'He was a giant among giants.' Former Rochester City Councilman Tim Mains dies
Tim O. Mains, a trailblazer who was the first openly gay elected official in the state of New York, did not seek to be an official focused on a gay agenda.
Instead, Mr. Mains, who died Dec. 30 at the age of 73, wanted his first Rochester City Council race to focus on issues important to his heart and his city — economic development, improving police relations with the community, low-income housing.
Mr. Mains knew, however, that his sexuality and his activism in Rochester's gay community could not be ignored in his 1985 election. And, as he expected, some extremist clergy and some local residents, spewing vitriol about the supposed deleterious moral impact his election could have on the community, vigorously opposed his bid for an at-large City Council seat.
"I wasn’t motivated to run for local office because there was some gay agenda," Mr. Mains said in a 2012 interview. "Despite the fact that they said we had a gay agenda, there wasn't one.
"The agenda that we had was raising peoples' sensitivity by refusing to be silent and refusing to be invisible."
Mr. Mains electorally survived the attacks, winning by a mere 11 votes, then went on with a political and educational career that confronted homophobia through his very visible work as a tireless and caring public servant.
"I never remember him being down," said Evelyn Bailey, a longtime activist who produced and detailed the history of the region's LGBTQ community in the Gay Alliance of Genesee Valley documentary, Shoulders to Stand On. "He may have been, but I never remember him being down in terms of disappointment, but always rising to the occasion with hope and with strategies and with working ideas to make things succeed.
"He was a mover and a shaker and he rattled the bones of complacency."
An educator, Mr. Mains was serving as superintendent of the Pine Bush Central School District when he died. No cause of death was released, except that his death was sudden and unexpected.
Mr. Mains had headed the Pine Bush district since 2017. The school district, about 75 miles north of New York City, includes towns in Ulster, Sullivan, and Orange counties.
Previously Mr. Mains worked as a social studies teacher and counselor at the Greece Central School District before joining administrative ranks in Rochester and then in jurisdictions outside of Monroe County. He was principal of Rochester's School 50 for more than a decade, and superintendent in Jamestown before taking the job in Pine Bush.
"I count my blessings that I got to have him as a teacher," said Julia Figueras, a WXXI music director and 1973 graduate of Greece Arcadia High School. "He got us to think independently and drill down. ... He taught social equity long before anyone was thinking about social equity. He was teaching social equity at Greece Arcadia High School."
The 2012 documentary interviews with Mr. Mains exemplify his often cheerful attitude, even when reminiscing about difficult times. The interviews also provide a glimpse into some history of the evolution of Rochester's gay community — and community perceptions toward it — through the words of one of its pioneer leaders.
In those interviews, Mr. Mains recalled moving to Rochester from his home of Indianapolis, and finding a community more accepting of gays and lesbians than his homeplace. Yet, there was, as demonstrated by his first election for City Council, clear levels of intolerance, even among some of the community's public servants.
In one interview segment, Mr. Mains told of rumors among local gay residents in the 1970s that city police were keeping records of individuals who visited gay establishments. He said he left a local gay bar one evening, and spotted a police car sitting in the parking lot with one officer apparently writing down information of cars in the lot.
Mr. Mains said he approached the police car, and pulled out a notebook and wrote down identifying information from the vehicle. Mr. Mains was then one of the editors of the gay-centered publication, The Empty Closet, and often wrote articles for the newspaper-magazine, which is one of the nation's oldest continuing LGBTQ publications.
The officers came out of the car, and pushed him facedown against the hood of another car — "twisted like a pretzel," he said — and demanded his license.
Mr. Mains said he at first refused to give the license because he was not under arrest. He was released after a friend approached, and pulled the identification from Mr. Mains' wallet and showed it to police.
Mr. Mains said he filed a formal complaint with police, and was told months later that the police officers said that he resembled a local burglary suspect. In the interview, Mr. Mains expressed his skepticism of that police claim with little more than a telling smile.
"I didn't get arrested," he said. "I did call them on something I thought they shouldn't be doing."
His classroom lessons
In the aftermath of Mr. Mains' death, his former students took to social media with recollections of how he impacted their lives.
