Sue Cowell

Unparalelled Leadership Spanning Three decades

The Shoulders of A Giant

“Whereas Sue Cowell, a true “giant” providing the shoulders many stand on today made community service a way of life through involvement in many LGBT organizations and agencies including her 30 year plus support of the Gay Alliance of the Genesee Valley as board co-President, President and Executive Director, and as staff writer, editor, and volunteer for the Empty closet newspaper.”

– from the 2015 Rochester City Council Proclamation   

Sue Cowell was born in Queens, NY and grew up in nearby Hicksville, NY.  After receiving a B.S. degree in Psychology (graduating Cum Laude) at SUNY New Paltz in 1974 and an M.S. in Nursing at Pace University in 1977, she moved to Rochester to accept a position with the Health Services Division of the University of Rochester.

Since coming to Rochester in 1977, Sue has spent her time, energy and talent making the legacy of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass a reality. Many have fond memories of Wilmer and Harper St. where it all began. Sue is a champion of gay rights through her political, medical, social and economic activism. Many are unaware of her ‘Softball Hall of Fame’ status when her batting average on Paul’s Grocery Softball Team soared to .682.

Sue was in the forefront of our community’s struggle for equality and justice. She modestly worked behind the scenes and avoided the limelight. Her service began many years ago starting with feminist activism in the 1970s, as a member of Rochester Women Against Violence Against Women, organizers of the first Take Back the Night marches. During the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s Sue focused on building, supporting, and encouraging women’s cultural and political expression locally. Her cultural achievements include: being a founding member of the Rochester Womyn’s Community Chorus in 1978; Rising Productions, Rising Art (providing exhibition space for local women artists) and the Upstate New York Women’s Production Network (bringing women performers and plays by women to the area) which strived to strengthen, organize, and unify the women’s community.   Sue co-produced the documentary films “The Riverview: A Lesbian Place” and “Christa McAuliffe: Reach for the Stars”.



AIDS Rochester Board 1988  – Founders – Bill Valenti, Alan Davidson, Sue Cowell

A registered nurse by profession, she was a co-founder of AIDS Rochester in 1983,  which began as an ad hoc committee of several local gay activists including Alan Davidson, Tim Sally, Tim Tompkins, Sue Cowell and others, who were concerned about AIDS and the effects on the gay community (merged with CHN (Community Health Network) to form Trillium Health in 2009). Sue, a founding member of the Rochester Area Task Force on AIDs in 1983, was, according to Gary English one of four concerned individuals who in 1997  laid the foundation for the establishment of what we today call The MOCHA Center now a part of Trillium. Gary English recognized Sue on the occasion of receiving the Shoulders To Stand On Triangle Lifetime Achievement Award on May 2, 2015, saying “Sue provided the bridge to the larger white LGBT community that supported MOCHA in its infancy… Let history be written that Sue Cowell has been the Susan B. Anthony of the Black LGBT community in Rochester, New York.”  

In 1982, Sue worked with Dr. Tom Rush in co-founding the first Rochester AIDS Screening Clinic. Dr. Bill Valenti, co-founder of AIDS Rochester, said about the first study on AIDS in the American College Health Association Journal in 1985 authored by Sue and Dr. Rush, “The best part about this is that Sue was seeking answers before we even knew what the questions were…. This study was one of the first risk behavior studies in gay men done anywhere on the planet!”  Sue worked for the Monroe County Health Department as AIDS coordinator 1988 – 1998 and the University of Rochester Health Services 1977 – 1988. Most recently Sue worked at Trillium Health 2013 – 2014 as a Project Manager. 

In political organizing work, Sue made her mark and made history. Sue has been both President of the Gay Alliance board three times and Executive Director 2009 – 2012. Sue has also worked with the local Democratic Party. She was a delegate to 2 national Democratic Conventions – 1996 and 2000 – representing the LGBT community and AFSME-CSEA.  Here in Rochester, Sue was the Democratic Party District leader for the 23rd LD and a committee member from 1985 – 1990. Sue worked as paid staff on Louise Slaughter’s first campaign and most recent campaign.  Sue was campaign manager for Tim Mains first race for City Council and Susan John for NYS Assembly.  She volunteered on many other campaigns including Bill Pritchard and Matt Haag’s run for City Council. Sue helped change the face of politics in New York State and ensured the lesbian and gay community a seat at the table.

Sue’s achievements during her tenure as the Empire State Pride agenda board co-chair from 1993 – 1998, included the opening of the Empire State Pride Agenda Rochester office, and establishing it as the upstate New York focus of lesbian and gay political activity. Her legacy includes milestone Pride Agenda achievements at local and state levels during each year of her tenure: in June 1994, ESPA along with the New York City chapter of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, produced a full-page advertisement in The New York Times to counteract the “religious right” portrayal of us as “a scary specter”; more than 1,000 gay and lesbian New Yorkers came out about their non-heterosexuality;  also in 1994, ESPA joined a network of liberal and progressive groups to counteract the “right-wing” Christian Right‘s “stealth strategy” to getting people elected to local school boards by “hiding their opposition to critical thinking, bilingual programs, multicultural education, and ultimately to public schooling itself”; in 1996, ESPA joined the Freedom to Marry Coalition (Marriage Project); in 1997, ESPA helped educate advocates on how to push for hate-crimes legislation; in 1998, ESPA launched “Pride in the Pulpit”, a program to combat the use of religion to advance anti-LGBT amendments and legislation. Sue combined a keen intellect with a piercing political acumen, unbridled energy with enthusiasm, and professionalism with focus. 

 1998 ESPA Glen Joseph Pacheco Volunteer Award 

From 1998 – 2008 Sue was the co-owner and day to day operations manager of Ace Mailing.  In 2015, the Gay Alliance held a Sue Cowell Community Recognition Reception to celebrate Sue’s accomplishments.  Sue was awarded the Shoulders to Stand On Triangle Award for her unparalleled contributions and achievements in the AIDS crisis, in politics, in business, as a social activist and as a medical professional which made a difference in the lives of so many, and as someone who stands in our midst as a passionate, caring, woman who embraces change and continues to create a more just, equal and welcoming community for all.  Sue was diagnosed with early alzheimers and retired in 2015. The shoulders of this giant laid a strong foundation that brings us closer to a future of equality and justice for all, regardless of the arena.  

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