Tom Stebel (b. 1962) was born in Garfield Heights and grew up in Seven Hills before attending Miami University. He discusses coming out as a gay man in the 1980s and becoming involved in LGBTQ+ activism in college. Stebel recounts moving to San Francisco and Lake Tahoe in the 1980s during the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis before returning to Ohio in the 1990s. He describes the impact of HIV/AIDS on LGBTQ+ communities in Cleveland in the 1980s and 1990s. He also describes working as a volunteer at the LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland for over 20 years and the changes to LGBTQ+ communities and spaces in Cleveland he witnessed during this time. Stebel also discusses his participation in Cleveland's leather subculture, the Cleveland Leather Awareness Weekend (CLAW), the Cleveland Aquatic Team, and the Gay Games in Cleveland.
Stebel, Tom (interviewee)
Habyl, Riley (interviewer)
"Tom Stebel Interview, 01 August 2023" (2023). Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection. Interview 701006.
Riley Habyl [00:00:00] Okay, I've just started the recording. Today's date is Tuesday, August 1st, 2023. This is Riley Habyl with the LGBTQ+ Cleveland Voices Oral History Collection. I'm interviewing Tom Stebel at the LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland. So Tom, thank you for joining me today.
Tom Stebel [00:00:18] Thank you for inviting me, Riley.
Riley Habyl [00:00:21] Sure. Would you be able to state and spell your name for the record?
Tom Stebel [00:00:23] Tom, T-o-m. Stebel, S-t-e-b-as in banana-e-l.
Riley Habyl [00:00:34] Thank you. So where and when were you born, Tom?
Tom Stebel [00:00:36] I was born in 1962, in Garfield Heights at Marymount Hospital, and—. Though my family shortly thereafter moved to Seven Hills, and most of my young adult—childhood and young adulthood was in Seven Hills.
Riley Habyl [00:01:02] Fantastic. Can you tell me a little bit about your life when you were growing up, as a child?
Tom Stebel [00:01:09] Well, gosh—. I have five brothers and sisters. There was a lot of activity at my house at all times, lots going on. I did feel like I was adopted because I felt different from everybody else. Something made me feel like something was different about me, and that—. I figured that perhaps it was because I was adopted, or kidnapped, and later I learned that it was just that I was a young gay boy.
Riley Habyl [00:01:47] When did you first start thinking about your identities, in terms of thinking about your sexual orientation and your understanding of your sense of self?
Tom Stebel [00:02:01] Hmm. I suppose that that—. That the—. That coincided with puberty, and maybe that's more of a thing that happens with men. But having the hormones of puberty and realizing that there—they were sexual in nature, and that my attraction was not like everybody else's attraction. Mine was unique to me, I felt. And though there were—are certainly a bevy of signs that were showing that I was a sensitive boy, and smart, and artsy. And didn't fit in with my athletic peers, athletic, boisterous peers—just wasn't me. It still isn't me. So, there were some things that I could look back and say, "Oh, well, sure, that seems pretty gay." But it wasn't until there was that hormonal attraction to same sex that I realized that I was attracted to men, and so—. Let's say that's 1976, '77. There weren't a lot of outlets, or mentors, or anything that would show to me that this was—. What I was feeling was okay, and that what I was feeling was normal, and that—. There was nothing to lead me to believe that. If there was any depiction of homosexuality in the public eye—in media or the news—it was always presented as some sort of deviancy, something that was wrong, and so that led me to believe that something was wrong with me as well. So I stayed in the closet well until I was 21. Although I was sexually active with men, I was not—. It was not part of my self yet. And then it was when I went to college, and the rest is my history.
Riley Habyl [00:05:22] Can you tell me a bit about your educational background, and where you went to school?
Tom Stebel [00:05:26] I went through the Parma school district. Normandy High School. And then I went to Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and that was the end of my schooling.
Riley Habyl [00:05:48] Where and when did you first meet other people who were openly gay?
Tom Stebel [00:05:53] At college. Definitely. By that time, there were some out people at Miami University. This would have been 1983. Though, I knew of gay people from when I started there in '80. I viewed them from afar for the most part. And then once I came out I began meeting other queer people in—. One of my steps in coming out was going to a support group, and that of course was an avenue of meeting people, others like me.
Riley Habyl [00:06:49] (coughs) Were there any major events, or any major occurrences in your life that made you—that led to your coming out?
Tom Stebel [00:07:08] No, I only—. I will say that it was at the encouragement of someone else who was out, but—. Well, I'll just stop there. It was at the encouragement of someone else who was out, and that led me to feel like I should—. He encouraged me to go to the support group, and that's what I followed up on.
Riley Habyl [00:07:40] Fantastic. So, in college, when you were meeting other people who were openly out as gay—. Can you sort of describe the, er—. Can you describe your sense of the LGBT community at your college, or in Cleveland at the time?
Tom Stebel [00:07:58] Closeted. Wary. Brave, because they began to be more open and—. Can you repeat the question again?
Riley Habyl [00:08:26] So, sort of thinking about—. My apologies, just one moment.
Tom Stebel [00:08:34] It's okay.
Riley Habyl [00:08:34] Can you sort of describe the sense of community that you felt while you were involved in LGBTQ organizations in college, like the attitudes—?
