Reclaiming Pride without Out Alliance 

click to enlarge The Pride Parade marches along Park Avenue in 2017.

FILE PHOTO

The Pride Parade marches along Park Avenue in 2017.

A rainbow-colored strip lining the storefront window of the Out Alliance, the Rochester region’s primary LGBTQ advocacy and services organization for nearly half a century, advertises the space inside as a “safe zone.”

It might be, if only the people looking for safety and support could get inside.

For a year now, the door to the agency’s headquarters on College Avenue in the Neighborhood of the Arts has been locked, and there are no signs that it will open anytime soon.

Out Alliance is for all intents and purposes dormant, with a public face that exists mostly in the form of periodic posts on its social media accounts. The organization has no employees or programming, and most of the people on its board of directors have bailed. Recruiting new directors has been difficult, and those who remain say they have spent the last year trying to stabilize the agency’s finances enough to rebuild.

But many people who relied on Out Alliance wonder whether it will open ever again, not only because of the agency’s precarious fiscal position, but also because of its lost standing in the community it was meant to serve.

Last month, when the agency posted a benign “Happy Pride Month” message, it received an onslaught of hostile and mocking responses from people seething over its fall from atop the gay rights advocacy pyramid.
click to enlarge The exterior of Out Alliance's LGBTQ Community Center on College Avenue in the Neighborhood of the Arts in 2020. - PHOTO BY JACOB WALSH
  • PHOTO BY JACOB WALSH
  • The exterior of Out Alliance's LGBTQ Community Center on College Avenue in the Neighborhood of the Arts in 2020.
“Can the Out Alliance rebuild itself right now with any credibility? No, not at this point,” said Tamara Leigh, who was the agency’s last director of communications and let go with the rest of the staff last year.

“You’ll find a select few, usually older people who really aren’t up on what’s going on with them, who are still reminiscent of the agency that once was,” she went on. “But for the most part, you see very hurt, angry, disappointed people who want to know where the money went, what the agency’s been doing, why they would have such incredibly tone-deaf posts that show they have absolutely no thumbprint on what the community is going through at this point.”

What the community is going through at this point is finding its footing in the vacuum left by the disappearance of Out Alliance.

For nearly 50 years, the agency had been a catch-all social services organization for LGBTQ people and their families, despite criticism that grew louder in recent years that it catered to the needs of gay white men, who for so long had formed its base, to the exclusion of people of color, people with disabilities, and transgender or gender-nonconforming people.

During that time, there had always been smaller bands of loosely organized activists providing services on the periphery. But none had the political, social, and cultural gravitas of Out Alliance, which acted as a centralized repository for all things LGBTQ.

Now, those activists, including some former employees of the organization, are busily trying to not only re-create from scratch the services that Out Alliance used to provide, but also ensure a continuation of the community’s preeminent showcase — the Pride celebrations of July.

RELATED: Out Alliance at a crossroads, faces uncertain future

“I put it like this: There’s been a forest fire and there’s nothing left but the concrete slab the house was on,” said Anne Tischer, a longtime activist in the LGBTQ community and volunteer at Out Alliance. “There’s really not much to go back to.”
click to enlarge Rochester Pride Festival 2017. - FILE PHOTO
  • FILE PHOTO
  • Rochester Pride Festival 2017.
Rochester, it’s worth noting, is an outlier among American cities when it comes to Pride, holding events in July rather than the traditional June.

As for Pride, there will be neither a parade nor a festival, although a series of small events has been scheduled by pockets of people working on a shoestring to stitch together something resembling the spirit of the month-long celebration.

EXISTING ON PAPER

Like so many legacy gay advocacy groups, Out Alliance traces its origins to the grassroots activism born of the Stonewall riots, when students at the University of Rochester formed the Rochester Gay Liberation Front in 1970.

As the group grew to include people unaffiliated with the university, it renamed itself the Gay Alliance of the Genesee Valley and incorporated in 1973. The agency was known by its corporate name for decades before rebranding itself as Out Alliance.
click to enlarge A reveler whoops it up at the 2013 Rochester Pride Festival. - FILE PHOTO
  • FILE PHOTO
  • A reveler whoops it up at the 2013 Rochester Pride Festival.
Over the decades, the agency was the backbone and the brawn of the local LGBTQ community. It crusaded for equal rights, conducted social work, and launched educational programs for schools and workplaces nationwide.

