Letting go their recent torridness, the summer gods smiled approvingly today 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 — the drag queens from Tilt waving royally to their subjects — but mostly just regular people from universities, health care providers, choruses, theater companies, teachers unions, churches, as well as the political candidates electorally and irresistibly drawn to a crowd.
Prominent at the Parade were effusive displays for the victims of the Orlando killings. “WE ARE ORLANDO” banners. A LOVE float with photographs and names of the slain. Hats, buttons and t-shirts: “STAND WITH ORLANDO”
This year’s Parade is also a fitting occasion to remember the 25th anniversary of the 1991 decision by the Rochester City School Board to to ban military recruitment on its campuses because gay students were prohibited from enlisting.
The RCSD was the first district in the nation to do so.
The decision received some national attention. And even merited inclusion in Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.
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.
At the Friday Flag Raising and Opening Ceremonies for ROC Pride 2016 at Cobb’s Hill, I spoke with about a dozen people about the 1991 RCSD decision.
At first I was a little surprised people had very little recollection of the event. A few remembered the RCSD had banned military recruitment but had no idea it was for discrimination against gay students.
Two or three had heard about it at the time or a few years later, but only in passing.
When I learned more about the climate in Rochester for gay people in 1991, the overall lack of knowledge became less surprising. Many said the early 90’s were still very much a closeted time for gay people.
Gay issues were not openly discussed. At the time, those familiar with the RCSD ruling shied away from drawing attention to it, preferring the decision stay largely under the radar. Nor was there social media in 1991.
One man explained how the 1980s era of the AIDS epidemic made life difficult for gay people. In 1978, it was a big deal — and a step forward — when activist Leonard Matcovich led a “Rally for Rights” in downtown Rochester (while Anita Bryant gave an opposing press conference at the airport.)
But much of the momentum was lost during the backlash against gays during that era of the AIDs epidemic. As the man said, in 1991, the gay rights movement was just moving past the epidemic. 1991 was on the cusp of our period of noticeable improvement. He said while 1991 could not be considered “the dark ages,” the climate today is far better. As evidenced by ROC Pride 2016 that has been going smoothly all week.
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.
At the Judges Stand was Brighton Town Court Judge Karen Morris (who you’ve met before).
While Karen took pleasure in her appointment, float judging was serious fun.
Karen said her role is to reward “creativity and savviness in the portrayal of theme and subject.” When comparing courtroom and parade judging, both “require making assessments” — aesthetic or evidentiary — but the equating stops there — and the fun begins.
At the same time, Karen does see an analogy between the message of the Pride Parade and the principles of the Brighton Town Court. One reinforces that all are equal before the law as the other underscores LGBTQ equal rights.
So Talker could scoop all the TV stations, when the voting was done, I smoothly interrogated the judges, cajoling and enticing them to reveal the winners.
But they stonewalled me.