The LGBTQ+ History of Cleveland
Recognizing a community tradition of activists and organizations
Written by Benvolio Nichols
October marks LGBT History Month. Celebrated since 1994, the annual observance reminds us to reflect on the struggles and achievements of the LGBTQ+ rights movement. While Pride Month — observed in June to commemorate the Stonewall Uprising — creates space to celebrate how far the movement has come, LGBT History Month serves as a separate occasion to pause and recognize LGBTQ+ role models. While Pride Month — observed in June to commemorate the Stonewall Uprising — creates space to celebrate how far the movement has come, LGBT History Month serves as a separate occasion to pause and recognize LGBTQ+ role models.
"Cleveland hosts a rich and complicated activist history."
In 2023, when LGBTQ+ rights and history are under attack through hostile legislation across the U.S., LGBT History Month becomes even more urgent and necessary. With so many formative protests and movements taking root in New York and California, we may not always look closer to home. But as The Buckeye Flame’s Ken Schneck details in his recent book “LGBTQ Cleveland” (which presents photos of community milestones and daily life through the decades), Cleveland hosts a rich and complicated activist history. “The Cleveland LGBTQ community does not hold hands and speak with one voice,” Schneck writes, invoking both intersectionality and intra-community conflict — but that difference creates a valuable dialogue, all grounded in the space of the city itself. As he continues:
“Cleveland’s ethos of gritty determination and hardscrabble fortitude helped fuel the efforts to build, maintain, and celebrate a sense of pride in the face of whatever struggle was set out before the assembled masses.”
This article spotlights a small fraction of the community who make up Cleveland’s LGBTQ+ history, representing just a starting point for learning more. Clevelanders should be empowered to utilize locally-based educational resources such as Western Reserve Historical Society and Case Western Reserve University’s Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, which maintain detailed LGBTQ+ records. The online multimedia resource Cleveland Historical, collected and maintained by the Cleveland State University-affiliated Center for Public History + Digital Humanities, also features multiple entries on LGBTQ+ history. The Cleveland Memory Project along with Special Collections, both hosted by Cleveland State’s Michael Schwartz Library, preserve multiple collections of primary sources from LGBTQ+ activists and groups, including texts consulted for this article. This October, take a closer look at the history around you — especially if you didn’t know it was there.
Columnist Winsor French first garnered fame for his arts, culture and celebrity coverage. A Cleveland local since 1915, French began contributing to the Cleveland News in 1933 under the pen name Noel Francis. As Francis, French wrote columns pointing openly towards the homoerotic subtext in works he reviewed, along with insights into the lives of gay artists and celebrities. French began writing for the Cleveland Press in 1934, this time using his own name for columns including “Let’s Face It,” “Review and Preview” and “Winsor French in Hollywood.” His wry and conversational reviews found their way to publications on the national level, including TIME and Harper’s Bazaar.
Letters and photographs show that French was out as gay to his family members and close friends, while leading his successful career in journalism. He lived in Lakewood and Shaker Heights with his partner, pianist Roger Stearns, until Stearns’ death in 1968. Later in life, when French developed paralysis as a result of cerebellar cortical disease, he became an early disability rights advocate, lobbying for accessibility in the city’s public spaces and government buildings. His life has inspired a biography and a stage musical.
What She Wants
Billed as “Cleveland’s Feminist and Lesbian Monthly,” newspaper What She Wants provided an essential information network and community forum for women in northeast Ohio during the second and third waves of the feminist movement. What She Wants printed editorials, interviews and news coverage detailing arts and culture, local protests and global politics that impacted women’s lives. Classifieds and a monthly calendar helped connect like-minded women in the area. Columns detailed issues such as white privilege, safer sex practices between women and abortion care.
Along with distributing issues for free in public spaces throughout Cleveland, What She Wants promoted education and community history through its free Feminist Lending Library. The legacy of What She Wants, however, is complicated by past and present biases of women’s and lesbian movements. Nameplates for individual issues describe the paper variously as “Free to Women” or “Free to Womyn,” a sentiment and alternate spelling reflecting separatist mindsets which often prove hostile to transgender and bisexual women. Many contributors described themselves as radical feminists, a label claimed sometimes in defiance of patriarchal rhetoric, but other times an indicator of trans-exclusionary, gender essentialist politics. Back issues of What She Wants printed from 1973 through 2000 are available through Special Collections at the Michael Schwartz library.
GEAR (The Gay Educational and Resources Foundation)
The history of the organization that would become the LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland begins close to home: as the CWRU Encyclopedia of Cleveland History states, GEAR was first organized by students at Cleveland State University. In 1974, with support from his partner Michael Madigan, college student Art MacDonald began leading GEAR’s earliest initiatives: magazine High Gear (“Ohio’s Gay Journal”), along with the Gay Hotline operated in partnership with the LGBTQ-affirming Metropolitan Community Church. The hotline provided information, resources and a listening ear to LGBTQ+ callers, especially LGBTQ+ youth across Ohio.
High Gear, in print until 1982, made history in its own right as the first Ohio publication to center on the needs of the gay community. The magazine covered politics, culture, health and more, while promoting community events through a monthly calendar of committee meetings and support groups. Early issues archived in Special Collections at the Michael Schwartz Library show black-and-white flyers for local bathhouses and leather bars splashed across one page, opposite the ad for a Catholic gay/lesbian affinity group on the next.