Perhaps most importantly, though, the agency was there for people who, because of their sexual orientation, were shunned by society, including their families. Several advocacy groups operated from Out Alliance headquarters, including PFLAG, an organization for LGBTQ people and their parents, and ROC City PRIDE Ability, a group that advocates for people with physical and intellectual disabilities.

“A lot of folks know about Pride . . . a lot of folks knew about Drag Bingo . . . but a lot of folks don’t really know the critical, day-to-day, life-saving work we did,” said Braden Reese, the former program manager at Out Alliance, who lost his job when the place shut down.

“It was a frequent occurrence that you would get folks who were struggling with food insecurity, lack of housing, inability to afford medications that were critical, struggling with suicidal ideations, folks that were coming out to their families and having issues with that,” Reese said. “We would get those things at least weekly.”

Out Alliance came crashing down in spectacular fashion in June 2020 after what observers inside and outside the organization described as a “perfect storm” of problems unraveling.

Within a couple of weeks leading up to the door being locked, the Alliance’s executive director abruptly resigned amid an internal investigation and the threat of being fired, its board of directors fielded a barrage of whistleblower complaints from staff members complaining about a hostile work environment, and precipitously declining revenues went into a freefall.

The pandemic provided a convenient excuse for the agency to shut its doors and let go of its 10 full- and part-time employees, although it did receive a $64,900 federal loan from the Paycheck Protection Program.

In the ensuing months, most of the members of the organization’s board of directors left, too, either resigning outright or letting their terms lapse and declining to accept another.

Today, just three board members remain, and each of them had been on the board for only a year before the organization collapsed. They explained that their sole focus has been stabilizing Out Alliance so it can at least exist on paper.
click to enlarge A balloon vendor at the 2013 Rochester Pride Festival. - FILE PHOTO
  • FILE PHOTO
  • A balloon vendor at the 2013 Rochester Pride Festival.
That has meant cutting costs, paying bills, and renegotiating contracts, including the space the organization had been leasing. Its latest audit showed that the board reduced the monthly rent to $1,800 from $5,600 by downsizing the office. In all, board members said, monthly expenses have fallen to $3,500 from $54,000, with most of the difference being in wages and benefits.

“The way we look at it is our hands are tied in terms of our capacity and resources, and we’re focusing on preserving the corporation with the intent that we can rebuild,” said the board chairperson, Luis Burgos.

REBUILDING UNCERTAIN

Even Out Alliance’s own accountants, though, have questioned whether rebuilding is possible.

“Certain conditions indicate that the organization may be unable to continue as a going concern,” the accounting firm Heveron & Company wrote in its annual audit, dated November 2020.
click to enlarge Rochester Pride Festival 2017. - FILE PHOTO
  • FILE PHOTO
  • Rochester Pride Festival 2017.
“The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the Alliance’s already delicate financial position and halted its ability to generate any upward momentum,” the audit read, pointing to the cancellation of the organization’s cornerstone fundraiser in the Pride Festival, the stoppage of programming, and a significant loss of donations.

“Management believes that this cessation will be temporary, and that after reassessing and restructuring, they will resume their vital mission stronger than ever,” the audit read.

Burgos stood by that assessment, explaining that a future Out Alliance would be more focused and less centralized.

“I think what this experience has afforded us is the opportunity to work with the community and really find out what are the priorities,” Burgos said. “I think the Out Alliance was spread pretty thin in terms of programs, in terms of its finances.”

What a decentralized Out Alliance could look like is anybody’s guess. But there has been some talk of the agency playing more of a supporting role to established and emerging LGBTQ groups, offering financing and guidance where possible.

Even as a shell of its former self, and with its depleted revenue stream, Out Alliance has more resources in terms of money and infrastructure than any other organization in its orbit.

Its latest audit and tax filing, which examined the 2019 fiscal year, showed net assets of about $126,000, buoyed by a bequest of $248,000 from an individual estate.

Board members and former employees also point to an extensive database at Out Alliance that holds contact information for some 4,500 people who interacted with the agency monthly. The organization also maintains archives of an estimated 10,000 items related to the history of the gay rights movement in the region, including its vaunted former newsletter, The Empty Closet.

Then there are materials that formed the primers for all the programming Out Alliance used to oversee — from social programs for youths and seniors to training programs for corporate and educational institutions.

“There’s no reason why they (current and emerging groups) can’t continue to do that with some level of guidance from the Out Alliance,” Burgos said. “All of those programs and activities don’t necessarily need to be under one roof.”

Still, if the Out Alliance is to contribute to the community in any meaningful way, its board members said, it will need more people to join the board and offer direction.
But convincing people to join the board has been a tough sell. Attendance at three meetings that board members hosted to generate interest and talk about next steps was low.

“I think there’s a mixed message, kind of, that’s out there,” said Christopher Goodwin, a board member. “So, when we’re giving updates and opening up to the community about what’s happening, it’s kind of hard because there’s not great attendance.”

HURT, BEWILDERED, FULL OF QUESTIONS

Why so many in the LGBTQ community have disengaged from efforts to revive Out Alliance from the inside out becomes clearer in talking to former employees and allies of the agency.

They are hurt, bewildered, and full of questions.
click to enlarge Rochester Pride Festival 2013. - FILE PHOTO
  • FILE PHOTO
  • Rochester Pride Festival 2013.
How does one of the oldest LGBTQ advocacy centers in the country fall apart overnight? Where was the board of directors? Were employees’ whistleblower complaints investigated? If so, what was the outcome?

Tax records show that Out Alliance generated between $400,000 and $770,000 in revenue annually in recent years. Where did all that money go?

“To see it going from something that looked to be very successful in 2018 and 2019 and just kind of fall off the map so quickly and very suddenly . . . it was a shock to me and to, I think, what appears to be a lot of other people,” said Alison Agresta, who moved to Rochester from California a few years ago and found a community in the Out Alliance.

“It was sometime in June of last year that it was like, ‘We’re closing and the pandemic has to do with it,’” Agresta said. “It just didn’t feel like the whole story, and I don’t think anybody still has gotten the full story. There’s a lot of disconnect between the LGBTQ+ community and the Out Alliance right now.”

A review of Out Alliance’s tax records dating back 10 years suggest that it operated hand-to-mouth. The agency spent more money most years than its programs and grants and fundraising and charitable gifts generated, and its net assets fluctuated as the revenue pendulum swung.

The agency ran a surplus of $79,000 in 2019, but lost $355,000 in 2018 — about half the agency’s operating budget and as much as it paid its staff in wages and benefits. The bottom line showed it had $23,000 in net assets.

Board members attributed the deficit three years ago to a monumental snafu at the Pride Festival, in which the credit card machines being used to process entry fees to the event at Cobbs Hill Park malfunctioned and the organizers decided to allow the crowd in for free.

Many people involved in Out Alliance’s final days have accused senior management, including the board, of mismanaging the agency’s finances.

But none of the organization’s independent audits ever hinted at mismanagement or malfeasance. Indeed, it was not until the organization’s most recent audit that its accountants raised the specter of the agency going under for good.

“I would not characterize it as financial mismanagement,” said Burgos, the board chair. “Would I have made different decisions, priorities, investments? Yeah. But I would not characterize it as financial mismanagement.”

In many ways, people close to the organization say, the operation was resting on a house of cards that was constructed slowly over many years as the agency became further and further out of step with segments of the LGBTQ community.

Specifically, former employees say, while efforts were made in recent years to diversify the makeup of the staff, the agency did not modify its programming quickly enough to meet the needs of people of color and transgender or gender-nonconforming people.

Worse, they say, is that management tolerated racist and sexist verbal assaults leveled against employees by some Out Alliance program participants. One staff member, Zariah Williamson, sued the organization, claiming discrimination. A state judge dismissed the case.
click to enlarge Rochester Pride Festival 2013. - FILE PHOTO
  • FILE PHOTO
  • Rochester Pride Festival 2013.
Goodwin, the board member, said those are “fair” characterizations of the environment at Out Alliance, but that they do not acknowledge the work that former staff and some board members were putting in to make the agency more inclusive before it fell apart.

