Today is Pride in the CLE, Cleveland’s annual LGBT Pride Day. The day will start with a march stepping off 11 a.m. from West 9th Street and Front Avenue, then traveling to Public Square where a festival will be held from Noon till 6 p.m.
It all began 30 years ago when a small band of very brave people dared to reserve a small block tucked away on West 29th Street and declare their pride as gay people. They called it “Pride ’89: An Out of the Closet Experience.” And it was! TV cameras, newspaper and all.
I was among those brave souls. Today we enjoy so much progress and including even legal marriage. But back then, what we did took guts, frankly. But that’s not how I remember the experience, though. I knew we were at the cutting edge and I knew we even faced a certain degree of physical danger or backlash. But mostly I had fun. It was hard work — lots of hard work — but it was also thoroughly rewarding and exhilarating. It was truly one of the high points of my life.
Everyone involved played an indispensable role, but two people stand out: Martha Pontoni and Drew Cari. As co-instigators, and later co-chairpeople, they made it happen. Period. There would have no Pride ’89 without them.
“We have to do this!”
In his book, Remembering Pride ’89, Drew described about how things came together. He wrote that after reading an article in The Washington Blade, it came to him that Cleveland needed to celebrate Gay Pride as other cities were doing. He spoke of this to several friends and co-activists, Brian DeWitt and Martha Pontoni. He continued,
“A while later the phone rang. It was Martha. Not even taking a moment to say hello, she blurted out ‘We have to do this.’ A few days later we sat down in my kitchen on Coltman Road in Little Italy where we became a committee of two and worked out a tentative action plan. We set a date for the first meeting and the place, The Lesbian/Gay Community Service Center” on West 29th.”
A few days later a meeting was convened at the Center. I was there. To Drew’s surprise, and “with abdominal cramps due to anxiety,” he and Martha were elected co-chairs. The rest is history. Drew goes into more detail in the videos that follow below.
The Story of Pride ’89
Martha and Drew were interviewed for the 25th anniversary five years ago. The interview follows in two parts.
Susan Schnur, an old friend from my days with the Kent Gay Liberation Front (KGLF) at KSU, was a member of the Pride ’89 Committee. She was also interviewed on Pride’s 25th anniversary. At 12:20 into the interview, Sue talks about the first march in Pride’s second year, 1990.
At Pride’s 25th anniversary, Martha and Drew spoke from the stage to tell today’s crowd what it was like organizing in 1989 — and what we need to do going forward, because the struggle isn’t over. In speaking of our progress, Drew said “We cannot become complacent. There’s still a big fight coming, and it might even be a bigger fight than we’ve had in the past.”
Sunday, June 18, 1989
Cleveland Pride came to life on Sunday, June 18, 1989. The Gay People’s Chronicle reported that more than 1,000 attended. Pride was held on West 29th Street because that was home of the Lesbian/Gay Community Service Center of Greater Cleveland (the “Center”), the heart of the organized LGBT community, at 1418 West 29th. The Center today is the LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland which is just now finishing construction of a brand new building near Detroit and West 65th in the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood. The ribbon-cutting ceremony is scheduled for Friday, June 14th.
The Pride ’89 Committee was comprised of around 20 people in addition to the co-chairs Martha and Drew, plus many people volunteered. Work was divided up by task and subcommittees were headed by the people listed below.
On June 18th we were out at the crack of dawn. My job was coordinating volunteers and setting up tables we needed to run the operation and for the many organizations that ran booths that day. I’ve forgotten how many tables — I want to say about 70 — but we spent the day before driving around in a U-Haul picking up tables from NOCI (the Northern Ohio Coalition, Inc.) and just about every rental company in the western suburbs of Cleveland! Picking them up was work enough. Keeping it all straight and getting the rights tables back to the right places was challenge.
The day officially began at 11:00 a.m. with the North Coast Freedom Band performing “I Am What I Am.” A full day of stage events followed with emcees Judith Sloan, Rita Del Rey and Scott Bibbs officiating. Jerry Szoka was D.J. and kept the music going until we wrapped at 8:00 p.m.
We were delightfully exhausted!
The day also included a Commitment Ceremony. In those days legal same-sex marriage was inconceivable. It was just three years earlier that the Supreme Court had ruled in Bowers v. Hardwick that same-sex relationships between consenting adults in private were not protected by the Constitution. The Court ruled that states could outlaw our relationships and jail us.
Pride March (or Parade)
There was no march in Pride’s first year, but we were determined to change that going forward — and as mentioned above, we did so in 1990. Ken Schneck described it this way in his book LGBTQ Cleveland,
“While the message for Pride 89 was centered on ”Out of the Closet,’ the following year took this one step further by adding ‘Into the Streets.’ Officially, the theme was ‘Look to the Future,’ but clearly, the way to get there was through movement. Cleveland Pride 1990 aided a march or parade (the correct word really does depend on who you ask) to the festival, walking from Public Square in downtown Cleveland, over the Detroit-Superior Bridge, to the site of the festival, which was situated again outside of the Lesbian/Gay Community Service Center on West Twenty-Ninth Street. Estimates of attendance vary, hut most agree that the crowd was at least double the size of the year before.”
There’s a video on YouTube covering Pride ’90. It begins with footage of the march and again there’s footage at 30:36. This ending clip includes the irrepressible Aubrey Wertheim, Director of Services at the Center, speaking to WEWS Channel 5 as he marched along Superior Avenue.
Aubrey isn’t listed in the Pride ’89 program as a committee head, but like Martha and Drew, it’s hard to imagine any of this could have happened without him. How do I describe him? Aubrey was a literal beacon of gay pride in a era when most of the community was deep in the closet. He began working at the Center in 1987 and transformed it with his sharp wit, humor and seemingly boundless energy. He was an award-winning playwright and had worked previously at the National Gay Task Force (NGTF) in New York City. He brought all his many skills to bear in building the Cleveland LGBT community we know today. Aubrey passed away from cancer in2003. You can learn more about this exceptional soul at the Purple Armadillos blog.
Personal Remembrances of Pride ’89
I’ve invited friends to contribute their thoughts and remembrances of Pride ’89 for this post. A few have, and I still welcome others despite the fact this post is now online. This is part of my Snapshots of Gay History as Told Thru Video series so it will be indexed and accessible for a long time to come.
Submit your contribution to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll create a page linked to your name below. Or, if you have just a few short thoughts you’d like to share, by all means add a Comment below. It’ll be great hearing from you.
To date, these people have contributed:
Published Histories of Pride ’89
There are at least two published histories of Pride ’89 that I know of. The first is by “co-instigator” and co-chairperson, Drew Cari.
Drew has written the definitive history of Pride ’89. He tells the backstory story of how it began and our adventures pulling off this feat.
Drew includes newspaper clippings and a priceless collection of photographs. You’ll get an intimate feel for the event, the camaraderie and joy we experienced working together to make it happen.
You can buy a copy at Amazon. This one belongs in your library or on your coffee table for all to see!
The history of Pride ’89 is also presented by Ken Schneck in his expansive book, LGBTQ Cleveland. He places Pride ’89 in context with Cleveland’s overall gay history — where we came from, where we were then and where we’ve come to now.
You can buy this book also on Amazon. Check it out!
For really great photographs check out the books above, especially Drew’s.
I don’t have a lot of pictures in my personal collection. This was before the days of iPhones and omnipresent cameras. One I have, though, is this picture of Scott Bibbs and me. Scott and I had worked together for years previously doing the GayWaves show on WRUW-FM.
Bob Downing sent the following photos from his collection. I’ve named people where I can but I’m missing some. Please write me with names I’ve missed and I’ll update the captions.
Bob Downing also sent me pictures from that time period that weren’t specifically Pride ’89. The two below are really good.
What else can I say about Pride ’89? Certainly a good time was had by all! But it was so much deeper and more profound than that. We changed Cleveland history. And with it, we changed the lives of LBGT people in Cleveland, even up to this day.
Friendships forged through Pride last to this day. But they didn’t all start there. I knew Susan Schnur and others from Kent State. I knew Brian DeWitt, Scott Bibs and Drew Cari from GayWaves at WRUW. I don’t remember when I met Martha Pontoni. It just feels like we’ve known each other since before time.
I also had the delightful experience of running into some old, old friends. Have you ever known people that keep showing up in your life in different times and contexts?
Darrel Cook was a Pride ’89 Committee member. I had known Darrell some 15 years earlier out in Chesterland in my former life, way deep in the closet. We were neighbors in apartments at a delightful spot near County Line Road and Wilson Mills. It was so gratifying to reconnect years later in our authentic lives. He’s passed away now but was a wonderful soul. I love this picture. It captures the Pride ’89 experience perfectly.
So this was Pride ’89. As David Volk wrote in the Forward to Drew’s book, “We were committed to making a political statement for the Gay & Lesbian Community in Cleveland. That was ‘We are your co-worker, your neighbor, your relatives and you can’t sweep us under the carpet like we don’t exist!'”
And we succeeded! We’re not under the carpet any longer.
Special thanks and appreciation to Scott Bibbs, Bob Downing, David Lansaw and Nick Palumbo for their suggestions and contributions.
Title image: A page captured from Drew Cari’s book, Remembering Pride ’89.
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