It's been several years since I relocated from Florida to Cleveland, but I still vividly recall the confused expressions on the faces of those I eagerly informed of my decision. Sure, the winters here can be frigidly uninviting, but practically every other facet of life has been nothing short of warm and welcoming. As a lesbian, that was the most surprising -- and pleasant -- part of my relocation experience.
Truth is, I was hesitant to claim myself a queer in the Midwest, and especially in Ohio, which earned a reputation for its lack of acceptance. Upon arrival I recall wondering if and where the LGBT community existed in Cleveland. What I soon discovered was a gay oasis on the North Coast, where I could walk hand in hand with my significant other through Ohio City, Lakewood, Tremont and Cleveland Heights without unease.
Browns Town to Queersville
Despite its Midwest setting, the LGBT-plus community here has a rich history that has landed Cleveland on the gay-friendly map more than once. The LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland was established in 1975 -- as the third in the nation -- shortly after homosexuality was no longer considered a mental illness. In 2007, the PRIDE Clinic, Ohio's only LGBT health center and one of just a dozen in the US, opened its doors. Each June for the last 23 years, rainbow flags, floats and streamers have danced through town as tens of thousands of us and our allies celebrate Pride.
In addition to progressive strides in local organizations, the City of Cleveland has continually demonstrated its acceptance of the community. In 2008, city council voted to pass a domestic partnership registry that recognizes same and opposite sex couples. The following year brought legislation that added gender identity/expression to the non-discrimination policy for people living or working in the city. In 2010, the Transgender Pride flag was flown over City Hall on Transgender Day of Remembrance, which honors those killed as a result of transphobia. In 2014, Cleveland will host the Gay Games, both an honor and a tribute to our city's increasing acceptance of the LGBT community.
As former executive director of the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Community Center, Sue Doerfer is a longtime activist who has worked on many of these legislative and progressive advances. While Doerfer admits that the city has a long way to go, she also sees the changes the city has and continues to make in terms of inclusivity.
"What makes me want to stay [in Cleveland] is that I can see progress -- and I want to be a part of that change," says Doerfer, who is not a native Clevelander.
Echoing Doerfer's sentiment is Tom Stebel, a local activist and longtime volunteer with the North Coast Gay Men's Chorus, LGBT Center, CLAW, and other LGBT organizations. For many years after moving to Cleveland from San Francisco, Stebel wasn't sure about sticking around.
"When I was younger I wanted to leave Cleveland because I felt like I was too big of a fish for a little pond," says Stebel. "But as I aged I realized that I loved being a big fish in Cleveland because that's where I could make the biggest impact for change."
Before, During and After Hours
In addition to resources like the LGBT Center, Family By Design, PFLAG Cleveland and Plexus, Cleveland has a wealth of queer-owned and supportive businesses. Latitude 41n is one such place. Owner Kathy Brown, originally from New York, describes dining at her laidback Detroit Shoreway eatery akin to "eating at home with a room full of strangers." While the prominently displayed rainbow flags trumpet gay acceptance, this local favorite is far from being exclusively frequented by those in the LGBT community.
Cleveland's gay nightlife scene is another amenity that draws queers from the suburbs and beyond. Bounce, located just west of downtown, is a sprawling entertainment venue with a bar, restaurant, cabaret and dance club. Frequented largely by gay and gay-friendly revelers, Bounce hosts well-attended drag shows and dance parties, including Eclectic Circus, which was launched last year by DJ Saint.
"We deliver an eclectic array of music -- a lot of the music jumps genre" says DJ Saint. She aims to provide a "variety of music that is changing and evolving every month."
Bounce also is home to a group of performers whose work rises above the typical sequin-studded drag show. With the mission of increasing awareness on LGBT issues, Cleveland Kings and Girls (CKG) was started six years ago and continues to flourish thanks to its unique makeup (no pun intended) of bio-girls, bio-boys, drag kings, trans kings, and drag queens.
"The love, support and recognition that CKG has received over the years is what drives us to be better and to keep going." says troupe leader Rory Randall.
If you are looking for a more laid back nightlife experience visit Church Bar, which opened this past year in Lakewood. Long an Irish pub, this location underwent "reassignment therapy" to transform it from a straight to gay bar. Surprisingly, says manager Jonah Davis, they did so without losing a majority of original regulars.
"I think Cleveland is fantastic and I've never had a problem," explains Davis, "especially not in Lakewood."
I'm Still Here
When I moved to Cleveland, I often referred to it as my "two-year plan." It shocks me to proclaim that I've been a proud Clevelander for eight years now. During that time I've waved goodbye to hoards of peers who relocated to LA, San Francisco, and Austin pursuing those things which they felt this city doesn't offer. Are there places with better weather? Sure. Are there cities with a more vibrant queer scene? Definitely. Have I had numerous job offers in other cities that were tempting? Of course. Could I have rights as a queer woman in other states that Ohio presently denies me? I sure could.
This all begs the question: What keeps me in the 216? The short and simple answer is: I'm happy here. I have found a diverse community of acceptance in Cleveland that isn't common in other large cities. As a queer Clevelander, I have the option of frequenting the large variety of LGBT-owned businesses exclusively -- but I don't have to. The fact that I don't feel compelled to live solely within my community is, to me, the most accurate meaning of the phrase "queer friendly."
Is there still more work to be done? Yes. However, I would rather be a part of the solution than trade that work in for a city where it's already been done for me. Shockingly, I find myself writing this article six years past my self-imposed departure deadline -- and I have absolutely no plans to leave Cleveland behind.