Sue Cowell accepts Triangle Award; scholarship funding takes off

By Susan Jordan

Sue Cowell has always been someone who modestly works behind the scenes and avoids the limelight. But on May 2 she was the center of attention, as over 150 people honored her lifetime of multiple and diverse achievements at Studio 180, 180 St. Paul St.

The scholarship that will bear her name is off to a great start (see below). The Rochester Area Community Foundation will house a series of scholarships within the Rochester LGBTQ Scholarship Fund; the one bearing Sue’s name is the first.

Gay Alliance Executive Director Scott Fearing started the May 2 event by saying that it was “a wonderfully happy occasion, to pay tribute to someone who has accomplished so much.” Sue has been President of the Gay Alliance board three times, as well as serving as Executive Director from 2009-2012.

Referring to Evelyn Bailey’s term “On the Shoulders of a Giant,” Fearing said, “Sue truly is a giant – in my 20 years of doing this work, there’s rarely been anyone so gracious, kind, thoughtful and wise.”

Evelyn Bailey presented Sue with the Shoulders To Stand On Triangle Award. She said, “Today we recognize a ‘giant’ in our midst. Sue Cowell. Since coming to Rochester in 1977, Sue spent her time, energy and talent making the legacy of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass a reality.

“Many have fond memories of Wilmer and Harper St. where it all began. Sue is a champion of gay rights through her political, medical, social and economic activism. Many are unaware of her ‘Softball Hall of Fame’ status when her batting average on Paul’s Grocery Softball Team soared to 700.

“Often in the forefront of our community’s struggle for equality and justice, Sue has faced many challenges. Today she confronts the most personal challenge of all. Several years ago, Sue was diagnosed with Alzheimers, a disease that unbeknownst to her had already begun to insidiously affect her life. As with all of the other challenges in her life, Sue faces this head on.

“In our ongoing fight personally, collectively and as a community, to be healthy and free to be who we are – gay, straight, transgender, intersex, queer – the shoulders of this giant laid a strong foundation that brings us closer to a future of equality and justice for all, regardless of the arena. It is with warm heartfelt regard and deepest gratitude that I present the Shoulders To Stand On Triangle Award to Sue Cowell on behalf of the Rochester community.”

Sue’s diverse achievements brought people together on May 2 from many different worlds. From The MOCHA Center, serving the HIV prevention needs of communities of color, which Sue helped Gary English to found in 1997, former MOCHA staffer Barbara Turner read a message from Gary:

“Although it saddens me that I cannot be present for this well-deserved tribute, I would like to express my gratitude for the hard work and coalition building that Sue Cowell exhibited while the MOCHA Project was being founded in 1997. Sue was one of four concerned individuals who… laid the foundation for the establishment of what we today call The MOCHA Center. She provided the bridge to the larger white LGBT community that supported MOCHA in its infancy… Let history be written that Sue Cowell has been the Susan B. Anthony of the Black LGBT community in Rochester, New York. Long live the legacy and the great work of my friend Sue Cowell.”

From the political world, where Sue managed or volunteered for many local political campaigns and served as a delegate to several national Democratic conventions, came a group of elected officials, including Matt Haag, Harry Bronson, James Sheppard, Sandra Frankel, Elaine Spaull, Bill Moehle, Tom Ferrarese and Judge Ellen Yacknin.

Rep. Louise Slaughter sent a message, which was not read on May 2 due to time concerns. It will appear in its entirety in the July Empty Closet. The letter reads in part, “I want to extend my gratitude for your years of service. Rochester has a long tradition of progressive activism and your contributions carried on this proud legacy. Your record of social activism – spanning four decades – has had a profound impact on our community… (E)veryone here truly stands ‘on the shoulders of a giant.’”

Sue’s longtime friend Mark Siwiec commented on Sue’s social activism, stating, “Sue was one of the mentors in my life.” He compared their relationship to younger brother and older sister, adding, “I could go on for an hour or so bulleting all of the many campaigns and committees and events that she chaired. However, in doing so I feel that it would dilute the full impact that Sue has had. She’s so much more than the sum of that which she has accomplished. In short, Sue became the voice and face of the gay community in the early ‘90s.”

