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LGBTQ-themed Lilac Library to open in Rochester

Maureen Connell and Gerry Szymanski standing in front of shelves of books.
Jasmin Singer
Maureen Connell and Gerry Szymanski standing at the Lilac Library.

As Rochester's Out Alliance re-emerges after being closed since the start of the pandemic, it has a new primary focus — the Lilac Library, which is believed to be the largest statewide collection of LGBTQ books, DVDs, magazines and more.

Though the Alliance has had ownership of the books and media for years, the growing collection had previously taken a backseat to the organization’s advocacy efforts. That is now changing.

More than 10,000 books and other media are part of a collection that make up the reimagined library, which opens to the public on April 2. It is this collection that will take center stage as the nonprofit re-emerges after three years of being on hiatus.

Gerry Szymanski, the librarian for the 50-year-old Out Alliance — originally a spinoff of Rochester’s branch of the Gay Liberation Front — has been spearheading the project and is particularly excited about the rare books in the collection.

Pointing to the inside flap of a fragile-looking copy of The Lesbian in Literature: A Bibliography, Second Edition, he says, ““As you can see here, it says, ‘the Rochester Gay Liberation Front Library,’ and the Gay Liberation was founded in 1971.”

Szymanski is a longtime volunteer for the Alliance, which is now emerging from a somewhat tumultuous recent history. But he and the other board members have high hopes for what the library could do for the LGBTQ community in Rochester and beyond — not to mention for the Alliance itself, especially as it tries to find its footing again.

Queer history is a great passion of Szymanski’s, and he wants the Lilac Library to help ignite that in others, too.

“These are probably the rarest books that we have,” he continues, walking to a deeper section of the library. “They were published by Magnus Hirschfeld, who had a sex study laboratory in Berlin, and it was destroyed by the Nazis. And these two books were printed in the late 1930s, or maybe even early 1930s, actually.”

New board member Maureen Connell hopes the library becomes a safe space for anyone in the community who needs it. She says it’s important to have queer people widely represented.

“I wanna be at the table where other people are at the table,” she says. “You don't normally see a Mexican immigrant bisexual at a lot of your tables.”

Andrew Moran, the organization’s newly appointed executive director, says he’s committed to full transparency for this new iteration. He compares the rebuilding of the Alliance to walking through the remnants of a fire.

“Yes, there was a lot of everything burnt down, but there's still a lot of good lumber that we can use to build something new on the same foundation,” he says. “It may serve different purposes, but we have some lumber — why trash it? We can use that lumber to build something new.”

Moran, Connell, Szymanski, and the rest of the Out Alliance board are putting together the final touches for the library’s opening. It is something Szymanski says can’t happen soon enough.

“With how many places are dealing with censorship and with oppression and suppression of LGBT materials, we're proud to have them on our shelves and proud to circulate them to people,” he says.

The Alliance is seeking volunteers to help with the library, which is located at 50 Prince St. (entrance on College Avenue). Go to the Out Alliance’s Facebook page for more information.

Jasmin Singer is the host of WXXI’s Weekend Edition and Environmental Connections, as well as a guest host for Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Connections.