On Oct. 3, 1970, two gay men waited anxiously in the University of Rochester’s Todd Union for people to arrive for a talk by several guest speakers. They had no idea if anyone would show up, but that was not the only source of their anxiety. This was not going to be the usual kind of university event. The two men were U.R. students Bob Osborn and Larry Fine. The guest speakers were from Cornell University, Ithaca’s chapter of the national Gay Liberation Front, and the Buffalo chapter of the national Mattachine Society. Yet, in spite of the fear surrounding press coverage and exposure in a totally homophobic society, around 100 people turned out for the first meeting of what was to become in 1973 the Gay Alliance of the Genesee Valley.
In 1970 the new group called itself the Rochester Gay Liberation Front, the Rochester chapter of a group that started in N.Y.C., at Cornell and at U. R. after the Stonewall Riots in 1969. The local group was formally recognized by the University of Rochester and given an on-campus office and a small operating budget. During the first year of the group’s existence, around 200 men and women attended meetings and dances; the majority of them were non-students. Robert Crystal, another early organizer, who still lives in Rochester, notes that the GLF, a mostly-student organization, was founded at about the same time as the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) of N.Y.C. The two organizations contrasted strongly with the Mattachine Society, which came out of the ‘50s and, in Crystal’s words, was “conservative”; its most left-leaning members were middle of the road. When they went on speaking engagements, Crystal said, “They behaved demurely and were presentable. The big criticism of Mattachine was that they were asking for the privileges of citizenship, while the GAA demanded civil rights.”
In Crystal’s opinion, it was Stonewall in 1969 that gave the impetus needed to get the already-existent gay rights movement out of the closet, onto the streets and into the media. The GLF, by contrast with Mattachine, worked with Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and other ’60s political organizations. Although not all RGLF members were socialists or radicals, they did share certain basic liberation goals, including “an end to all forms of social control of homosexuals; civil rights legislation to prevent housing and job discrimination; repeal of sodomy laws; acceptance of lesbian and gay relationships; accurate portrayal in the mass media.”
By 1972, the Gay Liberation Front had left the University of Rochester campus because most members were non-students. “We didn’t want to take the GLF off-campus,” Crystal says, “so we left it as a campus group and proceeded to form the GAGV. We started meeting at Bulls Head Plaza, where one member owned a building where we were allowed to meet.”
Later the Gay Alliance moved into a space in the Genesee Co-op, a renovated 19th century firehouse on Monroe Ave., where it stayed until a building at 179 Atlantic Ave. was purchased in 1990 to serve as the first Community Center owned by the GAGV.
In February 1973, a group of lesbians within the GAGV decided to split off and form their own group, GROW (Gay Radical Organization for Women), which became the Lesbian Resource Center (LRC), active until the ‘90s.
Karen Hagberg, one of the women involved, comments, “It became pretty apparent that ‘gay’ meant ‘male gay’ in everybody’s minds. The issues dealt with at GAGV meetings were things like cruising in the park; there was nothing relevant to women. Before feminist consciousness, nobody thought about these things. I did not have a feminist consciousness in those days. Then Violette Ducroix said to me after a meeting, ‘None of this has anything to do with me. Why are we at this meeting?’ Once the question was posed, I started thinking, what are we doing here? Another thing that’s still true is that men have more money than women, so the movement becomes male-oriented.”
The Daughters of Bilitis had split from the Mattachine Society for essentially the same reasons in 1955. With the new wave of feminist organizing in the early ’70s, many lesbians felt impelled to work in women-only groups on consciousness raising and on issues like violence against women. Karen Hagberg was one of many Rochester lesbians who, in the mid-’70s and early ’80s, along with bisexual and heterosexual women, published a newspaper, The New Women’s Times/Feminist Review, and founded Rochester Women Against Violence Against Women (RWAVAW), which staged direct actions such as the 1977 protest against the film “Snuff,” which purported to show the actual murder of a woman “in South America where life is cheap.” RWAVAW also organized Take Back the Night marches (a national phenomenon which continues today on college campuses), did speaking engagements on violence against women, complete with a slide show on objectification of women in art, advertising and pornography; supported the founding of local services for battered women and rape victims; sponsored International Women’s Day programs at the YWCA, and wheat-pasted feminist and Lesbian Pride posters, among many other activities.