Siwiec remembered an occasion when candidates for NYS Attorney General were meeting in Albany with LGBT community representatives. Sue questioned them about their support for SONDA, the bill giving basic civil rights protections to New York’s LGB community. The candidates were being evasive and dodging the question. From the back of the room Sue shouted, “Answer the question!”

To Siwiec, this was a revelation that changed his paradigm: “Why shouldn’t we talk to candidates this way? Why should we continually prostrate ourselves to their disrespect?” He said the atmosphere in the room became electric and “in that moment, our world had shifted.”

He ended, “Thank you for helping so many to more clearly find the correct response when they are confronted with the dilemma of doing right or wrong by our community. And thank you, Sue, for ensuring that a greater number of Americans are more fully prepared to ‘answer the question.’”

From the world of medicine and HIV/AIDS treatment came Dr. Bill Valenti, recalling how he and Sue started out together in the HIV field at the University of Rochester, where Sue, a nurse practitioner, worked in University Health Services from 1977-1988. Dr. Valenti jokingly recalled his trepidation at being confronted with “an out lesbian activist”.

Recalling Sue’s work with Dr. Tom Rush in co-founding the AIDS Screening Clinic in 1982, and their authoring of the first study on AIDS in the American College Health Association Journal in 1985, Valenti said, “The best part about this is that Sue was seeking answers before we even knew what the questions were…. This study was one of the first risk behavior studies in gay men done anywhere on the planet!”

Together they co-founded AIDS Rochester in 1983, and Bill Valenti recalled “that meeting on your front porch on Wilmer Street all those years ago”. Sue also co-founded the Rochester Area Task Force on AIDS in 1983.

Valenti commented on Sue’s continued work at the intersection of social justice and healthcare, including helping him contact the Calamus Foundation in NYC, which invested in Trillium Health’s End the Epidemic initiative in 2014 – their first investment outside NYC.  “The grant to Trillium set us on a path to prevent HIV in high-risk gay men,” he said. “To date we have enrolled 120 people in our modern era HIV prevention program – the highest number of people in any program in New York State, bar none.

“If you want to talk about legacy – you are a star in my book and always will be,” he told Sue.

Sue has also long been involved with feminist activism, such as the issue of violence against women, and with arts projects like the Rochester Women’s Community Chorus (founding member, 1978); Rising Productions (providing exhibition space for local women artists) and the Upstate New York Women’s Production Network (bringing women performers and plays by women to the area). She has co-produced the documentary films “The Riverview: A Lesbian Place” and “Christa McAuliffe: Reach for the Stars”.

Sue has received dozens of community service awards, including the GAGV’s Vicki Cup, 1980; the American College Heath Association Distinguished Service Award, 1986; the ESPA Glen Joseph Pacheco Volunteer Award for her service as retiring co-chair of the Empire State Pride Agenda board, 1998, and many more.

Duffy Palmer and Pamela Barres were the final speakers. Duffy Palmer read a message from Jeff Soref, which included this: “I don’t think I’ve enjoyed any professional relationship more than the one you and I shared while we co-chaired the Empire State Pride Agenda. You were a mentor and role model for me… Your warmth, gentle encouragement, strong support and integrity made the difficult work not only easier, but enjoyable. The historic culmination of that work was to finally bring an end to discrimination in New York State against lesbian and gay people…”

Pam Barres continued to read: “… I am happy to announce that the Calamus Foundation of New York City, on whose board I sit, has made a $10,000 challenge grant to help launch the Sue Cowell Scholarship Fund. The Calamus Foundation has agreed to contribute one dollar to the Rochester Area Community Foundation for every dollar raised by Sue’s friends, family and colleagues. We will match gifts of any amount up to a total grant from Calamus of $10,000. This gift is made to honor Sue’s pioneering contributions to civil rights in New York State.”