In this 2006 interview, 58 year old Cleveland native Buck Harris, a prominent member of Cleveland's gay community for decades, talks about his life in Cleveland as a gay man and his residency near West 52nd Street and Bridge Avenue in an area of the west side of Cleveland known as Ohio City Heights. Mr. Harris discusses his experience of "coming out" in the late 1970s; some of the prominent gay bars in Cleveland in the 1970s, including, Twiggy's; and his development and activities as an activist for gay rights and gay health, including his appointment by Ohio Governor Dick Celeste as his gay health advisor. Harris recounts a number of stories about the AIDS crisis in Cleveland in the 1980s. Harris also hosted the first gay and lesbian radio talk show in America in the 1990s on WHK..
Harris, Buck (interviewee)
Souther, Mark (interviewer)
Mark Souther [00:00:01] Okay. Today is April 20th, 2006. My name is Mark Souther with the Detroit Shoreway Oral History Project, and I'm here with Mr. Buck Harris on about 3 p.m. and we're doing an interview today in Mr. Harris's home at 5302 Bridge Avenue. I'd like to start, Buck, by asking you where and when you were born.
Buck Harris [00:00:28] I was born in Cleveland in 1948.
Mark Souther [00:00:29] 1948. And where did you... What part of Cleveland did you grow up in?
Buck Harris [00:00:36] I was born and raised in well, basically in Lakewood. I was born in Berea, Ohio, but moved to Lakewood when I was two years old and lived there up until I went off to college.
Mark Souther [00:00:46] Where do you attend school?
Buck Harris [00:00:47] I started off at Cleveland State University and then I transferred to Antioch College because I was very involved in the anti-war movement and stuff, and Antioch was a pretty good place to go to do that kind of activity. And they had very good drugs at Antioch College, so...
Mark Souther [00:01:02] So when you went to Antioch, this would have been about 1966?
Buck Harris [00:01:07] No, I graduated from high school in 1966 and so it would have been about 1970 because I went to Cleveland State for a while and so it was about 1970.
Mark Souther [00:01:18] Do you recall when you were at Cleveland State, the atmosphere toward the war? What was the extent?
Buck Harris [00:01:25] It was disappointing. Cleveland State at that time, there were only two buildings for the campus. It was Fenn Tower and, I forget, one other building and some Quonset huts, and it was a commuter school and people were much more interested in getting home. And so to try to stage a good protest, a good rally, it was a frustrating experience. I remember the day that Kent State students were shot and people were just saying, I've got to catch a bus. And, you know, I wanted to scream and yell and and protest. And so that's when I made the decision that I had to get out of Cleveland. This town just wasn't big enough for my anger and, you know, my rage and stuff. So I went to Antioch.
Mark Souther [00:02:06] Did you already know much about Antioch before...
Buck Harris [00:02:08] No, I really didn't. And actually, I didn't even go to the Yellow Springs campus. I went to the Baltimore-Washington campus. They had a specialty program in Organizational Development and Behavior. And so I got involved in that program, and it was a wonderful place to be because we were so close to Washington, D.C., that it really was easy to go protest. And so I got arrested back in, oh, the years sort of escape me, but, you know, at one of the anti-war demonstrations, I was arrested in Washington and thrown in one of the big jails there. And, you know, of course, we want to hold your head high at Antioch you had to have been arrested at least once. So it was an amazing, wonderful experience, although Robin Williams says if you lived through the '60s and remembered it, you didn't really live. So there are some cloudy moments.
Mark Souther [00:02:57] At Antioch, would you say that people who went to that particular campus were from the Washington and Baltimore area, or did it really draw widely like the other campus?
Buck Harris [00:03:06] It drew pretty widely. There are a lot of New Yorkers. I felt like like I was from the Midwest, corn-fed, you know, blond-haired, blue-eyed boy and really naive. And I was, I felt really intimidated by all the worldly Antioch people there that would have been traveling to Europe. And, you know, there's a lot of money at Antioch, and I didn't come from a lot of money. So I felt like I was a different breed altogether. Interestingly enough, by this time in my life, I was I would have been maybe 20 years old. I knew, certainly I knew by then that I was gay. Yet, and Antioch was a liberal school, I was still very closeted.
Mark Souther [00:03:48] At what point... Well, let me back up and ask you when you first knew that you were gay.
Buck Harris [00:03:53] Well, when I look back, I always knew that I was different. I just never realized I was that different until I was probably about 16 or 17 years old is when I knew absolutely for sure. But I'd been having childhood fantasies. You know, there's some research that says about 85 percent of males who are gay know that about themselves by the time they're 13 years old. I knew for sure when I was 13. My fantasy life was rich with my male friends and that sort of thing. I didn't do anything about that until I was probably about 16 or 17 when I would hitchhike to Edgewater Park. Even back then, it was notorious. And would, you know, go to the park to meet other guys.
Mark Souther [00:04:37] What kind of... What was it like in Cleveland in that time in terms of a gay community? How visible was that?
Buck Harris [00:04:45] Well, there wasn't any community at that time. And when I... My coming out really was more... I did more of that when I was living in the Washington, D.C., area than when I was in Cleveland. My, let's see, in my college days there was a bar called Joanne's. That was the first gay bar I ever went to. And that was down near the Greyhound bus terminal. And it was a real seedy place. I don't even think they bothered washing glasses. They didn't really need to worry about being... having a nice appearance or being clean. And you sort of snuck in when it got dark. And I remember the first time I ever went to a gay bar. I was standing outside just shaking and trembling, absolutely petrified to walk through the doors because I was just petrified of what I would find when I went in there. And then when I finally did muster up the courage to go through the bar doors, I found out that the place was filled with people just like me. And yet I thought they were all going to be lecherous old queens, you know, pouncing on this young little chicken walking through the door. It wasn't that at all. It was wonderful. And it was the first time in my life I felt safe and at home. And I've always said how tragic it is that so many of us, for us, our first untrained to the community is through the doors of a gay bar, because many of us stay far too long, and hence the problem with alcoholism and drug addiction in the gay community. And it's still the entree for many young people into the community is through the doors of a bar. And so, you know, we are a culture that is too reliant upon bars, I think, as a major social outlet.
Mark Souther [00:06:21] When you returned... When did you return to Cleveland?
