Susan Cowell, a prominent LGBTQ+ activist and AIDS services pioneer in Rochester, N.Y., has died at age 71.
Cowell died October 28 after a long illness, Rochester’s Democrat and Chronicle newspaper reports.
She was born in New York City and grew up on Long Island. She moved to Rochester in 1977, becoming a nurse at the University of Rochester’s University Health Services. Cowell, who had come out as a lesbian after finishing college, soon got involved in the Gay Alliance of Genesee Valley and was elected the group’s president within two years.
Among her accomplishments was organizing a 1978 rally against a visit by Anita Bryant during her antigay crusade. More than 1,000 people attended.
In the early 1980s, as the first cases of AIDS were identified, she helped start a screening clinic for sexually transmitted infections at the university. Then health care workers began meeting on her front porch to discuss the response to the epidemic, and that led to the 1983 formation of AIDS Rochester, which provided education, advocacy, and support to people living with HIV or AIDS and their families. It grew into a full-service clinic, now known as Trillium Health.
In “the very earliest and darkest days” of the epidemic, “there was a lot happening at the same time, and Sue Cowell was often at the center of things,” Bill Valenti, a doctor and fellow activist, told the Democrat and Chronicle.
Cowell became involved in politics as a result of her experience in AIDS services. “It just politicized me, even more than I had been, that we have to make the system work,” she once said. “We will never have the resources [without] having legitimate government support.”
She was campaign manager for Tim Mains in his successful run for Rochester City Council in 1985, in which he became the first out gay elected official in New York State. She also worked in Susan John’s first campaign for New York Assembly and Louise Slaughter’s first campaign for U.S. House.
Cowell was named Monroe County AIDS coordinator in 1988. She continued to be active with a variety of LGBTQ+ community groups, including the Empire State Pride Agenda.
“She left her fingerprints everywhere in terms of bringing people together to get the job done,” Valenti told the paper. “What stood out about Sue Cowell was her humanity. She had a genuine love of humanity and not only felt it but did something about it.”
Survivors include her wife, Marta Maletze.