cleveland is increasingly gay-friendly, yet challenges remain

When Gaetan Pettigrew first moved to Cleveland in 2012 to start a residency at University Hospitals, he worried about the kind of life he’d find for himself here.
It wasn’t that he thought Cleveland was a bad place. But as a gay man who’d been living for years in New York City -- one of the gay-friendliest cities in the world -- he figured he’d have to endure a certain measure of non-coastal intolerance.
“I was thinking I was going to have guard myself, like I might get hate-crimed at some point, or there wouldn’t be much of a gay scene,” he says.
Instead, he says, he found “there were tons of gays here.” He made friends quickly and lived in neighborhoods (first Ohio City, later Tremont) where he met nothing but acceptance. No one at work seemed bothered by his sexual orientation.
Now his long-time partner, also a doctor in training, is moving here from San Francisco to do his own residency.
It’s a story that many in Cleveland would hold up as the hoped-for outcome of the city’s long-running efforts to make itself more gay friendly.
Various groups -- the visitors’ bureau, nonprofits, foundations, the City of Cleveland itself -- have labored for years to make Cleveland and Northeast Ohio a more welcome place for residents or visitors who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered or queer (LGBTQ). Motivations have ranged from the pragmatic (wanting to capture more tourist dollars) to the humanitarian (protecting the rights of all the city’s residents).
Phyllis Harris 
The transition to greater equality for the region’s LGBTQ population has been rocky. Despite its staunchly Democratic politics, Cleveland remains a socially conservative town, and antigay discrimination -- sometimes accompanied by violence -- continues to occur here. In September 2013, the West Side gay bar Cocktails found itself in the national spotlight after two beatings occurred outside its doors within a week.
Then there’s the fact that the city’s located in Ohio, one of an increasingly small minority of states that prohibits gay marriage.
“I think Cleveland’s been a great place to live for me and a lot of people in my networks for a long time,” says Phyllis Harris, executive director of the city’s LGBT Community Center. “But we still have a lot of vulnerable people here -- those who don’t have the economic or family supports to be open about who they are.”
In other words, she says, gay life in Cleveland stands at a crossroads: improving in some respects, great for some people -- but highly lacking in and for others.
The Gay Games nudge
That ambiguity, in fact, was one of the reasons the city was selected to host the 2014 Gay Games over more obvious finalists Boston and Washington, D.C.
Kevin Schmotzer 
The intention was to increase the visibility of LGBTQ people in a city where many had long felt pressured to hide, says Kevin Schmotzer, who works for the City of Cleveland’s economic development department and sat on the board of Gay Games 9.
Goal achieved -- at least for the weeks leading during and leading up to the event.
As anyone here last August will remember, dozens of businesses hung rainbow flags outside their doors. The Terminal Tower’s trademark spire glowed with multi-colored lights. In Downtown Cleveland and a few close-in neighborhoods, same-sex couples walked hand-in-hand. There were outdoor parties every night.
In all, more than 20,000 people turned out to participate or observe.
It was like being in a parallel version of the city, according to Mike Brunstedt, whose Cleveland-based printing company was one of 165 businesses that sponsored the event.
LGBT Rainbow flag in Tremont 
“Not that long ago when you went out here,” he says, “you’d sneak around and go to gay restaurants or to gay after-hours clubs. This was different. You were out and proud and everybody loved it. It was breathtaking.”
Many straight people seemed just as excited about the Games as their LGBTQ friends -- helping some old wounds to heal.
Ted Rosati, a financial analyst for MetroHealth System, says he was deeply moved when he saw the final roster for the soccer team he helped organize for the Games. Of the team’s 18 members, seven (including one woman) were straight.
“They were going out of their way for something that’s a bit uncomfortable and that might be ridiculed,” he says. “They were standing up next to us.”
The inclusiveness of the team counterpointed his memories of playing soccer in high school, having to hide who he was behind a “normal jock” persona.
But Schmotzer says one of the most momentous things he noticed during the Games happened not on a sports field or at a party at all -- but in staid City Hall, where he works.
“People started putting out pictures of their partners on their desks, rather than having them inside the drawer,” he says. “That was so amazing to see.”
Gay Games 9 
An improving but inequitable picture
Six months on, there’s little doubt the Games helped create a freer life for some Clevelanders and vastly improved the city’s national image among LGBTQ people, observers say.
Schmotzer says he “couldn’t count” the number of visitors here during the Games who said they were impressed enough with the city to want to return with friends or families for a personal vacation.
And Phyllis Harris of the Gay Center says the Games likely emboldened Clevelanders of a certain level of privilege to hold hands in restaurants, for example, or come out to coworkers.
“Everyone’s excited about the fact that Cleveland showed up the way it did,” she says. “I still get goosebumps about the experiences I had and that I saw other people have.”
Still, the overall picture remains in many respects what it was before: Dependent -- as is so much else in starkly race- and class-divided Cleveland -- on one’s individual circumstances.
Harris still sees a great deal of vulnerability especially among lower-income LGBTQ Clevelanders and those from intolerant households. These are the people for whom being “out” as LGBTQ still creates great potential for loss -- of a job, of family support, of friendships.
“I want to celebrate the success of the Games but I don’t want that to undermine the fact that we still deal with so much homophobia and depression,” she says. “I see those things at the Center every day.”
Improving life for more vulnerable members of the community requires continued outreach and education to private businesses and in many of the city’s neighborhoods.
And of course, Ohio’s gay marriage ban remains a huge barrier to attracting gay people of means to Cleveland.
Despite the challenges, Harris says she’s proud to be an LGBTQ Clevelander -- a feeling heightened by the fact that the Center is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.
“Every day when I walk into my office,” she says, “I’m just like, ‘Wow, Cleveland, check you out! You’ve had a gay center for 40 years!’
“It reminds me I’m standing on the shoulders of giants -- the brave people doing this work when it was so, so much harder than it is today."

Photos Bob Perkoski