Tom Stebel [00:08:44] Oh yeah, okay. Right, right, right. So, although there were a lot of closeted queer people at Miami University at the time, there were—was a handful of out people who were very enthusiastic, and that led to some organizing. And something that got—that was very impactful for me was that the—. At the time, the queer gr—support group could not meet on campus because they were not an accepted campus group. Only accepted, vetted college community groups could meet on campus. Anybody else meeting on—meeting had to meet off campus. So, we were delegated to the off-campus site. And we felt this was egregiously wrong. And we petitioned the school at large, and got enough people to sign a petition saying that we should be accepted as a student—as a regular student group. And that happened once they read the—. Once they saw our plea, and that we had support in the student body and teachers, et cetera, they allowed us to start meeting on campus. To me, that was very powerful—as a youngster, to have created that change for other people. Didn't affect me really at all. I graduated and went away. But the people who followed me were able to meet on campus and have a better experience at that school. And that sparked my lifelong love for activism—(coughs) excuse me—and advocacy. And I followed that path. That path was more rewarding to me than pursuing my career in business and making a lot of money. That was—. That became unnecessary. I followed the path of an advocate. I made money where I could, and made do with the money I had because I was—had a greater call.
Riley Habyl [00:11:43] Fantastic. What year was it that you graduated from college?
Tom Stebel [00:11:49] Well, technically, I haven't graduated. I was at Miami University from 1980 to 1985. And right as I was ready to graduate they decided that my humanities were not in order, and they did not give me a degree. But that didn't stop me from enjoying the rest of my life.
Riley Habyl [00:12:14] What did you pursue after college? (Tom sneezes) Or after leaving Miami University?
Tom Stebel [00:12:22] Well—. I felt like I really wanted to get to know myself, and I had been so driven by school, and I—. I had a poorer family, so I went to school on scholarships, and working my way through school. And it was a lot to do, and I felt that by—. In that time, I had sort of ignored self. And once I came out, I realized that maybe that was something I really needed to work on. And I wanted to continue school so I could finish that bit, but I also wanted to pursue art. And I understood that if I went to California I would—could go to school for free there, and I could get a degree in art, which was always part of my persona. So, I moved to California shortly after leaving Miami University. And I moved to Berkeley for about five months, but I was—. You know, here I was—. I had lived, grown up in Seven Hills right outside of Cleveland. Here I was in Berkeley, right outside of San Francisco. I just said, "I'm moving into San Francisco," and I did that. And I lived there for four years. And during that time, I got to know myself very well. I got to know what I liked, the people. I just really enjoyed some me time. The—. I think that was what that was meant to be. Some people go to Europe, I went to San Francisco.
Riley Habyl [00:14:17] What years did you live in San Francisco?
Tom Stebel [00:14:19] What years? '85 to '89.
Riley Habyl [00:14:25] How would you describe your sense of the LGBT community, at least in the cases that you were involved with the LGBT community, in San Francisco?
Tom Stebel [00:14:34] Well, I moved there at the height of the AIDS crisis. So, there was a great amount of effort put by the whole community to take care of these men—mostly men, but there were women, who were dying, and making life comfortable for them. Fighting for their rights. And that was so forefront in the community. There—. It just permeated every part of queer life there. Certainly there were reprieves from that heavy burden of living around death so closely, but—. It was remarkable to see the community's involvement.
Riley Habyl [00:15:58] When did you first become aware of the HIV/AIDS crisis?
Tom Stebel [00:16:03] In '84, '85. When I was at college, I remember—distinctly remember hearing my friends in Cleveland talk about this mysterious illness that had been going around. Originally, they were talking about a "gay cancer," and what else—. What did we know that that it could have been? But anyways, so I distinctly remember those years hearing that, and—. (sneezes) Of course, it became more and more known in everybody's circle.
Riley Habyl [00:16:59] Would you say that there was a difference—. Or, was there any sort of difference in the awareness or response in the LGBT community in Cleveland, versus the one in San Francisco, in the early years of the crisis?
Tom Stebel [00:17:12] Well, I'll—. I'll say that in those early days—. Cleveland follows the coast in trends, but years later, so—. When I left to go to California, it seemed like there was an awareness, but not a lot of action here in Cleveland. Where, when I moved to San Francisco, or Berkeley—California, in general—there was a lot more action involved, with the knowledge of knowing this was going. There, they were reacting. In Cleveland, they were slower to react. That still may be true. But the—. In that time, I felt like that was the difference.
Riley Habyl [00:18:12] Can you tell me about some of the reactions the community had in California—
Tom Stebel [00:18:17] Um—(crosstalk)
Riley Habyl [00:18:17] —in the early years of the crisis?
Tom Stebel [00:18:19] Well, their reaction was proactive. They supported people with support groups, home care. The hospital was doing a lot of—. Um, what's the word I want? There—. They were investigating the—researching for causes. They were researching for medication to help treat the symptoms, to treat the—find out what the mystery was. So I had a friend who—. There was a ward in San Francisco where they kept all the AIDS patients, partly because no other person wanted to be near them. And it was very difficult for the staff to staff that area because of the ignorance about what the virus was. And it was—. They were—. People were on all kinds of experimental drugs. I remember seeing people who were different colors. Different ashy colors, bluish, yellow, jaundiced. And my friend was hospitalized there at the time. Eventually, many of my friends were hospitalized there at the time. So, I think that there was a lot of support. There were fundraisers. Every time you looked around, there was a new fundraiser for AIDS, or people who are supporting people with AIDS, or their pets, or their—all kinds of other parts of their lives where they could get support and—and share their knowledge about what was going on.
Riley Habyl [00:20:52] Did you engage in any activist work while you were living in California, or were you involved with any specific organizations?
Tom Stebel [00:20:58] I—. My—. The first organization I worked for there in San Francisco was Open Heart, and Open Heart delivered meals to people living with AIDS. And they had a small kitchen where they put together these meals, and then a crew would come along and deliver the, and I was involved in both parts. And I'd do this once a week, and I would—. I didn't need a car in San Francisco, but I needed a car to deliver these. So, somebody drove. Their—. That was their volunteer duty, and mine was to take the meal to the person and spend a little time with them. Maybe catch up just by visual where they are, and maybe what kind of things they might need. And it wasn't—. I was never there very long. Probably many of those people would have liked me to stay longer, but there was a whole 'nother crew of people who were going, and visiting people just to visit. There were people going to visit people to make sure they're on their medication. All kinds of support in that way. But that was where I got involved, and that was very rewarding. And kind of low-key. I wasn't necessarily holding someone who was dying at this volunteer duty, that—. Of course, I held many friends who were dying, and so it wasn't like I was immune to it. But in this duty, I wasn't necessarily comforting people in that way.
Riley Habyl [00:22:56] And was this—. While you were volunteering there, was this in the—still in the early years of the crisis, or was—?
Tom Stebel [00:23:07] I would say for them it was midway. Because, you know, if the crisis started in the seventies, and this was mid-to-late eighties, they had been tackling this problem a little bit longer than what happened in—inland from the coasts.
Riley Habyl [00:23:34] Could you tell me a bit about some of the ways that—. Or, I should say—. You said that they were more proactive in California than they were here in Cleveland—(crosstalk).
Tom Stebel [00:23:42] At the time when I left, that's how I felt.
Riley Habyl [00:23:47] Could you tell me about some of the ways that you felt that they were more proactive at the time?
Tom Stebel [00:23:51] Well—. Let me say that—. When I moved back in 1992, '93, I—. They, then, were being proactive by providing all those supports. They—. There were many support venues, organizations throughout Cleveland that people could rely on for all kinds of things. So, when I left, it was—. There was none of that. They w—. It was almost deer in the head like, "Wow, what the—? What is this?", and really not acting on it. Whereas, San Francisco had already been dealing with it, so they were already preparing themselves, or at least were getting used to what needed to be done. And then, when I moved to Cleveland they were just beginning to get a handle on what kind of things needed to be done and doing them. Rather than thinking about, you know, "What should we do?", they were already beginning to do them. (Tom sneezes)
Riley Habyl [00:25:20] What prompted your move from California back to Cleveland?
Tom Stebel [00:25:23] Well, first let me say—. I moved from San Francisco in '89. And I moved to Lake Tahoe, and I lived there for four years. And I had met my husband, and—. We met in San Francisco. (Tom sneezes) Excuse me. And we nested for four years in Lake—at Lake Tahoe. And that was more me time. I was—didn't do very much activism during that time. It was just me and my husband—now husband—getting to know each other. And I was involved in the queer community there, but there was very little AIDS awareness there. Wait, I don't want to say awareness. There was awareness, but there wasn't the support there. But, people could get support by going off the mountain. That was a common denominator. If you needed something, there were a lot of times you had to come down from the mountain, which was a lovely time when I was in my twenties and part of my thirties. But then as I started to age and I needed health care, it w—. You had to drive off the mountain to go get health care, and it just seemed inconvenient. It was inconvenient. Also, I will say that all of those years that I lived in San Francisco and then Nevada, I missed my family. I mentioned I have five brothers and sisters. My mother lived here [Ohio]. There—. I was always drawn back. I always had this calling to come back to Cleveland because this is where my family is, and they are a wealth of support for me. And so, I moved my husband and I and our three cats across country, and we moved to Cleveland. So, now—. What was the question? Because I needed to tell that part. Oh, what prompted me to move here? Yeah, really, it was about the health care there, and wanting to relocate back to where I was more needed than I was in California.
Riley Habyl [00:28:09] How would you describe the LGBT community, at least your understanding of a sense of community, when you moved back to Cleveland?
Tom Stebel [00:28:20] Well, they were finally beginning to open up. So, there was more—. It was more open. I—. Though, I'll caveat that with—. My husband and I started wor—volunteering at the LGBT Community Center. And they were taking pictures for the annual report, and not a lot of people would allow their pictures to appear in a publication. So, there was still some closeted wariness to the community in general that was still lingering. But as I—. As time went on that diminished, and more people came out, more out—opportunities and spaces came up. And so, I think they caught up with California while I was away.
Riley Habyl [00:29:31] So, I know that you've been a volunteer here with the LGBT Center of Greater Cleveland for upwards of 20 years. Could you tell me a bit about how you first—. Or, when and how you first began volunteering at the [LGBT Community] Center?
Tom Stebel [00:29:43] I—. 26 years I've been volunteering here. And it started by volunteering at the Living Room, which was a program of the [LGBT Community] Center to address the needs of people living with AIDS. And this was—. It started on West 28th [correction: 29th] Street, when the [LGBT Community] Center was there. There was a separate entrance for the Living Room, partly because some people living with AIDS didn't want to be associated as gay, whether they were gay or not. They—. So, by—. They were reticent to walk through the doors of an LGBT Center. It was L and B, I'm pretty—L and G [Lesbian Gay Community Center] just at the time, but they were reticent to walk through that door. But they would walk through the other door that said Living Room, because it wasn't associated with queerness—but then they got treatment, and they got help, so get—. It was more about getting people through that door. It didn't matter how they got through that door. Once they got in that door, they were treated with respect and allowed to research. There was a lot of information at the Living Room. This was pre—obviously pre-internet, so you went by word of mouth. You studied journals of medicine. I mean, you—. And we did that as a team. I mean, as a group of people. "Oh, I learned this". "Oh, I learned that." And the Living Room also did haircuts. They offered massage, massotherapy therapy to cli—people who went there. So, it was a really nice living room atmosphere where people could go to get support and get their needs met. Because there were a lot of things, like a barber might not cut the hair of someone living with AIDS. Or clothing—buying clothing for your body that's losing weight. How do you manage that? Where do you get new clothes? What about boost? Is that gonna help me with my nutrition? So, all those kind of things went on at the Living Room. And there were other places where that could happen, but the most important one to me—and the one that did the most good, I feel—was the Living Room, which was part—a program of the LGBT [Community] Center. And I continued working with the Living Room for many, many years. Until, eventually, the needs of people living with AIDS changed as they began to live longer lives, and so those kinds of things were less necessary. And I—. I then folded myself into the rest of the [LGBT Community] Center and—. I feel like I am the big winner in that I have met a lot of great friends here at the Center. I have a lot of—. I'm really in touch with many of the things that are going on in the community because I'm a volunteer here, and it's just been very rewarding.
