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Remembering Earl Colvin, CNY Gay Rights Pioneer

From Earl Colvin's Facebook Page

  A pioneer of gay rights in Central New York in the 1970’s is being remembered for his persistence at a time when the LGBT community was virtually ostracized, or at least ignored.  Earl Colvin died May 24th at age 82, and will be honored with a ceremony Wednesday evening at city hall. 

Long-time activist Bonnie Strunk worked with Colvin on many early gay pride events.  She recalls when one media outlet learned of one gathering, and young kids began throwing stones.

Long-time Syracuse New Times reporter Walt Shepperd recalls Colvin as someone who had a way of putting people at ease during a time when the larger community was very clearly divided about gay rights .  Bonne Strunk says Colvin was never shy about sharing his opinion, and forging ahead.

  "He felt that asking for full equality for the LGBT community was a very reasonable thing, and he wanted it yesterday.  As opposed to everybody else who felt things needed to be done incrementally, and through an educational process, and through changing the attitude of society."

Bonnie Strunk says Earl Colvin pushed others in the LGBT community to be more out and open, to, in effect, "normalize" their presence in society.

Walt Shepperd says the general community and the LGBT population were largely separate, and he recalls it was a tough time for anyone to be an ally.

"We're talking about the existence of a community, and the ease of showing up to an activity in support.  Those are the kind of things I think Earl was able to facilitate."

Earl Colvin and Bonnie Strunk established the LGBT booth at the NY State Fair


Colvin was the first openly gay person ever to run for Congress in 1976.  Civil rights activist Bonnie Strunk says they fought to get him on the ballot as a third party candidate.

"I said, Earl, wow, this is going to make some very important case law.  The court said that third party candidates have to be treated equally.   Well, the county decided they weren't going to appeal that.  The last thing they wanted was Earl Colvin being this election rights hero.  They just let it go.  They didn't fight him.  He ran on the Liberal Party ticket, and ran a very, we felt, meaningful campaign because of the visibility he brought to the election."

Strunk says Colvin ran on a platform of basic human dignity and human rights.

"There were still a lot of remnants the impact of prior racial discrimination,  the school desegregation, the way the community was divided up, the impact 81 was having on the wards on the south side.  There were just a lot of issues that were  festering, and he felt that a lot of those issues needed to be addressed, and a lot of politicians weren't willing to address that."

Colvin lost, but wasn’t deterred.  The following year, he ran for Syracuse mayor.   Walt Shepperd says Colvin and his partner Joel Rinne were blazing a new path.

"He and Joel were active in city politics, had access to city hall.   It was incredible.  And they did it because they didn't think they couldn't.  They just went along like they were normal human beings, and they were normal human beings, and they took care of business.  It was really, really interesting to watch."
Shepperd says Colvin was very clear about his agenda and who he was, but didn’t force it on others.  Bonnie Strunk says as the LGBT community gained more equality, some began to say there was no longer a need for the rights movement.  But she says Colvin refused to stay quiet, and advocated for the most vulnerable population…gay youth.

"He was acutely aware of the damage being done to young people by the negative reaction of society, the suicide issue.  So he was always very outspoken about the fact that we are not living a post-gay society."

Walt Shepperd recalls an incident decades ago'll have to listen to find out what happened.

Earl Colvin found time to wear many other hats outside of LGBT advocacy…from Korean War combat veteran and printer….to actor, singer, and chef.   His colorful life will be celebrated at 4:30 Wednesday with the raising of a rainbow flag at city hall.  It’ll be followed by a reception in the mayor’s office until 6:30.

Scott Willis covers politics, local government, transportation, and arts and culture for WAER. He came to Syracuse from Detroit in 2001, where he began his career in radio as an intern and freelance reporter. Scott is honored and privileged to bring the day’s news and in-depth feature reporting to WAER’s dedicated and generous listeners. You can find him on twitter @swillisWAER and email him at