Bob Crystal said, “I think the women were right, they needed to get away and talk about women’s issues. I think women have come further than men…. I think that has a lot to do with risk-taking. In the ’60s and ’70s, we were dealing with a society in total flux, and we wanted to change that direction. The men in the group were not as aware as they should have been that they were part of the women’s problem.”
Gay lawyers and others helped to incorporate the GAGV by 1973, with the idea that the Alliance would be an umbrella organization for gay groups. The Speakers Bureau was founded by Karen Hagberg in 1970, when the GAGV was still the RGLF. The very first speaking engagement was at a psychology seminar at the University of Rochester on Dec. 7. The Bureau’s goal was to seek an accurate portrayal of gays in the media and to educate community groups about gay and lesbian people. Its efforts continue today.
The Empty Closet, which had begun its existence as a four-page ditto in January 1971, went to mimeograph in 1973, the first in a long series of format changes and technical upgrades. The paper was transferred from the RGLF to the GAGV in July 1973. Bob Crystal remembers that Jay Thompson was an early publisher/editor and “original ball of fire.” Tim O. Mains, later the first openly gay Rochester City Council member, was another early editor, as was Joe Baker. Bob Osborn’s first suggestion for the Gay Alliance newspaper’s name was The Fag Rag, but RJ Alcala suggested The Empty Closet, which group member Patti Evans thought better expressed the group’s goal of getting closeted gays to come out. She also felt it was a less controversial name, and more inclusive of women. Crystal feels that the move off the U.R. campus had important results. “GLF was a fairly radical student organization,” he says, “with the atmosphere of an urban campus. It was ‘come the revolution,’ and we really meant it.” Crystal believes, “If we’d stayed on campus we’d have stayed small and radical. Rochester’s gay community had that seed of revolution in it because we had left campus. Otherwise the community organization would have been much more conservative.”
The new Gay Alliance marched on City Hall four times, among other actions including the famous Dance Action, where gay men and lesbians went to a heterosexual dance club and started dancing in opposite-sex couples, switching to same-sex couples at a signal.
Bob Crystal feels that the late Bob Osborn’s leadership was crucial. “Bob Osborn was a self-sacrificing, devoted, peaceful revolutionary. He had feet of clay, so did we all, but he led by example.”
One important area where the Gay Alliance worked effectively in the early years was improving relations with the Police Department. When the GAGV was formed, homosexual acts were illegal in New York and most other states. In New York State, consensual sodomy was a class B misdemeanor, punishable by three months in jail, a $3,000 fine, or both. This law was hard to enforce, but “soliciting” was easy, and 10 to 12 people were arrested each year in Rochester.
“Suspicious behavior” was enough to warrant the listing of men’s names in the Democrat & Chronicle. If two men were “found kissing,” they would either be arrested or given a warning and “checked out” by investigators. If their names were not on the list of local homosexuals, they would be added. Gay bars were routinely raided in all U.S. cities and often survived by paying bribes. Few were gay-owned before the ‘70s, and some, like the Stonewall Inn itself, were owned by organized crime.
In 1974, then Chief of Police Gordon Urlacher met with the GAGV in what proved to be the first step toward a liaison. The GAGV’s “kiss-in” at Durand Eastman Park in 1987 marked the beginning of a new age of tolerance and visibility, in which the RPD still maintains an official liaison with the gay community.
The “kiss-in of ‘87” was not the first major demonstration staged by the GAGV. That was a rally held in 1978 to protest Anita Bryant’s campaign of bigotry against gays. When the singer came to Rochester, approximately 1,000 people supported gay rights at Genesee Crossroads Park. Speakers included feminist author Kate Millett and the late Leonard Matlovitch, a gay man who had been discharged from the Army, who said in his address, “If Anita Bryant is a born-again Christian, she should try, try, try and try again until she gets it right.”
In 1977, the GAGV gained local visibility when CETA funds to allow the Alliance to hire staff people were permitted to go through after an intense public debate. City Councilman Charlie Schiano and his fellow conservatives raised an uproar, during which gay people were compared to Charlie Manson cult members. Gay men and lesbians spoke before City Council, and Vicki Russo, who worked at the Bachelor Forum, and whom the Vicki Award was named after, said that she was going to give a Thanksgiving dinner for 50 gays “who have no place to go because their families have turned them out. Now, who’s really destroying the family?”