Riley Habyl [00:34:01] Could you tell a bit more about your work with the [GBT Community] Center, outside of the Living Room?
Tom Stebel [00:34:04] Oh.
Riley Habyl [00:34:08] Some of the—
Tom Stebel [00:34:09] Oh, the other things they've done?
Riley Habyl [00:34:11] Yeah. If there were other programs that you were involved with, or initiatives that the [LGBT Community] Center's had over the years?
Tom Stebel [00:34:13] Well, currently I'm involved with all kinds of things, like—. I'm helping with the Heritage Awards, which is a yearly awards ceremony where people in the community are honored. And I'm—. I've been on that committee for five years now where we review people's applications, or nominations, pick someone, and then honor them. So, I've been involved in a lot of that. I myself am the recipient of a [LGBTQ+] Heritage Award. It was very impactful to have—to receive one, and from that moment on I wanted to be involved in seeing other people be impacted. Also, this year they're doing a—Strategic Planning for the [LGBT Community] Center, and I'm part of that steering committee. When the Pride scholarships were given out, I was part of the selection committee. So, by now I'm very much entrenched in being a community member here at the [LGBT Community] Center that works to make a better community.
Riley Habyl [00:35:54] How would you describe the LGBT Center—er, the LG—sorry, the LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland's role in the LGBT community, both when you first started volunteering with it and—. How would you describe the [LGBT Community] Center's role, or the evolution of the Center's role over time?
Tom Stebel [00:36:17] Well, I think that the common denominator there is leadership. People have always looked to the [LGBT Community] Center for leadership, and the things that they do, the directions they go are all to support the community, but—and community-driven, but follow that path. I think I have more to say about that, but can you prompt me with the question again?
Riley Habyl [00:36:53] Sure. So how would you describe the change, or the evolution of the Center's role in the LGBT community over time, whether that be its work or— (crosstalk)
Tom Stebel [00:37:03] So, even when—back in the day they were a—. They were leadership. The city would go to them when something was going on. The media would go to them, things like that. That's still true, and maybe more so, especially with social media. But when I answer the phone call—answer phone calls here, which I do once a week, people will call from all over the state with questions because we're a pretty renowned [LGBT Community] Center. People will call from other states to ask questions of the LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland. So, I think that its' breadth of impact has expanded greatly, almost—. Yes, I would just say, incrementally.
Riley Habyl [00:38:16] Sure. Thinking back to the early 1990s, how would you describe the—. I'm trying to think of a way to phrase this. How would you describe the attitudes or the responses to the LGBT Center and the LGBT community by the rest of Cleveland and the—you know, like, the communities that were here that the [LGBT Community] Center was engaging with that weren't part of the [LGBT] community?
Tom Stebel [00:38:51] Yeah. Well, I think that maybe in those early days, the [LGBT Community] Center was closeted a little bit. Because only the people who knew about the [LGBT Community] Center were involved with the Center. It didn't reach very many people beyond the group that needed them—when people came to them. Whereas, I think that nowadays they do a lot better outreach to make sure that people are being seen, and being cared for. Here's a really good example of that. The T [transgender] in LGBT wasn't there at the beginning, and it was a bit of a battle to get T [transgender] added to LGBT, but now it's an important incorporated part of the community. So, I think that that's just a small example of how—. Or, it's a big example, but just one example of how now their impact is just greater because of the outreach that they do.
Riley Habyl [00:40:22] If you don't mind, I'd love to sort of expand the inclusion of the—of transgender community members within both the LGBT community in Cleveland, and within the Center. Can you sort of describe how the inclusion of trans [transgender] community members sort of began—or how the Center and the community got from the—. Just the LG [lesbian gay center/community], to the LGBT [lesbian gay bisexual transgender center/community]?
Tom Stebel [00:40:45] Uhhuh. Well, you know, of course, the T [transgender] has always been there, and I think it was—. It was how everybody else treated them, or with a level accept—of acceptance or non-acceptance. And I think in the early days of the queer liberation, they—. There was a distinct battle over whether that fighting for gay rights—was that fighting for trans [transgender] rights as well? And that—. That—. There were a lot of arguments about that. There were a lot of arguments between lesbians and gays at the time. I mean, there was a lot of—. I mean, maybe that happens at any time a fledgling community organ—gets organized. Maybe there is some infighting about who is more important, or whose letter comes first. I mean, that was serious. Serious discussions about whether L [lesbian], or whether G [gay] came first. And then later, should we add a bi—a B [bisexual]? And then the T [transgender]. And, you know, really it was another level of acceptance in each step. And I think that each time that letter got added, it reflected an acceptance within the community, and maybe it allowed other people to have acceptance seeing that they are part of our community now. So, I think we're still struggling with that, absolutely. But the reality is, everybody needs our support and are deserving of it.
Riley Habyl [00:43:16] Circling back to— (crosstalk)
Tom Stebel [00:43:17] I'm gonna circle back to— (crosstalk)
Riley Habyl [00:43:17] Yeah.
Tom Stebel [00:43:17] I'm going to circle back to the animosity between L [lesbians] and G [gays] at the time. When peo—. That disappeared during the AIDS days, or during the AIDS crisis. There was no time for the L [lesbians] the G [gays] to have any sort of disputes about anything because they had to help. And they also noticed that T [transgender] was in there, B [bisexual] was in there. These all—. Our whole community needed to step up, unite, and help these—help people who were dying. And—. Maybe there's still so—a little bit of push and pull from L [lesbian] and G [gay], and—but B [bisexual] is more prominent than ever. It still has a lot of a (unintelligible) to go to. And the T [transgender] needs more acceptance, but it's there, and I'm very glad of it. And I'm ready for the Q [queer] at any time. Bring it on.
