(l-r) Jeff Fowler, Bruce Woolley, Gerry Szymanski, Amanda Kiesl; not pictured: Evelyn Bailey, Nicole Pease, Bob Pease and Tara Winner-Swete
In One of the largest LGBTQ libraries in the nation receives historic donation from Eugene Kramer, you saw my father enjoying a visit to the Rochester Gay Alliance Library where Eugene was pleased to add Sittengeschichte Des Weltkrieges (1930) by Magnus Hirschfeld to the library’s voluminous collection.
Recently, when visiting Gay Alliance’s Executive Director Scott Fearing for We Are Orlando. And 25 years ago when the RCSD led the nation against discrimination towards gay students, I took a few minutes to look at the shelves of the library located in the LGBTQ Resource Center on 100 College Avenue.
In just the first bulging shelves, I and Bill DeStevens — working the library desk — could see the wide historical and cultural arch of the gay experience.
In the Religious section, Bill noticed Homosexuality and Christianity. John Boswell’s 1980 landmark treatise helped Bill overcome his “Catholic Guilt” when first coming out. Bill recalls his surprise that The New York Times actually reviewed the book.
As Bill noted — evidence of the evolving acceptance of the gay experience — today patrons can check out Lesbian Rabbis: The First Generation (2001), a kind of self-help primer that 40 years ago would have been unthinkable.
Bill also pointed to C. A. Tripp’s Homosexual Matrix he bought at Macey’s in 1975 — as chuckling young clerks made him feel embarrassed. One of the first of its kind, Matrix was a clinically based study of treatment in which gay men — though not stigmatized — were seen as potential patients.
Today — how times have changed — the library also offers splashy, commercially oriented how-to’s, like On our Backs: Guide to Lesbian Sex (2004) with a chapter, “Beyond the Cucumber: Fun with Food.” And the something-for-everyone, Lesbian Sex Secrets for Men (2000).
I told Scott this was some library. To which he replied, I hadn’t seen nothing yet. Bill and I were browsing just one small section of the largest gay-themed libraries in New York State and one of the largest in the country.
To learn more, Gerry Szymanski, Library Director, showed me around the main shelves and the archives. His erudition and bibliophiliac passion shining, Gerry explained how he and many committed volunteers are building a unique and invaluable Rochester literary resource. As Gerry says:
There’s always been a “library” as part of the Gay Alliance. Even back in the 1970s, when it was the Gay Liberation Front at the U of R, there was a book collection. Since then, we’ve moved along with the agency and have found our true niche here in the new space at the LGBTQ Center on College Ave. Our collection has grown to almost 10,000 items, including books (fiction, non-fiction, kids, young adult), DVDs and videos, sound recordings, periodicals, out–of-town newspapers and an almost complete run of the New York State’s oldest gay newspaper, our own Empty Closet. We also have a large collection of rare books (mostly before 1970), pulp fiction and rare, pre-Stonewall homophile magazines.
The Library is working very closely with Evelyn Bailey, director of Shoulders to Stand On, and her project of collecting primary source archival material from the Rochester area. Many of these items are now going into archival repositories at the University of Rochester, Cornell University and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
Each week we have as many as seven volunteers who come in to process, catalog and arrange library materials. Our donations come from community members, and we accept books, video recordings and periodicals on an ongoing basis. Our users are everyday folks looking for a good novel to read, or college professors researching LGBT topics.
What’s even better about moving to the new center is not just our greatly expanded space for collections, but the fact we’re open to the public for browsing and borrowing every weekday during business hours (9 a.m. – 5 p.m.), as well as Wednesday evenings from 6 p.m. – 8 p.m.
In many ways, the library is the showcase or centerpiece for the thriving LGBTQ Center. On the Wednesday evening I was there, the LGBTQ Center was a hub of activity, including meetings and workshops.
As for my father’s “historic donation” (Empty Closet), after Gerry’s tour I mentioned the library to my parents. Eugene reminded us that about 25 years ago, while he and wife Carol were in Prague, he had purchased the two volume Sittengeschichte Des Weltkrieges for — as Eugene recalls — 100 dollars. Hirshfeld is considered one of the fathers of the gay rights movement who may have been the first to use the term transgender, and the The Sexual History of the World War is perhaps his most important work.
Ever desirous to advance Eugene’s (ambitious) plans to “thin down” his collection, Carol suggested the donation. As Eugene did not read a word of Deutsche, she had been a tad skeptical of the purchase itself. Eugene claimed he would look at Hirshfeld’s fascinating illustrations alongside a translated version. He never did.
At the donation ceremony, several library staff members greeted us with warm hospitality. Eugene was thrilled to recount how he found the volumes in a Czech bookstore.
As Gerry showed us around, he and Eugene reminisced about the old Houghton Bookstore in Village Gate where Eugene volunteered. Gerry had himself graduated from Houghton and briefly considered managing its bookstore.
We also talked some gay Rochester history, having read the recent D & C article “Searching for LGBTQ Landmarks.” In the article, Scott Fearing discussed the progress in social tolerance he has seen in his own lifetime.
Elaborating on Scott’s comments, Gerry explained that “gayborhoods” (gay neighborhoods) — like the flourishing gay scene on Upper Monroe in past decades — no longer really exist in Rochester. With increasing tolerance, many gay people have migrated to the suburbs. Gerry noted only three gay bars and a dance club are left in Rochester. But, at the same time, during the summer, there have been record crowds at the Pride festival and picnic and even private local campgrounds have seen a large increase in visitors. The community may have shifted, but it is still strong and vibrant.