Vibing w/ Cat White
June’s ExPats features former Southern Tier resident Robert Rumsey, makeup artist extraordinaire and one of my best friends since high school.
Apropos that Rob is featured during Pride month. He has every reason to be proud of his life, his journey and his accomplishments. From the neighborhoods of westside Elmira to the center of Los Angeles music and entertainment, Rob has traveled the world and works surrounded by unbridled creativity, diversity and inclusivity. Not to mention power, influence and money.
I met Rob at Ernie Davis Middle School in the early 1980s. It was definitely NOT love at first sight.
I know there’s more work to be done, crucial work, in LGBTQIA++ rights, but we really have come a very long way from the 1980s, when Rob felt it necessary to hide his sexuality. He hid it behind a razor sharp, sarcastic sense of humor who could cut ANYONE down with a one-liner.
I’m not sure exactly when I first met Rob but the first memory I have is of him insulting my “Dorito breath” in the ED lunchroom, which erupted with laughter because, like me, Rob is LOUD!
I realized much later, like the end of high school, that Rob just made extremely hurtful (and hilarious) comments because he was figuring out how to be his true self in a community that wasn’t openly welcoming to its LGBTQIA++ members.
“It wasn’t a safe or prosperous place for “others”,” Rob said.
While interviewing Rob for ExPats, we reminisced about growing up in Elmira and the lack of safe spaces or mentors for youth who were “different” - defined as “creative,” “artistic,” “gay” when we were coming of age. Even when Angles Ultimate Dance Club, which promoted itself as an alternative dance club – code: safe space for LGBTQIA++, opened in the 1990s, it was located on what Rob accurately described as a “random street by the railroad tracks with no open businesses around.”
“Even as a little kid I knew it (Elmira) wasn’t my place,” he said. “I wanted to experience different things and people, not just read about them.”
In high school, Rob and I got closer, and he seemed to find his voice as an artist and performer, with support, he stresses, from the young women in his life, starting with his older sister Candy.
“My sister was so supportive and beautiful to me,” Rob said. In addition to, mostly, older women in Elmira who encouraged and supported his artistic pursuits, accepting Rob for who he was.
Sharon Bernard, owner of several “Over the Rainbow” daycare centers in the southern tier, hired Rob to paint colorful murals on one of her preschool’s walls when he was in high school.
“She would pick me up after school to paint at her school, pay me and make sure I got home in the evenings,” Rob says.
Community businesswomen like Bernard, and teachers like Mrs. Price, an art teacher at EFA who encouraged Rob to try out for a movie filming in the area were instrumental in making safe spaces in his hometown.
“They acknowledged and nurtured my talents. These women lifted me up.”
He was happy to reconnect with former classmates when he returned in 2017 to help his ailing father. To learn that today’s area youth have that supportive, strong foundation of local women – teachers, businesswomen, social workers – nurturing all community kids, including the ones who may be a little “different” brought Rob peace. He’s inspired when he sees a high school friend proudly post photos of her daughter and her daughter’s partner on social media. While the southern tier may not be as inclusive as L.A., it’s certainly more tolerant and celebratory of those who are different than in the past.
Before leaving New York for good, Rob stayed with me and my family briefly. Even though we argued like true siblings in the short time we cohabitated, it cemented our friendship and fierce support for each other over the decades.
I am incredibly proud (and amazed) at how bright Rob’s star is shining!
In reflection, my relationship with Rob could be considered the root of my support for LGBTQIA++ community. I mean, there were others – mom’s flamboyant hairdresser, the neighborhood restaurant or bar owner, certain landscapers, teachers; not to mention family or friend’s family – people that I knew to be caring and helpful, often lively and always memorable.
I began working at the Star-Gazette in early 2001, shortly after graduating from SUNY New Paltz. I started as a news assistant – I answered the newsroom phone, did some data entry for recurring sections of the newspaper and, basically, did whatever tasks were needed. A little over six months into the gig I was promoted to Features reporter. In the beginning my “beat” was local events. My first New Years I was tasked with finding a local event to highlight in a brief (eight lines instead of two). As I scanned the submissions, my eye stopped on Angles. I’d been away at school so I wasn’t quite sure what Angles was at the time, but its New Years Eve festivities included club dancing until 2 a.m., a comedian, a drag show, food until 6 a.m., and door prizes. And it was open to 18 and older (I think. This was also decades ago.) As a young person at the time, this sounded like such a unique experience for Elmira, NY. So, I highlighted the Angles event. The following week, Angles bar manager reached out to me with flowers, a thank you card and request to meet. They wanted to express their gratitude at the mention and let me know of all the good work that Angles was doing for the local community. Angles staff and patrons frequently organized fundraisers – many featuring drag shows – that benefited an array of local charities. Club management also encouraged LGBTQIA++ youth - the creative artistic young people looking for a safe space to express themselves through performance, stage design, communications and promotion, entertainment planning and talent procurement (Lady Bunny’s performed there, y’all!). Angles was a family of young, old, gay, straight, all ethnicities and income levels, coming together to dance, laugh, love and enthusiastically celebrate each other’s dreams while trying to find a place in their community to live their true authentic life.
Elmira, the Southern Tier, have a history of social justice. It was a stop on the Underground Railroad. The Park Church was part of the abolition movement and was also one of the first in the area to become an "Open and Affirming Congregation," welcoming LGBTQIA++ “to worship and participate in communal life.”
Like Rob, although I no longer live in the region, I’m pleased to see those in the community supporting area youth who choose to speak up, who may be a little different. I also love seeing so many southern tier youth donating their time, creativity, and even birthday presents, to local causes like the Arctic League, area animal shelters and current community issues.
I’m proud of where I come from and grateful for the people I’ve been lucky enough to know throughout the Twin Tiers.
Happy Pride month, y’all!