‘LGBTQ Cleveland’ book shines a light on five decades of history and community
‘LGBTQ Cleveland’ book shines a light on five decades of history and community
CLEVELAND, Ohio - Ken Schneck is known throughout Cleveland as a storyteller – and especially as one who wears many hats.
So it’s no surprise that Arcadia Publishing turned to Schneck when it was searching for someone to pen the Cleveland installment of its new series focused on LGBTQ life and history in cities across the country. His recently released “LGBTQ Cleveland: Images of Modern America” spans nearly 50 year of Cleveland history and features more than 150 photos.
The book will have a launch party 7-10 p.m., Wednesday, May 30, at Ohio City’s Jukebox at 1404 West 29th St., Cleveland. Choosing the location was no accident: The block served as the home of the Lesbian-Gay Community Services Center from 1988-2000, which at that point was the longest stretch in one location for the Center. The Living Room, the offices of ACT UP and well over a dozen LGBTQ-themed bars and businesses could all be found in the immediate area. West 29th St. was also the site of the 1989 Cleveland Pride festivities as well as the celebration grounds at the end of the 1990 Pride Parade.
It seems like Schneck was born for this role. His podcast, “This Show Is So Gay,” recently wrapped up a 10-year run, and earned an Excellence Award in Podcasting from the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association during its time on the air. He’s also a contributor to Huffington Post’s Queer Voices, College and Impact sections and a professor at Baldwin Wallace University. Most recently, he published his first book in 2017, a collection of his misadventures in travel, “Seriously...What Am I Doing Here?: The Adventures of a Wondering and Wandering Gay Jew.”
Schneck’s “LGBTQ Cleveland” book delves into the quest for human rights, illuminating unforgettable moments from candlelight vigils to Cleveland’s hosting of the Gay Games and capturing iconic memories, like appearances by Freddie Mercury and Joan Jett.
But what goes into putting together a book that shines a light on five decades of a community’s history? We talk to Schneck about the process of writing the book and what he discovered along the way.
How did you get involved with writing this book?
Sure, I’m super gay and definitely live in Cleveland, but this book wasn’t my idea! Arcadia Publishing/The History Press recently added a series to the 8 million books they currently have in print, this new line detailing the LGBTQ image of various cities. They contacted the LGBT Center of Greater Cleveland to see if there were any local authors who might be interested in working on compiling Cleveland’s LGBTQ history, the Center pointed them to me, and I had a contract within a week and a finished product within a few months. “LGBTQ Cleveland” is only the 6th entry in this series, so I’m really proud that our fair city is at the vanguard of preserving our incredible LGBTQ history in this way.
Telling the story of Cleveland’s LBTQ history is a big task. How did you begin your research? What was your process of piecing things together?
When someone tells you, “This research will take you no time at all!”: Run away. They’re lying to you! The original pitch was that I would be able to find all the 150-plus images I would need by going to the Cleveland Public Library and the Western Reserve Historical Society. While I had incredible experiences at both of those amazing institutions, I wasn’t able to locate that many images for the book.
To find more, I basically went from person-to-person in Cleveland: social media posts soliciting images, which led me to this gay guy’s attic, who pointed me to that lesbian’s basement, who directed me to that ally’s kitchen table, and so on and so on. At one point, I had heard about a few key pieces of Cleveland history - like the National AIDS Quilt being displayed in the old Convention Center in 1998 - but couldn’t locate any images.
One Friday night, I came home from being out and about and there was a package in my mailbox from a guy I had never met who used to live in Cleveland and now resides in New York City. Along with a note that said, “Maybe these might be useful?” were the most incredible photos of the AIDS Quilt at the old Convention Center in 1988. He didn’t know me, he didn’t know what I was looking for. He had just heard about the project and sent along what he had. That is how magical this process has been.
You have a history as a storyteller. How did that shape your writing of the book?
The publisher sent me a copy of one of the other books in the series as a template: white guy on the cover and, not that I’m someone who would count such a thing, but let’s just say there were 112 images of buildings (because there actually were 112 images of buildings). “Over there was a gay bar. Right over here is a gay bar. And look! Here’s a space that would make for a great gay bar.”
Buildings are just not who I am as a storyteller. Look, I think the places where we have gathered are critically important in documenting our history. But I’m all about the people. And not just the white gay men, but everyone. The generosity of LGBTQ and Ally Clevelanders to share not only their images but their stories with me has been humbling to a degree I cannot express. All I had to do to create a compelling story was sit there and listen.
What most surprised you during the research? What stood out to you? What were some highlight moments?
So much of the LGBTQ history of Cleveland is the LGBTQ history of the United States. World events (Harvey Milk’s murder, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, marriage equality, to name a few) affected us as much as some of the drama that was distinctly local. The ethos of the community really depended on who was in the center of the narrative at any given point: when gay men were the only names on a 1977 agenda of the first LGBT Center while lesbians were gathered in a house in Cleveland Heights that they affectionately called “Hag House” plotting to take over the world. The AIDS crisis affected the LGBTQ community in vastly different ways, and so many different struggles in Cleveland varied depending on the race of the citizen.
The highlights for me in this research were when the LGBTQ community came together in beautiful ways to create change: marching in 1988 on the sidewalks of Parma Heights against an anti-gay state senator in an event referred to as “Picket the Bigot,” protesting outside of a gay bar in 1989 to speak against a bar policy aimed at inhibiting lesbians from coming inside, gathering nearly 5,000 signatures in 2003 to make Cleveland Heights the first city in the United States to pass a domestic partner registry by voter initiative and organizing a homegrown pride at the last second in 2016 to replace Cleveland Pride, which had mysteriously been canceled.
Who’s one person or event in Cleveland’s LGBTQ history that everyone should know?
The one person in Cleveland’s LGBTQ history that I want everyone to know is someone who is described in a news story in the book but never named. In 1985, a man was arrested in Indianapolis for stealing a bike. In the course of the arrest, he revealed to the police that he had AIDS, that new disease associated with limited knowledge, but paramount fear. Rather than pressing charges, the judge bypassed the system and ordered that the man be taken to the bus depot and be given a one-way ticket to Cleveland, his childhood home. That’s how much they wanted him and that disease the hell out of their city.
This story epitomized the times that feel so long ago for some, like yesterday for others and like a complete mystery for everyone else. We have to pause and hear these stories because they contributed to where we are. Let’s keep celebrating. Let’s keep protesting. Let’s keep marching. Let’s keep dancing. But let’s do it knowing where we’ve been and how we got here.