth and fourteenth amendment rights to protection against illegal search and seizure, and discriminatory enforcement of laws, respectively. 

429Magazine sat down recently with Walters and asked what he thinks of the rate of progress for LGBT equality in America—and how he sees the future of the battle for civil rights and equality.

429Magazine: Why did you become an activist?

Will Walters: Activist is a term others have used to describe me; but I just consider myself an American citizen exercising my rights as afforded to all American citizens under the U.S. Constitution. 

429Mag: What should people know about their civil rights?

Walters: I think what I’ve come to learn is that the most unfortunate thing about people is that most don’t know they have them—or, if they do know they have civil rights, they can’t name the rights they are guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution. 

It’s fascinating to hear people’s ideas about their rights when they can’t name even one. People don’t know how to practice their first amendment right of freedom of expression. 

The reality is police officers don’t even know what rights they’re supposedly there to respect, protect and defend. What I mean is, while they may have memorized certain local municipal codes. Sadly, most of them haven’t given the same attention to the U.S. Constitution. 

I’ve been to meetings and depositions with officers, who, when they’re presented with these basic constitutional questions, they’re clueless! How can officers not violate your constitutional rights if they don’t even know what those rights are? 

429Mag: What is the biggest civil rights issue of our time for LGBTs? Is it marriage equality, employment nondiscrimination, the fight to stop bullying—or something else altogether? 

Walters: The biggest civil rights issue for LGBTs taken as a community—taken as a whole—is bullying. I think it’s bullying because bullying encompasses a lot of things all at once. Middle America doesn’t necessarily have the same education about diversity that we on the coasts take for granted. That causes fertile ground for racism, discrimination and bigotry. But it all starts with bullying in school. Kids are taught to take it or watch it and do nothing. Or, if they’re the ones doing the bullying, they’re taught that their victims will take it and bystanders will remain bystanders. Again, that’s how society lays the groundwork for institutional bullying. Then, we get problems such as marriage inequality or employment discrimination. So, yeah, I think if you had to focus on only one issue, it would be bullying.  

429Mag: Is progress being made quickly enough in your eyes? 

Walters: I’m going to get in trouble for saying this, but yes; I do think it’s advancing. From what I know of how long women’s rights and African American equality have taken to get a toe-hold, and for how long we’ve been publicly fighting for our rights, we’re making good progress. Of course no fight worth fighting is ever really finished. We have to be diligent and avoid patting ourselves on the back for too long.

429Mag: What would you say to a young person growing up in a very conservative environment as a lesbian, gay man, or as a bisexual or transgender person?

Walters: Just go back to my answer to some of the other questions:  They need to know what their rights are and stand up for themselves. 

That said, the reality is in some small towns and rural communities, people are still being strung up on fence posts. I think that it’s very important to recognize when you are one against many and not endanger your physical safety. 

My advice is to search for their nearest gay and lesbian center and reach out to find ways to be around other young LGBT peers and accepting straight people. They should find out if their school has a gay-straight alliance. If not, consider starting one.  

429Mag: Who are your heroes in the civil rights movement?

Walters: I don’t have one hero, I have been very lucky to know many civil rights leaders, and they are amazing people. I have read a lot about the leaders of the past. They all have something special about them. 

Ben Dillingham is someone I truly admire. He’s lived a body of work that has spanned military service, political work, untold volunteering efforts, philanthropy and civil rights activism. He’s improved the lives of members of the gay community, people living with HIV/AIDS, the poor and countless other vulnerable and oppressed people. One example, during the AIDS crisis, he created a foundation set up to pay for the funeral services of people who have died of AIDS. To Ben, all human beings deserve dignity. Being around Ben, you learn what true dignity is. 

429Mag: What do you expect to be doing five years from now? 

Walters: Well I didn’t know this was going to be a job interview (LAUGHS). I hope it’s exactly what I’m doing right now. Teaching other people about how to stand up for themselves.

429Mag: What will the nation look like in regard to civil rights progress by then?

I’m a little apprehensive about that. You take a Supreme Court ruling like “Roe v. Wade:” It’s constantly under attack. A woman’s right to choose is being chipped away at as we speak. Winning on marriage won’t guarantee that five years from now, we will have achieved full equality. All people of any minority group must remember, rights can always be taken away at any given time. It doesn’t matter if it’s the NAACP or HRC, five years from now or 500 years from now, the battle for equality will still need to be fought. 

429Mag: Anything you’d like to add? 

Walters: It’s important to fight for what’s important. My hope is that someday, what I experienced will serve as a lesson to others to know your rights and stand up for yourself if your rights are ever violated. 


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