Cornell Pride members with a banner at a parade

Big Red alumni at NYC Pride in 2019. (Provided)

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More than four decades after its debut, Cornell’s LGBTQIA+ alumni group is thriving

By Alexandra Bond ’12 Lindsay Lennon

When Art Leonard ’74 and Mark Schwartz ’74 set out to start an organization for gay and lesbian alumni in 1979, they faced a hurdle: since many Cornellians hadn’t been out during their time on the Hill, finding potential members to invite was difficult.

A letter published in the Alumni News—seeking “gay alumni all over the country who would be interested in getting to know other gay Cornellians”—received just a handful of responses.

A few months later, in June 1980, some of those new members gathered to march down Fifth Avenue in New York’s annual Pride event. Carrying a red cloth banner with “Cornell Alumni” in white letters, they were met with boisterous cheers from onlookers.

“Alumni started joining us; they just stepped in from the sidelines when they saw our sign,” Leonard recalls. “It wasn’t very many, but every additional person knew someone else who was interested in our group and could spread the word. After that, our social gatherings got bigger.”

Over the past four and a half decades, that small cadre has grown into Cornell Pride, a thriving network of thousands of Big Red grads—as well as faculty, staff, parents, and friends—around the world. Their mission is to make the University a more inclusive place for members of the LGBTQIA+ community through community service, mentorship programs, advocating for resources on campus, and more. 

Two Cornell alumni stand under a rainbow umbrella at reunion.
Scott Pesner ’87 (left) and Erica Healey-Kagan ’05 celebrate at the first official Reunion for Cornell Pride (then called CUGALA) in 2014.

“This group is about supporting each other as people and as Cornellians,” says past president Olivia Tai ’08, BA ’10. “For me, it’s about maintaining a community and contributing to the world. For many of our alumni, it’s about supporting LGBTQ students in ways that they themselves didn’t feel supported while they were at Cornell.”

Originally called the Cornell University Gay and Lesbian Alumni Association (CUGALA), the group in 2020 changed its name to the more inclusive Cornell Pride LGBTQIA+ Alumni Association, or Cornell Pride for short.

As board member Dustin Liu ’19 observes: “What I have found most heartwarming is how the organization itself continues to change to meet our current moment.”

One of the first alumni groups of its kind in the U.S., it was founded about a decade after Cornell’s Student Homophile League was created (in 1968) as just the second gay rights organization on an American campus.

What I have found most heartwarming is how the organization itself continues to change to meet our current moment.

Board member Dustin Liu ’19

In the late ’90s, the group—by then named CUGALA—established a fund for the library to purchase gay- and lesbian-related content, a precursor to Cornell’s renowned Human Sexuality Collection.

In the last decade or so, it has fundraised and advocated for on-campus facilities such as the LGBT Resource Center and the Loving House, an LGBTQIA+ program house located in Mews Hall on North Campus. 

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In 2014, Cornell Pride held its first Reunion on the Hill, and the event has continued to thrive.

“That was a huge step for us,” says Tai, who explains that many of the group’s older members attended the University at a time when discrimination against LGBTQIA+ people was rampant in the U.S. “It was a chance for alumni to reconcile bitter experiences and see that there is an opportunity for them to reclaim what it means for them to be a Cornellian.”

With chapters in New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., Cornell Pride traditionally holds dozens of get-togethers each year.

“When it comes to LGBTQ people, the term ‘chosen family’ came out of the social isolation one would face if they didn’t have a lot of family support—or even outright family rejection,” Tai observes. “A lot of us found our chosen family at Cornell, and that has extended into our life as alumni.”

The mayor of Ithaca, NY, renews marriage vows for three couples.
Svante Myrick ’09, then Ithaca’s mayor, renews vows at a Reunion 2014 event.

During the pandemic, programming went online—with Zoom events like a discussion of dating in the era of social distancing and a virtual Pride party with a raffle for rainbow-themed Cornell swag.

“We’re all here for each other,” says current president Kim Gillece ’04. “It’s so meaningful to see an alum pop up on a Zoom or come to a Cornell Pride event and say, ‘This is my first time back in X number of years’—and it was the first time they felt they had a group to go to. It’s really powerful to hear that.”

(Like many organizations, Cornell Pride is continuing to hold some online events post-COVID—such as an April 2023 virtual discussion with queer historian and author Hugh Ryan ’00.)

The group also hosts the annual Steven Siegel ’68 Awards—named in honor of the late Cornellian who was a CUGALA leader for some three decades, as well as the first openly gay recipient of the Frank H.T. Rhodes Exemplary Alumni Service Award. The Siegel Award has historically been given to a distinguished alum in the LGBTQIA+ community, with categories recently added for young alumni and students.

A lot of us found our chosen family at Cornell, and that has extended into our life as alumni.

Former president Olivia Tai ’08, BA ’10

“Cornell has really grown in the resources it provides students, and also in making alumni aware of those resources—recognizing that everyone had a different lived experience on campus,” says vice president Brian Balduzzi, MBA ’18. Since Pride members span generations, he notes, they can “connect and talk about what our experiences were, what is currently offered, and what the future might hold.” 

Balduzzi also points out that as Cornell Pride has evolved, its scope has widened to embrace such constituencies as international students—who may face discrimination in their home countries—as well as people who are transgender, non-binary, or gender nonconforming, and may be harmed by the current spate of anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation in states around the U.S.

“We see you, we identify with you, and we want you to be part of us,” Balduzzi says. “Our mission is to make sure that when folks leave campus and become alumni, they feel supported.”

Top: Big Red alumni at NYC Pride in 2019 (provided). All other images by Cornell University.

Published June 14, 2023


  1. Dennis Altman AM, Class of 1966

    I was a scared grad student from Australia when I came to Cornell in 1964 to do a masters in politics. I’ve written about this in my memoir, Unrequited Love; more importantly my time at Cornell launched my career as a writer, starting with Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation in 1971 up to my recent murder mystery, Death in the Sauna. Those two years above the gorges helped shape the rest of my life

    • Dan Fast, Class of 1972

      I am sorry that our paths did not cross, since I arrived on the Cornell LGBTQ scene in 1970. However, that group almost literally, save my life, to find an accepting community to become full and rich, within the even richer Cornell community. I am so grateful to the GLF (Gay Liberation Front) as it was called at that time.

  2. Art Leonard, Class of 1974

    When we were first getting started in 1979, one of the original founders of Cornell GLF, Bob Roth, met with me and passed on a long list of people who had been involved with GLF in the late 1980s. With a bit of research, we were able to contact many of them, which gave a big boost to our early organizing, as did our marching in the 1980 Pride March in NYC. I was not “out” as an undergraduate, so I had never connected with the on-campus group.

  3. Bill, Class of 1962

    Of all the topics to headline a new electronic publication why LGBTQ? It doesn’t resonate with your older, donor alums. It’s not the Cornell we knew. It’s just too much! Concentrate on educational and informational matters, not controversial social ones!

    • Marisa Brook, Class of 2009

      I love my Cornell friends, and it bothers me intensely that most of the LGBTQ+ ones suffered, selectively and for no reason, back when it was considered “controversial” or worse to be anything other than cisgender-and-straight. By 2005, things had been moving in the direction of more acceptance for a while, but friends on campus were still sometimes told that their existence was fundamentally objectionable and/or that they deserved to be mistreated. My undergrad years were wonderful, but these clear signs of a big human-rights problem – which was an echo of the background American culture at the time but incompatible with support for “any student, any study” – will always be indelibly woven through my memories of the Hill. Have been hoping for positive change since.

  4. Demetri Sparks, Class of 1993

    Thank you for this feature! Every time I see an article on the LGBTQIA+ community at Cornell, I feel more included. Much appreciated…

  5. Juan Pablo PEÑA ROSAS, Class of 1998

    I would like to join this group. Thanks

  6. Thomas McAuley, Class of 1972

    I would like to join this group.

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