While High Gear often focused on issues pertaining to the gay community in greater detail than lesbian, bisexual and transgender readers, its wide circulation played an essential role in visibility and education.
In addition to activism and resources, from 1977 onward GEAR hosted a local gathering place for LGBTQ+ people, the first named the Gay Community Center and located in Coventry Yard. After several relocations and renamings through the decades, GEAR’s legacy thrives today as the LGBT Community Center in Gordon Square.
AIDS Taskforce of Greater Cleveland
First organized out of Case Western Reserve University as the Health Issues Taskforce of Cleveland, the AIDS Taskforce of Greater Cleveland has provided health services for patients living with HIV/AIDS for 40 years — longer than any other AIDS Service Organization (ASO) still active in Ohio. Over the decades, the Taskforce has offered a wide variety of services including educational outreach, support groups, case management, housing assistance, pharmacy services and free HIV/STI testing. In 2013, the Taskforce entered a partnership with the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, joining a national network of ASOs. Today, the AIDS Taskforce of Greater Cleveland offers services through its offices on Euclid Avenue, just a short walk down the street from Cleveland State.
Chevrei Tikva Chavurah
One of the first congregations for the Jewish LGBTQ+ community in Ohio, Chevrei Tikva Chavurah (“friends of hope”) first gathered in Cleveland Heights. According to Cleveland Jewish News, Oberlin College student Mark Wieder worked with Jewish gay and lesbian community members to organize group meetings and religious services in people’s homes. Soon, the congregation expanded into public spaces, eventually partnering with Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple as its permanent home in 2005. According to the synagogue’s website, Chevrei Tikva continues to host community events throughout the year, including an annual Pride Shabbat service.
Gay People's Chronicle
(in print 1985-2015)
The second Ohio publication to focus on LGBTQ+ issues was founded by CWRU professor Charles Callender. Gay People’s Chronicle covered current events, politics and community happenings for 31 years. Originally a monthly publication, “Ohio’s Newspaper for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community” went on to print a new issue every other Friday. Issues from the 1980s onward featured a personals section, which provided a forum for LGBTQ+ people to seek partners and friends, as well as selections from Alison Bechdel’s iconic comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For.” The Chronicle’s explicitly inclusive tagline used in later years was reflected in front-page news coverage of trans rights activism. While the newspaper ceased publication in 2015 as the shift to internet news made print journalism harder to fund, during its run, the Gay People’s Chronicle reached a wide audience spanning all of Ohio and even neighboring states.
ACT UP Cleveland
Cleveland’s chapter of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), founded and led until 2003 by Joe Carroccio, joins the legacy of bold and effective demonstrations by the international organization. ACT UP Cleveland utilized the national protest tactic of the “die-in,” where demonstrators would lie in the streets and on steps of buildings to confront bystanders with the devastating impact of AIDS. Members also organized distribution and exchange problems for sterile needles in an effort to reduce HIV transmission through contaminated needles.
Other Cleveland protests targeted social stigma and government inaction, such as in a 1993 World AIDS Day march criticizing the hollow red ribbon “awareness” campaigns endorsed by the U.S. government which carried no promise of federal funding for HIV/AIDS research. Demonstrations took aim at specific politicians from Newt Gingerich to Frank Jackson, showing a decisive voice for AIDS activism in Cleveland.
Lakewood-born activist Buck Harris worked for decades to foster community, education and public health in Ohio. In 1984, he was named Ohio’s “Gay Health Liaison,” one of the first (if not the first) in the United States appointed to a comparable role. Working through near-constant political backlash, Harris led efforts to organize HIV awareness and prevention programs, including safe sex education for men having sex with men.
A few years later in 1993, Harris took to radio as host of “The Gay ’90s” — the first LGBTQ+ talk show in the U.S., according to Cleveland Memory. In the six years his show aired, Harris interviewed nationally-known figures and took calls from listeners across northeast Ohio. Many in his audience described “The Gay ’90s” as a lifeline for anyone who felt otherwise isolated from the broader LGBTQ+ community, in addition to the show’s valuable role in promoting positive representation and visibility towards straight listeners.
After the end of the series, Harris continued his work in the community. He served as interim director of the LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland, and continued to distribute information and materials for sex education. Alongside his work in radio, beginning in 1992, Harris helped to found the Bridge Brigade initiative, which organized public projects and home renovations in an effort to lower drug trafficking and improve neighborhood safety. Alongside his ongoing activism and sex education, Harris taught yoga classes in Ohio City. He passed away at age 70, survived by his husband Michael O’Connor.
Karen and Bob Gross first founded TransFamily while seeking a support network for families of transgender people after their son came out as trans. In the more than two decades since, the organization has expanded to connect trans people across the country to resources and community. TransFamily has operated largely through email lists and online forums dedicated to the needs of specific groups such as children, parents and spouses of trans people, while centering the needs of transgender people themselves.
Through partnerships with GLSEN, PFLAG and similar advocacy organizations, TransFamily has advocated for acceptance, inclusion and equity for trans students in public schools. TransFamily remains active today as an advocacy organization and support group, hosting open drop-in meetings from 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. the fourth Saturday of every month at the LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland.