The speaker talks about his work with gay and lesbian communities in Cleveland
Harris, Buck (interviewee)
Miller, Emily (interviewer)
Emily Miller [00:00:04] April 25th, we are at Buck Harris's house on Bridge [Avenue] in Cleveland. We're gonna go ahead and start asking Buck some questions about his experiences in Cleveland.
Buck Harris [00:00:18] Ok.
Emily Miller [00:00:18] Now, I heard that you went to Cleveland State but then transferred to Antioch so please tell me about your why you did that.
Buck Harris [00:00:25] I did. I started off at Cleveland State because I wasn't a great academician and so I didn't do all that well in high school and I kind of had to settle for Cleveland State, but I got serious about school. And then I remember it was the Kent State shoot, the May 4th when the shootings occurred at Kent State. And I got... By this time I was already pretty radical. And, you know, my hair was flying down my back and or as there was a song, I had my freak flag flying. And Cleveland just wasn't radical enough for me. And I was just really pissed off about the lack of response to the shootings and stuff. And I made the decision then that I needed to get out of Dodge. And so there was a wonderful program at Antioch College, not the Yellow Springs campus, the one in... They used to have a campus in Columbia, Maryland, and it was called the Baltimore-Washington Corridor Campus. In Personal and Organizational Development. And so I found out about that program. They find out about me and I was accepted. And that part of me also, I realized that at the time, at least if I was going to come out, that I needed to get out of Cleveland. You know, I come from a wonderful family. But at the time, my my fears were that they would not accept me. And I think that was the fear most of us had at the time, that nobody would accept us. My father was a professional athlete. I think if he had his way, he would've been buried in a jockstrap. And so I just felt like part of me wanted to go there so I could just be who I was. And as it turned out, that did happen. I really did sort of come out, although not at Antioch College, which was such a liberal school. I was bisexual back then. You know, the old... But I started... So I went to Antioch and then I started working in Maryland and living in Washington, D.C. And D.C. is such a great gay town. Always was and still is. And not only did I started living there, but I started working in a gay bar called the Georgetown Bar and Grill. It was the second oldest gay bar in Georgetown-- in Washington. And it's matter of fact. I was teaching vocational agriculture in Maryland and bartending at a gay bar. They used to call me Rebecca from Sunnybrook Farm. So talk about being schizophrenic and living two lives, I really was. So I continued to teach agriculture for about four or five years in Maryland and decided I really wanted... Again, my hippie side was still rearing its head and I wanted to join the Peace Corps. So I signed up to join in the Peace Corps and was accepted and was supposed to go down to Colombia, South America. And en route, I decided to stop home and say hello to my folks. I went down to the 620, which was an old gay bar in Cleveland, and I met this guy whose name was Don. And I literally... I... It really was love at first sight. I mean, I just... He knocked me off the bar stool. I ended up canceling my trip, staying in Cleveland. Don and I set up house and were together for the next eleven years. Now, so here I am back in Cleveland, and it was because of the relationship with Don that I came out to my family. And that was a really wonderful experience for me. You know, my dad, this big jock, real macho guy, a man's man, you know, he said, how long have you known? And I said, for as long as I can remember. And he said, then why didn't you tell me? And I said, I was just afraid. He said, Did you think I would love you any less? So that was pretty. And my mother, I remember one time I was speaking at Cleveland State--this would have been about 1976--to the classes of human sexuality and that one of the students said, do your parents know that you're gay? And I said, as a matter of fact, they do. And they said, well, how did they take it? I said once you asked that lady over there in the fourth row. And so my mother got up and said, we always knew that Bucky was different. We just didn't know he was that different. So, you know, I had a great experience coming out. And for the considering the time, that was pretty, pretty, pretty good. I started then working in family planning, became director of education training for Planned Parenthood, which was such a great training ground for me and my activism. I got involved in NARAL. I was on the board of directors, the state NARAL chapter, you know, I mean, Planned Parenthood has always been at the forefront of health issues and women's issues, although while I was working for them, I was still closeted. So let's see then I also got certified by the Centers for Disease Control as an STD technician. So I was basically a professional pecker checker which for a gay man ain't a bad job. And the tips were wonderful. So I set up a clinic out in Lake County, an STD Clinic, was working for Planned Parenthood, director of education and training. And then there... Word came out that there