Riley Habyl [00:44:28] Could you tell me a little bit more about, sort of, before the AIDS crisis—the relationship between lesbians and gays in Cleveland, how the—. How did the dynamic between—?
Tom Stebel [00:44:44] Well, they were very separate. There were gay bars. There were lesbian bars. At the gay bars, you couldn't get in if you were wearing a s—. Unless you—. Women couldn't get in unless they were wearing a skirt. Okay? Unless they were wearing a skirt, because lesbians would be less likely to wear a skirt. Huh! That worked, to a degree. But some of—. Some friends of mine, like—. I had a girl friend. We would just trade. She would wear a skirt into the bar, and I'd have pants on, and we would trade. And I would wear the skirt, and she would wear the pants once we were past the door. So, that was—. I mean, that—. And it took the [LGBT Community] Center['s] intervention to show them how wrong that was. So, there was definitely a separation of the two. There were times when there was a community at large. But even today, for the—. At elders' picnics here at the [LGBT Community] Center, you'll find that the women will sit over here, and the men will sit over there and, what's—. What's one to do about that? You know, that might be just human nature, but it's much different now.
Riley Habyl [00:46:44] Were there any other things that sort of motivated those formerly separate groups to sort of convene together and, you know, to— (clears throat)
Tom Stebel [00:47:02] Well—
Riley Habyl [00:47:03] —to come together, other than the AIDS crisis?
Tom Stebel [00:47:04] Well, there were attacks from everywhere. So, there were a lot of battles to be fought, a lot of rights that needed to be wrong—. A lot of wrongs that needed to be righted. A lot of laws that needed to be changed. There was a lot to do, so there were many times when the two factions worked well together and got things done. Sometimes there was still that separation.
Riley Habyl [00:47:45] How would you describe the relationship between lesbians and gays in the eighties and nineties to, say, straight communities in Cleveland?
Tom Stebel [00:48:03] It's a small world. Cleveland['s] queer community is sometimes a small world, and so things got around. Rumors and—. I don't want to leave it there, because it's not just about rumors. It's just—. It's about a closeted, small group knowing each other, and learning from each other, and uniting eventually, and organizing and—.
Riley Habyl [00:48:47] Was there a lot of resistance from straight communities towards—whether like, activist efforts, or AIDS service organizations, or awareness efforts, or just efforts to create changes, like positive political changes for the LGBT community? Were there straight Clevelanders who were very supportive, or the opposite? (crosstalk)
Tom Stebel [00:49:10] There were, and the opposite. There were a lot of people who were very anti-gay, anti-AIDS, or felt like our community was being punished, like we got what we deserved. "All those men deserve to die," those kind of—. There was that mentality, and that showed up in places like protests, opinion pieces, ignorant newscasters, things like that. But—. Of course, nowadays things are much different, much more open. And people are being held responsible for the things they said, or at least they were.
Riley Habyl [00:50:11] When you came back to Cleveland in the nineties, were there any other organizations, groups, or subcultures in the LGBT community in Cleveland that you were a part of?
Tom Stebel [00:50:22] Wow. Uh, yes. Let's talk about the kink community.
Riley Habyl [00:50:31] Yeah.
Tom Stebel [00:50:31] I'm a—. I'm a Leatherman, and I'm involved in the kink community. And in 2001, Cleveland started something called the Cleveland Leather Annual Weekend, or CLAW, and—. I got involved by volunteering with that group, and eventually became an organizer. And currently, I sit on their board, and they—. CLAW [Cleveland Leather Annual Weekend] is a weekend out of the year where people in the kink world come—from all over the world—to Cleveland. 1,500 people were at CLAW last year. In 2019, there were 2,000 people at CLAW. And they come from all over the world, all over the country—and a third of them come from northeast Ohio. And they have a weekend full of education classes, forums, research. And then there are also classes where you—where people are showing you how—. What kink—. What kind of kinks there are, and what kind of things you can do, and how to flog someone safely, and a lot of work around consent. And then every evening there's a huge party, and—if not more than one party. And all weekend there are opportunities to donate money. And at the end of it, they take all of the proceeds and give it away to the charities in the city that it's in. And the last time we—CLAW [Cleveland Leather Annual Weekend] did that, they gave $90,000 dollars away. All of—. Much of that went to Leather charities, because Leather charities find it very hard to get funding. Like the Leather Archives in a museum in Chicago, they—we fund them. CLAW [Cleveland Leather Annual Weekend] funds the Tom of Finland building in L.A. [Los Angeles]. Here at the [LGBT Community] Center, they provided funding so that there could be a full-time staff member for the senior group. And have spread charitable money throughout our community—mostly queer, and mostly AIDS-related. So, that's just one side gig I have. (laughs) But that's a very important one, and a very impactful one. And I'm very proud of that.
Riley Habyl [00:54:00] Could you tell me a bit more about the Leather community in Cleveland, both how you got involved with it and—. Yeah, both how you became aware of it—?
