Cleveland Prepares for Its Gay Close-Up
For years Cleveland has been known among visitors as the home of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. Next year, Cleveland will add another notable event to its history when it hosts Gay Games 9.
I was instantly charmed by Cleveland. The Midwestern city is endearing and modern at the same time that it celebrates its history.
I was delighted by the neighborhoods during a summer trip to the city on the edge of Lake Erie. The weather was perfect, warm with some humidity, but not uncomfortable as a breeze came off the water in the late afternoon into the evening, naturally cooling off the city.
Much is in store for LGBTs and others who visit the city next summer. An estimated 11,000 athletes from 65 countries are expected to compete against each other in more than 35 sporting events during the games, which take place August 9-16 in Cleveland and nearby Akron. Another 20,000 visitors are expected as part of the festivities.
Pride in the Heartland
Clevelanders are proud of their city and predict that August will be the perfect month to host the games.
"I love this city, it’s one of the best places in the world. A lot of hidden secrets," said David A. Pecjak, a 52-year-old gay Cleveland native who owns the Bounce Cafe, Bar and Nightclub.
Another Cleveland native, Todd Saporito, who is very active in the city’s LGBT community, pointed out that unlike other Midwest cities Cleveland has been a bastion of progressive politics for quite some time.
Saporito, 51, is president and CEO of Flex Hotel, Spa and Gym and board president and CEO of Cleveland Pride. He’s happy that Cleveland will be hosting the games. Sports hold a "warm spot" for him, he noted, as it is how he came out - playing volleyball - and how he and his friends identify themselves, he said.
Beyond his personal feelings, he’s also enjoyed watching the community come together for the games.
"Sports that unite the local gay community as well as bring attention to the city is quite exciting for me," said Saporito.
"I hope they actually have an opportunity to see Cleveland through a very different set of eyes," said Saporito, who raised his 26-year-old daughter with his partner of 22 years in Cleveland. He is now the proud grandfather of a 1-year-old granddaughter. "It’s a beautiful place to be in the summer."
Emma Beno, a 23-year-old Cleveland native, also has no plans on leaving the city. She planted her roots in the historic West Side Market in Ohio City, one of Cleveland’s oldest neighborhoods, along with her chef girlfriend, Alexia Rodriguez, 31, and opened the Pork Chop Shop.
"I love Cleveland because it’s my home and it’s very diverse," said Beno, who began working at the historic public market when she was 14 years old.
Emma Beno, co-owner of the Pork Chop Shop, stands at the ready at the store located at the famed West Side Market.
(Photo: Heather Cassell)
"I love that it’s rebuilding itself," said Rodriguez, who moved to Cleveland in 2007 and is excited to be a part of its revitalization. "I like a lot of the history that it has. It’s been a lot of different things. It was industrial and then it was a really fast-paced kind of city and then just died somewhere and now it’s rebuilding itself."
When the women opened their stand at the market nearly two years ago they proudly displayed an equality symbol in the stand’s sign. It initially caused a stir in the market as the first-ever openly LGBT-owned shop. There are several LGBT-owned stands at the market, but they aren’t "out," said Beno. Time has proven that raising the equality symbol has been beneficial to them as people seek them out to support a lesbian-owned business, but also for their unique pork ribs and flavored bacon and sausages.
Beno and Rodriguez plan on competing in Gay Games 9, they said. Rodriguez already registered to compete in the long jump and the 10k run. She’s considering joining a basketball team. Beno is considering running and is tempted by the martial arts categories, but, "I don’t want to get my butt kicked," she said.
During the past five years Cleveland has been rising from the shadow of its working class iron and steel mill days and the memory of when the Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969, which brought about awareness of environmental pollution and led to creation and passage of the Clean Water Act.
Billions of dollars and hard work have gone into turning Cleveland into a world-class mid-size city of about 390,000 people. It boasts that its medical facilities rank fourth in the nation. Its theater and arts districts are bustling. Celebrity chefs, such as Iron Chef and TV host Michael Symon, who owns a variety of restaurants throughout the city, and cupcake star Courtney Bonning, proprietor and pastry chef of Bon Bon Pastry and Cafe, have boosted the city’s culinary scene. Other gastronomical creators that are infusing flavor and style into the city have joined them.
Not to mention that Cleveland has attracted stellar architects, such as Farshid Moussavi, a London-based Iranian-born woman who designed the new Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, which opened last October, and Frank O. Gehry, who designed the Weatherhead School of Management.
Cleveland has also maintained its cultural institutions, such as the Cleveland Play House, the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, simply called the Rock Hall by locals, keeping up its reputation as a world-class cultural center.
"It’s not a plain vanilla city," said David Gilbert, 46, executive director of Positively Cleveland and a straight ally. "There’s a real sort of grittiness and a little bit of a quirkiness about Cleveland that makes it really a special place to visit."
In recent years, the grittiness has given way to a sort of polished rebelliousness that reveals a clean, but vibrant city.
"Its neighborhoods are lively, welcoming, and diverse," said Tom Nobbe, executive director of Gay Games 9.