The funds were approved on Nov. 22 with a vote of 7-1 (Schiano being the only opposing vote).
The mid ’80s was the time when the HIV/AIDS epidemic became the central gay male issue, and in Rochester as elsewhere, gay men (as well as lesbians and bi and transgender men and women) began the work of building grassroots organizations, like AIDS Rochester and Helping People with AIDS, to cope with the crisis locally and supply services for people living with HIV. On the political front, the queer community also responded strongly with the new national group ACT-UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, confronting the pharmaceutical companies over profiteering and the government over its neglect of research and education.
In Rochester, a branch of ACT-UP was founded in 1987 by Martin Hiraga, Paul Scheib, Cynthia Van Ness and others. The group did direct actions such as the major demonstration on April 16, 1988, at the Presidential debate between George Bush and Michael Dukakis here in Rochester; a protest co-sponsored by NYC ACT-UP.
Martin Hiraga and Paul Scheib were also on the GAGV board, and the first Rochester Pride March on June 28, 1989, grew out of their activism and that of Marge Booker, Ramona Santorelli, Lori Hertellin and others. The Pride March, now the Pride Parade, continues today as a program of the Gay Alliance, after many years during which it was organized by the former Business Forum.
Michele Spring Moore became editor of The Empty Closet in the summer of 1987 at age 24; editors had recently started getting paid, an important step in growing the newspaper. Also that summer she went to the big gay rights march in Washington D.C., as the youthful movement flexed its muscles and started getting visible. “It was one of the most powerful experiences in my life up to that point,” she said. “I’d never been in that big a crowd of queers.”
In the late ’80s, as the national gay rights movement was exploding, changes occurred in almost every LGBT community across the country. The GAGV began to be seen as a service organization or human services agency, and the long process of transition began. Simultaneously, the Rochester queer community was growing and expanding its horizons. Before 1980, Spring Moore said, there were the LRC and the men’s group, and women’s softball teams, but not much else. By the late ’80s there were many more social groups and support groups, and the Rochester Gay Men’s Chorus and the Rochester Women’s Community Chorus had begun to be real choruses.
The bars, while still important, ceased to be the only way for LGBT people to meet and socialize. Also, the Gay Alliance of the ‘80s began its emphasis on working with queer youth, who previously had had no support whatsoever. The needs of the growing community meant that the GAGV had to become more of an institution than a grassroots activist organization.
Betty Dwyer, who was GAGV treasurer in the late ‘80s, said that she got involved in 1985/86 “because the Alliance was the primary advocate for gay and lesbian rights in this area. The primary thing we got involved in was the acquisition of the building (the GAGV Community Center). When I first got involved we were renting at the Co-op and we needed more space to operate. We just had that one room, and the EC was literally in a closet. The back alley entrance to our space was pretty symbolic — you had to go past the garbage cans.
“The other important thing then was that the GAGV supported the establishment of the Empire State Pride Agenda which has become a major political force.”
In response to the need for a larger, autonomous space, board member Arnie Pegish, owner of the Bachelor Forum, found a storefront at 179 Atlantic Ave., which became the new Community Center.
The first big issue of the ’90s involving the GAGV was the fight for domestic partnership benefits for City of Rochester employees and their partners. The Alliance under the leadership of Lloyd Gray was part of a coalition of gay groups and individuals, and heterosexual allies, who led an intense campaign in 1994 to pass the legislation. City Council approved the measure after a heated debate.
Also in 1994, the GAGV won its lawsuit against the City of Rochester, which had denied the non-profit group tax exemption. The central issue involved was whether the Gay Alliance is a “real” non-profit, providing genuine educational and other services to a legitimate group of people within the community. Judge Andrew Siracuse ruled in 1993 that the city had violated the GAGV’s civil rights, and the city appealed. On Feb. 4, 1994, a state appellate court decided that Siracuse’s ruling had been valid.
On Jan. 15 of that year, the GAGV Board of Directors approved a Strategic Plan, which charted the course the organization took as it entered the 21st century.
