In the middle of a summer night in 1969, a group of policemen violently descended on the Stonewall Inn, a gay nightclub in the heart of New York City’s Greenwich Village that had become an enclave of the up-and-coming gay rights movement.
Bottles, rocks and gunshots rained down upon the crowd of about 200 homosexual bar-goers in a melee that lasted most of the night and decimated the Stonewall Inn — already a burgeoning icon for the city’s gay community. Battling on the streets lasted for days as police and homosexuals swarmed into the street, including beloved Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, who may have given the moment its most apt christening: “Gay power! Isn’t that great! It’s about time we did something to assert ourselves.”
The gay rights movement had begun.
A little more than a year later, on Oct. 3, 1970, two gay UR students, Bob Osborn and Larry Fine, stood on the steps of Todd Union, anxiously waiting to see if anyone would attend a talk by guest speakers from two regional gay rights groups. The event was the first of its kind in the University’s history, at a time when society around UR was pervasively homophobic. But no fewer than 100 people came out for the event.
The fledgling group became the Rochester Gay Liberation Front and was granted formal recognition by UR, given an on-campus office and an operating budget. Part of their start-up included The Empty Closet, a four-page chronicle of the emerging gay rights fight, first published in January 1971.
The Empty Closet, which is the oldest monthly gay newspaper in New York state and one of the oldest continuously published LGBT papers in the country, transferred hands from the Rochester Gay Liberation Front to the Gay Alliance of the Genesee Valley (GAGV) — the name officially given to the original group of UR students in 1973. The GAGV still publishes The Empty Closet in its current form — a 40-page monthly tabloid newspaper that covers local, state, national and international news, as well as issues pertaining to the LGBT community.
Forty years after Osborn and Fine stepped out from the crowd to lead a movement in its infancy, The Empty Closet has transformed into a dynamic newspaper, celebrating its 40th anniversary this fall with a completely digitized archive, thanks in large part to UR’s inculcation of the movement and financial support.
As of this fall, every issue of The Empty Closet from April 1971 to April 2010 has been digitized. The complete collection will be available on UR’s online database for research purposes this semester, while the microfilm will be kept in the Rare Books and Special Collections secure storage area.
“We needed to have it digitized to make it a complete record of gay liberation in upstate New York,” Evelyn Bailey, chair of a local LGBT history committee called Shoulders to Stand On, said.
To fund the project, Bailey’s committee applied to numerous grants — to no avail — before turning to Richard Peek, Director of the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections at Rush Rhees Library, who helped secure preservation grant money from UR. The CD digitization process was paid for by an anonymous donor.
Besides creating a commemorative collection of the archived issues that is for sale in celebration of the 40th anniversary, one of the main motivations for archiving The Empty Closet is a documentary project.
“If we hadn’t digitized it, we would have to go through literally 40 years worth of newspapers and extract news. It would be an incredible task,” Bailey said.
Bailey’s committee is still working to finalize funding for the documentary, which she aims to complete by 2012 or 2013. They need to raise about $120,000.
“A community doesn’t exist until history has been documented and written,” she said of the importance of the project. “It’s too easy to dismiss a group of people who may be involved in politics but don’t have a documented history of participation. The gay community has been extremely active in Rochester, and we want it to be on record so that the LGBT community cannot be dismissed as here one day and gone the next.”
Even after the passage of legislation that legalized gay marriage in New York state this July and the excitement surrounding The Empty Closet’s anniversary, students have varied opinions on the LGBT community at UR.
“UR is big on supporting diversity, and I think the UR community, at least as far as I’ve experienced, is really accepting, tolerant and open,” junior Casey Aten, publicity chair for UR’s Pride Network, said. “But I also find that LGBT support is kind of background support here — people think [sexual orientation] doesn’t really matter, so they think you don’t really need [the support].”
Pride president and senior Melanie Davidoff said that while she doesn’t feel like students are generally aware of The Empty Closet, she thinks the LGBT community at UR is strong.
“We have a decent core of LGBT students who are interested in activism, along with many others who help to create a sense of community via social events,” she said. “I do think more could be done to create a larger sense of LGBT community in Rochester as a whole, rather than a bunch of smaller communities at the different colleges and in the city itself.”
Davidoff also said she thinks the administration at UR has been supportive of the LGBT community in recent years, which she said is especially important given the group’s push to make UR a more “transgender friendly zone.”
“I’ve had pretty good experiences — I have good friends and feel comfortable talking about my sexuality with everyone I meet on campus, including professors,” senior Charles Genese, who has been involved with Pride for four years and served on the Shoulders to Stand On Committee, said.
Genese concurred that few students, even in the LGBT community, are aware of The Empty Closet, but said that UR Pride still has a strong relationship with GAGV. Pride’s fall general interest meeting saw the largest turnout in recent years, he added.
“My one complaint is that many of my gay friends find it hard to form relationships on campus because LGBT students are, of course, in the minority and many open people don’t make it public knowledge,” he said.
Junior Alanna Scheinerman, who is not formally involved in Pride, said she thinks prejudice still exists at UR and that more could be done to educate students.
“I think UR is a very open and welcoming community for LGBT people, but organizations like Pride aren’t particularly active on campus,” she said. “Gay rights issues aren’t really advertised … there aren’t many awareness events that would educate the average student. For example, [‘don’t ask, don’t tell’] was finally repealed for good this week and there wasn’t a celebratory rally or anything.”
In 40 years, the gay rights movement has covered an immense amount of ground, starting from that night in Greenwich Village. From there, two brave souls on a cold October night went on to revolutionize LGBT acceptance in Rochester. Even recently, we see improvements in gay rights with this past Tuesday’s official end to the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
Despite society’s strides, bullying and suicides at the hands of the uneducated leave us wondering, as Bob Dylan asked, how much longer we will go on, pretending we just don’t see.
Buletti is a member of the class of 2013.