Why does Rochester celebrate Pride in July?
When Bob Crystal was a medical student at Cornell University, he traveled with other members of the Cornell Gay Liberation Front to attend the first Pride event in New York City in 1970, a year after the Stonewall Riots.
The Stonewall Riots were six days of protests and clashes with law enforcement after New York City police unexpectedly raided popular LGBT bar Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969. Stonewall was the catalyst that many believe started the gay liberation movement, which is why Pride is celebrated every June across the United States.
But in Rochester, Pride events don’t happen until July. People like Bob Crystal attended Pride in New York City in June and then came to Rochester to attend demonstrations, protests and most importantly, the Community Pride Picnic.
Anne Tischer, founder of Rainbow Seniors ROC, an advocacy group serving LGBTQ+ seniors in Rochester, said the picnic began as small backyard gatherings of about four dozen people, some from cities like Buffalo and Syracuse.
50 Years of LGBT Community Picnics in Rochester
When the Gay Liberation Front reached the University of Rochester, the campus became a haven for students and city dwellers alike, Tischer said.
“The campus became a huge social pub and gay city people felt safe going to these parties on campus, but as it got more urban they got kicked off campus,” said Tischer, who lives next to her Ms. Bess Watts, is among the more reliable LGBTQ+ historians in Rochester.
Before the picnic, people started backyard meetings where popular gay bars like Jim’s donated kegs of beer.
On Sunday, May 16, 1971, the first public local event took place, and according to Tischer, gay men and lesbian women were visible to the community for the first time.
“It was a time when protesters were conducting sit-ins, so the Rochester Gay Liberation Front organized a sit-in of more than 300 people and called it a ‘gay-in’ at Genesee Valley Park. 300 people attended and brought their own food,” Tischer wrote in a five-page statement on Rochester’s Pride History.
Watts, a women’s rights advocate and historian for Rochester’s LGBTQ+ community, said many of the participants are still in the closet.
On July 16, 1972, the first annual Gay Community Picnic was held, organized by Patty Evans, Karen Hagberg, and Bob Crystal.
Over the next ten years, the picnic grew into a fundraiser for the Gay Alliance, received sponsorship from local bars and was hosted by various community organizations and began entertaining.
“In 1983 it was 2,000 (people). By 1995, there were over 4,000 people in Genesse Valley Park,” Tischer said.
The historian explained that on the 20th anniversary of Stonewall in 1989, a separate action started the Pride Parade in Rochester as a protest against Big Pharma over the cost of life-saving HIV drugs. Eventually, a Pride Festival was added after the Pride Parade, and Tischer said that in a few years it was combined with the picnic.
All was normal until 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic forced organizers to cancel all Pride events.
the Out Alliance, an umbrella organization which was made up of the Gay Liberation Front, the Gay Alliance of Genesee Valley and several lesbian organizations such as the Gay Radical Organization for Women, went under, Watts said.
Most of its resources, including The Empty Closet – a newsletter later converted into a newspaper that contained local, national and international information for the LGBTQ community – are still available via an online archive.
Pride, a beacon of tolerance in Rochester
For over 50 years, the City of Rochester has had a decent track record of attracting members of the LGTQ community, Crystal said.
Crystal, who moved to Rochester in 1971, was a newsboy for The Empty Closet.
The Empty Closet was founded that same year by Bob Osborn and Larry Fine, University of Rochester students and co-founders of the Rochester Gay Liberation Front. The publication was one of the longest-running LGBTQ newspapers in the country until its final issue in 2020, a year short of its 50th anniversary.
For Crystal, hosting July’s Pride is just one reason Rochester’s events are special.
The city’s LGBT residents have enriched Rochester in many ways, he said.
“You had to be there. Rochester has always been unique. We had the oldest gay bars, more women’s bars than anywhere else in the state, and the city was oddly very liberal and tolerant,” said Crystal, who believes Rochester is a beacon for LGBTQ+.
Crystal said that while Rochester is more tolerant than other places, that doesn’t mean queer people in the city have never faced discrimination.
He lost his job as a young adult after being interviewed by a newspaper as an openly gay man, Crystal said, and as a retired hospital chaplain at Strong Memorial Hospital and Rochester General Hospital, he faced severe discrimination in the Christian faith community for being openly gay . He is episcopal by faith, but he ministered in hospitals without religious confirmation.
Though he spent years organizing, marching and campaigning for gay liberation in Rochester, Crystal said he knew the victories they had won could be at stake.
Growing fear of what the future holds for LGBT rights
While there is joy and celebration associated with Pride events, this year is proving to be a tougher one for many who feel LGBTQ rights are at risk.
On Friday, June 24, the US Supreme Court quashed Roe v. Wade ended the constitutional right to abortion and left the decision up to the individual states. Judge Clarence Thomas wrote in his opinion that the court should consider other rights, including access to contraception and gay marriage.
Tischer and her wife Bess spent 12 years in domestic welfare activism and campaigned against Don’t Ask Don’t Tell — a 1994 federal rule that barred LGBTQ+ people from openly serving in the military– outside the gates of the White House, where they said they were arrested.
“I’m 65 and I thought we won this war,” Watts said when the Supreme Court ruled Roe v. Wade knocked down.
Tischer agreed, adding that they “fought the LGBTQ struggles and here we are now witnessing minority tyranny. We’re fighting things again that we fought 50 years ago.”
when you go
That Pride Picnic 2022 takes place from noon to 6 p.m Sunday 10 July at Genesee Valley Park, according to Trillium Health’s website. This year’s picnic will be hosted by Rainbow Seniors ROC. For more information, see Roc Pride Collective Facebook page.
Natalia Rodríguez Medina is a bilingual reporter covering the Puerto Rican and Hispanic population for the Democrat and Chronicle in association with Report for America. Follow her on Twitter @nataliarodmed or email her at n[email protected]. You can support their work with a tax-deductible donation to Report for America.