David Kramer • July 20, 2015
NOTE: THIS ARTICLE ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE DEMOCRAT AND CHRONICLE. SEE ALL D & C ARTICLES.
The summer gods smiled approvingly on Saturday as the Pride Parade swooned and looped through Park, Goodman and Alexander. The crowds and the colors of the rainbow were plentiful. Some floats were outlandish, but mostly just regular people from Universities, Teachers Unions and Churches. This year one sensed the recent Supreme Court decision in the background as the celebration felt even more collective than usual.
Every Parade is also a fitting occasion to remember a historic period when Rochester led the nation. Not as well known as I think the moment should be, in December 1991, following a vote by the School Board, the RCSD became the first district in the country to ban military recruitment on its campuses because gay students were prohibited from enlisting.
Soon, other school districts, as well as colleges and universities, followed the Board’s example. Finally, twenty year later Congress completely eliminated sexual orientation as a bar to serve. Today, any gay student in the RCSD can proudly join the Armed Services with far less fear of discrimination and recrimination.
A while back, I spoke with several members of the 1991 Board: Archie Curry, Rachael Heading and Benjamin Douglass, and local activist Mark Siwiec. Reflecting on the unprecedented decision and the intervening years, several themes emerged.
Spurred by the local gay community, in 1990 the Board examined military recruitment practices. After a series of public meetings, the Board determined the Pentagon policy was in direct conflict with the Board’s anti-bias mandate forbidding any organization with a written policy of discrimination based on sexual orientation. As Board member Karen Grella would tell the New York Times, “How would it look to our students if we said discrimination is wrong, but in the military’s case, its OK?”
Fundamentally, the Board’s decision was not an anti-military statement. Quite the reverse. The Board wanted expanded access to military for all. A patriotic desire to serve should be celebrated not condemned.
At the same time, one of the Board’s chief concerns was community reaction to a ban that seemed sure to spark controversy. Siwiec, who grew up in Buffalo where he says its Mayor openly baited gay citizens, feared the worst.
Fortunately, all agreed that no virulent backlash occurred. For the most part, Rochesterians accepted the decision as fair and commendable. The policy was implemented without incident. Siwiec says he was never prouder of the tolerant and progressive spirit of his adopted hometown.
Douglass remarked that he wasn’t out to make history, but to do the right thing. Today, he is more convinced, adding, “Twenty years later, Congress and the military came to the same conclusion as we did.” Curry said he wasn’t really surprised that Rochester was the first; “It was fitting. After all, this is the city of Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony.” I could not agree more.