Buck Harris [00:06:25] Well, I came back to Cleveland, actually... I stuck around the D.C.-Maryland area for quite some time. I actually ended up teaching Vocational Agriculture. And so here I was living in Charles County, Maryland, it was sort of like Brokeback Mountain. You know, I mean, I really was. I drove a John Deere tractor. And, you know, I always I'd go into the gay bars on the weekend and say, if the boys could only see me now, you know, here I am driving the John Deere tractor wearing cowboy boots. I really was pretty butch. As a matter of fact, in the gay bars in D.C., they used to call me Rebecca from Sunnybrook Farm. So I stuck around there for a long time and then I decided... It was a lonely life living out on the farm. I had a 140-acre farm by myself. I decided, like all good hippies, that I was going to join the Peace Corps. And so I was gonna go to South America. And I thought a good place, Colombia is where I was gonna be stationed, grow good pot and also teach agriculture while I'm there and help the people. Well, I stopped at a bar in Cleveland called 620, which was on... It became Numbers. Anyway, it was on Walnut, I think. And I met this guy named Don and I literally fell off the bar stool. I just, when I saw him, I mean, it was just love at first sight. And I ended up canceling my trip and staying in Cleveland. And we set up household and, you know, really sort of got married. Of course, I'm not in the legal sense because it wasn't and isn't, but... So that's when I came back to Cleveland. That would've been about 1980, I guess, about 19... No, I'm sorry, about 1976 is when I came back to Cleveland.
Mark Souther [00:08:12] At that point when you returned... Well before I ask this, where was... Is Walnut in the Ohio City area?
Buck Harris [00:08:19] [dog barking] No. I have a dog, as you can tell. [steps away from table to attend to dog] Walnut is near East Ohio Gas Company, right off of Public Square. I'll be right back.
Mark Souther [00:08:34] Okay.
Buck Harris [00:08:40] They're on the back porch, so they shouldn't interrupt us again.
Mark Souther [00:08:43] I think we were up to 1976.
Buck Harris [00:08:46] Yes.
Mark Souther [00:08:47] And you were... And tell me where it was again. I think we got that...
Buck Harris [00:08:51] 620. The address is 620 Walnut. I'm pretty sure that's it. And it's almost on Public Square near the East... old East Ohio Gas Building, and, so, right downtown. So I met Don. We at the time then moved. We were renting a place on East 31st Street. And I was bartending at a place called Twiggy's, which was the hotspot for a number of years in Cleveland. And the wonderful thing about Twiggy's in terms of history is it was the only bar that I can recall in Cleveland's gay history where there was a wonderful mix of gay men and lesbians and drag queens, and straight people loved coming to Twiggy's. It was really the true melting pot of all sexual orientations. And I don't know that Cleveland has ever had a place since then where everyone felt comfortable. And that's a shame because it was a fun place, and it was packed all the time. And as a bartender, it was a status thing to be... It was quite a status to be a bartender at Twiggy's. And so that was a nice era to be part of. At that time, there were probably only a handful of other gay bars. There's the Leather Stallion Saloon, which I think is Cleveland's now oldest gay establishment. There was Etcetera, another... And Joanne's, I think, lasted for a while. It's interesting when you look at the history of Cleveland gay bars, they... Back in the '50s and '60s and into the '70s, a lot of the gay bars were named after flowers. And I think that was pretty true nationally as well. And that was so that when people traveled, if they would look in the directories and look for names of bars that had flowers and made an assumption that it'd be safe going there, it was a gay bar.
Mark Souther [00:10:45] I wonder, do you have any sense of where that originated?
Buck Harris [00:10:48] Probably New York, probably New York City, and it just sort of started a trend.
Mark Souther [00:10:53] So as early as the 1950s?
Buck Harris [00:10:56] Mhm. Yeah, absolutely.
Mark Souther [00:10:57] When was the first such place in Cleveland... what was the first one in Cleveland, do you remember, that had a flower name?
Buck Harris [00:11:07] Boy, I. I don't know. I really don't remember. I can... I can introduce you to someone that would though that will would remember that era. So.
Mark Souther [00:11:17] Where, you mentioned that this particular bar called Twiggy's...
Buck Harris [00:11:20] Twiggy's was on St. Clair at about East 26th and St. Clair.
Mark Souther [00:11:28] Oh, Okay. I'm getting confused then. I thought it was East 31st. .
Buck Harris [00:11:33] That's where I lived.
Mark Souther [00:11:34] That's where you lived.
Buck Harris [00:11:35] Yes.
Mark Souther [00:11:36] I'm sorry.
Buck Harris [00:11:38] And was that also near the St. Clair intersection? Yeah, you could... I walked to and from the bar and, you know, it's pretty close to...
Mark Souther [00:11:46] How would the gay community, and by that I mean gay, lesbian, transgender, bisexual in general, how had this community changed from the time you left to go to Antioch and when you returned? What differences did you see?
Buck Harris [00:12:04] I guess. Well, I don't know. I don't know if I can speak well to that, because I think the biggest change wasn't in the community, but was in me, and my wanting to connect more and more with it and just, you know, taking those little baby steps out of the closet. And so the more I came out, the more I became aware of the community. It may have existed certainly before my emergence. But, you know, I just think the '60s was certainly an era of change and certainly the Stonewall Riots in D.C., I mean, in New York City had an impact, but more and more people were coming out and so as a result there was an emerging community as well. There were more establishments and more gay bars. And I think probably one of the biggest differences was you didn't have to wait until it got dark to walk through the doors. People were doing it in broad daylight. And so that was probably the biggest change.
Mark Souther [00:13:02] When did the Ohio City area begin to be a place that was considered hospitable?
Buck Harris [00:13:10] Well, I would say that that started to happen... that the gay pioneers moved to Cleveland and the Ohio City area in the early '70s. And when I think of some of my friends who were moving here to the Near West Side, it was early '70s. And again, we were the urban pioneers that came into this neighborhood. At the time it was a war zone. I mean, there's a lot of stuff going on. Drugs were not as big a problem in the '70s. That started to really get bad in the '80s and into the '90s and then... But it was just still not a desirable place to live. But there was some great property available and cheap. And, you know, the old adage that we gay people, most of us don't have to worry about kids. So we could come into Cleveland and not have to worry about the school system and all that kind of stuff. And so that's when it began. I would say in the early '70s.
Mark Souther [00:14:05] Clearly, a lot of cities have had a substantial gay presence in historic preservation, and it sounds like Ohio City very much fits into this.
