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.”