When the University of Rochester's Gay Liberation Front launched the Empty Closet in 1971, they knew that distributing a newspaper advocating "the freedom to love" same-sex partners was a radical act. At the time, being openly gay in New York State could cost an individual his or her livelihood, housing, safety, even freedom.
What the student group could not have known is that their four-page, hand-typed ditto would become one the longest continually distributed gay newspapers in the United States and an important primary source about one the country's major social movements.
To preserve and share that record, the University has launched an online and searchable archive of the Empty Closet, with all 438 issues from January 1971 to April 2011. Now published by the Gay Alliance of the Genesee Valley, the newspaper chronicles the gay rights movement, from the first gay pride marches in New York City in the early 1970s to the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s to the recent campaign for gay marriage and full civil rights.
"It's really quite a remarkable history, not only for the Rochester area but for coverage around the country of gay rights issues and health issues," says Melissa Mead, director of the digital projects research center in Rush Rhees Library. "It's not just a local newspaper."
The first issue of the paper was created by a group of student activists including Bob Osborn'74 (PhD) and Larry Fine '72, two founders of the Rochester Gay Liberation Front. A chapter of the GLF that started in New York City following the Stonewall Riots in 1969, the Rochester student group was described in the Empty Closet as an organization that "[m]ore than anything else … has brought the gay community out and into an open discussion of the nature of its oppression and an awareness of its potential for unity."
R. J. Alcalá '71, an undergraduate at the Eastman School of Music when the Gay Liberation Front was formed, suggested the Empty Closet name—winning out over Osborn's first suggestion, the Fag Rag, because the name was less controversial, more inclusive of women, and more accurately reflected the group's goal of getting closeted gays to come out.
For the next two and half years, the nascent publication reported from campus on a wide variety of news, from announcements about gay social events to poetry and personal essays. Every issue also contained a strong focus on political organizing and the struggle for equal protection under the law. A report on the first hearing of the Special Committee on Discrimination Against Homosexuals of the New York State Assembly on Jan. 7, 1971, described testimony calling for the repeal of discriminatory laws around consensual sex, for the enforcement of non-discrimination based on sexual orientation, and for protection against harassment at gay bars.
Essays, like one by Osborn in the paper's third issue, drew attention to the links between gay rights and the campaign for racial equality. "In June of 1969 we were tired of being treated like animals and fought back when police raided a gay bar on Christopher Street, and surprised ourselves two weeks later by openly marching down Manhattan streets to let people know we were proud to have kicked our oppressors in the teeth," he wrote. "It was the Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins all over again for a different minority, one that is ten years older than the college kids in 1960."
Never just a campus newspaper, the Empty Closet from the beginning included news from beyond the University. Articles described the GLF's successful efforts to have derogatory "fag" radio ads removed from the air in Rochester and warned about the Rochester city police's "homofile" – a list of suspected homosexuals that the Democrat and Chronicle had reported contained the names of 945 men and 107 women in the early 1970s.
But the tone could be lighthearted as well. A notice about the GLF's "wilde-Stein Coffeehouse" noted that the social gathering was "enjoyed by 75 gays, straights, and one dog of undetermined sexual preference." A news round up included this item from Auckland, New Zealand: "Psychologist J M Raeburn at the Aukland [sic] Medical School is 'treating' homosexuality by showing patients films of themselves in action, theorizing that the scene is so revolting that they will go straight. (and to think – I paid all that money to have mirrors installed on my bedroom ceiling)."
Alongside the humor ran sobering stories of parental rejection and reminders of the fear surrounding coming out. An article about the GLF's call center described the three kinds of calls they regularly received: juvenile pranks, calls to discuss a person's sexuality, and silence, awkward silence. For every two calls in the first two categories, "there are thousands who just can't get beyond dialing the GFL number," the paper reported.
In July 1973, the Empty Closet was transferred off campus to its current publisher, the Gay Alliance of the Genesee Valley, a non-profit that runs multiple outreach programs for the GLBT community and is located at the Auditorium Center, 875 East Main St. in Rochester. The University's Gay Liberation Front, now called the Pride Network, celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2010.
Today, the Empty Closet is a professionally staffed newspaper published 11 times a year, with a circulation of 5,000 and an active web site. New York State's oldest gay newspaper, the publication counts among its editors Tim O. Mains, who later became Rochester's first openly gay city council member.
Jay Baker, the paper's editor for its first six years, is proud of the publication's longevity; the Empty Closet began shortly after two of the country's most influential gay publications, the Blade in Washington D.C. (1969) and the Advocate, in Los Angeles (1967). But its most important legacy, he explained in a GAGV video history, has been to make "Rochester a much better town for gay people."
New issues of the Empty Closet will be added to the University's online archive about a year after they appear in print. The Department of Rare Books and Special Collections has been collecting, preserving, and making available paper copies of the Empty Closet since it began. The paper was preserved on microfilm through a grant from the New York State Program for the Conservation and Preservation of Library Research Materials. The digitization of the microfilm was paid for by the Gay Alliance of the Genesee Valley.