Buck Harris [00:14:15] Absolutely. John Saile, for example, who was the original owner of Heck's Cafe. Not only did he did he create a landmark--I mean, Heck's Cafe is just... It's a phenomenal place that continues to this day--but he also owned an incredible home on the corner of Bridge and 20[th], which is now a bed and breakfast. But that was John Saile's home. And a lot of the staff that that worked at Ohio City Tavern and at Heck's all lived within a stone's throw of those establishments. And so, yes, absolutely. Ken Jansen was an architect who did some work in Ohio City with Don Hisaka who lived here and so, yeah, absolutely. A lot of the historic landmarks were saved by the gay men, and a few lesbians, but mostly gay men.
Mark Souther [00:15:01] You mentioned John Saile and I think of the director, John Sayles. I'm going to show my ignorance. Is this the same John Sayles?
Buck Harris [00:15:09] No.
Mark Souther [00:15:09] I didn't think so.
Buck Harris [00:15:10] No.
Mark Souther [00:15:11] Just thinking wait a second, the name...
Buck Harris [00:15:13] John Saile was a restaurateur who I think now lives out in the country. He lived in Ohio City for a long time and then finally, you know, I think left all of this behind and is living a nice, quiet, peaceful life out in the country.
Mark Souther [00:15:24] I thought for a second, the director maybe lived in Cleveland. I just wanted to double check.
Buck Harris [00:15:30] Yeah. Different John Saile.
Mark Souther [00:15:31] I figured probably, but I didn't... So this area then into the 1980s. How did it? I think this area, I mean Ohio City and increasingly Detroit Shoreway, because I understand you moved from Ohio City at one point to... When was that?
Buck Harris [00:15:51] I moved to Ohio City in 1979 I think, or 1978. I lived on Randall Road, had a beautiful town, a rowhouse, townhouse. And then I moved from there to here in 1987. So the other thing that happened during... I want to go back a moment. What that... What also happened in the late '70s, early '80s. Some gay bars started to open up on the Near West Side. So there was the... It's gone through in a couple of name changes. It's now called the Tool Shed. But it was Man's World for a while. And so that and that's on the corner of West 28th in Detroit. The Lesbian and Gay Community Service Center there, one of their early sites was in Tremont and then they moved to West 14th Street. Or I mean, West 28th I think. They had a center somewhere on the very near west side here in Ohio City. And they now reside at 65th and Detroit in the Gordon Square Arcade, so, and there are a few other gay bars that have come and gone. And then another old establishment, like it or not, is the bathhouses. There was one on West 32nd Street that is now on Detroit Avenue that's quite a... has a strong architectural presence and does a booming business even through the AIDS era and all that stuff. They remained open and a vital business.
Mark Souther [00:17:28] How many bathhouses would you say were well-known in the 1970s and then how many of those survived?
Buck Harris [00:17:36] Well, in the actually in the state of Ohio, there were seven bathhouses in 1984. Today, there are probably four. Two of them are in Cleveland.
Mark Souther [00:17:49] What are the two in Cleveland? You mentioned... .
Buck Harris [00:17:51] West 36th where there's Club Baths. And then there's a new one that is just opening up on near that near the old bus terminal downtown.
Mark Souther [00:18:01] The Greyhound?
Buck Harris [00:18:02] The Greyhound, yeah. And it's supposed to be another pretty amazing complex with a swimming pool and, you know, a lot of, a lot of money. So.
Mark Souther [00:18:09] What part of Detroit Avenue are we talking about?
Buck Harris [00:18:16] 32nd Street, West 32nd. Yeah. And I got involved in the controversy when AIDS first erupted, I became the... I was appointed by Dick Celeste as the gay health consultant for the State of Ohio. Ohio was the first state in the country to create such a position, and so it was very controversial. Certainly put us on the map, put me on the map. And we launched a really aggressive program. One of the programs I initiated was a program called The Bartender's Gay Health Educator. And the premise for this program was that we would train people who worked in the gay social outlets, the gay bars, the bathhouses, to promote safe sex in their establishments. And so I thought that Dick Celeste at the time said, well, maybe we should just follow suit like all the other major cities and other states and just close the bathhouses. And I said, you know, I think that just putting a Band-Aid on the problem. I think we really want to work with them, because if you close the bathhouses, they're all going to go to Edgewater Park. And it's much easier for me to educate people at the bathhouses than it is at Edgewater Park. So let's see if they'll work with us and see if we can create some education programs through the bathhouses. Well, they were somewhat cooperative, but mainly because they realized that we did have the power to shut them down. We could have just carte blanche said, All right, close them down as a public health nuisance. And so back then, I worked with the owners of the bathhouses in Cleveland and Columbus, Toledo, Akron, and I think they were fairly compliant for a while. And then the Voinovich administration came in. My position was certainly weakened. I'm amazed they did keep me on. But it was certainly, they took away a lot of the power that I had. And so it sort of went to back to the good old days where they, the bathhouses, became fairly irresponsible, in my opinion. And actually, if I had been a legislator, I would have closed them down at that point, because they just really didn't seem to care much about their clientele. There was tremendous controversy about that, as a matter of fact Randy Schultz, the author of And the Band Played On, came to Cleveland. Randy and I, we had met over years and were good friends, and he was shocked that that Ohio still had bathhouses. And he said, Buck, I'm going to write about you in my next book. He said, I think that's a bad move that you made. And. And so, I mean, there was certainly a lot of mixed opinion about that. I did a radio show, you know, I launched the first gay and lesbian talk show in the country called the Gay Nineties with Buck Harris and WHK, which turned into a Christian radio station. So needless to say, I was not a good fit after they switched formats, but I moved to WERE. But anyway, I did a show on the bathhouses and it was interesting that we got a lot of calls that show. And most of the young callers, young gay male callers were saying, shut them down. We don't need them. It was the old gay men that said it's our right to convene in those kinds of places. We have... And, you know, it was, it was interesting. It was that it was a good slice of gay culture.
Mark Souther [00:21:16] I want to ask you more about the radio show in just a bit. I wanted to ask first though about the... you mentioned that you were you played a very active role as a consultant.
Buck Harris [00:21:26] Mm hmm.
Mark Souther [00:21:29] Were you involved in other aspects of the gay community in terms of activism, and if so, what was the first? Can you walk us through... [Sure.] ... your involvement over the years?