was this new disease and it was rearing its head. This was '84, actually it was '83. That there was a disease that was cropping its head, showing itself, and the governor was interested in creating a position, hiring someone who would be publicly gay and act as a liaison for public health to that community at great risk. And so someone from the governor's staff, Carolyn Lukensmeyer, asked if I would consider applying for the position. And I, this is, I am trying... It is '84 so I'm solo. So this would have been about October the same month. My partner Don--at this time, we'd been together for eight years, nine years? eight years--became very, very ill very, very quickly, was hospitalized in October. And they, almost simultaneously, I think the same week the state offered me the job and I accepted. Don was diagnosed with AIDS. So that was a pretty incredible experience. [Phone Ringing] Hello, this is Buck. Yes, it is. No, we do not. Yes, and I'm not interested in accepting credit cards. Thanks. I'm on a no call list too, so. She said, "Is this Buck Naked Yoga? Do you accept credit cards?" It was a woman. I'm thinking... Anyway. Sorry. So. So here. Here I am with with Don, just finding out that he's got full blown AIDS. I was offered the job. Now in 1984, by this time we'd been together for eight years, we certainly hadn't been practicing safe sex. There was... They'd never even coined the term in '83. So I was pretty scared for what was going to happen to him. And I was also very scared about what was going to happen to me. And I kind of felt like we were both ticking time bombs just waiting to go off. Don's response to knowing he had AIDS, he was first generation Slovak and Catholic. And it was do not tell anybody. Well, it wasn't long before he started looking like a walking case. I mean, he went from being a strikingly handsome guy to looking like he'd been in a Nazi prison camp within a year's time because they didn't have any treatments back then. I do remember going to Mexico and smuggling back... There were two drugs that a physician at the Cleveland Clinic. I won't mention his name because even still he could probably get in trouble for it, but said there are two drugs that you can get a hold of, it may have some positive effect and it may be able to help him. So I smuggled back about almost a thousand dollars worth of drugs back through the border. And needless to say, they were they were of no use. They didn't do anything. He died in 1986. And I found out in early in '86 that I had no trace of the virus. Not not only was I, not only was I now, I mean that there was no antivirus, there, I mean, there was no viral load, there was no trace of my ever had been having been exposed, which was impossible. I had to have been exposed many, many times. So it was one other instance of divine intervention in my life. So let's see. My involvement in the gay community started, though, prior to, I mean, I think one of the reasons that they were interested in me was I was involved with Stonewall. We called it back then, was it Eleanor Democratic Society?
Emily Miller [00:09:45] Think so, and then it changed.
Buck Harris [00:09:48] I think we started off actually as Stonewall and changed to Eleanor Democrat... Eleanor Roosevelt Democratic Society. Jerry, there's Jerry. What's his name? Red-headed guy from Case Western who was very active. Anyway, I, you know, I was, I got involved with that. And, you know, was attending all their meetings and stuff. Didn't take any leadership role because mainly because I think I was a little bit paranoid about Planned Parenthood finding out if I became too visible in public.
Emily Miller [00:10:23] Can you talk about some of the things that they did during the time you were involved, like some of the issues they got involved in?
Buck Harris [00:10:30] Well, we certainly I remember working for Celeste's campaign and helping, you know, certainly trying to get him elected. We said there was certainly never discussion about gay marriage or anything. I mean, that was, that was so far out of reach that we, I mean, it was never even discussed. I mean, the concept was beyond us that we would ever in our life ever really talk about the possibilities of legalized unions between same sex couples. I think most... A lot of our discussion was how, I think the early discussions were about how do we unite gay men and lesbians to the same cause? Because at the time, there were very, very few lesbians involved in anything. And that was true with a Mattachine Society. I mean, when you except for the Daughters of Bilitis, there really weren't there wasn't much union between gay men and lesbians. I remember interviewing the daughter, the founder of the Daughters of Bilitis.
Emily Miller [00:11:34] Really?
Buck Harris [00:11:35] If you ever if you want to do some archiving, I mean, it takes some work. But I've got some interviews with Frank Kameny and Dorothy from Daughters of Bilitis.
Emily Miller [00:11:47] Sure um.
Buck Harris [00:11:47] Anyway. I've got. I've interviewed them all. Yeah. I mean, it was it was pretty glorious.
Emily Miller [00:11:54] Could you, now, this might be a hard question but you know the fact that you didn't feel comfortable coming out in Cleveland, can you pinpoint any reasons why Cleveland was any different from, let's say, D.C.?
