Editor’s Note: On July 28, Cleveland Pride’s executive board president and CEO Todd Saporito announced the 28th annual Cleveland Pride parade and festival scheduled for Aug. 13 was officially cancelled.
That’s disappointing, especially given James Bigley II’s strong argument about the importance of the festival in our August “Talking Points” column, which we are posting here.
While Saporito could not be reached for comment, Cleveland Magazine spoke with Phyllis Harris, executive director of the LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland to ask why Cleveland Pride was cancelled for the first time since its inception in 1989. “I asked the question why, and ‘Not enough time and not enough resources,’ was the answer,” says Harris. “While we have this amazing event that happens once a year here in Cleveland, we can show our pride every day and there are ways to do that.”
The LGBT center has posted a list of alternatives to Pride on its website.
GROWING UP GAY, I understood that there are those who would hate me simply because they refused to accept my identity. So when 49 people were killed and 53 more were injured in the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, June 12, I was left with immovable grief and a great sense of loss.
Like so many of the Pulse victims, I too sought solace and freedom on the dance floors of gay clubs. At Bounce Nightclub Hinge Lounge on Detroit Avenue, I found a self-made sanctuary. Clubs like that were a place where the LGBT community could come to be free of judgment and feel safe from anti-gay rhetoric.
To then be faced with the reality that someone had invaded one of those sacred spaces with murderous intent was a reminder that LGBT people are not entirely safe anywhere.
But rather than mourn in isolation, I needed to be surrounded by people who understood the fear and sadness that I couldn’t shake off. So at 7:30 p.m. June 13, I gathered with more than 100 people outside of the LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland in the Gordon Square Arts District for a vigil to honor the Pulse victims.
We walked solemnly down the block to Labyrinth Park at West 65th Street and Clinton Avenue. Swathed in rainbow-colored garb, we read aloud the names of the deceased victims, their portraits glued to the front of green pieces of paper.
Luis Omar Ocasio-Capo, 20, a former Clevelander and Starbucks barista, had dreams of becoming a professional dancer.
Brenda Lee Marquez McCool, 49, was a two-time cancer survivor and mother of 11 children. Her son, 21-year-old Isaiah Henderson, was dancing with her in the club when the shooting started. He survived.
As we read through the long list of names, hugging those around us and offering each other support, I waited for a sense of calm to arrive. It never came.
Instead I kept looking over my shoulder, worried how those who were against us might react to our public display of affection. I didn’t feel safe.
But I spent more than half of my life hiding who I was because of that fear, and I wasn’t about to abandon the people I love.
Rather than withdrawing from the public eye, Cleveland’s LGBT community needs to be more visible than ever, regardless of the risks involved.
As the 28th annual Cleveland Pride festival takes over Mall C Aug. 13, we must be loud and proud. We’ve spent far too many years fighting to stay alive, marry, raise families and be acknowledged as deserving of civil liberties to be silenced now.
“It has always been important for us to speak out, to tell our truth and to try in the midst of hate and discrimination and oppression to live our lives out loud,” says Phyllis Harris, executive director of the LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland.
That fight for recognition and equality shows in the very evolution of the LGBT center. It began secretly in the homes of its members in 1975. After that, the center bounced between locations before settling in four small storefronts and the basement of the Striebinger Block building on West 29th Street in 1987.
After 12 years, the center moved to its current location in Gordon Square, where it provides support groups, health services and a community to more than 500 people each month. There, a single storefront entrance leads to an operation that is literally underground.
With the increase in LGBT visibility after the successful Gay Games 9 in 2014 — which brought 20,000 people from 50 countries to Cleveland — and the U.S. Supreme Court’s marriage equality decision in 2015, a new center is on the horizon. Set to begin construction early next year, the 10,000-square-foot two-story complex will function as an anchor for the neighborhood. Community members will be able to mingle in a cafe, surf the web at a cyber center and hatch new ideas using a business incubator aimed at LGBT entrepreneurs.
Designed specifically with visibility in mind, the building will have a glass façade. From the street, the public will be able to witness LGBT weddings, baby showers and family gatherings taking place inside.
