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Evelyn Bailey, longtime LGBTQ activist and historian, dies at 75

Evelyn Bailey was the Grand Marshall of a past Rochester Pride parade.
Annette Dragon photography
Evelyn Bailey was the grand marshal of a past Rochester Pride parade.

Evelyn Bailey had many identities in her 75 years: historian, math teacher, activist, small business owner.

But first, she was "Boston Irish," with a strong accent she proudly embraced. Her Catholic faith led her to Rochester in the 1970s, where she served as a nun in the Order of the Cenacle.

But that service ended in 1978 when Bailey came out as a lesbian and left the convent.

"I came out in this community, and this community's history has really become my history," she said on June 14 during a Pride Month ceremony in which she was honored for her service to the community.

Bailey, 75, died Wednesday of pancreatic cancer.

Documenting the history of Rochester's LGBTQ community was a driving passion in the latter half of Bailey's life.

In 1985, she became a member of the Gay Alliance of the Genesee Valley, now known as the Out Alliance. She held numerous leadership roles in the organization, including historian and digital archivist of "The Empty Closet," the oldest continually published gay newspaper in New York.

Bailey used her gift of storytelling to capture the personal narratives of LGBTQ people and spearheaded the Shoulders to Stand On project that's dedicated to preserve local LGBTQ history.

For decades, she gathered documents, photographs, and videos for the collection.

"She felt that those that came after us need to know that history and they need to study it in school," said Bailey's longtime friend Emily Jones, a former Gay Alliance board chairperson.

Evelyn Bailey receives a plaque from Monroe County Executive Adam Bello declaring June 14 "Evelyn Bailey Day"
Annette Dragon photography
Evelyn Bailey receives a plaque from Monroe County Executive Adam Bello that declared June 14 as "Evelyn Bailey Day."

According to Jones, Bailey's intent was to create an LGBTQ curriculum for New York state public schools. She believed the best way to capture people's hearts and minds was to hear individual stories about what it was like to be gay or bisexual or transgender in America.

"Evelyn came out a long time ago when it wasn't safe to come out. But she, like many trailblazers, chose to be visible," said Assemblymember Harry Bronson, who was one of the first openly gay state lawmakers in New York.

Bronson said Bailey was one of the first people he met when he moved to Rochester in 1991.

"She was driven, she was tough, and she was determined," he said. "And I mean all of those in a very positive way because that's how she got things done."

That determination never faded. At the Rochester Pride ceremony last month, Bailey was still eager to spread her message to people both within and outside the LGBTQ community.

"I challenge each and every one of you to take up the baton of openness, embracing the differences that exist within our community and outside our community," she implored. "There is no room in the LGBTQ life for discrimination, bigotry or hatred."

Bailey was eager to ensure that the preservation of LGBTQ history in Rochester would continue well beyond her lifetime.

"She's given us all marching orders," Jones said. "We all have been given tasks to complete."

For Jones, a Kodak retiree, that includes archiving the history of Eastman Kodak's Lambda employee resource network, which she said was one of the first LGBTQ support services in corporate America.

It was hard to say no to Evelyn Bailey. She was hilarious, charming, and a force of nature, Jones said, always rushing between Rochester and Boston to get people involved in her projects and picking up numerous speeding tickets along the way.

"And then there was the time she actually drove under a truck," Jones exclaimed. "A moving truck! She was funny, she was really, really funny on so many levels."

No matter how busy Bailey was, Jones said she always took time to nurture her friendships.

In one of their last conversations, she said Bailey asked about Jones' son, who suffers from a rare disease.

"She said, 'Know that I will be praying for you and your son as I leave this Earth and I'll watch over you.'"

A celebration of Bailey's life is being planned for 2 p.m. Sunday, July 24, at the Rochester Riverside Convention Center.

Beth Adams joined WXXI as host of Morning Edition in 2012 after a more than two-decade radio career. She was the longtime host of the WHAM Morning News in Rochester. Her career also took her from radio stations in Elmira, New York, to Miami, Florida.