Tom Stebel [00:54:10] Well, I'm—. I've always been interested in the Leather bars, because it's a different scene. It's very—. When—. In—. When I first started going, it was because I had met some Leathermen, and they said, "Come on, let's go." And it's a—. It's a very testosterone, masculine-seeming place, and I was drawn to that. I was drawn to those type of people, and so that's how I got involved. And when I—. When I first came back to Cleveland, there were three Leather bars here in Cleveland that were very lively. On the weekends you could bar hop from Leather bar, to Leather bar, to Leather bar. So, there was a lot of activity, and there were—. There are still some Leather men's groups that are involved in Cleveland. Like, there's a Uniform group called the Rangers, and there's a Mr. Cleveland Leather [competition]. All those kind of things. And nowadays, that Leather community, in a way, diluted itself into the rest of the community. And now there's only one Leather bar in Cleveland. And although there are groups like the Rangers that are still around, there aren't new groups really being started. So, there's a little bit of a change there. And I'm not sure what that is about. Maybe that's swing of the pendulum, because I notice that the Mr. Lea—Cleveland Leather, and Mr. Leather Bear, are both very driven, and they are creating more things around the Leather community than I've seen in a while. And maybe that will bring about more interest. Like, during Pride Month, there was a forum—a roundtable discussion here [the LGBT Community Center] about the Leather community, the history of Cleveland's Leather community. And that had never been done before, and that was really a nice thing to see. I attended that, and as I sat there listening to people who I knew tell—talk about the history of the Leather community here. I realized that I lived the community—the history—and it wasn't as impactful for me because I had lived that history. But the room was crowded, and there were quite a few young people who were curious about what the history had been, so I was excited that there was more enthusiasm about it than I expected. And one of the reasons I went was because I wanted to make sure at least somebody went to their event. But it turned out the room was full, so I was glad that that happened. But—. So, there's—. So there's some difference, but I'm not—. I'm not sure what the—why that is. Because another thing that has happened is that we've lost gay bars. Gay bars—gay, lesbian bars just aren't necessarily part of the scene as much these days. Whereas, because we had very few queer spaces, bars meant a whole lot more.
Riley Habyl [00:58:43] At what point would you say—. This is a quick aside before asking a few more questions about the Leather community, but at what point would you say that gay bars, or lesbian bars, stopped being the primary community space for, like, congregation or organization?
Tom Stebel [00:59:07] Maybe as more people came out. Meaning that—that wherever they went was going to be queer. And so, though—. So, we didn't necessarily need as m—. Seemingly, we didn't need as many queer spaces because we could be our queer selves just about anywhere. Or, so it seemed. Because there are places where we aren't our queer selves, and that's unfortunate.
Riley Habyl [00:59:47] You'd mentioned that you had gone to three main Leather bars. Do you remember the names of those bars?
Tom Stebel [00:59:53] Well—. The Leather Stallion Saloon [2205 St. Clair Ave], which is still in operation, is the oldest Leather bar here in the state of Ohio. A Man's World [2909 Detroit Ave.] was another one, and Man's World had three separate spaces inside. There was the Tool Shed, there was Man's World, and there was another space that they gave another masculine name. And then they had a patio. So, it was a pretty vast complex. And Rockie's [2908 Detroit Ave.] was the third place that—is still a bar now, but it has a different name. And those are definitely those things.
Riley Habyl [01:00:58] I might be misremembering this, but I believe the Leather Stallion [Saloon]'s been open since the seventies.
Tom Stebel [01:01:02] Yes.
Riley Habyl [01:01:03] Do you know what's—. Considering that, you know, Rockie's, and Tool Shed, and A Man's World have closed, you know, I think within the past 10-20 years. What do you think has contributed to the longevity of the Leather Stallion [Saloon]?
Tom Stebel [01:01:19] Community. I think community. When the men who—. The two men who owned it for most of that time were very dedicated to keeping the community active, and in maintaining a space for them to congregate. And when they decided to retire, a friend of mine bought the bar, and—with the full intention of carrying on that legacy, and—. So, I think if he hadn't done that, it would have gone away like the others.
Riley Habyl [01:02:17] Could you tell me a little bit about the history of the Leather community in Cleveland, at least as far as the history that you were aware of?
Tom Stebel [01:02:27] Well, I don't—. I'm not sure what to say, because—. (unknown noise) I think it's the story of every middle-sized American city that was big enough to support a Leather community. And it wasn't as impactful as cities on the coast, except that they created CLAW [Cleveland Leather Annual Weekend] here, and that—. That's world-renowned. And so, there were some things that they've done that are la—a lasting legacy, and some things that are just part of everyday life.
Riley Habyl [01:03:27] I know that you've mentioned that there were Leather contests at a lot of the Leather bars. Did CLAW [Cleveland Leather Annual Weekend] have a Leather contest?
Tom Stebel [01:03:33] Well, interesting that you should ask. There are no contests at CLAW [Cleveland Leather Annual Weekend], purposely. There are other—. There are two lar—. There are three—. Let me say this. There are three large Leather events in the United States. One is International [Mr.] Male Leather, and that's in Chicago. That's the biggest. And then there's M.A.L. [Mid-Atlantic Leather Weekend] in Washington, D.C. Both of those are a huge contest. They are—. And the whole weekend is driven around contests. Who's going to win? Who's going to win? "I'm going to win, me over here!" and it's about that competition. There's a lot of community building during that time, but it's driven by the competition. CLAW [Cleveland Leather Annual Weekend] chose to not have a competition so that they could focus on education, and all those other things. And nobody is the big winner at the end of the weekend. Everybody is the big winner at the end of the weekend. But contests—. There are still contests here in Cleveland for the Leather community. Mr. Cleveland Leather [contest]. There they created a Mr. Senior Leather [contest]. Mr. Bear—Mr. Cleveland Bear [contest]. Of course, that—. There's—. Also, Akron has a Leather community, and they have a Mr. Akron Leather [contest], so it's—. I forgot where we started on this question, but that's my answer.
Riley Habyl [01:05:23] In addition to your involvement in the Leather community, are there any other groups, organizations, or subcultures that you've been active in?
