We Are Orlando. And 25 years ago when the RCSD led the nation against discrimination towards gay students

We Are Orlando. And 25 years ago when the RCSD led the nation against discrimination towards gay students

Rochester Broadway Theater League

Eva Mancarella with the Rochester Broadway Theatre League marchers. Eva is an RBTL intern 7/16/16

Letting go their recent torridness, the summer gods smiled approvingly today as the Pride Parade swooned and WE ARE ORLANDO compressedlooped 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.

zinn newest cropped

from “The Unreported Resistance” in A People’s History of the United States (2003), p617

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.

gay right

Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, Sun, Sep 24, 1978 – Page 15

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.

outer gay contingency

Members of the Outer Gay Contingency 7/16/16

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.

As she did last year, Eva Sclippa sees her costume as “some sort of fabulous fire creature” Rochester Pride Parade, 2016 see Remembering in 1991 when the RCSD proudly led the way against discrimination


Arlinda, Rochester Pride Parade, 2015. Alas, I did not see Arlinda at this year’s parade. see Remembering in 1991 when the RCSD proudly led the way against discrimination

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.

tilt float

The TILT drag queen float

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.


“As you wish. I might look good in a little black dress.”


“Please let me stay on the TILT bandwagon, Your Highness”

Brighton Town Court Judge Karen Morris

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.

Judges deliberating after the parade. As I took the photo, a passerby said to his friend, “Are they playing bingo?”

But they stonewalled me.



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About The Author


Welcome to Talker of the Town! My name is David Kramer. I have a Ph.D in English and teach at Keuka College. I am a former and still active Fellow at the Nazareth College Center for Public History and a Storyteller in Residence at the SmallMatters Institute. Over the years, I have taught at Monroe Community College, the Rochester Institute of Technology and St. John Fisher College. I have published numerous Guest Essays, Letters, Book Reviews and Opinion pieces in The New York Times, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the Buffalo News, the Rochester Patriot, the Providence Journal, the Providence Business News, the Brown Alumni Magazine, the New London Day, the Boston Herald, the Messenger Post Newspapers, the Wedge, the Empty Closet, the CITY, Lake Affect Magazine and Brighton Connections. My poetry appears in The Criterion: An International Journal in English and Rundenalia and my academic writing in War, Literature and the Arts and Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. Starting in February 2013, I wrote for three Democratic and Chronicle  blogs, "Make City Schools Better," "Unite Rochester," and the "Editorial Board." When my tenure at the D & C  ended, I wanted to continue conversations first begun there. And start new ones.  So we created this new space, Talker of the Town, where all are invited to join. I don’t like to say these posts are “mine.” Very few of them are the sole product of my sometimes overheated imagination. Instead, I call them partnerships and collaborations. Or as they say in education, “peer group work.” Talker of the Town might better be Talkers of the Town. The blog won’t thrive without your leads, text, pictures, ideas, facebook shares, tweets, comments and criticisms.


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