Buck Harris [00:21:39] I got involved with Stonewall. We had a... well, I think it was first called Eleanor Roosevelt Democratic Club. And that's always sort of grating because it sounded like a bunch of old queens sitting around, sit drinking tea, talking politics, when in fact we were really fairly political. But that did turn into Stonewall. And so I can say I attended my first Stonewall meeting in about 1982. And I just... we did what we could at the time. You know, I mean, we certainly had meetings back then. I can remember meeting with Lee Fisher and some candidates. A lot of people were not seeking our endorsement back then, it was just it was just too controversial. But we did meet and we did try to educate the gay community about who we should vote for, what the issues were and that sort of thing. And they were small meetings, needless to say. But there was a lot of good energy. So the first [inaudible] meetings were 1982 that I can recall.
Mark Souther [00:22:50] And what about beyond that?
Buck Harris [00:22:52] Well, then when I became when I was appointed gay health consultant, I certainly got involved with ACT UP [AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power] but I could never officially belong because of my ties to the governor. It was certainly been a conflict of interest. But I gave the governor and the Ohio Department Health the impression that there were ACT UP chapters just waiting to pounce at any moment if we did anything wrong. If we didn't do what I said, ACT UP was gonna go crazy, and ACT UP was never as strong as the State Health Department thought they were or as the governor thought they were. ACT... There were some strong ACT UP people in Cleveland, but as a strong organization, it... Let me say, that's not accurate. There were some good demonstrations downtown, and I went to all their meetings. ACT UP did some good work. Ohio was one of the states that had anonymous testing longer than anyplace else in the country. And at the time, anonymous testing was a very important issue. To be able to go and get tested at a public health facility and not have to disclose your name was very important for controlling the spread of HIV in this, in this state at the time, and other states were not doing that. I mean, we really had a good, good, strong state law that kept anonymous testing available for anyone that sought it.
Mark Souther [00:24:14] Can you tell me a little bit more about ACT UP, what the organization... When it formed and what its primary goal was, or goals?
Buck Harris [00:24:20] Well, the original active chapter was formed in New York City by Larry Kramer. And the original, initial intent was to become an activist group to not only, not only influence legislation, but also medical policy. For example, it was pretty much standard that in hospitals across the land, only the immediate family could come and visit someone who was in critical care and that excluded then lovers and partners of gay men. And so, I mean, it was simple little things that at the time... Now it seems like that's not a big deal, but back then that was an important thing that ACT UP did, was to help change policies in hospitals and to put pressure on drug companies to make experimental drugs more available more rapidly. And then the big issue of about testing, ACT UP was crucial in making sure that anonymous testing remained available. They were also a really strong arm in education. So, you know, it was it was a powerful, powerful organization. The problem with ACT UP was it was almost always--and this was true in every city--so personality-driven. Someone would become diagnosed with AIDS. They were really angry, which is part of the stage of grieving. They'd get involved with ACT UP, and then they burn out. And so we had, for example, I'm trying to think of some of the... There were Zack Haley and oh, gosh, I can see him, but I can't name him. His partner was a big designer. Both of them were very active. Anyway, they were... Gil Coldron was another one, and actually he's still alive and around. But there were some real strong personalities, strong voices. But they got tired or they got sicker or they died. And [makes a sound] chapters of ACT UP would come and go, you know, very quickly. And, you know, that's the problem with any organization that is so personality-driven where one person is at the helm, you know, just pounding their fist.
Mark Souther [00:26:27] Moving back forward to the radio show, what gave you... What was the first moment you can recall where you said, I want to do a radio show?
Buck Harris [00:26:36] Well, it happened... I was a guest frequently on radio because people want to know about AIDS, they want to know about gay people, and so I sort of became the mouthpiece for the gay community there. Someone said, Ohio state flower is the carnation, their state bird is the cardinal, the state homosexual is Buck. And so I got to do a lot of radio and TV as a result of that, including Sally Jessie Raphael and Nightline and stuff. I mean, but radio, I always loved the medium because I didn't have to get dressed up. I could just go and I could talk and pretty much, especially on AM talk radio, except the six words, you can just about say anything you want. So I love to rile people and said, so during a show Merle Pollis, I was a frequent guest on Merle Pollis's show, and during a break one time he said, oh, I said during a break, I said, you know, I really enjoy radio, I'd like to do this. And he said, well, it so happens I'm going on vacation this week. Would you like to fill in for me? And I said, I'd love to. So my first stint was just to fill in for Merle Pollis. And then Joel Rose asked me to fill it in, and I started enjoying... I love interviewing people. And so I said to myself, I can do this. I'm going to have my own show. So I went to the management. I said, I want my own radio show. They said, well, we don't think the world's ready yet for a gay talk show. I said, I'll bring in my advertisers. They said, come on in. You know, as soon as you got money, you got you've got airtime. And so in March of 1983... or 1993, on a Friday night from 8 to 10 p.m., I was the lead story on all the major news channels in Cleveland. Cleveland to Host First National First Day Talk Show. Then there was a bomb threat. They had to close Tower City. [Laughs] It was crazy! And then for the next couple of weeks, when my... when I went off the air, I was escorted with security out to my car because there were... I continued to get bomb threats. But you know what? Bomb threats were not new to me. I mean, I'd been outspoken and I'd been in the news and stuff. And I used to get... I'd come home, on my answering machine at least once a week, there'd be a death threat. And I'd get mail and, you know, really horrible, you know, death threats. And so, you know, it comes with the territory. So the bomb threat of Tower City didn't really shake me a whole lot. So. So it was exciting. It really was very exciting time. We got great reviews and I found my niche. I was, I was good at what I did. I enjoyed doing it.
Mark Souther [00:29:12] I forgot what I was going to ask.
Buck Harris [00:29:12] When I forget what to ask, we go to a commercial. [Laughs].
Mark Souther [00:29:17] What was the format? I know it was a talk show, but give us an idea of what, you know, who were some of the guests and what was...
