Shoulders to Stand On: Rochester – Before and After Stonewall

By: Evelyn Bailey

Stonewall was a watershed moment – it was the spark that delineated the status quo and rebellion of the LGBTQ community.

Before Stonewall gay Rochestarians lived mostly in the “closet”.  There were no protections against discrimination in housing, employment, education, access to medical services or services offered through governmental agencies.  Commercial businesses could refuse to provide services, and retail establishments did not have to sell to gays. Whether it was overt or underground, discrimination and prejudicial attitudes in Rochester, NY pre-Stonewall, created an environment of fear and secrecy.

Where was the gay scene? The FBI March 17, 1958  report says “the following places are gathering spots for homosexuals in Rochester”:  Martin’s Tavern, 12 Front Street; Nite Cap Tavern, 393 Court Street; Dick’s Tavern, 14 Front Street; Peg and Larry’s Tavern, 19 Front Street; RDGA, Franklin Square.  The Rochester “listing of homosexual and lesbian hangouts” provided as follows in the March 31, 1962 report:  Martin’s Grill, 12 Front Street; Patsy’s Grill, 278 Allen Street; Dick’s Tavern, 63 State Street; Peg and Larry’s Tavern, 47 Front Street; Manger Hotel, 26 Clinton Ave. South; Rochester Public Library Men’s Room, 115 South Ave.; Baptist Temple Building Men’s Room, 14 Franklin St.; Waldorf Cafeteria, Men’s Room and Restaurant, 10 East Main St.; Sibley’s Department Store (men’s room in basement), 228 East Main St.; Edward’s Department Store Men’s Room, 144 East Main St.; Greyhound Bus Depot Men’s Room, 320 Andrews St.; Blue Valley Bus Terminal Men’s Room, 83 South Ave.; River Blvd. along the railroad tracks; Broad and Court St. Bridges; and Maplewood Park.

Within the city there were “gay enclaves” such as Front Street.  Front St. was a downtown mainstay for more than a century known for its meat markets, bargain-priced restaurants, “Smelly” poultry markets on the east side of the street, betting parlors, pawn shops and bars which made for a bawdy atmosphere that led to it being called the city’s Skid Row.  Always a bit rough around the edges, Front Street in its later years became known as “the toughest street between New York City and Chicago”. With Urban Renewal, Front Street was gone by 1965.

In October 1970 the Gay Liberation Front was begun on the University of Rochester River Campus.  Because of Stonewall Rochestarians began to organize first to repeal the sodomy laws which happened in 2000.  In 1973, Midge Costanza appointed Gordon Urlacher the Police Liaison to the Rochester LGBTQ community in response to the perceived harassment of gay bars and the gay community.  Urlacher made a difference, and attitudes toward the gay community and the gay community’s attitude toward the police began to change.

The Rochester LGBTQ community began to empty the closet by becoming involved in politics, by holding positions of authority that could impact policy and legislative action, and to organize the fight for equality and justice.  Finally, in 2003, the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act (SONDA) became law. It would take another 16 years for the Gender Non-Discrimination Act to become law in 2019.  In fighting for our human rights, for justice and equality, workplace policies, and medical access, reimbursement and delivery systems policies have changed.  Finally, after a 13-year battle, Marriage Equality became law in New York State.

All these protections have not necessarily resulted in changed attitudes, just actions, or equal treatment under the law.  When our rights as LGBTQ citizens are violated, we still risk repercussions in seeking justice. Michael Robertson’s June 1975 statements could well have been written today.  Our current political, social and economic environment allows the LGBTQ community and many other diverse groups to experience the discrimination, prejudice, injustice, and inequality experienced by the LGBTQ community in 1969.  How far have we come? We now have written protections, our struggle and challenge continues to be to eradicate all forms of discrimination and prejudice one person, one system, one institution at a time.

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