Nobbe, 61, lives in the Cleveland Heights neighborhood with his partner. He pointed out that his neighborhood was the first municipality in the U.S. where the voters themselves, not the city council, passed a domestic partnership registry.
Others were pleased that the Federation of Gay Games selected Cleveland to host next summer’s games.
"It’s a great thing for gay people and it’s an excellent thing for Cleveland," said Jim Miner, a gay man who owns the Clifford House Private Home and Bed and Breakfast. "I’m glad they picked the Midwest place. It’s going to rock a few people’s boats a little bit, but so what?"
To accommodate the athletes and their fans, Cleveland has been adding new hostels and hotels and sprucing up its sporting venues. The National Senior Games gave the city a practice run this past summer.
"It actually is really exciting the transformation that is happening in Cleveland ... a real renaissance just over the last couple of years," said Gilbert.
Gilbert and Gay Games organizers are ready to place the city on LGBT travelers’ radar.
"The LGBT community and broader community are passionate about making the 2014 Gay Games the best ever," said Nobbe. "We have had tremendous collaboration throughout the region, whether it’s been with the hotels, sports and culture venues, corporate sponsors, or community groups."
Nobbe listed several LGBT leaders who have signed onto the GG9 Leadership Council, including Olympic divers Greg Louganis and David Pichler; former Human Rights Campaign executive director Elizabeth Birch; and Judy Dlugacz, founder and president of Olivia Travel, to name a few.
Earlier this month, United Airlines signed on as GG9’s official airline.
"It is catalyzing the entire greater Cleveland community to come together to give the world a new perspective on what an LGBT-welcoming city offers," said Nobbe
"I will tell you that the LGBT community is very active and the whole community will be rolling out the red carpet," added Gilbert.
Where to Eat
Cleveland is home to an emerging creative dining scene. Our group of journalists getting a first peek at LGBT Cleveland was dazzled by the variety of hip local restaurants and microbreweries we were introduced to during our trip. We were amazed by the variety of excellent dining options such as well-established family-owned local brunch favorites like Tommy’s and Grumpy’s and lesbian-owned Latitude 41n, as well as innovative startups, such as Hodge’s, and Food Network alum like Symon and Bonning.
LGBT visitors to Cleveland searching for meat and potatoes should check out Grovewood Tavern and Wine Bar. The tavern not only serves up plenty of meat - forget the greens - but it’s also located in a trendy restaurant alley offering a variety of options to satisfy any guest’s taste buds.
Where to Play
Aside from the games, Cleveland has an active LGBT community, in spite of not having a gay-specific district.
Cleveland is bustling with queer nightlife options. The aforementioned Bounce Cafe, Bar and Nightclub has themed nights, including drag shows and dance parties, and offers dining options that attract a young mixed crowd. For gay travelers searching for grinding dance music look no further than Twist Social Club or the Flex Hotel, Spa and Gym’s parties pumping out the latest dance hits and sweaty hot men.
Cleveland is also home to one of the nation’s oldest gay bars, the Paradise Inn, a lesbian-owned bar that celebrated its 60th anniversary earlier this month, reported the Gay People’s Chronicle , Cleveland’s LGBT newspaper.
Happy Dog is a popular place for people - gay and straight - seeking live music and a fun night out on the town, said locals.
Unfortunately, for queer women, the places to party have gone dark like in many other cities. The Church, a favorite hangout for lesbians, closed last year and the Nickel, a long-running lesbian bar, closed in 2010, said Carly Mesnick, a 31-year-old lesbian who closed her lesbian party production company, Pink Flash Productions, earlier this year.
Women can still be found at the popular monthly mixer WH2, a spinoff from the popular gay mixer, GH2.
Outside of the bars and nightclubs there are a variety of options for Cleveland’s LGBT community to mix and mingle that are fun and welcoming to visitors. The city’s LGBT community center offers ongoing social events with its TaDa program.
April is all about leather in Cleveland with the city’s award-winning Cleveland Leather Awareness Weekend.
Where to Sleep
The InterContinental Hotels Cleveland raised the rainbow flag for the group of travel writers I was with when we stayed there as its guests to check out Cleveland. The luxury hotel is located in the city’s Medical district - across the river from Ohio City - in the heart of downtown Cleveland.
Cleveland has many options from hostels and university housing to mid-range all the way up to luxury accommodations, like the Ritz-Carlton Cleveland, which is a major sponsor of the Gay Games. There are even LGBT-owned bed and breakfasts and guesthouses, like the aforementioned Clifford House and Flex Hotel, Spa and Gym.
By the time Gay Games paints its rainbow across Akron and Cleveland there will be 13 additional hotels offering a variety of lodging options to LGBT travelers.
Gay Games organizers are planning on having shuttles to help athletes not only get to their sporting events during the games, but also to give them and their guests a taste of Cleveland, they said.
Beyond the special shuttles, the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority provides easily accessible public transportation options. The downtown trolley is free while bus fares are $2.25 a ride or a seven-day pass for $22.50.
Akron is about 39 miles from Cleveland and the cities are geographically spread out so renting a car might be an option for those who want to do some serious exploring when not competing in the games.