Interview: Pride "76er" Billy Mencer Ackerly
On the Shoulders of Giants: Interview with Billy Mencer Ackerly By Jen Stevens for Options Magazine, June 20, 2020
Options: For as long as I can remember, whenever a local LGBTQ+ organization has a question about the early days of Pride, or is looking for a historic photograph, your name affectionately comes up. How have you managed to stay engaged in the local movement through more than four decades?
Billy: I believe our history is very important to remember, celebrate, and tell. I have lived in Worcester, MA for many years. I make it a point to attend every Pride Festival and Pride Parade in Rhode Island. It is my first priority in life. I am a saver. I cherish all the memorabilia and pictures I have collected over the years. Facebook has made it easier to stay in contact with the LGBTQIA+ community in Rhode Island. I share on Facebook every year about the Rhode Island Pride History, starting with 1976. Our community is brave, loving, caring, compassionate, and forgiving. Options: About how many times have you marched in Pride Parades, and in how many different cities?
Billy: I have marched in all the RI Pride Parades since 1976. I was 25 years old at the time. It was called a Gay Pride March. This was the Bicentennial Year. The Parades and Festivals in Rhode Island are most important to me. I have marched in NYC Pride Parades [and] Boston Pride for many years since 1976. I also marched in Northampton Pride a few times. I marched in the March on Washington in 1979, 1986, and 1993. What a wonderful time I had.
Options: In 1976, as you marched in Rhode Island's first Pride march, what were your hopes for the gay community?
Billy: I believe that I was hoping that we would be accepted as equal citizens in Rhode Island. Free from harassment, especially from the Providence Police Department. Also that we would live together in peace and harmony.
Options: Do you feel that your hopes have come to fruition in 2020, or has the movement fallen short in some respects?
Billy: I believe my hopes have been met. The Providence Police Department needs improvement in dealing with the LGBTQ+ community. They should all be required to attend [a training with] speakers from the LGBTQ+ community, such as youth, seniors, people of color, men, women, and transpeople.
Options: Have you experienced homophobia while marching?
Billy: Yes, I have, in the first Gay Pride Parade in 1976. It was a hostile crowd. The crowd screamed, “LOOK at them – queers, faggots – they are all sizes and shapes!” They looked at us with disgust, like we just came off a spaceship. Homosexuality was considered to be a mental illness until 1973.
Options: I understand that your brother, mother, and step father participated in that first Pride march. What made them decide to join you that day?
Billy: My mom, step father and my younger brother came to live with us for a while – Shirley and Al Philie and my younger brother Patrick Philie, who was 16 years old at the time. My dad watched from the sidelines. My mom rode in a car with two other mothers. On each side of the car were signs that said, “I am proud to say my child is gay.” My brother Pat helped carry a banner in the Parade. They wanted to be supportive of the march and me. I was so very proud of them – that they had decided to join in the Parade.
Options: Would you share a favorite memory you have from attending Pride?
Billy: To me Rhode Island Pride is like a big family reunion. My favorite memory is when I was named Grand Marshal of the 2015 Pride Parade. I rode in a car with my husband Alex Alexander. People yelled from the sidelines: Billy! Billy! Billy! It brought tears to my eyes. I was very honored and proud – a dream of mine. I would love to serve as the Grand Marshal of the Rhode Island Pride 50th Anniversary. I will turn 70 years old on Oct. 15, 2020.
Options: How many 76ers do you know of who are still active with the Pride movement?
Billy: As most 76er's are seniors, they are not too involved with RI Pride. I know of 14 who are still alive. One 76er lives in Maine, one in Tennessee, one in New York, one in California, two live in Massachusetts, and the rest live in Rhode Island. Every year the 76ers and friends have a booth at the Rhode Island Pride Festival, and we march later in the Parade. I will miss that this year. Last year we marched with a banner in memory of our 76er friend Belle Pellegrino. I’m looking forward to Pride 2021. I post every year on Facebook about the history of Rhode Island Pride that I know. Check out my Timeline. I have been posting for a few months. I am retired, and my husband Alex is working part time for the 2020 Census in the office. He will be 75 years old in October.
Options: Do you have early memories of realizing you were gay, and how did it make you feel to discover this? Billy: When I was in the fourth grade, I had a crush on my best friend Wally. Some years later when I was 15 years old, we got together – in the closet. I believe I was in love with him. I was brought up Catholic and was taught this was wrong and a mortal sin. Sadly Wally passed away in 1994. I attended his memorial service held in Ptown. I shared a little about him and sang. It was very sad for me. Options: In your younger years, were there certain gay, lesbian, or trans people in your life through whom you found strength to be yourself, or who helped you come out and discover the community?
Billy: I found strength in Rev. Joseph Gilbert, Pastor of MCC [Metropolitan Community Church] Providence, and Belle Pellegrino, my long time friend. My partner from years ago, Raymond Lariviere, I loved him and respected him very much. I found strength in my former Pastor Rev. Aaron Miller of MCC Hartford, a transman who loves all unconditionally.
Options: What advice do you have for the younger LGBTQ+ generation?
Billy: Celebrate life to the fullest, everyday. Remember and tell your history. Be a loving, caring, compassionate person. Never let anyone bully you. Please do not bully anyone. Lend a hand or a hug to a senior from the LGBTQ+ Community. When I was a teenager I was a Boy Scout with Troop 57, Rockland, MA – my home town. I have lived by these words all my life: A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. The Scout motto is: Be prepared. Make a difference in our world. HAPPY PRIDE 2020!
On the Shoulders of Giants is an interview series showcasing those who have dedicated decades to furthering LGBTQ+ equality in RI, and have made major contributions to our community’s shared history and victories. This is the twelfth interview in the series.