I was raised in Rochester and attended the University of Rochester, birthplace of the GAGV. By time I was a student there (1973-1977), the university-focused Gay Liberation Front was splitting in two, with one group to remain on campus and one to move off campus to focus on the community-at-large. This off campus organization would become the GAGV.
At UR, I used to pick up copies of the Empty Closet in Todd Union, the student union, and shove them quickly into my bookbag. I'd go into the men's room, read the paper in secret and leave the paper there. I was so afraid someone would see me with a copy.
Once, I worked up the nerve to attend a meeting of the gay student group (I don't recall if it was still called the Gay Liberation Front). I walked down the hall in Todd Union, heard the voices coming from beyond the open door of the meeting room, and promptly turned around and walked away. I was not ready. I first "came out," i.e. went to a gay establishment (read: bar) for the first time, while I was in graduate school in New York City in the summer of 1979. In fact, I remember watching that June's Gay Pride March from my dorm window. Although I had just enough courage to walk into a gay bar, I didn't yet have the courage to join a public march.
I started going out to gay bars in Rochester in 1981. The early-80s seemed to be a Golden Age for gay and lesbian night life in the Flower City. There were so many bars: Jim's (dance bar), Tara's (piano bar), Friars (dance bar), Avenue Pub (gay male neighborhood bar), Bachelor Forum (leather bar), Liberty (dance bar), LA Saloon (country western bar), O.K. Corral (country western bar) which became Backstreets (dance bar), Rosie's (lesbian dance bar–I kissed my second boyfriend for the first time there), Allen St. (lesbian dance bar on certain nights of the week), Riverview (lesbian bar), Colvin 212 (neighborhood lesbian bar), Phase (lesbian bar), Gallery (restaurant and lounge), The Other Place (live entertainment). When I tell people in Washington, D.C., where I now live, how many bars there were in a city the size of Rochester, N.Y., they are amazed. There aren't nearly that many gay bars here now, and only one lesbian bar, as far as I know.
My friends and I would dance the nights away, mostly at Jim's, looking for love, mostly not finding it, but somehow always being naive enough to think that maybe next time we'd be luckier. Going out on Wednesdays (two-for-one night), Fridays and Saturdays was de rigeur. (Looking back I wonder how in the world we made it to work on Thursdays!) We’d start at Allen St. where the crowd arrived earlier, and then would go to Jim’s where we’d almost always stay until closing. I met some great people and some interesting characters at these bars, like Tony Ange, a bartender at Jim’s, and Patrick Burdick, a handsome, charismatic dancing fiend whom we would later lose, sadly, to AIDS. Then there was Louie, the owner of Allen St., and his blond wife who worked behind the bar. Louie often asked me to size up the men who wanted to enter the bar, to see if I recognized them as gay (and, therefore, OK) or if they might be straight (and, therefore, possible troublemakers). At times I felt like an unofficial gatekeeper.
Louie often gave my friend, Yve Skeet (herself an editor of the Empty Closet), and me quarters so we could try out the new video games and get back to him with a critique. At Allen St. Yve and I often saw players from various women’s basketball teams from area colleges. It was like having minor lesbian celebrities in our midst. And then there were the drag queens--Maya, Marcella, Liza and the others. Oh, how we loved to go to the drag shows at Jim’s! I met my first boyfriend in early-1981, and since he was involved in the GAGV I decided that a good way to spend time with him would be to become involved myself. Over the years my association with GAGV deepened. I served on the board, I was involved with the political caucus and the speakers' bureau (I also volunteered with the PFLAG speakers' bureau), and I helped staff tables at the annual community picnic in Genesee Valley Park. I loved the picnic--thousands of us out and proud on a summer day.
I was also heavily involved with the Empty Closet. I wrote news articles, mostly covering politics, and I even had a regular opinion column. For years I was also the subscription manager, keeping track of our mailing list with such high-tech equipment as a typewriter, index cards and mailing labels. I sold ads for the E.C. and, at one point where we went through a rough transition between editorships, I even edited one issue of the paper. I loved the evenings spent shuttling through the sunken lounge back and forth between the E.C. and GAGV offices above the co-op on Monroe Avenue. In retrospect, it was a bit of a dumpy place, and I guess we were supposed to feel some degree of shame having to walk down an alley on the side of the building to reach the stairs that led to the GAGV office. But it didn't seem that way to me.
It was an exciting time to be involved in the gay movement--not that it isn't exciting today, but it was certainly more cutting edge and "out there" then. It really felt like we were on the leading edge of a movement. I remember many of the people who were active in GAGV at the time: Sue Cowell, Jim Gerhard, Jim Ide, Mary Lou Welz, Michael Robertson, Jackie Nudd, Janet Mlinar, Kyle Granger, Bill Hall, Claire Parker, Arnie Pegish, Tim Sally, Gary Hallinen, Ginny Shear, Sue Slate, Richard Natoli-Rombach, Rosemary Cahill, Steve Picci, Mike Siani, Michelle Moore, Ron Furino, Yve Skeet.