Tom Stebel [01:05:30] I'm on the swim team [Cleveland Aquatic Team]. I'm on a queer swim team that was organized for the Gay Games , when the Gay Games were held in Cleveland in 2014. And in 2010, a small group of people started training for the [Gay] Games in 2014. And what—. We practiced for that period of time. And during that time the Gay Games in Cologne [Germany] happened, so a small faction of our swim team went to Cologne. There are 31 queer swim teams associated with IGLA, International Gay and Lesbian Aquatics. They are national—international, and there are 31 teams. One of them [Cleveland Aquatic Team] is here in Cleveland. Ohio has two. There's one in Columbus, too. But there's only 31 of them around the world, and one's here in Cleveland. And we've been prac—. We've been continuing our training, and—. Not all of us compete. Some of us are just there for the camaraderie, and the support, and the community, and the exercise. But I do compete, and part of that is being visible in our community. We're the queer team. And when we show up to a local meet, we are the queer team and—. We currently have several transgender individuals who are swimming in our swim team. We have a swim meet coming up, and I suspect that at this meet we're going to ruffle some feathers because these transgender swimmers are fast, and they're going to beat some people, and—who might be upset. But we're we're all prepared. We're going as a group. We're all prepared for any negativity. But that's what, you know, sports, queerness—the intersection of queerness and sports and health are—all happen in my swim—queer swim team.
Riley Habyl [01:08:13] Speaking of increasing visibility, would you say that the visibility of the LGBT community in Cleveland has increased over time?
Tom Stebel [01:08:24] Absolutely. Absolutely. As we were—. As I was giving you a tour [of the LGBT Community Center], I talked about how—. When we were in different buildings, the first building [on W.29th and Detroit] that I was involved with was very run down, and the basement was very scary, and there were critters living in this building with us. So, it wasn't a very nice space. It was our space, so it got treated well, and a lot of really great things happened there, but it wasn't the nicest space. And then the [LGBT Community] Center moved to—maybe a nicer space, but it was in the basement of a building [Gordon Square Arcade]. And that had its own problems, especially once people were connected to the internet to—there was a lot of trouble keeping it up to date because they were in the basement, and—(coughs). But now that they've moved into a brand new building [6705 Detroit Ave.] that they built specifically for the [LGBT Community] Center, I feel like the community—the general public, the general community—looks at the [LGBT Community] Center differently because they have this big brand new building. And there—. It must have carried a certain clout with it because people want to be involved. They want to reach out and get involved in ways that I haven't seen before. And I feel like that's because now we have this big building [6705 Detroit Ave.]. Also, maybe we are more visible because we have this big building, and that couldn't hurt.
Riley Habyl [01:10:32] Would you say that over time that the [LGBT Community] Center has become more involved in activities within Cleveland as a whole, not just within the LGBT community? Like if—. Has there been any more of an integration with the city as a whole?
Tom Stebel [01:10:50] Absolutely. Absolutely. Even the Heritage Day, or Heritage Awards, are from the city of Cleveland. There—. They are—. The [LGBT Community] Center runs—helps them go through that process, but the actual award is the city award. So, there is a lot more interaction with the business world, with the (smacks teeth)—with our elected officials. I think that maybe we've become more of an integral piece of everybody's life, and a space and a place where people can rely on to send someone or to go themselves.
Riley Habyl [01:11:56] If you could sort of reflect on your life experiences, what would you say are some of the biggest changes that you have experienced within the LGBT community from, say, the eighties during the AIDS crisis up through the present? How has the community changed from—I suppose, like, the eighties during the AIDS crisis, to [the] present?
Tom Stebel [01:12:21] Well, I think there's a whole—. There's a lot more openness. A lot more visibility. You know, sometimes that comes with a price, maybe. But it's certainly worth it. I think that those are the major differences that I feel have happened over the years. People are less afraid to be out. People are less afraid to be their authentic selves. More people are being their authentic selves, and I feel like that just makes the world a better place.
Riley Habyl [01:13:03] Could you tell me a little bit about some of—maybe some of the problems, or some of the issues that have accompanied that visibility over the years?
Tom Stebel [01:13:12] Well, we—. Currently, there is a backlash against the [LGBT] community, with the face of drag as being the target. Though, they may be the target—but it's directed at our whole community. And so—. And there's all kinds of—. Because we've opened up and put ourselves out there, it allows people to attack, and to try to other us. But because we are a community, and because we stand together, I feel like that—. That in the long run, we will prevail. They can shout all they want, and eventually, they'll run out of things to say. But as long as we are presenting ourselves as loving human beings, then we know in our minds and hearts that we are the better persons.
Riley Habyl [01:14:37] Fantastic. I'm just going to check through my questions here to make sure there's not anything I missed. Oh, I meant to ask when we were talking about the Cleveland Aquatic Team—. Were you involved in any capacity in Gay Games 9, in 2014?
Tom Stebel [01:14:58] I was. I was part—. I signed up to be a Gay Games volunteer, and I was an ambassador, which meant that I spread the word about the Gay Games wherever I could, and whenever I could. And so, when it was finished here, then—. I went to Paris in 2018—was the last Gay Games. And there is—. The Gay Games holds what's called the International Rainbow Run, where each of the cities that hosted the Gay Games has a run, much like they carry the torch for the Olympics. So, at each run they had the Gay Games flags there, and there was some support from the Gay Games of each of these cities. And in 2018, I helped organize that—Cleveland's portion of the International Rainbow run. And I will again. I'm helping there this year. The [Gay] Games are in Guadalajara, Mexico, and in Hong Kong, China. And there will be a run in each city. Cleveland isn't having a run this year, but Akron is. So, Akron will be representing our northeast Ohio here for the Rainbow Run. So, I'm still involved a little bit, and I will compete again in the Gay Games. I think it's a really wonderful organization and a really wonderful way to show how sport and queerness intersect together, and how we can celebrate that. The Gay Games being here was very impactful. Really, there were—. It—. When you would go around the city, people knew that the Gay Games were here. They were very welcoming. You would hear conversations in a Giant Eagle about the Gay Games coming, and that was very re—nice to see. I think at the time the taxi drivers were a little offended by advertising that they had to have on their taxis. But other than that, the rest of the community was really welcoming. There's a story where some people were waiting for a bus, and they got on the bus and they had their medals on, and the bus exploded in applause for them. So, I mean, there's—. There were some really neat moments, and it was really impactful for the community here to recognize gay people, recognize that they're part of the community, recognize that they have these really neat, unique lives that they could be part of. And I think it was really impactful to happen here.
