Rochester, New York Voices of LGBT History
Created through a partnership between the River Campus Libraries and Rochester's Out Alliance and supported by a grant from the National Endowment for Humanities, this project offers a model of how libraries and community organizations can partner to archive, preserve, and make accessible our shared cultural heritage.
The work of correcting transcriptions, cataloging and captioning these recordings was done by three University of Rochester graduate students, each of whom who shares a reflection on their work in this post.
(L-R) Peter Murphy, JoAnna Ramsey, Rohma Khan
My father grew up in the Rochester suburbs, which may not seem unusual to those with a similar story, but it was always strange for me. What were these places—Batavia and Le Roy—and how could my father come from what I perceived to be the middle of nowhere? I could imagine small towns and I could imagine my father growing up in them, but I struggled to imagine them for myself. Even the few times I visited the area as a child didn’t make these places concrete. They were destinations, cute and quaint, a reminder of times past. This all changed, however, in my twenties when I was accepted to the Visual & Cultural Studies PhD program at the University of Rochester. The life I lived in Southern California transformed to the life I now live in Rochester—that place which had always been an imaginative memory.
During the first few years I lived here, Le Roy especially remained an idealized place. I continued to imagine what it would be like for me to live in the place that formed my father, but I struggled to fix myself to it. A homophobic encounter during my first months in Rochester made living in Western New York seem almost impossible. “This would never happen to me in California,” I foolishly told myself. And if this happened in the city of Rochester, I told myself it would be even worse in somewhere like Le Roy. This thought is, of course, reactionary and possibly incorrect. And if it wasn’t for Sue Slate and Ginny Shear, you would have had a hard time convincing me otherwise.
My encounter with Ginny and Sue was by chance, a random selection that occurred while working on the Shoulder to Stands On project. In the second sentence of an audio interview, Evelyn Bailey shares that she is interviewing the couple on their porch in Le Roy. Not only were these two women being interviewed in Le Roy, but they were being interviewed in Le Roy in their home. The illusion of an anti-LGBT town I had created for myself was shattered, and how could it not be? The outskirts of Rochester were no longer just fields and farms with the occasional Trump sign—they became a place where a lesbian couple could happily live and thrive within their community. Although the interview focuses on Ginny and Sue’s important charities and activism within the larger Rochester community, I kept going back to the fact of where they lived. It continues to mean a lot to me that these two women who contributed so much to the LGBT community and beyond live in this place I felt I had dreamed up. And although I have no intention of moving to Le Roy in the foreseeable future, Ginny and Sue have proven to me that despite everything it is possible.
Throughout this project, I have been continually surprised and moved by the stories I’ve heard. As a scholar, I work primarily in queer theory and modern and contemporary painting—topics that easily seem divorced from the subjects both seek to represent. This, of course, is the age-old problem of theory versus praxis—a problem I continually find myself struggling with. This project, however, has reconnected me with the lives of the community I spend so much time thinking about. These specific people will probably never know me, but in a small way I feel like I have gotten to know them. This process has rooted me in experience; and in the case of Ginny and Sue, I mean this quite literally. Le Roy is, after all, one of the oldest branches of my family tree.
I am a student in the graduate program of The L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation run by the University of Rochester and the George Eastman Museum. Working with the Shoulders to Stand On interviews and the Green Thursday archives has not only been professionally enlightening by serving to further my knowledge of archival and library practices, but it has also been an incredibly meaningful experience. These interviews, radio programs, and source recordings are significant historical documents that deserve to be made publically accessible, and I am honored that I have had the privilege to help make that possible.
In her interview for Shoulders to Stand On, former Intergenerational Programs Director for the Gay Alliance of the Genesee Valley Kelly Clark noted the importance of giving today’s LGBT youth a sense of community and history. This notion of history and community has truly resonated with me on a very personal level. I came out when I was young, and for a long time I saw this only as a part of my individual identity. I did not have a sense of history or a community that I could go to with questions. I had to depend on the people I already knew to, hopefully, be supportive. Had I had a resource like this digital library, I know that I would have had significantly fewer concerns about my identity over the years. I would have been reassured that I was normal, that I didn’t have to try to fit into any set stereotype, and that there were places around me that I could look to for support and understanding.