And even before construction of the new center begins, the community is stepping forward in support. In response to the Orlando shooting, the Cleveland Foundation announced it would offer $150,000 in grants to support the LGBT community in Northeast Ohio, $25,000 of which will go directly to the new center to provide supportive services for crisis situations and increase educational outreach.
“If people can see us, they can see us as their daughters and their sons, their neighbors, their baristas and their doctors and teachers,” says Harris. “It’s important to remain visible now more than ever because people want us dead.”
For many, this revelation isn’t new. With an increase in visibility comes greater risk. The 2013 murders of Brittany-Nicole Kidd-Stergis, Betty Skinner and Cemia “CeCe” Dove showed the danger of simply being a transgender person on Cleveland’s streets. The murders also highlighted the need for continuing societal education and legal protection.
Local activists then joined former city councilman Joe Cimperman to put an additional nondiscrimination law in the books in Cleveland. City ordinance 1446, passed in July, beefs up protections for LGBT people, including the transgender community. Although Cleveland’s vote was delayed for several years, Cimperman’s successor, 28-year-old Kerry McCormack, continued to push for the law after Cimperman left council.
Similar nondiscrimination legislation went into effect in the suburb of Lakewood just eight days after the Orlando shooting.
“We’ve seen more and more education, more people coming out, and more people getting to know what it is to be in the community and the needs and issues that are out there,” says McCormack. “It’s not all about celebration, it’s about focusing on the members of our community who really need us.”
As director of community affairs at Ohio City Inc. before his time on the council, McCormack was responsible for creating Ohio City’s pride flag. By uniting the neighborhood’s sigil with the rainbow representative of the LGBT community, he created an outward expression of welcome and affirmation that cropped up outside businesses and homes all over the near West Side.
“When we embrace diversity, when we educate ourselves and when we support other people with different backgrounds, it makes us stronger,” he says.
Now, as an openly gay council member, McCormack helped pass ordinance 1446. The law made it a first-degree misdemeanor for employers and businesses to discriminate against a person who uses a bathroom or other public facility associated with their gender identity.
While fighting for such legislation and being open about his own sexual orientation, McCormack has accepted the risks that come with more transparency.
Yet the councilman acknowledges those who paved the way for him, including the activists who birthed the nation’s first pride festival after police raided New York City’s Stonewall Inn in 1969.
In June, President Barack Obama designated the area around Stonewall as the nation’s first LGBT national monument.
“The people who have really made a difference in our community are the people who were killed and beaten and on the front lines of marching and organizing,” McCormack says. “To me, those people allowed many of us in the LGBT community to be open and out at work or be in a public position.”
Even as the fight continues, widespread and affirmative acceptance is far away. On June 22, roughly 1.3 million people gathered downtown for a parade honoring the Cleveland Cavaliers. After 52 years of drought, we were champions. Yet as confetti littered the streets, I was at home caught in a whirlwind of emotions. Reeling from the loss of those who had been slain 10 days before in Orlando, I was still grieving.
Where were all these people when the LGBT community was suffering? I asked myself. When we’re waving rainbow flags in August, how many will be there supporting us?
But change happens as it always does — slowly and individually. Riley Samels, a 20-year-old from Cuyahoga Falls, attended his first pride festival in Pittsburgh just hours after the Orlando attack.
Samels had never announced his sexuality to anyone other than close friends and a select few family members. Although he considered going to Cleveland Pride in the past, the thought of publicly announcing his sexual orientation so close to home caused Samels some anxiety and fear about how he would be received.
But in the wake of the Orlando tragedy, Samels found comfort and strength in an LGBT community living out loud.
“It was a relief that there were other people like me,” he says. “I could go up and talk to any one of them, and they wouldn’t hate me for who I was.”
At Pittsburgh Pride, Samels met another man and the two spent the afternoon together. As the festival was wrapping up, the pair embraced and kissed. A pride flag fluttered nearby as a close friend snapped a photo. Samels uploaded it online.
“After I kissed him, I thought, I’m here. I’m tired of hiding. I’m tired of living some sort of lie and pretending to be someone I’m not,” he says.
Samels has since tattooed the pride flag on his hip and plans to go to Cleveland’s festival this month.
“As dark as the times were that day and after everything that happened, if I could be that one spark or that one light just to show that there’s still hope and happiness,” he says, “I’m going to go for it.”