by Evelyn Bailey
During 1971 – 1972 there were several Rochester women who made history by speaking openly about their sexual orientation. This was during a time when the American Psychiatric Association identified homosexuality as a diagnosable mental disorder in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-II).
In order to understand the extraordinary actions that Patti Evans, Karen Hagberg, “Mike”, and Rosanne took, you need to understand the times in which these women lived. The mere fact that of these four women only two used both there real first and last names is an indication of the fear of reprisal that existed within the community. This was true for men as well.
Women during this era, after having won the right to vote decades before, were finally beginning to fight for their rights in the workplace and in education. In 1966, preceding the formation of the Gay Liberation Front (precursor to the Gay Alliance of the Genesee Valley), the National Organization for Women (NOW) was founded by a group of feminists including Betty Friedan. The largest women’s rights group in the U.S., NOW sought and continues to seek to end sexual discrimination, especially in the workplace, by means of legislative lobbying, litigation, and public demonstrations.
In 1967, Executive Order 11375 expands President Lyndon Johnson’s affirmative action policy of 1965 to cover discrimination based on gender. As a result, federal agencies and contractors must take active measures to ensure that women as well as minorities enjoy the same educational and employment opportunities as white males. In 1970, in Schultz v. Wheaton Glass Co., a U.S. Court of Appeals rules that jobs held by men and women need to be “substantially equal” but not “identical” to fall under the protection of the Equal Pay Act. An employer cannot, for example, change the job titles of women workers in order to pay them less than men.
Against this backdrop of ignorance, inequality, and homophobia, the women in the Gay Liberation Front courageously spoke out on numerous occasions. On Tuesday, May 25, 1971, Gay Liberation Front members Patricia Evans and Stephen Lein appeared on the WROC – TV show CROSS-FIRE, hosted by Tom Ryan. This was the first recorded appearance of the Gay Liberation Front on television to be viewed by Rochestarians from the comfort of their living room.
One of the most historically significant appearances of the Gay Liberation Front was on July 14, 1971. Karen Hagberg, R. J. Alcala, and Jim Fishman appeared in a live broadcast “Call 21” on WXXI, Channel 21. People watching were able to call in questions which were presented to the panel by the moderator, Barry Goldfarb.
The questions that reached the panel during the show enabled the panel to cover a wide range of topics: the purpose of Gay Liberation in general, oppressive laws, the involvement of organized religion with Gay Liberation, as well as many more personal questions concerning our own experiences as gay people. One person called from St. Catherine’s Ontario to ask if New York State laws would ever become as tolerant as those in Canada. The people at the station were very pleased with the general response to the show they received 129 calls that evening this was the second largest response in the history of the show (a Black Panther holds the record).
Of the 129 questions received there was time to answer only 32. Mothers wanted to know how not to make their children gay. Men expressed outrage at having been propositioned at some time in their lives by other men (although they don’t deem it outrageous that they themselves have been taught to proposition women at every opportunity). Some people were simply appalled that homosexuality, such a forbidden topic of conversation would appear on their own television screens. (The program director at Channel 21 observed that people forget there is an “off” as well as an “on” switch to the receivers!) One indignant mother informed the station that she would no longer allow her children to watch Sesame Street or any other program on Channel 21. In my mind Channel 21, WXXI, took a courageous step in requesting that the Gay Liberation Front appear on a Wednesday evening talk show! For this, I think they deserve a round of applause.
In March of 1972, Patti Evans began a gay women’s consciousness-raising group. The group’s purpose was to meet, get to know each other, and to help and support each other as gay women. Sometimes these meetings took place at the University of Rochester, and sometimes at the Riverview in downtown Rochester.
On March, 22 the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) is passed by Congress and sent to the states for ratification. Originally drafted by Alice Paul in 1923, the amendment reads: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” The amendment died in 1982 when it failed to achieve ratification by a minimum of 38 states. Also on March 22 in Eisenstadt v. Baird the Supreme Court rules that the right to privacy includes an unmarried person’s right to use contraceptives.
In Rochester in May 1972 after being denied educational benefits by a Monroe County welfare eligibility supervisor on grounds she was socially handicapped by her homosexual preference, “Mike” a Rochester woman, contacted the Gay Liberation Front and the Legal Assistance Program.
Legal pressure was brought to bear and the welfare department, admitting it had insufficient grounds for denying funds for employment training, restored “Mike’s” educational benefits.
“Mike” who will begin studying drafting at Rochester urban center later this month urges gays to stick up for their rights. “I want the people to know about this,” she said, “so they won’t be afraid to seek help when hassled.”
On June 23, 1972 Title IX of the Education Amendments bans sex discrimination in schools. It states: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” As a result of Title IX, the enrollment of women in athletics programs and professional schools increases dramatically.
In July, 1972, the first regular issue of Ms. Magazine is published. The magazine becomes the major forum for feminist voices, and co-founder and editor Gloria Steinem is launched as an icon of the modern feminist movement.
Four Rochester gay people were heard on WBBF radio Sunday, July 23, 1972. R.J. Alcala, Walt, Patty Evans, and Rosanne were guests on a regularly scheduled talk show, “Dialogue.” Listeners called in to voice their opinions and ask questions of the panelists. The Gay Liberation Front spokespersons tackled a variety of questions ranging from what causes homosexuality to some more personal subjects as what your parents think? When did you realize that you are gay?
To give you yet another picture of what it was like for the Gay Liberation Front to operate and for homosexuals in Rochester to be active in the movement in 1972, the Empty Closet reported in its August, 1972 issue that the Gay Liberation Front was one of the organizations on a list of 400 organizations being watched by the Secret Service to prevent political assassinations.
Also on the list was the Chinese Hand Laundry Alliances, the NAACP, and the Iranian Students Association. The Quaker Action Group was put on the list because they are opposed to the war and the use of nuclear weapons. The Empty Closet expressed hope that Quaker Richard Nixon, who was president at the time, would be closely watched by the Secret Service because of his access to high government officials. Unlike many of the organizations listed the Gay Liberation Front has no national organization despite the existence of several hundred local groups.
In November of 1972 the women of the Gay Liberation Front formed a committee and held meetings of social interest to women. One of the first meetings was a potluck supper. In mid-October the committee sponsored a panel discussion trying to answer the question, “Can we be sisters with Women’s Liberationists?” The pros and cons of lesbian participation in the feminist movement was the main topic of discussion. This committee continued in existence, and I believe eventually became the Lesbian Resource Center.
The following year, 1973, as a result of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court establishes a woman’s right to safe and legal abortion, overriding the anti-abo
rtion laws of many states.
Today, the Gay Alliance of the Genesee Valley has reconnected with Rosanne. Karen Hagberg and Patty Evans have been and continue to be strong supporters of the GAGV. “Mike” unknown then is still unknown today. We are proud to identify these women as four of many women’s Shoulders To Stand On!
If you have recollections of these events or these people, the Shoulders To Stand On Committee would like to hear from you. Leave a comment to the post, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or write us at “Shoulders To Stand On” c/o GAGV, 875 East Main St., Suite 500, Rochester, NY 14605.