It has been empowering to learn about the events that have taken place in Rochester that have built such a strong community. From the first meetings of the Gay Liberation Front at the University of Rochester to the establishment of an official police liaison, these are only some of the events that have shown this community’s determination and courage. This collection shows the grassroots nature of the movement as well as the personal sacrifices and bravery that were often needed for progress to occur. The sense of community and history that I have gained simply from working on this project has given me a better understanding of my own identity and my role in the larger gay community.
Bruce Jewell, host of the Green Thursday radio programs, summed up the goals of the early gay rights movement in his interview for Shoulders to Stand On claiming, “Fundamentally, the movement at that time was about creating space in the various areas of our society.” Through our work with the Green Thursday recordings and the Shoulders to Stand On interviews we are reassuring members of the LGBT community that their stories and their history are valuable and worth remembering. This project has created a space where the gay rights movement in Rochester can be studied by a wide variety of people potentially ranging from a student writing an academic paper to a teenager living in the middle of nowhere who is just starting to figure out who they are.
This library has granted the public the opportunity to learn and understand the efforts that took place to ensure that this space would one day be created. Not only am I sure that this collection will enrich further academic research, but I know that it will continue the work of the Shoulders to Stand On participants in supporting and educating the Rochester community.
There are many diverse and gripping stories recounted by members of Rochester’s gay community in the Shoulders To Stand On project, and choosing just one to discuss is a difficult task. One story that I found particularly moving was an oral history interview collected from Bruce Clark. Bruce is a part of the contemporary gay community in Interlaken, New York and was a member of the gay community in Rochester when he was growing up in the 1940s and the 1950s. Bruce discussed a variety of topics such as coming out, the lack of vocabulary to describe gay culture in the mid-twentieth century, the night life at Ma Martin’s and Dick’s 43 lounge, advice for the youth, etc.
I was quite drawn to his recollection of meeting his partner, Bill. Bruce met his former partner around 1972. They met at a country auction and Bruce invited him over for dinner one night. They soon formed a strong bond and moved into a summer house that Bruce’s grandmother had willed to him. They decided to convert the summer house into a place for year-round use. For years, they obtained wood for heating from behind the house, until they gradually made home improvements and added amenities like storm windows. They lived together for thirty-eight years until Bill’s hip began bothering him and he underwent hip replacement surgery in 2010. Due to an upsetting twist of fate, Bill passed away after the successful procedure due to a weak heart condition. During their time together, Bruce did not anticipate marriage equality becoming a legal reality. His partner, Bill, however, held onto the prospect, gave him a ring one year prior to his death, and said, “I wish that we could get married.”
While this story does not relate to my life experiences, it led me to reflect on the significance of time and history. Same-sex marriage was legally recognized in the state of New York on July 24, 2011. Bruce and Bill spent nearly four decades together, facing obstacles but enjoying their time, without the promise of marriage. Then, Bill passed away only one year before same-sex marriage was legalized. Bruce and Bill’s love story was tucked away in a house in Interlaken, New York, and would have been publicly realized if time did not work against them and same-sex marriage (which was long overdue) had passed earlier.
Bruce’s life in both Interlaken and Rochester also prompt us to consider the progress of LGBT awareness. Bruce noted that, in the 1940s and 1950s, there was virtually no terminology to accurately describe what it meant to be a gay or lesbian youth. Instead, they had to arrange events and get-togethers by word of mouth. Even if the proper vocabulary to describe gay life did not exist, however, events flourished in Rochester with gay bars and even drag shows in the mid-twentieth century decades. Since gay visibility was not yet accepted, Bruce had to disguise his real relationships with men by having a fake girlfriend cover for him in public (who herself was a lesbian). Despite the secrecy, there was an active gay community in Rochester. There were events and flyers discretely circulated among members. Bruce himself once was caught by his mother, who found an advertisement for a drag show in one of his pockets. He was then compelled to deny that he was attending the event and pretend that the flyer belonged to his friend. Although there were not yet many outlets with which to describe LGBT life or to communicate its significance to the wider public, gay life did exist and flourish in Rochester in the 1940s and 1950s.