"Tim inspired a curiosity into the why and wherefore of history, rather than providing a mere recitation of dates and events," James Paris, a senior legal counsel with the U.S. Navy, said in a Facebook posting. "We were blessed to sit in his classroom."
City School District Superintendent Lesli Myers-Small said in a statement: "Tim Mains impacted and shaped many lives in Rochester. His legacy will carry on forever in the scholars he inspired, the families he helped, and the colleagues with whom he shared a great passion for education."
Figueras recalled how Mr. Mains created an experimental community for one class, called "Sunshine," and established a society in which some residents, regardless how hard they worked, ended with lesser housing, lesser opportunities, and lesser salaries than others who came from different socio-economic backgrounds in the hypothetical world.
"On the outside it was about government," she said. "But it was really about civil rights and it was about social equity."
Figueras, as a struggling Sunshine resident who could not escape her assigned socio-economic status, and others decided a demonstration was necessary. That protest turned raucous. "There were tables overturned," Figueras said.
Thus, within that protest and the experimental community of Sunshine, there was a lesson about how those deprived of justice and equality can find themselves unable to respond through established bureaucratic channels.
Mr. Mains was at not first open about his sexuality while he taught in the Greece district, but eventually stopped hiding the fact that he was gay. The decision was difficult, but, as he would later say, he thought his visibility could help others.
State Assemblyman Harry Bronson, a close friend of Mr. Mains, said Mr. Mains faced the gay stereotypes of the 1970s and 1980s, especially the belief that "a gay male teacher would be dangerous for the students."
"At some point he had to reconcile that any risk (to his career) that would come about by being open about who he was as a gay man, was far outweighed by the benefit that would be achieved by the students and others in the community if he lived his life authentically," said Bronson, who is gay and managed Mains' last City Council campaign.
The decision for Mr. Mains to be more open was a difficult one because "what's engrained in us, in our generation, if you will, is that being gay is sinful, being gay is wrong, and you get attacked by people that are ignorant or hateful," Bronson said.
Public policy and visibility
While Mr. Mains, as a City Councilman, may have focused on public policy issues — he would resolutely dissect the annual city budget as chair of the council finance committee — he did recognize the value of his openness, especially for young people trying to understand their sexuality.
"He and I talked about it a lot, about visibility and about my decision to get into public service and how vitally important it is for folks to be seen for who they are, and being gay is one aspect of who we are," Bronson said.
Mr. Mains spent 20 years on Rochester City Council, and made an unsuccessful run for mayor in 2005.
Former Rochester Deputy Mayor James Smith, who served as mayor after the resignation of Lovely Warren, said of Mains in a statement: "Tim Mains broke significant barriers for the LGBTQ+ community when he became the first gay member of Rochester’s City Council.
"Tim was also a vocal and well-known activist for gay rights long before his initial forays into politics and he was incredibly passionate about helping those impacted by AIDS and HIV."
Mr. Mains is survived by his spouse, David Phillip Gardner, whom he married in Canada in 2006.
He also is survived by his brother Steve Mains (Cindy Savage) and his sister, Roxie McNelly (Jim). Mr. Mains was predeceased by his parents, Charles Mains and Gwendolyn Johnston Mains, and his sister, Laura Canavesi.
Calling hours for Mr. Mains will be Friday, Jan. 7, from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Miller Funeral and Cremation Services, Inc., 3325 Winton Road South,. His funeral service will be held at Asbury First United Methodist Church, 1050 East Avenue, on Jan. 8 at 11 a.m. A live stream of the service will be available at asburyfirst.org.
Mr. Mains will be buried at Mt. Hope Cemetery.
When Mr. Mains was elected to City Council, there were only about a dozen other openly gay individuals in elected position in city and county governments nationwide. Mr. Mains built on the Rochester region's civil rights legacy of figures like suffragette Susan B. Anthony and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, said Evelyn Bailey.
"He was a man with a vision and the vision was equality and justice for all, not just for a few," she said. " ... He was a giant among giants."
Contact Gary Craig at email@example.com or at 585-258-2479. Follow him on Twitter at gcraig1.