GEAR (THE GAY EDUCATON AWARENESS AND RESOURCES FOUNDATION) was the preeminent gay organization in Cleveland in the 1970s. Its original mission was to conduct research and disseminate information on homosexuality to both gay and straight communities, provide social services to meet the needs of the gay community that were not being met elsewhere in the Cleveland area, and to fund gay persons and groups who served the gay community.
While GEAR was formally incorporated as a non-profit entity with the state of Ohio on May 7, 1975, its roots and activities began at least a year earlier as an outgrowth of a gay student organization on campus at CLEVELAND STATE UNIVERSITY.
Student Art Macdonald created GEAR in May 1974. He used his own funds and those of his partner, Michael Madigan to begin a monthly publication, HIGH GEAR, whose first issue emerged in May 1974 and the Gay Hotline which was also operating in May 1974 at office space shared with the Cleveland Chapter of the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) at 4128 Lorain Avenue. GEAR hosted weekly gay youth meetings and monthly singles and couples discussion groups at the same address
Macdonald’s boldest vision was to facilitate creation of a Gay Community Center that would house all local services and other activities for gay Clevelanders. GEAR was the progenitor of today’s LGBT COMMUNITY CENTER OF GREATER CLEVELAND.
Macdonald was a driving force for gay activism in mid-1970s Cleveland. He served as the leader of GEAR and as worship coordinator of Cleveland MCC from May 1974 to September 1976, when he left Cleveland to further his education in Chicago. Relying on limited funds and donated space, he combined the religious activities of MCC with the secular services of the Gay Hotline and High Gear. When space was no longer available at 4128 Lorain Avenue, he moved MCC/GEAR/ and the Gay Hotline to office rooms at 2999 West 25th Street.
On January12,1975, ST. JOHN’S EPISCOPAL CHURCH at 2600 Church Avenue in Ohio City agreed to allow Art to hold MCC services and GEAR meetings at its Parish Hall. This freed up more space for volunteers to administer the Gay Hotline on West 25th Street. Unfortunately, due to parishioner complaints about “homosexual activities on church grounds,” St. John’s clergy evicted MCC and GEAR in September 1975.
In March 1975, Art MacDonald met John Nosek and Leon Stevens who were seeking to become active in Cleveland’s gay community. Nosek and Stevens became writers for High Gear and were eventually entrusted with its management and distribution. High Gear became essential to continuance of GEAR’s activities. Both GEAR and High Gear were all-volunteer operations. Thus, any earnings from the newspaper were able to help maintain gay hotline expenses and provide seed money for the Gay Community Center. Nosek and Stevens with the help of advertising manager, Wade Tolleson (aka Matt Phillips) and others were able to increase the size of High Gear to 36 pages with advertising and distribution throughout the state of Ohio.
Still, volunteers for both GEAR and High Gear were small in number. This was due to several factors. Despite many bars and clubs during the 1970s, gays for the most part were very closeted, both to their families and to their employers. Also, during the 1970s, lesbians in Cleveland were disinclined to work with gay men, feeling that gender discrimination was more important than their homosexuality. Lesbians preferred the political and social company of other women. Black gays, too, were more involved with the fight against racism and segregation and less inclined to participate in gay causes. This resulted in GEAR and High Gear volunteers being overwhelmingly, but not exclusively, white men. Arthur MacDonald, Michael Madigan, and Ethan A. Erickson officially incorporated GEAR as a non-profit organization in the state of Ohio on May 8, 1975
As GEAR grew from 1975 to1978, it added other resources. By 1976 a Speakers Bureau was established to provide lecturers and media presence to the community at large. GEAR coordinated appearances at local universities, on local television stations and in newspaper articles in the local press (the earliest appearing in Sunday’s September 28, 1975 PLAIN DEALER Spotlight: “Job fears, hazing spur gays to resist;” “Militancy is rising in church for gays;” and “Public’s Attitudes Changing”).
The need for larger space for a Gay Community Center grew more intense. In February 1976 the GEAR Board made a full-scale commitment to secure a fully operating, independent community center by June 1976. Benefits were held at the Shaker Club bar on Shaker Square and the New Mayfield Repertory Cinema in LITTLE ITALY (both now defunct). Unfortunately, the going was not so easy, despite the benefits and the American Civil Liberties Union Board of Directors approving a May 1976 resolution supporting GEAR’s efforts to establish a community center.
The GEAR Board looked at space at the Bradley Building in the Warehouse District and at the Cooper School of Art at 2341 Carnegie Avenue but both needed restoration work beyond GEAR’s budget and volunteer capacity. Three new possible sites emerged: 3 large rooms above the Adonis Theatre (now defunct) on West 9th Street; 600 square feet at Mayfield-Euclid Avenues in UNIVERSITY CIRCLE and undetermined space at Coventry Yard in CLEVELAND HEIGHTS.
A one year agreement in January 1977 was reached by the GEAR Board for the space in University Circle, only to be reneged on for unknown reasons by Mayfield Associated Estates the following month. The GEAR Board was frustrated with the setback, but re-committed to finding an alternative site. Meanwhile, the gay community continued to make contributions, having donated $1800, almost halfway to the original one-year goal of $4000.
Undeterred, the GEAR Board signed a one-year lease with owner/developer Lewis Zipkin on February 27, 1977 for the third floor suite of offices at Coventry Yard Mall at the corner of Coventry Road and Euclid Heights Boulevard in Cleveland Heights. The board designated Donald Skaggs as acting Community Center Director. The new Gay Community Center’s open house occurred on March 27, 1977 when over one hundred fifty people attended. At this point GEAR had raised $2500 for the Center. More benefits occurred at Traxx and other area clubs.
Due to city safety and zoning requirements, the Center did not officially open to the public until June 1, 1977. It prospered at this site which was the locale for all GEAR services and activities until February 1978 when the entire three floors of the Coventry Yard Mall burned to the ground because of arson according to the police. It was never determined who perpetrated it or why.
GEAR recovered as quickly as it could. The Gay Hotline continued operating from people’s homes. High Gear’s monthly publishing was not affected. By April 1978 a full-page ad in High Gear announced that the Center had moved to new space one door east of the club New Dimensions, downtown on Sumner Court, one block north of Carnegie off East 9th Street. Again, pleas for donations were made.
GEAR achieved its longstanding goal of federal tax exemption from the US Internal Revenue Service on April 10, 1978. This ruling covered all aspects of the GEAR Foundation, including the Gay Community Center, High Gear, and the Foundation itself. This meant all income received by the Foundation was exempt from federal taxes and any contributions, bequests or gifts made to GEAR were now federal and state tax deductible.
GEAR’s ongoing challenges to expand membership, secure funding and maintain gay services in Cleveland continued throughout its existence. There were times when the Gay Hotline, High Gear and Gay Community Center activities had to operate inside of people’s homes. Ultimately, GEAR had a fourteen-year run from 1974 until 1988, when it dissolved itself and re-incorporated as the LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland.
GEAR left a major mark on the Gay Community, not only in its hometown of Cleveland, but also in the state of Ohio and the nation. When GEAR received its federal tax exemption on April 10, 1978, it was one of less than ten gay groups in the country which had been granted such status. High Gear, established in May 1974, was Ohio’s first gay newspaper written by and for Ohioans. Originating by May 1974, GEAR’s LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland has been nationally recognized as the nation’s fifth longest continuously operating gay community center.
John Nosek and Leon Stevens