Buck Harris [00:12:03] Well, I think I don't. I think it was our own internalized homo... I think so many of us were so homophobic ourselves. That societally, there was still no place that was welcoming except Provincetown, I think. And so most gay men and lesbians left home to come out. I mean, that's... New York City was full of lonely gay men who wished they could have stayed home but moved to the city so that they could be who they were. So the same was true for San Francisco. And so a lot of gay men, sadly, left their hometown so that they could be who they were.
Emily Miller [00:12:44] Someone called it a gay mecca.
Buck Harris [00:12:49] What, New York City? Yeah.
Emily Miller [00:12:50] Were you at all involved with the GEAR organization?
Buck Harris [00:12:56] Um, I, yes. But I gotta say, I didn't... I did some volunteer work on the phones and stuff, but I wasn't passionate about that at the time. I... So I can remember a few of the figures and the faces and, but Bob Randall's being the most... Oh, and Nick Palumbo. Yeah. Nick was very instrumental in... Hey, Namaste, don't be eating the flowers there. So I didn't get involved with GEAR until really I began working for the governor's office.
Emily Miller [00:13:47] What year... Do you remember what year it was that you started working? Was it seventy... Sorry, eighty...
Buck Harris [00:13:53] For the governor?
Emily Miller [00:13:54] Yeah.
Buck Harris [00:13:54] My official start date was January 1st, 1984, and the State of Ohio was the first state in the country to create such a position.
Emily Miller [00:14:07] Why do you think Ohio was so progressive?
Buck Harris [00:14:08] Because we had a great governor and probably Dagmar had some influence on that as well. And Dick Celeste right from the get go said you do whatever you need to do. He said, There are times when I would prefer you not create a paper trail, but do whatever you have to do to try to stop the spread of this disease. So with state dollars, I was paying my way into gay bathhouses. And, you know, I'm doing pretty, pretty crazy stuff considering the time. We did our brochure called A Gay Man's Guide to Health that at the time was just so controversial and radical. It was pretty, pretty amazing when you think of the year and some and some of the... I created a slide series, very sexually explicit slide series. Used state dollars to pay some gay models to do some nude modeling and traveled the state, actually traveled the country because it became so well-known, doing this slideshow in places like Steubenville and, you know, I got, you know, places where it was wise for me to keep my car running, you know? Dick Celeste said they never got more mail. No one employee ever generated as much mail as I did. [crosstalk] And he wasn't saying that.
Buck Harris [00:15:37] It's mostly bad, mostly, you know, because when you're doing a great job, people have a right to say, oh, what a great job. It's just the people that were just outraged that there would be such a position and this guy is going around and talking like this all over the place. Yeah. He said you would not believe the mail we get on you. It was really funny.
Emily Miller [00:15:57] When you were the gay health consultant of Ohio, you traveled, like you said, all over Ohio. Did you see any difference between like let's say, the Cleveland community vs Columbus where they were a little more open?
Buck Harris [00:16:10] Yes. And I think, though, the biggest it wasn't as radical a difference between Cleveland and Columbus. What was different is when you would go to a town like Lima, there the gay and lesbian community were united because, the larger the city the more opportunities there were for gay men and lesbians to isolate. They could have... You could have a lesbian bar. You could have... There was Isis and there was... And so, but in Lima, what was the bar there called, something related to Over the... It wasn't over the. Maybe it was Over the Rainbow, but in Lima or in Mansfield, there was one bar in town. And sometimes that gay bar was only gay one or two nights a week. So, you know, the gay men and lesbians were friends. They really worked together. So I didn't see a big difference between Cleveland and Columbus.
Emily Miller [00:17:03] Did you... I've read some of your... most of your articles in the Gay People's Chronicle.
Buck Harris [00:17:07] Yeah.
Emily Miller [00:17:08] So did you find that a positive avenue or?
Buck Harris [00:17:11] Well, initially, I don't know. Did you read about the controversy?
Emily Miller [00:17:15] Yes. The language.
Buck Harris [00:17:15] Yeah, yeah. It was just ridiculous. Martha and I really butted heads on this one. And I've always been somewhat careful about language, but I thought in our own press we shouldn't edit anything that needs to be said. And and so there was a lot of controversy about that. In my brochure I was much less explicit, still fairly controversial but less explicit, and didn't use words that I wouldn't use in public. But for the gay press, I thought, you know, come on. Desperate times call for desperate measures. So I won.
