GAY COMMUNITY. To the extent that a community is defined by its organizations and institutions, Cleveland's gay community probably dates from the founding of a local Mattachine Society group in the 1960s. Mattachine was the progenitor of present-day gay organizations and in a sense prepared the way for what would become the gay rights movement after the Stonewall Riot in June 1969, in which a group of homosexuals defended themselves against a police raid on a bar in Greenwich Village, New York City. Stonewall marked the first large public event demanding equal rights and protections for homosexuals. The movements for civil rights for blacks, women, and other groups, and the tone of liberal thought in the late 1960s and early 1970s set in motion a wave of activism that saw the formation of groups and services specifically geared to gay men and lesbians as a community of interests.
The activism of the early gay movement took many forms. In 1970 a short-lived chapter of the Gay Activists Alliance was formed at CASE WESTERN RESERVE UNIV. Another group was formed at CLEVELAND STATE UNIV. which became the Gay Educational and Awareness Resources Foundation (GEAR). GEAR functioned less as a political front than as a coordinating and educational organization that eventually sponsored and encouraged a variety of other groups and activities, including a telephone hotline for counseling, referral, and information, a community center, counseling, and a publication, HIGH GEAR, among its many activities. Much of the emphasis of the GEAR Foundation was on advocacy and service, since harassment and discrimination were not overt, and since cooperation within the gay community was seen as a prerequisite for effective work beyond. Without the kind of provocations that stirred activism in other cities, and because cooperation and coalition-building often take much time, the development of a cohesive community has been gradual in Cleveland.
The GEAR Foundation's most visible work was its community center, which in 1986 was renamed the LESBIAN/GAY COMMUNITY SERVICE CENTER OF GREATER CLEVELAND, located on Detroit Avenue in the Gordon Square neighborhood.. The center has responded to a variety of issues into the 1990s, including a program combating hate crimes, outreach to the city government and police, and the AIDS crisis. The gay community, hard hit by the advent of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) in the early 1980s, responded swiftly by forming the Health Issues Task Force in 1982. The organization provided AIDS education and services to individuals with the disease. As the crisis grew, the organization followed and by the mid-1990s had grown to a large social service agency with a new name in 1994, AIDS TASK FORCE of Greater Cleveland.
In any community, publications play an important role in building a sense of collective identity. The newspaper High Gear was started by the GEAR Foundation in 1975 and was the first attempt in the city to produce a publication exclusively for the gay community. Printed in tabloid form and distributed free, it carried local and national news, features and editorials, and advertising for gay businesses. Although beset at times by financial and organizational difficulties, High Gear survived until 1982. After its demise, GEAR became involved with another publication, primarily an advertising medium, which was soon abandoned. In 1984 a new newspaper, the Gay People's Chronicle, began publication with Charles Callender, a professor at Case Western Reserve Univ., as editor and publisher. The Chronicle was an independent organization governed by a publication board, and published a mixture of editorial, feature, and news material in a monthly tabloid. Like its predecessor, it had a largely free distribution and a small list of subscribers. Following Prof. Callender's death in 1986, publication ceased for a time, resumed, ceased again, and, after some reorganization resumed with bi-weekly editions, a small paid staff, and a statewide focus.
A large variety of smaller and more specialized organizations have existed within the Cleveland gay community. Among the first were religious groups, both within mainline denominations and independent of them. In the early 1970s a group called the Community of Celebration flourished for a time; it was succeeded by a chapter of the national organization for gay Catholics, Dignity. A local congregation of the Metropolitan Community Church, a national denomination of primarily gay membership, existed for a time ca. 1973, and the Episcopal organization, Integrity, along with Dignity and groups within the Presbyterian, United Church of Christ, and Unitarian denominations were active into the 1990s. A new Protestant congregation called Emmanuel Community Christian Church was founded in 1986, and was allied for a time with the MCC. In 1993 a congregation of the United Church of Christ with a primarily gay membership was founded as Liberation UCC, meeting initially in UNIV. CIRCLE.
A club addressing political concerns, originally called the Eleanor Roosevelt Gay Democratic Club ("Democratic" was later changed to "Political") was formed in 1980. It studied political issues, took stands on issues of importance to the gay community, endorsed candidates for office, and advocated civil rights legislation at the local and state levels. The club disbanded by the mid-1980s. A political action group named Stonewall Cleveland was formed in 1988 and has pursued various goals, including endorsement of candidates, education, and promotion of gay participation in the political process. The group helped draft city legislation in 1992 that protects gays and lesbians from housing discrimination.
As the movement has grown and provided increased visibility for the gay community, a number of organizations have come into existence with a specifically gay identity. At various times social clubs, an archive and oral history project, a gay academic union, and an organization called the Gay and Lesbian Institute existed. CWRU's Lesbian and Gay Student Union sponsored an annual conference on gay and lesbian issues for several years, which attracted nationally known speakers and significant audiences. By the mid 1990s a flourishing group of organizations provided outlets for a variety of interests. Sports teams, running and biking clubs, square dance and country-western dance clubs, support groups for gay parents and parents of gays, recovery groups for gay alcoholics, and book and movie discussion groups all contribute to the active life of the community. A men's choir, the North Coast Men's Chorus, was formed in 1987 and presents a series of concerts each year. Businesses with gay ownership and seeking a specifically gay clientele proliferate. And an increasing number of non-gay identified organizations present programming with an eye to the gay audience.
Included in any look at the gay community, but separate due to a variety of influences, is the lesbian community. Lesbian groups in Cleveland, as elsewhere, had close alliances to the women's rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and given the difference in agenda between feminist and gay reformers, it is probably only in the 1980s that dividing lines between the two became less pronounced. Collectives such as OVEN PRODUCTIONS, which produced cultural events for women, and the feminist publication collective WHAT SHE WANTS are representative of the alliance between the feminist movement and the lesbian community. Other groups are purely social and supportive. By the 1990s organizations in the gay community were increasingly inclusive, with a far greater number of gay men and lesbians participating together.
According to a widely accepted estimate that 10% of the population is homosexual, greater Cleveland's gay community should have numbered ca. 150,000 in the 1980s. Included in that or any enumeration are men and women of all races and classes living and working in virtually every part of the city, involved in all aspects of the life of the city, from the auto assembly lines to government, from cultural institutions to business to sports. A large number remain "in the closet" (that is, not openly gay) to family, friends, and co-workers. In general the climate toward homosexuals improved markedly through the 1970s and 1980s, probably due to the work of members of the community to secure and retain visibility. And while the national climate of political conservatism of the 1990s, the wrath of which is often directed at gay men and lesbians, creates new and increasing concern for gay organizations, their ranks appear to be growing, and the work in the community more urgent. Cleveland's gay community is visible and has made a significant impact on the life of the city. While no single ward or area has become an identifiable gay area, at various times a number of areas of the city have housed large concentrations of the gay population: CLEVELAND HTS., the area around SHAKER SQUARE, OHIO CITY, and the western edge of the city along with neighboring LAKEWOOD. Gay establishments such as bars and other businesses concentrate primarily downtown and to the west.
Considered within the post-Stonewall era Cleveland's gay community has been a center for activism, considered the most prominent between New York and Chicago, and has evidenced a strong trend for further growth and cohesiveness that has been the goal of activists and leaders since the beginning of the gay rights movement.