In 1998, Harry Bronson, then president of the Gay Alliance board and now a NYS Assembly member, said, “For a number of years, the GAGV has stated that it’s in transition from a working board to a policy board. I think it’s important for people to know what we mean by that. A working board is one where board members are involved in the day-to-day operations of the organization, and a policy board is one where the focus is on establishing policy and focusing on the future of the organization, as well as fundraising, and it is left to staff and other volunteers to implement the policies and programs. So in order to effect that change, what we are doing in 1998 is focusing fundraising efforts to fund the hiring of an administrative assistant and an executive director.
“The other part of the transition is to move the fundraising focus from reliance on two special events (the Winter Ball and the Picnic) to funding through membership donations and grants.”
The idea behind the transition was to allow the organization to have effective growth in order to improve its service to the gay community and better fulfill its mission of eradicating homophobia and heterosexism, and empowering lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals.
Changing the GAGV from a grassroots organization to a non-profit human services agency might have awoken fears that the Alliance could become distant from the community. Harry Bronson said, “The transition is toward a staff-run organization that is guided by the policy development of the Board, but we hope that through the selection of Board members and staff appropriate to the organization, we will maintain the connection to the community at large, and won’t lose the grassroots benefits that have been so important to the organization over the years. In the Strategic Plan we have several objectives set forth by which we can seek out information from the community that will allow people in the community to define what needs and issues are important to them, rather than having the Board define them.”
The Alliance celebrated its 25th anniversary throughout 1998.
During the ‘90s and since, an ongoing effort has been made by the Alliance board to make the organization more inclusive and diverse, so that it could serve the needs of all people in the community. Harry Bronson noted, “There has been a perception among women that the GAGV is a men’s organization, and among lesbians, bisexuals and gay men of color that it is a white people’s group. There is (or has been) enough truth to those perceptions that it has been difficult to change them, and to encourage women, gays of color and others who have felt excluded to take prominent positions within the organization.”
As a non-profit, the Gay Alliance primarily does social and cultural work and in the ‘90s it began to do its political work in a different way. The new mission statement made it clear that the agency is dedicated to empowering individuals and dealing with heterosexism and homophobia through education, support groups and advocating for an end to discrimination. The GAGV could no longer endorse candidates, or work on campaigns, although it could (and does) inform the LGBT community about local, state and national political races and issues which will affect them.
Harry Bronson said, “We’re certainly willing to educate politicians on the issues, that’s part of our purpose. Achieving social change occurs by changing perceptions about society through education. You still have the idea of trying to change the laws, have people in leadership roles (such as politicians) support our community.”
Over the past decade the organization has shifted focus from grassroots political activism to the realities of creating a permanent community institution, with all the prosaic hard work of funding and maintenance. After a series of executive directors, the Gay Alliance is now headed by Executive Director Sue Cowell and Board President John Altieri.
In 2004, the Alliance moved from the tiny, outgrown Atlantic Ave. storefront to space at the Auditorium Center, 875 E. Main St. The GAGV offices and Nopper conference room are on the fifth floor, while the Youth Center, a large room that accommodates hundreds of LGBTA youth, the GAGV Library/Archive/Cyber Center and the Community Room are located in the Prince St. lobby on the first floor.
The Gay Alliance staff has grown over the years, enabling a dozen major programs to spring up which strive to meet the needs of everyone from teenagers to hate crime victims to families to elders. The Youth Group observes the Day of Silence each year and now takes youth on local college tours, as well as providing all kinds of supportive and empowering social activities and groups. Rainbow SAGE is in the process of becoming part of the Gay Alliance, in order to make its services to our elders as powerful and effective as possible. Trainings, InQueery events and Speakers Bureau presentations send our message throughout greater Rochester, to mainstream businesses, colleges, churches and service providers, as well as to LGBT individuals who need information, support and connection to their community.
After 40 years, the small activist group of U.R. students has turned into a thriving community institution. Someday LGBT Americans may no longer need a civil and human rights movement or an agency that meets their special (and usually neglected) needs, because hatred, bigotry and discrimination will no longer exist in our society.
Until that day, the Gay Alliance will continue its work.