Buck Harris [00:29:23] The show began: Welcome to the Gay '90s, the voice of Northeast Ohio's gay and lesbian community, and I'd say, The intent of this show is to provide programming that represents the diversity of our gay and lesbian community and reveal the deep cultural and historical contributions that for too long have gone unrecognized. The opinions expressed are those of the host and guests and not necessarily those of the station. If you are a friend of our community, please listen and tune in, call in. If you're not a friend, don't tune in, don't listen, and find some other way to torture yourself, and a word about our advertisers, unless otherwise stated, you can assume their sexual orientation to be either gay, bi, or straight. And, and so that therein launched the show. We had guests ranging from Harvey Firestein to Barney Frank. At the time, Mayor White was on and we did a lot of politics, but we also did a lot of light humor stuff. I had gay artists. By that I mean vocalists and just fascinating subjects and, you know, content. And we did a news segment. We had there were three other, four other people, John Farina, Sherri Morbido, Karen Harrison, who all contributed and helped keep us... Todd Stewart. And so we did a lot of research, a lot of authors, you know, a lot of great books. And I had the... some of the movers and shakers and the founders of the gay and lesbian civil rights movement in this country. Frank Kameny... Oh, when I think of the people I had the pleasure to interview. Janis Ian, you know, June Lockhart, who is a dear friend to our community, and the reason she was on the show was she was, one of her favorite roles was being the mother of the gay son on Roseanne. She said, of all my sons the one I was most proud of was my gay son on Roseanne. So it was surprising and interesting the people that I had on my show.
Mark Souther [00:31:16] It ran for how many years?
Buck Harris [00:31:17] We were on the air for six and a half years. It was on once a week for two hours. You know what was most touching about that wasn't the guests and stuff, it was the calls. The young people who called and said, you know, I got calls from 14-year-old kids who said, you know, I was thinking about killing myself until I heard your show. And I realized that there is a world waiting for me that when, you know, that there is a gay community and stuff, and old people who were closeted and cloistered in or infirmed and not able to get out and about and straight people who had friends, gay friends and children who just were so grateful to learn more about the community. And, you know, it was kinky. We had... I had a good sense of humor, and so I made it fun and irreverent, absolutely irreverent. Nothing was sacred, especially Republicans.
Mark Souther [00:32:06] So the people who called in... You said there's quite a diversity of people who obviously listened to the show. Did you have a core demographic that was, or in terms of age that was... [crosstalk]
Buck Harris [00:32:17] No, I expected to have a very liberal listening audience. I expected it to be mostly gay, and the Arbitron ratings that we got indicated that I had about 20,000 listeners on a typical night. Of that, probably 70 percent were straight. 30 percent were gay. And the age range, there was no particular pocket of age range. What was most interesting to me was how conservative... There is a large, unspoken conservative element of the gay community that just shocks me. The Republican gay community. Now there's a Log Cabin chapter, I know, but not too many people go. But if they were a little bit more courageous, they'd have some... they've had good... they'd have good numbers. The number of gay men and lesbians who are pro-life shocks me. And so, you know, because I've always been a sort of a screaming liberal and I just assumed, and my circle of friends are similar, and there's a large contingent of gay men and lesbians who are conservative.
Mark Souther [00:33:24] Do you think this is unusual for Cleveland?
Buck Harris [00:33:27] No, I don't think so because when they did exit polls a number of years ago after a presidential election in New York City, they found out that I think it was something like 25 percent of the gay men and lesbians in New York City had voted Republican. And I mean, who would have thought? Who would have thought? So I don't think it's just unique to Cleveland. You know, we tend to think of ourselves as somewhat provincial and conservative, and I don't think that's the case. I think it's more, more widespread, more pandemic.
Mark Souther [00:33:55] One thing that I... and this is getting off the topic of the radio show, but I realized that I forgot to ask... In the process of your coming out, I didn't ask about how your relationships with family and longtime friends changed, and that was something I meant to ask.
Buck Harris [00:34:10] Well, that's a good question. My partner Don, it's interesting, most people come out... They make their sort of their big come out after they enter into relationships, and that was true for me. And so when Don and I set up house, I realized it was time for me to tell my mom and dad who up to this point really had no idea, because I was engaged to be married at one point and ended that engagement. But, you know, I dated the prettiest girls in high school and all that kind of stuff. I mean, I spent a lot of energy trying to pass and did a fairly good job at it. And so my parents, I invited them over for dinner one night. And, with Don, and I plied them with liquor, and I said, I've something to tell you. And I said, I'm gay. And my mother... My father said, How long have you known? I said, for as long as I can remember. He said, then why are you only telling us now? And he said, I said, I was afraid you wouldn't love me anymore. And he said, Well, then you don't know me at all. And that was pretty shocking for my father, who was a professional baseball player and wore a jockstrap to bed every night. I mean, this was a jock and I did not expect him to be as supportive as he was. And, and my mother just... She was... She felt sad that I had waited so long to tell. And so, like many people, we do so much self-loathing, I think we project that onto others. And, and my experience was very positive in coming out. The only person who took it difficult... had a difficult time with it was my twin sister. She got over it, but her initial response was not good. It took her a long time to come around. Now, Don's family, on the other hand, was first-generation... He was... Don was first-generation Slovak and Catholic. And it was a little bit different story. But they ultimately also came around and we ended up, our families became good friends. Don was diagnosed with AIDS. He was Ohio's eighth case of AIDS. It was almost with a twist of irony because the same month that I had been offered this job from the governor, Don was diagnosed. And so at the time, there was no HIV antibody test available. So number one, Don was was sick and he got sick pretty quickly. Number two, I was waiting. I thought I was a timebomb just waiting to go off. I had to have been exposed. We'd been together by this time for eight years. And certainly no one was practicing safe sex during the '80s. And I knew I had repeated exposure, repeated exposure. And so I just kept waiting every time I'd get a cold, I'd think, oh, this is it. It's the beginning of the end and stuff. And so finally, in 1986, the HIV antibody test became available. Now, early on, the general recommendation in the gay community was don't take the test at all. Even if it's anonymous, don't take it. It's not a good test. What are they going to do anyway? There's nothing we can do for you. So I ultimately decided to take the test and they said, you're negative. I said, See? This test is no good at all. I have to be positive. They ran it again and again and they did a Western blot and stuff. And I for some reason had been spared exposure to the virus, or I was exposed but I for some reason it didn't take. So where was I with that? So Don died in 1986, shortly after I found out that I... As a matter of fact I found out right before he died that I was not infected. And that was also a time in my life where I, my use of alcohol and drugs really began to escalate. As Don's disease progressed, so did mine. And, you know, like all good alcoholics and I thought I had every good excuse in the world to medicate myself, and I did. And I used a lot of alcohol and a lot of drugs, and in 1986, after Don died, I really... My my mother died within 16 days. My best friend died in between that time. I jumped into a bottle and pulling in the cork with me. I went into treatment at the end of 1986 and just recently celebrated 19 years of continuous drug-free and alcohol-free life. So. Which was another... Again, it put me in another position in the gay community to talk about some of the major health concerns and things that we face because alcoholism and drug addiction is a major problem in the gay community. And I was able to really talk about that from my own experience. I've always said if you can't be a fashion model, be a role model. [Laughs] And so I'd like to think I was that for a while.