Emily Miller [00:17:53] Did you publish in any other... I mean did you write articles in any other [inaudible]?
Buck Harris [00:17:59] Yes. I was also a consultant for Connection magazine, which was Ohio Swingers Community. Rubin Sterman, which was another controversial thing. I mean, you know, I don't know that anyone would have liked to know that the governor's aide was working with Rubin Sterman. But I was concerned about stopping spreads, not just in the gay community, but among anyone, and swingers are, you know, were pretty wild and crazy and doing some dangerous stuff. So I went to swingers' clubs, which was a real treat. You know, there's. I went to a swinger club in Toledo and in Cleveland. I forgot all about that. Geez! And so I'd be lecturing there, you know, we were all naked in a swingers' club talking about safe sex.
Emily Miller [00:18:45] Can you explain some of the techniques you did or what you talked about?
Buck Harris [00:18:49] One of the things I did was in addition to my slide show, which was really fun and of course, needless to say, I picked some really hot looking models, but so the slide show itself was really entertainment. And so I really... The last thing I wanted to do was a laundry list of do not, do not, do not. It was really much more here's what we can do, guys. And you know, the worst thing about safe sex was everyone was saying it's all right to have sex just don't exchange bodily fluids, not realizing that the reason we have sex is to exchange bodily fluids. It's not just to have the big orgasm. The great reward is the exchange. So how can you continue to do that and still allow yourself to be at least minimally at risk? You know, gay men are risk takers, period. Being gay is risky business. And so how can we just minimize the risk and do it sanely so that you know, so. So anyway, I developed a game called Stop Go Caution. It was a board game that gay men could sit down and play and negotiate what they were going to do sexually before they became sexual. And it was, again, it was revolutionary. The state paid for the publication of it. I think I have one copy left, but it was wonderful. And people really loved it, you know, and playing the game itself was very erotic. I mean, it's kind of hot to sit down with a prospective partner and say, here's what I'm willing to do. And, you know. So I think the reason I was so successful at what I did was because I approached it in such a positive light. And I got a sense of humor. And that's really, really important. You know, if you're gonna carry that kind of message, you've got to be able to laugh about some of this stuff.
Emily Miller [00:20:43] How did you when you were working with people, what was the majority? White men? Minorities? Did you have any women that were supporting what you were doing?
Buck Harris [00:20:50] Very few minorities early on. Not surprising. Again, there was a great divide all across the state between the Black and Latino community and the white gay community. And there was always support from the women's community, from the lesbian community, especially. I'm embarrassed to say that I think if this epidemic had hit the lesbians, I think the gay man would still be out discoing and having brunches and would have never responded the way the lesbian community did for gay men. And the gay male community owes a tremendous debt to the lesbian community for the work that they put in right from the get go. I get chills when I think about that.
Emily Miller [00:21:38] So overall, how do you see the AIDS epidemic in Ohio and in Cleveland specifically changing the dynamics of the gay community?
Buck Harris [00:21:48] It is what really, I mean, you talk about the solidification of the gay community. It is what brought gay... the word gay into public life, and like it or not, it really brought more people out of the closet than anyone could have ever imagined in a very, very short amount of time. So it thrust... It ripped the hinges off the doors in Ohio's closets. And so, I mean, I came out as a result of it, and the number of men who got sick and had to confront their families and come home to die... I'll never forget, I had the experience... I was the keynote speaker in Fremont, Ohio, and there was a... what denomination... one of those really conservative ministers. His first name was Homer. And he said... And I said, I'm surprised that you're here. He was a Seventh Day Adventist. He said I never thought... and the reason he was at this dinner was he was now a volunteer for David's House in Toledo. And he said, One of my parishioners came home to die to Fremont, Ohio. And I said to myself, My God, what am I going to do about this? And he said, That young man taught me more about love and acceptance. He said that the parish did not want him buried in our cemetery. He said, I end up leaving the parish. But I'll never forget this man. What an amazing guy. And it's, so it's people like him who also came out in our support. You know, my dad came out, not as a gay man but as the father of a gay son. He went on Morning Exchange on National Coming Out Day. He started off by saying, I want to make it perfectly clear I am not coming out as gay today. But I said, but you are in effect coming out, as you know. So anyway, so it brought... AIDS brought us into the forefront. And as a result of AIDS, we started talking about the issues of partner protections, because I can't tell you how many times I had the experience of significant others being excluded from visiting hospitals. And some of the early on stories were just so tragic. Lovers not being able to see their partner as they're dying in the hospital. I'll never forget a guy I met in Toledo. Oh, it was just, it was just... It was just horrendous. It was horrendous. He was in isolation. The nurses looked like beekeepers when they came in. Nobody was touching this guy. And I walked in and I just sat down on his bed. I put my arms around him and he just started sobbing. He said, you're the first person that's touched me in two weeks. And his lover was not allowed to come in because he wasn't immediate family and he was in intensive care. Blah blah blah, you know, so AIDS really helped us look at the issues of how do you protect partners? I lost a great deal of my estate when my partner died because I wasn't legally protected.