Riley Habyl [01:18:40] Do you know if it was—if there was any degree of difficulty that the organizers of Gay Games 9 in Cleveland encountered in the process of trying to put the [Gay] Games on here in Cleveland? I know that must've required a lot of, you know, planning and organizing, coordinating—
Tom Stebel [01:19:01] I don't know that they had any trouble. I think that they had pushback from Boston [Massachusetts], and [Washington] D.C. communities who were also in the running that year. And all the other people who said, "Why Cleveland?", or didn't come because it was in Cleveland. I mean, I feel like there was that impact that people thought, "Well, why are we meeting in Cleveland?" But as people look back at the Gay Games, Cleveland is renowned for being one of the best. They also were the only one who ended—finished in the black. All the other Gay Games have lost money except for Cleveland's, and they were able to set up a foundation—through the Cleveland Foundation—with the bit of money that they had extra.
Riley Habyl [01:20:07] That's very impressive.
Tom Stebel [01:20:08] Right.
Riley Habyl [01:20:15] Why would you say that—. Er, for what reasons would you say that people reflecting back on the [Cleveland Gay] Games said that it was, you know, one of the best that was held, (Tom sneezes) compared to other Gay Games held in other cities?
Tom Stebel [01:20:30] All that community support. I think they've felt—here—welcomed, and I think that translated to everybody having a really great time.
Riley Habyl [01:20:46] Fantastic. I think I've gotten through the majority of the questions that I was looking to ask.
Tom Stebel [01:20:48] Okay.
Riley Habyl [01:20:51] Before we get towards ending the recording, is there anything else that you'd like to speak about, or anything that I haven't asked that you'd like to talk about?
Tom Stebel [01:20:58] We didn't talk about gay marriage, and I will because I'm married, so—. I was very—. I was not—. I was against gay marriage. I was—. I never felt like I wanted to be married, personally. That was my choice. And I didn't feel like gay marriage was—. The bar was too low. I felt like we needed equality. Let's go for equality, and then all those other things will fall into place. And instead, gay marriage was the push. And I helped with that, but I felt like we could have done better. But—. When the reality is, it made the rest of society think of queers differently because they now were on a similar playing field, and now their relationships were being accepted, and equally accepted. And I think that did filter down into some other things happening. But as we've learned, that's all tenuous, and any of our rights could be taken away at any time. But I did get married, because my partner and I have—are together 35 years, and we were—27 years of me saying, "No, I'm not marrying you." And I did have to say no a couple times. I just—. Wasn't for me, and the timing wasn't right. But eventually I said yes, and I'm really glad of it. I learned that it—. For my partner, it was the most important thing, and—. It wasn't important to me, but to him it was the most important thing. And when I married him, I learned that I made him the happiest man ever because his dreams came true. All he ever wanted to be was my husband.
Riley Habyl [01:23:48] Congratulations.
Tom Stebel [01:23:48] Thanks. So, in the long run, I became a fan of gay marriage. I mean, I still think it opened up a lot of doors for the community. But as we learned recently, sometimes those doors might get shut. And so, we have to be mindful to keep our rights, and fight for our rights as we have them now, while fighting for more.
Riley Habyl [01:24:22] Would you say that part of that resistance to gay marriage being, quote unquote, 'The Issue'—like, the primary (Tom sneezes) concern—sort of pushed other, more immediate concerns within the LGBT community to the back burner?
Tom Stebel [01:24:40] Yeah. Look at housing. And housing is one of the most common calls here at the [LGBT Community] Center—that either someone who is unhoused, or is not sufficiently housed. And we don't have any protections, and maybe that was really more important than marriage. Because this person could get married on Monday—I mean, on Friday—and lose their job, lose their housing, lose their benefits on Monday. So, that's what I mean about—. Maybe there were some other things that we could have tackled that might have helped more. But, they were all separate pieces. And so housing was one, and the equity at the workplace was another. And so, some of those things happened when marriage equality was—came about. Some of them fell into place. But the bigger issues, I think, still needed addressing.
Riley Habyl [01:26:10] Absolutely. Is there anything else that you think—
Tom Stebel [01:26:18] No, that was the one thing that I felt that we hadn't talked about.
Riley Habyl [01:26:23] I do have one ending question.
Tom Stebel [01:26:25] Okay.
Riley Habyl [01:26:28] It's a—sort of a reflection type of a question. What is a message that you would like others to hear about your experiences, or the experiences of others like you? For people listening to this recording now or in the future.
Tom Stebel [01:26:43] Okay. Can you repeat the question?
Riley Habyl [01:26:45] Sure. So, what is a message that you would like others to hear about your experiences, or the experiences of others like you?
Tom Stebel [01:27:03] Hmm, wow. Well, I guess my efforts have always been about making sure that individuals in the future have a community to rely on, that they can go to, and—. Community building. Sometimes it's hard work, but don't be afraid of it because it's important to have community. We are stronger as a community. And sometimes that's hard to get to, but it's important because through our strength as a group we get a lot more done.
Riley Habyl [01:27:54] Fantastic. Thank you so much for speaking with me today.
Tom Stebel [01:27:57] You bet, Riley.
Riley Habyl [01:27:59] All right. Thank you again, Tom. I'm going to stop the recording.
Tom Stebel [01:28:03] Okay.
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