“Yes, that has been a history of the organization. Of course, if you think about the three board members who are here now, we were new and we were engaging in the change and loving the change, but then we met with a pandemic on top of the incidents that were occurring,” Goodwin said. “You can’t not acknowledge that the former staff were making leads and strides in change.”

In a statement issued last year as the agency crumbled, the outgoing executive director, Jeff Myers, defended his tenure, saying he conducted himself with “professionalism and integrity at all times.”

In December, the remaining Out Alliance board members, who are all people of color, posted a mea culpa message on its Facebook page, saying that while directors took “prompt action” to remedy some of the allegations, “in other instances, we may not have acted swiftly or strongly enough.”

“To the extent our past actions or inaction enabled an environment where racism and/or discrimination were permitted to exist, we are deeply sorry to everyone, including specifically former staff member Zariah Williamson,” the post read.
The post was mostly met with derisive comments.

PICKING UP THE PIECES

People who were close to Out Alliance used words like “tragedy,” “travesty,” and “staggering” in describing the loss of the agency.

Former employees, whom tax records suggest were not well-compensated, cast their work as a calling. The agency was powered by volunteers, who audits showed routinely combined for upward of 16,000 unpaid work hours a year.
click to enlarge Rochester Pride Festival 2017. - FILE PHOTO
  • FILE PHOTO
  • Rochester Pride Festival 2017.
Tischer, who figured she devoted 50 or more volunteer hours a week to running Out Alliance’s programming for seniors, likened the demise of the agency to “losing the love of my life.”

“Not everybody had that same feeling,” Tischer, 70, said. “Certainly people of color, certainly some constituency groups didn’t have that same relationship. But for me, I just lost the love of my life.”

She is among the many people kickstarting services for the LGBTQ community. Her group, Rainbow Seniors, is working on registering as a nonprofit corporation and duplicating what Out Alliance once provided — social gatherings, house calls to homebound seniors, legal consulting.

A problem her group and others are facing, she and others acknowledged, is a lack of name recognition. Advocates said they feared that without Out Alliance, vulnerable people who need services might fall through the cracks because they don’t know where to turn.

Tischer, for instance, told of how her seniors group has taken to mentoring parents of young transgender people because they couldn’t find help elsewhere.

“Out Alliance attempted to serve as an umbrella organization and they were trying to do everything and I think that we lost a center point,” said Kat Wiggall, the agency’s former database administrator. “I am hopeful there will be something that comes up out of this eventually that becomes that.”

Wiggall and Reese, the former program director at Out Alliance, teamed to form Rochester LGBTQ+ Together, a group that is, among other things, cobbling together Pride events.

The group has nearly 750 members on Facebook and has organized “pop-up” Pride days at Ontario Beach Park (July 3), a Rochester Red Wings game (July 7), the Seneca Park Zoo (July 10), Wickham Farms in Penfield (July 17), Seabreeze Amusement Park (July 24), and at Veterans Memorial Day Park (July 31).
click to enlarge Tamara Leigh, the former communications director at Out Alliance. - FILE PHOTO
  • FILE PHOTO
  • Tamara Leigh, the former communications director at Out Alliance.

There are other Pride events throughout the summer, including a picnic for seniors at Genesee Valley Park for which organizers said Out Alliance has lent a hand in the form of providing tables and sound equipment, and a Black Pride event in September.

Showing Pride is one thing, though. Replicating the decades of programming and outreach that Out Alliance offered is quite another.

“The community itself has stepped up because of the loss of Out Alliance,” said Leigh, the former communications director who now runs her own magazine, Blaque/OUT. “What’s great is there’s no red tape, we’re directly on the ground with people doing this work.

“There’s something to be said for being able to sidestep the bureaucratic things that sometimes get in the way of doing the work,” she went on. “But without having a big machine behind you, having the name, having the [nonprofit tax status], having the contacts, having the resources of an actual organization that has the ability to lobby, that matters.

“Most of us are doing this work while trying to re-establish our lives.”

David Andreatta is CITY's editor. He can be reached at [email protected].
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