The Downtowner - Episode 11: Where Are Cleveland's Gays?
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By George Hahn
Shortly after I moved to Downtown Cleveland in late 2017, I saw a poster for an upcoming concert for a group called the North Coast Men’s Chorus. Judging by the photo and the overall design aesthetic of the poster, it looked kinda gay, like the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus. Some quick research on my iPhone revealed that the North Coast Men’s Chorus is, indeed, a gay men’s chorus, though I didn’t encounter the actual words “gay" or “LGBT" until I navigated to their website's “About” section.
Another curious realization hit me after my first year living downtown after 22 years in New York City: the number of gay men I’ve met socially in Downtown Cleveland can be counted on one hand. No exaggeration.
And speaking of Downtown, there is not one gay bar. Not that I frequented any of the six gay bars within four blocks of my Midtown Manhattan apartment, but I’ve always felt that gay bars stood for more than just drinking.
The Cleveland Depo Baths on St. Clair Ave., which offered free brunch every Sunday until 3:00 p.m. [Western Reserve Historical Society].
To me, the gay bar is a cultural barometer. It’s a safe haven where gay people can camp it up and share camaraderie over cocktails with others who carry scars from being made fun of, marginalized, rejected by friends and family, forbidden from donating blood, decimated by a virus and other classics of gay life. It's a place that members of a marginalized community can call their own and hold hands or kiss without worrying about getting a bottle thrown at them.
When I was a young, freshly out-of-the-closet 21-year-old visiting my home from Boston or New York during summers and holidays in the early 1990s, there were a few gay bars in downtown Cleveland. According to an article in cleveland.com, Cleveland once had up to two dozen gay bars, with many of them located in the Warehouse District and on St. Clair Ave. Today, there are none (though we can blame dating and hookup apps for much of that all over the country).
The "gayborhood" that existed in Ohio City for at least a decade, along W. 29th St., is also gone, wiped out by gentrification and memorialized by a historical marker.
Alex Frondorf, left, and Ward 3 Cleveland City Councilman Kerry McCormack take part in the unveiling ceremony of the historical marker on W. 29th St. marking the block as the former geographic home of the city's LGBTQ community, on June 1, 2017. [Jacqueline Zema]
As a gay man living downtown, I find the sheer lack of any discernible, identifiable gay presence on street level in the city’s core to be odd and, at times, alienating.
I’ve heard the notion floated around that we’re in a post-labels era of acceptance, a time when a safe place for just the gays isn’t necessary anymore. It’s not like it was in the 1950s, ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s. We’ve come a long way and made tremendous strides. This is all true. We can get married now, after all. But I also feel we’re losing an identity and forgetting some important history behind that identity.
The Gay Hotline was established in 1976 to provide the LGBTQ community with counseling options, HIV/AIDS-related resources, referrals and general information. This is the Gay Hotline room in 1980 at the Community Center, located at that time at W. 14th St. and Auburn Ave. [Brian DeWitt]
The pivot to my coming out was playing the lead role of Ned Weeks in a Boston College production of The Normal Heart by Larry Kramer. There is a powerful monologue in the play, which was edited down for the HBO film version. The original text in Kramer's play goes like this:
"I belong to a culture that includes Proust, Henry James, Tchaikovsky, Cole Porter, Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Alexander the Great, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Christopher Marlowe, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Tennessee Williams, Byron, E. M. Forster, Lorca, Auden, Francis Bacon, James Baldwin, Harry Stack Sullivan, John Maynard Keynes, Dag Hammarskjöld…These are not invisible men."
The monologue goes on to tell the story of Alan Turing, the openly gay Englishman who cracked the Germans’ Enigma code, enabling the Allies to win World War II. Turing killed himself after the war "because he was so hounded for being gay.”
And these are just the men. Let’s not forget the women: Sappho, Queen Christina of Sweden, Jane Addams, Rita Mae Brown, Barbara Gittings, Gladys Bentley, Emily Dickinson, Audre Lorde, Del Martin, Phyllis Lyon, Patricia Highsmith, Margaret Mead.
Loss of Identity
This is why I need to explicitly see words like “gay” or “lesbian,” without being straight-washed for comfort or marketability. When we lose that word, we lose the identity, the history and the meaning of so much that came before us, so much that enabled us to be where we are today. The connection is important.
Today, Cleveland is a city without a gay neighborhood or a gay bar in its downtown (and very few in its farther-flung neighborhoods, like Ohio City, Tremont, Brooklyn and Cleveland Heights).
"Pride 89: An Out of the Closet Experience" was held outside the Lesbian/Gay Community Service Center on W. 29th St. in Ohio City on June 18, 1989. [Brian DeWitt]
It’s a city that calls its gay men’s chorus the North Coast Men’s Chorus. It’s a city where much of the gay activity and its participants seem to exist outside the city’s downtown. It’s a city that seems to require a smartphone app to find others who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, etc.
Where are the gays?
So, as a gay man living in Downtown Cleveland, I had a question: Where are the gays?
To ponder this question, Amy and I had a great conversation with Ken Schneck, author of LGBTQ Cleveland (Arcadia Publishing, 2018) and Phyllis Harris, the Executive Director of the LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland.
I’m not sure we solved the riddle and definitively located the gays. But whenever I’m trying to connect with other gay people in Cleveland, I can always look in my iPhone.