Emily Miller [00:25:01] Do you happen to remember the Fabian Bridges controversy?
Buck Harris [00:25:11] Yes, I was heavily involved in that.
Emily Miller [00:25:13] Could you talk about that a little bit more?
Buck Harris [00:25:18] I'm trying to remember. Fabian was a hustler, a young black hustler who made big news because he was rather attractive and as a result was highly sexually active and knowing that he was HIV positive, refused to notify his prospective partners and was actually taking some joy in, I guess, infecting them. And so they asked if I would be willing to talk with Fabian. And yeah. Oh, so I mean, the news was all around, you know. Yeah. And so I did finally have a confrontation with Fabian Bridges. God, the mayor was involved. You know, Mayor White didn't give a squat about AIDS. I mean, he was horrible on the issue unless there was a camera somewhere within eye shot, he never talked about AIDS, didn't want anything to do with it. Ignored the bathhouse issues and all that kind of stuff. But when Fabian Bridges was out screwing around, the mayor want to be involved in that.
Emily Miller [00:26:13] There's a lot of publications about it.
Buck Harris [00:26:15] Yeah. Yeah. And he was an angry young kid. You know, just a victim loved playing the victim role. And I don't remember how that all that ended up. I think he left town. They paid his way out of town.
Emily Miller [00:26:27] They paid his way out of town.
Buck Harris [00:26:29] Yeah. They put him on a bus and sent him out to...
Emily Miller [00:26:31] There was talk of quarantine too. There was a newspaper article about that.
Buck Harris [00:26:35] Well, and I actually was not opposed to that. I mean, there is public health law that says if anyone with a Class A infectious disease knowingly infects another person, that they can be quarantined. I'm not opposed to that. You know, I mean, sometimes you have to instill some pretty awful law to protect the public. But that's what those laws are written for. For cases just like Fabian Bridges.
Emily Miller [00:27:02] Speaking of things back in the 70s. This would have been '77, which you came back in '76 right?
Buck Harris [00:27:11] Yeah.
Emily Miller [00:27:12] Do you remember anything about the whole Anita Bryant controversy? There was a huge... It seemed like it was the first time that I saw gay people and people against gay people having letter to the editor debates in like the Plain Dealer.
Buck Harris [00:27:27] Yeah.
Emily Miller [00:27:28] So what do you remember?
Buck Harris [00:27:30] I do remember it. Dade County and Anita Bryant and the Orange Juice campaign. But but I don't remember a whole lot more than that really.
Emily Miller [00:27:41] Ok.
Buck Harris [00:27:41] Yeah.
Emily Miller [00:27:41] You don't remember, you know, people being anti-Anita [dog bark]?
Buck Harris [00:27:47] I don't. Yeah. Rob, you're on tape so quiet down.
Emily Miller [00:27:52] All right, so as your role as a gay health consultant, what do you think were the major results, you know, because of what you've done and...