Jackie and I once did a radio call-in show together where I appeared under a not-so-secret pseudonym. “Let’s call him ‘Bob,’” the radio host said referring to me.By the late-70s, the gay student organization at the University of Rochester had disbanded. In 1982, a group of newly energized students led by Bradon Goetz and Julia Rabinowitz decided to re-establish a group. They worked hard to overcome several obstacles placed in their paths, but in the end they secured official recognition and funding. I was happy, as an alumnus, to attend their meetings, to assist in their battle for recognition, and to help them get up and running.
In 1983, the Alliance worked hard to secure passage of a gay rights ordinance by the Rochester City Council. The Council chambers were packed that December night when it came time for a vote. Our opposition, Citizens for a Decent Community et al., had throngs of people there and they had reserved the lion's share of public speaking spots. But thanks to our stories and our hard work--and quite possibly, partially, to our opposition's over-the-top displays of bigotry--we won 7-1 (one council member either abstained or was absent, I don’t recall). We cheered and we cried tears of joy. I’m proud to say that I documented the entire proceeding in the pages of the Empty Closet.
For my work in the ordinance fight, and my continued volunteerism for the GAGV and the E.C., I was awarded the Vinnie Cup in 1983. This award is given to the gay male activist of the year, and it is an award I treasure to this day. The modest loving cup still sits on a shelf in my living room, and it sparks memories of those good ol’ days whenever I look at it. In 1984, we tried to replicate our success with the City Council at the County Legislature. We knew that given the political differences between the two bodies it would be difficult, but we expected to succeed. We organized a coaltion of communities, all of which would have a stake in non-discrimination legislation, but the Republican majority was not at all interested in what we had to say.
I spoke at one meeting of the Republican caucus, and Majority Leader John Stanwix actually read the newspaper as I was speaking. That certainly sent a message. We failed in our efforts and we were disappointed. The next year, 1985, brought a new challenge, and perhaps the most important one of all up to that time. Educator, community activist and former E.C. editor Tim Mains decided to run for an at-large seat on the Rochester City Council. By this time, I had gotten involved in my legislative district (LD) Democratic committee, so I was in a place where I could help Tim get a key endorsement in his effort to win the party's nomination. Tim had stumbled a bit in the first LD meeting, that of the 27th district which, at the time, was in Charlotte, the most conservative part of town. Asked point blank by a member of the committee if he was gay, Tim didn't respond as strongly as he should have and sounded a bit defensive. It didn't go well.
The next meeting would be at my LD, the 26th (Maplewood, Edgerton), and we decided that Tim should address "the gay question" head on. In his opening remarks Tim brought up his gay community background proudly and openly, thus disarming the opposition. During the deliberations which followed, committee member Donna Stankevich said, "If he was honest about that, he'll be honest about anything." Tim won the committee's endorsement and, before anyone could move to revisit the matter, a well-timed parliamentary maneuver by Paul Haney, the outgoing City Council member, saved the day. The meeting was adjourned and Tim had won his first committee endorsement.
I was fortunate enough to serve as Tim's field manager for the campaign, and this put me in charge of our field operation. We had a cadre of volunteers who walked door-to-door on Tim's behalf, talking to voters and leaving campaign material at each house. We on the campaign staff, volunteers ourselves, decided which districts to cover and in what order. There were large maps of each district posted on the walls of Tim's Pearl St. home--campaign headquarters--and we would use magic markers to keep track of which streets had been covered by walkers. This was all before cell phones and all of the other computer wizardry which is taken for granted in today's campaigns. The field operation was old-fashioned retail politics--shoe leather, paper lists, pencils, door-to-door.
Tim survived the primary in September, and we had people out right up until the polls closed on that rainy November election day.When the votes were counted, Tim finished fifth out of ten candidates in a race for five seats. In other words, he had won! But his margin over the sixth-place finisher, Republican Bev Jackson, was a scant eleven votes. There were absentee and provisional ballots yet to be counted, so the final outcome was uncertain for a number of days. A week or two after the election, we gathered to watch the Democratic and Republican elections commissioners rule on the validity of each questionable ballot, and to hear the vote announced for each ballot they ruled valid. The margin shrank, moved in favor of Tim's opponent, then moved back in his favor.
At the end of the process, the eleven vote margin held exactly, and Tim won 18,080 to 18,069. Tim was New York State's first openly gay elected official and, I believe, among the first, if not the first, openly gay person elected at-large rather than to a district seat. Even Harvey Milk had failed to win an at-large seat before winning a district seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Tim had made history, and so had the Rochester gay community. Tim went on to win re-election four times, and he served as a member of the City Council for twenty years.
In late-1986 I moved to Washington, D.C., where I still reside. I have been active in the local GLBT community here, but my Rochester roots will always remain, and the memories of those heady days stay with me. At one point, the city had as a catchy motto, "I'd rather be in Rochester." I still have a pin that says, "I'd rather be gay in Rochester." My life has gone in a different direction, but from 1981 to 1986, that motto was oh, so right.