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A Turning Point: A look at Cleveland's LGBTQ club scene, then and now

Cleveland's LGBTQ community vogued, dragged, and death-dropped its way through discrimination, violence, and persecution... until the internet killed the club scene.

CLEVELAND — As 3News continues to shine a light on Cleveland's LGBTQ community, we turn our focus to what many consider a vital part of LGBTQ acceptance: the club scene.

Cleveland's gay bars and clubs were some of the only places many members of the LGBTQ community say they felt welcomed and free to be themselves. The scene started downtown in the Schofield Building on Euclid Avenue, but seems to have ended with the worldwide web.

RELATED: More Turning Point stories from WKYC

"The internet really ruined a lot of things," transgender Cleveland entertainer Isis Tiffany Soul explained. "Nobody goes out anymore, because you don't have to."

Let's start with Cleveland's early gay hey-day—beginning in the 1940s with the opening of the city's first gay club, Cadillac lounge on Euclid.

"Straight, gay, tall, short, fat, white, black, blue—it didn’t matter, all were welcome," Jerry Czolka, former owner of the popular LGBTQ nightclub The Grid from 1994 until 2003, said.

Cadillac—along with clubs like Little Ted's—fearlessly opened to all, at a time when LGBTQ clubs were some of the only safe havens many queer youth had.

"Back in those days ... you got thrown bricks at [you]," Soul recalled. "Rocks, baseball bats, you had to run."

"Honey, I'm just a queer," Czolka remembers thinking at the time. "You could beat me up; you've gotta catch me first."

Gay clubs offered protection, families when families weren't around.

"If there was a problem, they were right there," Soul said. "With my mom, she wasn't accepting. God bless her, but she said she had a son. She always made sure I knew she had a son."

"One time, these two guys were harassing some of my patrons outside of the bar," Czolka added. "Honey, you never saw so many queens go after these guys, chasing them down the street."

They were also places to organize, mobilize, share info and resources, and see yourself in others.

"My first time at a gay club, I was like 21," Syrmylin Cartwright, former Club kid-turned-multi-disciplined artist in Cleveland, told us. "'Oh my God, there's so many people like me!' I couldn't believe it. Like, 'Where have y'all been?'"

The Leather Stallion on St. Clair—the longest standing gay club in Cleveland—opened in 1970, allowing women when many gay clubs were only catering to men.

"I’m an ally; I'm not a member of the gay and lesbian community, but they were welcoming to me," longtime activist and advocate Patricia Leebove said. "They didn't care that I wasn't a leather-clad muscle guy. They were like 'Come on in, girl!'"

Cleveland's Hingetown neighborhood in Ohio City—from West 29th Street to Detroit Avenue—was arguably the center of gay culture in Cleveland in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s.

"Get up, go to work on Friday, go out and party, get up on Saturday, go back out and party, get up on Sunday, go to church, then go back out and party," Soul described. "That's what we did."

Hingetown restaurants—even "straight" bars—were gay-friendly, and clubs like Bounce made drag shows the hottest ticket in town.

"The girls, child, the girls [were] there, too," Cartwright said. "You know what I’m sayin? So, the girls come, and you get to kiki and haha and do all of that."

"You let your hair down," Soul stated. "You were you. You just didn't have to be closed up in a closet. You could be your true self."

Hingetown was a hop, skip, and jump just over the Detroit Bridge from one of the most popular LGBTQ clubs of all: The Grid, named, believe it or not, after the AIDS crisis.

"When AIDS first came out, we didn't know what it was, so they called it "the GRID"—Gay Related Immune Deficiency," Czolka explained. "I thought that would be a good play on words. They knew about GRID in California and New York, but not in Cleveland, so the name worked."

Czolka opened The Grid in the warehouse district on East 9th back in 1994, then on St. Clair in 2001. It was the place to be to dance, find romance, and compete if you were a drag performer. Sparkly gowns and makeup, lip-syncing, voguing, and death-dropping to heart-pumping house music that moved not only your body but your soul was the norm.

"I like to say, 'I'm not dancing, I'm standing still,'" former Grid dancer William Barrett remarks. "The music is moving me. There are cases I don’t even remember. 'Oh my God! There was this time you did this back bend and this flip.' I would be like 'Huh? I did that?'"

"In the clubs, it was primarily house music," Cartwright said. "It was church music turned into house music. It was 'thump, thump, thump.'"

"Club music was played in the clubs, radio music was played on the radio," Czolka added. "You went to the club to dance to club music, and you danced hard."

But it wasn't always a party, especially when the AIDS epidemic swept the LGBTQ community in the '80s and '90s. Cleveland's gay bars continued to be valuable spaces to gather, but also to mourn, and undercurrents of hate always loomed.

"I don't want to call them gay-bashers, but people were harassing gay people who come into the club," Czolka recalled, "always yelling slurs and throwing things at us."

"Growing up going to church—and, you know, Bible verse, scripture bashing—mentally, it was horrifying," Cartwright said. "All of it was terrible, at times."

And as folks fought to be seen and heard, the 2000s ushered in anonymity with the rise of the internet. Romantic dates you could now find at a keyboard's stroke made gathering in person no longer a necessity, and just like video killed the radio star, the web began to kill the gay club scene.

"You barely meet anybody," Soul lamented. "If they're in the bar, they're sitting there having a drink and on Grindr, or wherever, Adult Friend Finder, looking for somebody to go out with."

Nationwide, 37% of gay bars and clubs closed between 2007 and 2019 amid the rise of the internet.

"It was a transition," Cartwright said. It's dead. It became dead. Those days are gone, probably forever."

Cleveland LGBTQ bars and clubs dwindled from over two dozen in the '70s and '80s to just six today.

"It was a big difference, a big change," Cartwright admitted. "For me, it just wasn't fun anymore."

The community says all good things must come to an end, but the freedom to be unapologetically one's self never goes out of style.

"Pride is every day I wake up in the morning, because I'm proud of who I am and what I have become," Soul declared. "But the club scene? Man, it's not like it used to be."

You can watch the entire A Turning Point: Pride show below:

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