Buck Harris [00:27:58] I think my biggest impact was not on the gay community, but on the straight community. I had the opportunity to try to conduct a five-day... It started off as three days and evolved into a five-day training course for anyone who was doing HIV testing in the state of Ohio. So. So I had nurses, social workers, some physicians, some clergy who came to Columbus and spent five days with me. And part of the course... I mean, you spent five days with me, you're gonna get a good dose of Homo 101. But I also... It was required that they go to gay bars. We had a field trip to The Garage in Columbus. They also had to, at lunchtime, they had to put on a t-shirt in bright orange fluorescent letters. It just said "HIV positive" and they could not stay in the building. They had to go out for lunch. And so I wanted people to get a sense of what it felt like to be labeled. So I think, as a matter... I know, I mean, thousands of people went through that course over the years that I taught it. I taught, I started teaching it in about 1987 and taught it until about 1990... oh 5? 6? 7? 1997. I've taught that for a good ten years every month. So a lot of people were introduced to our community, to me, and to AIDS. And I used, again, very explicit media. I used some videos that people had a rough time and all the while they, they... I'm amazed that I got away with it for as long as I did. Even past the Celeste administration. I don't know if you found in your research, but when I when Rhodes was running against Celeste, he took out twenty-three ads in Ohio newspapers and said, the first thing I'm gonna do when elected governor is fire Buck Harris.[crosstalk] Yeah, it was very flattering. I mean, it was, you know, to be that much in the debate of...
Emily Miller [00:30:26] In March of '85, yeah March of '85, in the Gay People's Chronicle, it said you had a workshop in Cleveland, you're going to have a workshop and only two people signed up so it had to be cancelled. Do you remember that at all?
Buck Harris [00:30:40] '85.
Emily Miller [00:30:44] Like and then um. It says lack of interest cited as [inaudible].
Buck Harris [00:30:53] I don't remember because I one of the things that always amazed me was the response. '85. It may have been so early. Well, by '85. I remember one time at... being at Trinity Cathedral in a hall, in their social hall, and it was standing room only. There were probably 75 to 100 men, mostly men that came to hear me talk about safe sex. So I don't know where that might have been.
Emily Miller [00:31:26] I believe it was in a hotel downtown, it was scheduled to be.
Buck Harris [00:31:32] Mm hmm. Because my bartender as a gay health educator training, which I did in Columbus, I mean, in Cleveland, which... That probably would have been about '86. No, it would have been '87. That was packed. Every bar was represented, every bathhouse was represented. So. And as a matter of fact I said to the bathhouse owners, if you do not have a representative here, I'm going to do my best to shut you down. Because up to that point I had said to Governor Celeste, let's leave the bathhouses alone. We have a better chance of educating gay men there than we do at Edgewater Park. And if you close it down, that's where they're gonna go. Randy Schultz, who came to town shortly thereafter, said he could not believe that Ohio still had bathhouses. And when I talked to him about my rationale for it, he said, you will be mentioned in my next book. Unfortunately, he died.
Emily Miller [00:32:37] Can you talk a little bit about, if you remember at all, there are the lesbian separatists who still to this day don't want anything to do with anything of them, including gay men? Did they ever do anything rash? You know, as far as... I have a quote by someone who said, "We lost a lot of good lesbians to AIDS. Men never did anything for breast cancer." So did you ever have any run-ins with people like that?
Buck Harris [00:33:13] Inter... Martha, Martha Pontone used to be a real separatist. Did she share that with you?
Emily Miller [00:33:18] That wasn't hers.
Buck Harris [00:33:18] No, I know it wouldn't be. But Martha will be the first to admit that it was because of AIDS that it helped her to get to know gay men. Yeah. And Martha and I, you know, I mean, we weren't best of friends for a long time. I now have great respect for her and admiration. But, and I think she does for me too as well, but that took a while. And, but no, no one ever confronted me. You know, when I think of ACT UP and stuff and I was involved with Cleveland ACT UP. Joe, Joe in Toronto. I mean, Joe, Joe Karachio, who has said he died and had the biggest dick in Cleveland. There were some great women involved with ACT UP, you know. And so, you know, the problem with ACT UP and it was and I always used to scare the state Health Department and the governor's office saying, oh, we're gonna get ACT UP breathing down our throat. And that, I mean, they thought that there was like these huge masses of ACT UPers waiting in the wings to just jump down on... And in fact, you know, most ACT UP chapters were very personality dependent. So you had someone like Joe Karachio, who was real angry, and at the time healthy, so he was able to put a lot of his energy into that. But what happens with activists is their anger usually dissipates. And if one organization is really dependent upon one person, when that person sort of loses their fizzle or they get sick, the organization dies, and that's what was happening to ACT UP chapters all over the state. They've get a couple of good strong voices, a couple of good, strong energy people, and then boom, they fizzle out or they get sick. So anyway, where was my point about that? There were there were many women involved with ACT UP. Always were.