Mark Souther [00:38:24] Getting back to the radio show... [Mm hmm.] You mentioned that it ran for 6 1/2 years. [Yes.] You told me on the phone previously that it went to satellite radio ultimately. Could you walk us through what prompted the switch? [Well, what?] Ending of the... you mentioned it changed formats.
Buck Harris [00:38:43] Yeah. We moved from WHK to WERE. And what happened was with talk radio in general, with the smaller A.M. stations, they sell their airtime. And so it became really a laborious for me to have to do all the programing and then go out and beat the bushes to get advertisers to pay for the airtime. And it became increasingly difficult, and it's also a part of me that I hate. Where's your check? I need your check for the advertising I wrote for you and, you know, and so I, it just, and then I got involved in the restaurant business. I opened up a place called Lake Effect, which was a wonderful gay and lesbian bar [and] restaurant for a while, and I just didn't have time to continue doing the radio. And the other people, we'd been doing it for 6 1/2 years, and I think the energy just sort of fizzled. And so we went out with a whimper, really. There was no great fanfare, our last show. It was just like turning off the lights. It was like the last night of Mary Tyler Moore when they just in the, in the newsroom, they just turned the lights off and that was it. You know, it was, it was a sad day. It was a sad day. And a lot of people have since begged, saying, oh, please go back on the radio. And, you know, I... It's a different time, a different era. And I'm in a different place. I wouldn't mind doing radio again, but I know that I would do a gay and lesbian talk show again. I don't know. I don't think the world needs it right now. I mean, even Will and Grace is dying. So, what does that tell you?
Mark Souther [00:40:14] How broadly was this... Well, you mentioned it was 8 to 10 p.m. on Fridays? Was that...
Buck Harris [00:40:19] Well, then we moved to Sunday nights, and that actually turned out to be a better night. Friday nights, the gay men and lesbians are getting ready to go out, party and stuff. So we you know, it was a it was all right for a while. But Sunday night was a nice time slot.
Mark Souther [00:40:32] Did... My understanding from having listened to the radio, like many other people, is on A.M. radio, is that at night you get the signal that transmits far and wide as opposed to just locally. Was that the case...
Buck Harris [00:40:45] It's a much clearer signal, yes. And so I got callers from Kent and Akron and, you know, pretty far out in the boondocks. And for some reason that our reception was best. And I told people, go listen to me in your bathroom. For some reason, I don't know. It was, it was where reception was the best.
Mark Souther [00:41:03] Did you find any interesting patterns developing in terms of where callers were from or anything that was different from people who were calling in from rural areas, for example? I would imagine that there might be some difference.
Buck Harris [00:41:20] Probably the biggest difference is the further outside of the city they called from, the less likely they were to give their... what I, and I can tell when it was a real name or not. There was just a lot more reluctance to say who they really were and where they were calling from. There was just the trem... With each mile outside of the proper Cleveland district, the fear would increase about being discovered, calling in and being afraid that their name, their voice would be recognized on a radio. And it is amazing to me how many people listened to my show. And I said, did you ever call in? No. I said, why didn't you ever call in? And they'd say, Oh, I was actually petrified that someone would recognize my voice. You know, so. So I think that would be the biggest thing is that, is that from the further out of the city, the more closeted people were and more fearful about being identified.
Mark Souther [00:42:11] You mentioned also that you were... changing the subject again... you started the Bridge Brigade block club. Could you tell me when you did that and what the vision for that was?
Buck Harris [00:42:24] Sure. I started a group called Bridge Brigade, and it was basically, the first organization was here in this living room where we're sitting right now, of just homeowners in the area, some long-term residents, some new like myself, sort of the urban pioneers who were living in fear because at the time this area was a war zone. There were drug dealers on every corner 24/7. And it was, it was, especially for women, they were afraid to even walk to the bus stop. And, you know, we were in the process of sinking a lot of money into our property here. And so it was primarily selfish that we started Bridge Brigade because we needed to protect our investment. But what happened more and more is as people started to realize we were becoming a little bit more bold and aggressive, these little old ladies were coming out saying, can we come to your meeting, too? And it really did become.. And we had Latinos. We had, initially, we had... It was a good representation of people living in the neighborhood. And we quickly moved from being in a house to St. Stephen's Church, and the group grew by leaps and bounds. It was, actually, in terms of history, I guess one of things that people were amazed was how big Bridge Brigade became so quickly. And we... There was a couple of other people involved and my partner Michael was involved. But I remained chair for I don't know how many years. A lot of years. I was the chair of the organization. We launched the first, what was it called, CB control, CB radio control, patrol, rather, where we had CB radios in each of the cars that we patrol around at night and we had a base. This was before cell phones. We had a base and then the base would make contact with the second district. Anytime we saw a drug deal going down or prostitutes on Lorain and stuff and we were in your face. We believed that recognition, high visibility, was the only way we were going to win the war and not that the dealers themselves were so flappable. But the buyers, the johns coming in from the suburbs, the young kids coming in to buy their drugs in the city, they were afraid of getting caught. And so we basically, we didn't drive the dr... we didn't run the drivers, I mean the dealers out of town, we ran the buyers out of town and their income dropped. And so they end up moving. They really did. We really ran them out of Dodge. It was quite amazing. And then one night we, at about four o'clock in the morning, we put up signs from West 65th all the way down to Detroit in bright green. And it said, "Attention drug dealers and buyers: your next transaction may be videotaped or photographed and will be used as evidence against you in court. Go ahead, smile. – Bridge Brigade." We had them all on every tree, every telephone pole. We had 400 of them up between 65th and Detroit. Well, the Plain Dealer ran a big story. The news was another lead story on all the news, and by two o'clock in the afternoon, every sign had been ripped down. Well, we were tickled pink as we knew then that we had done our job. And the people who took 'em down were the dealers and all that kind of stuff. And the drug traffic stopped because the people that were coming in from the suburbs said, hell, I'm not going down there, I'm going to the East Side, you know, and it was very, very... And by the way, we didn't have a video camera or we didn't have any of that equipment was just all smoke and mirrors. Very successful. So. So anyway, I remained involved with Bridge Brigade until I got involved in the restaurant business and then I opened up a yoga studio, and so I'm peripherally involved now. But also, again, we we served our purpose. Now, there are certainly community issues that need to be addressed, but there are no drug dealers standing on the corner right now. They really have moved, and this has become a wonderful place to live.