Emily Miller [00:35:15] Could you talk a little bit more about ACT UP as far as, you know, what their primary I mean what kind of techniques did they use [inaudible]?
Buck Harris [00:35:20] Well, I think their primary slogan, of course, as everyone knows, was Silence Equals Death. And so it was, at whatever expense, be heard, be it chaining yourself to a building or a gate or a door or we have... I remember one time we had coffins downtown. We laid down on the street and then painted chalk around our silhouettes as symbols of dying people. And we had a die-in. I remember one Zack Haley, got to love Zack Haley, and Joe and and his partner, Paul Hamlin, who was a great interior designer, and Eddie Boyd, Kelly. We all we had a big die-in and we just all dropped on the street.
Emily Miller [00:36:09] Do you remember when that was?.
Buck Harris [00:36:13] Gosh. That would have been probably '87, '88.
Emily Miller [00:36:26] So from your experiences before you went to Antioch from Cleveland, how you were kind of closeted, until you became the gay health consultant, what do you think were the overall trends in the gay community, something that we haven't talked about maybe even before AIDS kind of came into the picture?
Buck Harris [00:36:47] Well, it's well, they're well, they're certainly always was. And they it was all the hub of activity was gay bars. And interestingly enough, all the gay bars, if you went to a town the way you found the gay bars was, they were named after flowers. So there was the Rose. Yeah, yeah, yeah. And so, so, so, I remember there was one guy who came up to me who said, you know, you may think you're doing all these great things, but life was better before all of this stuff, when we were all... Everyone knew who everybody was and it was all kind of hush hush. Said life was better then. This was this old queen that thought I was out just making too much noise. Like his name, we called him Mother. But so there has always been a gay community, but it was more... What's the word I'm looking for? You know, I had a reporter call me once when I was on the air. There was rumor that the Sam Shepard murder case, that it might have been gay motivated, that they found out that Sam and the mayor were having this affair, blah, blah, blah. And he was asking my listeners, because I knew he knew I had, you know, a lot of older gay men listening, if anyone might have ever had any encounters with Sam Shepard. And I don't know if he ever getting feedback from that or any, you know, no one called the air that night, but he did legally [inaudible]. But his point was there was a gay community and everyone knew everybody. And they did. I remember when I first... the first time I worked at the gay bar in Washington, D.C., you were not allowed to walk in the bar carrying a drink. And if you were sitting at the bar, you had to look straight ahead. You couldn't turn around and look because you were opportuning. And we had one of those lights on on the wall if the cops were coming in our base. There was suspicion they would hit that button so everyone would behave, you know.
Emily Miller [00:39:00] There was something similar to that at the Cadillac. I don't know if you remember that.
Buck Harris [00:39:03] Cadillac Lounge.
Emily Miller [00:39:04] I have some interviews with people who said they weren't allowed to walk around with their drinks so that seemed to be a similar thing. You had a good quote in the other interview saying, "The gay life was through the bar doors." And so you know, would you say, you know, after... When would you say was the transition point where it was no longer through the doors?
Buck Harris [00:39:24] Our entree into the gay community was through the doors of a bar. Yeah, that was a quote. And that was how. I mean, I'm a recovering alcoholic and drug addict and we have... the gay family has the highest incidence of alcoholism of any group. And I think it's because and still, by and large, I mean, a lot of people find their community through the doors of the bar. And I always said claim that we created brunch, that we start drinking Bloody Marys on Sunday morning. Start the week off with a Bloody Mary. But has it changed? Yes, of course it has. I mean, I'm amazed now at the opportunity that young people have to connect through places like the center. And, you know, I mean, when you think about it, even just shows like like Ellen and Will and Grace put it in the public eye so that young kids... I remember one young kid when I first went on the air who said to me--he was four... I asked, how old are you? He said, I'm 14 years old. And and this was before William Grace's predated Will and Grace. And. And he said he said, at least I know now that there's a world waiting for me. And I said, how tragic that you have to wait. But, you know, at least now, 16, 17-year-old kids, if they have the wherewithal, can find their way to the center and other outreaches.
Emily Miller [00:40:47] Another question about, well back, I'd say in the late '80s, I have some statistics that more minorities were being infected with AIDS especially in Cleveland and Detroit, and there seemed to have been a controversey about racism as far as... [inaudible] Did you ever encounter any issues between that? I mean, you mentioned that there was a lot more white men involved, but...