Mark Souther [00:46:44] Do you know where they went?
Buck Harris [00:46:46] Yeah. A lot of them went down to like 73rd and Detroit. And some of them went to Lakewood, we understand. And so I don't know and don't care, just as long as you're not here! [Laughs] You know, we might've pushed 'em down a couple of blocks. It's, you know, it's sort of the old proverbial that, you know, the bump in the rug. You push 'em down one place, they're gonna pop up another place. You know, I know we didn't send them off to rehab. They just moved their location.
Mark Souther [00:47:13] Someone else will just have to...
Buck Harris [00:47:15] Let them deal with it. Yep.
Mark Souther [00:47:17] Get rid of the problem.
Buck Harris [00:47:20] We had we had bricks thrown through our front door and, again, death threats. Those I took a little more seriously. There were some scary times. But again, you know, I'm not going to live in fear. And I believe that what you fear, you attract. So I just don't live in fear.
Mark Souther [00:47:41] You mentioned also that you ran a restaurant [Yes.] Lake Effect? Was that the only restaurant you ran, or did you run other restaurants?
Buck Harris [00:47:45] You know, No, that was the only, first one and last one. Well, well, I, it was an exciting time. The mission statement of the restaurant said to create a safe and comfortable environment for gay men and lesbians and their friends and provide quality food and entertainment and blah, blah, blah. And that was my mission. Unfortunately, I did not pick business partners who shared that mission, and that... I made some bad choices in terms of business partners. But when Lake Effect opened, it was and people will tell you today, it was the most welcoming, comfortable place that has ever been in Cleveland for the gay and lesbian community. It just felt classy and comfortable. And also the straight people just loved it. We had good food. We had good bar. We had good entertainment, live piano. And I never played disco music or rap music. It was all nice jazz and stuff. It was a glorious place. It was a shame that it didn't survive. I'm not, I'm not sad that I'm no longer involved because it was a brutal life. I mean, you know the restaurant business, it was 70 hours a week and crazy. Crazy. But it's too bad no one has replicated it since. And I've had other backers come to me and say, would you... I've got money. Do you want to do a restaurant? No, no. But I wish someone else would do it because it really was nice. It was a good place for people that didn't drink as well 'cause you come in and just have a good meal and still socialize and feel connected to the community and feel warm and welcomed.
Mark Souther [00:49:19] What's the closest place to that that you'd say exists today?
Buck Harris [00:49:24] Snickers. Yeah.
Mark Souther [00:49:27] Detroit.
Buck Harris [00:49:28] Yeah. Yeah. But mine had more... Mine had higher energy, I think. It was, and more comfort food, it was, it wasn't quite as fancy, it was, it was down-home place. Yeah, and people could expect a hug when they walked in the door. I mean, it was just that kind of place. Everyone hugged. The bartenders would hug people and, I mean, it was just wonderful. And I told bartenders if I saw any attitude towards transgender people or lesbians or anybody, that bartender would be out so fast they wouldn't know what hit 'em. Everyone was welcome. Oh, eh, maybe Republicans, but otherwise everyone was welcomed.
Mark Souther [00:50:05] So what's your next project?
Buck Harris [00:50:08] I think I'm really happy doing what I'm doing now, and that is I have a yoga studio called There's No Place Like Om. And I think, you know, I did a lot in the past that fed my ego and this one's feeding my soul. I feel healthier than I've ever been. You know, as a result of all the things I've experienced, I had a quadruple bypass. You know, I've teased this body till it turned on me. And now I'm treating it well. And I enjoy teaching yoga. I think it's good for me and my people that come to my classes enjoy it. And I also do some clinical hypnotherapy and I spend a lot of time in the summer--we have a cabin out in the country and I'm, I think at heart a country boy. I know I was a farmer in a previous lifetime so I've been able to dabble with that. So I don't know. You know, I'm 58 years old. I think I'm happy doing what I'm doing now and will probably do this for a while. And as a matter of fact, one of the teachers at my studio is 74 years old. I'd like to be teaching yoga when I'm 74. About as many hours as she puts in. And, you know, so am I going to get reconnected and reinvolved in all that? You know, there was a time I think I was sitting on five different boards of directors. I don't sit on any boards right now. And that's not to say that I won't ever serve on a board, but I enjoy now the life I'm living. I feel like I paid my dues, put in a lot of time, a lot of meetings, a lot of pro bono stuff. And so now I'm enjoying life.
Mark Souther [00:51:40] I'd like to turn to Emma and ask if you have any questions.
Buck Harris [00:51:44] You take amazing notes.
Emma Yanoshik-Wing [00:51:49] I just have a couple of kind of follow-up... The Leather Stallion Saloon? Where's that?
Buck Harris [00:51:53] Mm-hmm. That's on St. Clair at about twenty, 28th and St. Clair, maybe twenty... It's still there. LSS, Leather Stallion Saloon. Oh, it's still very popular. Their Sunday afternoons are, I guess, killer. They do a big, big crowd on Sunday afternoons.
Emma Yanoshik-Wing [00:52:13] Now, when you were working at Twiggy's and living on East 31st and you were walking, what was the neighborhood like? What was that area?
Buck Harris [00:52:24] It was OK. That area at the time was, they called that, I think, Slovak Village or Little Slovenia or something. It was, it was predominately white and relatively safe. And I think it still is today. It hasn't changed much that I'm aware of. Maybe more Asians and... But it was, it was... I didn't feel fearful of my life walking back and forth.
Emma Yanoshik-Wing [00:52:49] Just something about the neighborhood, the Ohio City neighborhood. I guess, what do you consider the boundaries? Are we in Ohio City now?
Buck Harris [00:52:57] We're in Ohio City Heights. I don't know where the boundaries are, really, and I still, when people say, where do you live, I say Ohio City, because I hate the name Detroit Shoreway. It doesn't have, in terms of marketability, it has no ring, no connection to anything. I've often thought we should either call ourselves like Edgewater Heights or Lake Erie Heights or something that has more pizzazz. Ohio City Heights is even bad. But Detroit Shoreway, [makes a sound] what is that? It's not like Tremont. Even Tremont has some zip to it, you know, and it sounds nice. So Ohio City, technically I guess the border's 52nd Street. I mean 42nd Street. 52nd rather. And so we're right on the cusp of Ohio City – Detroit Shoreway.
Mark Souther [00:53:49] I want to jump in with this idea... You're not the first person that I've heard mentioned Ohio City Heights, and I'm wondering, one thing that really interests me is how people define where they live, you know, we all tend to do this. We situate ourselves in place, especially in cities, I think. Do you know where the origin of this name came from?
Buck Harris [00:54:09] I don't know. I've been saying that for a long time. I don't know if I might be one of the originators of that. Wouldn't be the first thing I've originated, but...
Mark Souther [00:54:18] What is your sense of where Ohio City Heights is? If you had a rough... [crosstalk]
Buck Harris [00:54:22] I would say from 52nd to like 65th is Ohio City Heights.
Mark Souther [00:54:29] And between which streets?
Buck Harris [00:54:32] Between Lorain and the lake.
Mark Souther [00:54:39] Does the name have anything to do with things like Cleveland Heights and Shaker Heights?
Buck Harris [00:54:42] Yes. Yeah, absolutely... I think a contractor is arriving.
Emma Yanoshik-Wing [00:54:58] Is ACT UP still active?
Buck Harris [00:54:59] No, no. I'm not aware of any ACT UP chapters that have had meetings or anything probably for 10 years. I mean, they really were a sign of the times. And once drugs became... Once people were living longer and healthier and stuff, there wasn't the urgency, and the politics changed. There wasn't this sense of urgency and the screaming need for activism, which is kind of a shame. You know, it started like the antiwar movement of the '60s. I mean, it was the same energy that sort of fueled that was people just wanting to... There was a lot of anger and rage, and the best way to channel that was into those kinds of organizations like Students for Democratic Society and, you know, that kind of stuff.
Emma Yanoshik-Wing [00:55:45] Two more questions. Where was your restaurant?
Buck Harris [00:55:47] It was at 45th in Detroit, right next to Harp.
Emma Yanoshik-Wing [00:55:50] And did Randy Schultz write about you?
Buck Harris [00:55:56] No, he died before he wrote that next book, sadly. I have been mentioned in Quentin Crisp's book. I don't know if you're familiar with Quentin Crisp. Oh, he's a wonderful, crazy... Oh, he just died at the age of 94. So. But to answer your question about Randy, no. But I am memorialized in...
Mark Souther [00:56:20] Anything that you would like to add before we end the interview?
Buck Harris [00:56:25] Oh, I guess it's just exciting in this day and age to see organizations like the Lesbian and Gay Community Service Center that are strong, vibrant, and in storefronts, you know, before we used to... you would never have the rainbow flag hanging out in front of the Center because it would've been dangerous to do so, and to see places like groups like Stonewall again, so strong and vibrant and HRC and stuff. And it makes me feel good. I can rest comfortably knowing that I know I had some impact on helping those organizations grow, and as a matter fact, Pat Shepard, who is one I think now one of Cleveland's strongest voices, started off listening to my show and came to his first Gay Pride parade and said, I came here because I listened to your show, you know? That makes me feel good. I know I had an impact on all of that. So. As a matter of fact, the Plain Dealer had a meeting when my position was created by the governor, my title was gay health consultant, and up to that point, the Plain Dealer had never used the term gay to describe a person they met back. Their policy was they would not use it. They only used the word homosexual. And I said, if you don't use my title, you can't interview me. And so my... That was the first time the Plain Dealer ever used the word gay to refer to a person. And that year, Bert Lahr, not Bert Lahr, who was the editor in chief? They had their list of who they wanted in Cleveland that they wanted to wish a happy anniversary, and I was on that list. And then...
Mark Souther [00:58:01] In what year?
Buck Harris [00:58:04] 1985. New Year's. And also that year I was in... I think I was the first openly gay person ever in Cleveland Magazine to be listed among their, at that time, it was 86 most interesting people and it was funny because there were other gay people at that big reception they had for all of us. And, but they didn't, they wouldn't even associate with me because I was so out. [Laughs] You know, when I can remember walking downtown Cleveland and gay people would sort of part ways because I was so out that if they were to say hello to Buck Harris, it would be, you know, it was, you know, in the old days, I used to say, are you a friend of Dorothy's. In the early '80s they'd say, are you a friend of Buck's? And that's, you know, I was, yeah, I was a big fish in a little pond.
Mark Souther [00:58:54] This has been extremely interesting and... [Thanks!] we're almost sorry to have to stop it, but we want to respect your time.
Buck Harris [00:58:59] Well, come on back.
Mark Souther [00:59:01] We've had a great time.
Buck Harris [00:59:02] Thanks. Me, too. It's been fun going down memory lane.
Mark Souther [00:59:06] Again, this has been an interview with Mr. Buck Harris...
Buck Harris [00:59:08] You know, there is one more thing. I was... There was a... There's a student writing a book from OSU on early AIDS experience in Ohio, and he was talking about... He... One of his questions was, it must have been so painful and so difficult to do what you were doing back then. And yes, it was true. I mean, I lectured about being gay and stuck in Steubenville. I mean, there were times when I had to keep the car running because it was pretty tough. And he said it must have been so painful. And I got really tearful and I started to well up and tears were running down. And I said it was the most wonderful time of my life because I met the most amazing people, people in Cleveland, for example, like Len Calabrese and Michael Letterman and John Kerry, who has since passed. And but it brought out the cream of the crop. And again, difficult times call for difficult measures, but it also brought out the most amazing people and certainly the people living with AIDS. And so I wouldn't trade it. Wouldn't trade it for anything. And AIDS changed the way we deliver medicine today. So. And I'm now in a relationship with Michael O'Connor. We've been together for 18 years. Yes. And he's a gem of a man.
Mark Souther [01:00:26] Wonderful. Again, this has been an interview with Buck Harris, and the date is April 20th, 2006. Thanks again.
Buck Harris [01:00:34] My pleasure.
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"Buck Harris interview, 20 April 2006" (2006). Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection. Interview 955020_999012.