Buck Harris [00:41:17] You know, I've got to say earlier, I guess I never sensed as much racism in the gay community. Did I know any racists? Certainly. But I don't think it was as bad as in the community at large, because we we all experienced what it felt like to be a second-class citizen. And so I you know, I mean, there were I think I think that homophobia was so much stronger in the black community that that's what deterred them from coming into gay bars. And so they were always on the down low and they had their own clubs and things. But if black men came into the 620 [Club] or Chaps or Chapter 2 or any of those bars or Waterston, then I don't think there was a lot of hostility by any means. And in general, I would say there was a welcoming community.
Emily Miller [00:42:10] So did you ever hear of the organization Customers Against Racist Exclusion?
Buck Harris [00:42:13] No. [crosstalk] You know what just flashed in my mind that was Keys used to have a policy that they own. They would only serve women that wore dresses.
Emily Miller [00:42:31] When was this?
Buck Harris [00:42:31] That would've been up until I remember the controversy and finally they were challenged on it. Because I went there with some women from Planned Parenthood and they were one of them was wearing slacks and they would not serve her and that would have been '83, '84. Isn't that crazy? And that was the hot bar in town. You went to go to the hot bar. You had a.
Emily Miller [00:43:09] What other opportunities do you think there are more for the developed maybe, let's say, by the time you were the gay health consultant what other opportunities were there for gay persons outside of the bars at that time?
Buck Harris [00:43:22] Well, there was an emerging spiritual community. They, you know, every major city in Ohio was starting its own gay church. And that was certainly a wonderful thing to witness. And also, there were specifically gay twelve step recovery meetings that were starting. Some started. I'm not sure when the first gay AA group started. I might. Yeah. '82. '83, I think, in Cleveland. And then there was a group in Columbus, Drummers that started in the early '80s, maybe late '70s. But, but, but so that, and which, so yes, there were lots of other things emerging. And gay sports leagues. We had a gay volleyball league whose motto was "It's not whether you win or lose, but how you look." And of course, lesbians have always had softball. But, you know, gay men, we're finally getting into the sports arena. And so so, yeah, it was blossoming.
Emily Miller [00:44:28] Did you ever attend any of the rap groups or maybe like a religious group sponsored or maybe GEAR sponsored?
Buck Harris [00:44:35] Yeah, I. Yeah, I mean, I was offered if I attended it was as a speaker, though. I mean, I would they were like just stuff on coming out and.
Emily Miller [00:44:47] Is there anything that you think that as a researcher that I'm missing that would make any connections for me?
Buck Harris [00:45:05] Who's that? How old is the oldest person you've interviewed?
Emily Miller [00:45:08] 81.
Buck Harris [00:45:10] Hmm. Who is that?
Emily Miller [00:45:11] [inaudible]
Buck Harris [00:45:16] Because there's another guy, Howard Erlichman. Has anyone mentioned him?
Emily Miller [00:45:19] I've heard of his name.
Buck Harris [00:45:21] Because he's an interesting character and he's got a memory like a trap and...
Emily Miller [00:45:27] [inaudible]
Buck Harris [00:45:30] Yeah, and I have his phone number if you want ever. If you want a one on one with him, then he'd be happy to do that. He's delightful.
Emily Miller [00:45:40] I'm going to go ahead and stop at this point.
Buck Harris [00:45:40] OK. Is we end up getting an awful lot of support from women. Straight women as well, because it was not if they lend their support to the cause. Course, many of them were mothers and sisters who had brothers that were dying of AIDS. But where we were always lacking was to support straight men, because if they were all of a sudden to become supportive, to become connected with the cause, they would fall under suspicion. And so straight men were just they were never involved with organizations with even funding because they were afraid of being tagged or labeled. Guilt by association.
Emily Miller [00:46:32] So, that would be kind of like, Mary, for example, I don't know when she started working here... [crosstalk]
Buck Harris [00:46:37] Oh, as long as I can remember.
Emily Miller [00:46:38] But I know she did a lot through the, what were they called, the UCC.
Buck Harris [00:46:44] Yeah, I remember your grandmother being involved right from the get go. She was always at everything I was ever at. Yeah.
Emily Miller [00:46:50] She really felt connected to that.
Buck Harris [00:46:53] Yeah.
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 License.
"Buck Harris Interview, 2010" (2010). Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection. Interview 695002.