Five years ago as word hit the streets that the Federation of Gay Games had chosen its host city for the 2014 edition of the world’s largest LGBT sporting event, people collectively cocked their heads and invariably uttered the same thing: “Cleveland? Ohio?”
Yes, Cleveland, and yes, Ohio. As one of the American Midwest’s most Midwestern-y cities, with strong blue-collar roots and a stubborn reputation (despite years of urban revitalization) for being at the heart of the so-called Rust Belt, Cleveland hasn’t thus far been considered one of the US’s — let alone the world’s — most gay-friendly meccas.
That’s all about to change forever, as Cleveland reaches the final stages of eager preparation for the 2014 Gay Games, which open on Aug 9 and will run through Aug 16.
Thousands of athletes from some 45 countries have registered for the eight-day event, which is expected to draw more than 20,000 well-wishers and watchers. And while some of the proceedings will take place in nearby Akron, the star debutante of this big gay Great Lakes ball is clearly Cleveland. Organizers see the Games as a stepping stone to greater gay visibility for the city and only the beginning of a new era for Northeastern Ohio gay tourism.
For the first-time gay traveller to Cleveland, getting a handle on its sprawling neighbourhoods is a little tricky, but key. There’s nothing in Cleveland resembling a gaybourhood on par with San Francisco’s Castro or Chicago’s Boystown, but quirky and often surprisingly hip pockets of gayness are spread across this Lake Erie–side city of almost 400,000 — making exploration more challenging but ultimately far more interesting.
For most visitors, of any ilk, the Cleveland action begins here. The bulk of the city’s best hotels — including the five-star Ritz-Carlton, the fantastic Marriott Downtown at Key Center, and the stylish new Aloft — are located in this large central area that’s seen a major rebirth in recent years. Also here is the Cleveland Theater District and its massive Playhouse Square (which will host several events during the Gay Games), as well as the city’s top eateries and one of its most popular tourist attractions, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. Already chock full of gay-iconic memorabilia from the likes of Queen to Elton John to Madonna to Lady Gaga, the museum also boasts a just-opened Beyoncé exhibit, which includes the superdiva’s leather and lace Rubin Singer outfit from the 2013 Super Bowl. (A proud Gay Games sponsor, the museum is offering special Gay Games tour tickets via daily links here.)
Many of the Games’ sporting events will take place downtown, as will its main opening and closing events. The opening ceremony, featuring Lance Bass, the Pointer Sisters and Greg Louganis, will take place at downtown’s Quicken Loans Arena, while the House of Blues will host the official closing-night afterparty, 7 Deadly Sins (featuring Amanda Lepore and Carole Radziwill, from Real Housewives of New York City).
Though most of downtown’s nightlife is usually geared toward a straight audience, Gay Games organizers predict that will change during the August festivities. “We’re expecting the Warehouse District and East Fourth Street [downtown’s two main nightlife hubs] to go gay for a week,” Rob Smitherman, director of sports and events for the Gay Games, recently told Cleveland’s The Plain Dealer newspaper.
Across the Cuyahoga River and hugging the lake just west of downtown, the Ohio City ’hood is where you’ll find another of Cleveland’s most popular attractions, West Side Market — with 180 booths offering local fresh foods, ethnic favourites and specialties from around the planet, it’s one of the biggest public markets in the Midwest. Many trendy restaurants and several of Cleveland’s top gay venues are here in Ohio City, including Cocktails and Bounce (which will present Boy George, Jinkx Monsoon, Bianca del Rio and Sharon Needles during the Games).
Moving farther east, this quickly up-and-coming neighbourhood is home to loads of creative and cool venues, including the mixed hipster haven of Happy Dog and larger civic projects like the Gordon Square Arts District. The LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland is here, too, ensuring that the budding area’s renaissance is bound to have a strong queer element.
Farther east still is arguably the closest thing Cleveland has to a gaybourhood: Edgewater. Here (and in next-door suburb Lakewood) you’ll find the largest concentration of the city’s gay residents, as well as a number of its most popular LGBT venues, including the casual and neighbourhoody Hawk and dance club Twist. It’s also home to Cleveland’s most gay-frequented beach, Edgewater Park.
Few of Cleveland’s neighbourhoods have seen such tremendous change in recent years as lovely south-of-downtown Tremont, one of the city’s oldest areas and home over the decades to Germans, Ukrainians, steelworkers and various combinations thereof. Today’s Tremonters are far more commonly artists, hipsters and urban professionals, who’ve brought with them some of the city’s hottest galleries, hangouts and restaurants (like local celeb chef Michael Symon’s excellent Lola).
Packed within a few-block radius on Cleveland’s east side — in an area Forbes magazine has called one of America’s prettiest neighbourhoods — are several of the city’s top cultural powerhouses. The stunning Cleveland Museum of Art holds a wonderfully diverse collection of some 43,000 objects from around the world — and thanks to one of the country’s wealthiest endowments, general admission to the museum is always free. A sponsor of the Gay Games, the museum will present Night Before 9: Out in Art on Aug 8. The next-door Cleveland Botanical Garden is another of the city’s top attractions, as is the grand Severance Hall across the street, where the Cleveland Orchestra (another Gay Games partner) will perform The Beethoven Experience during the Games on Aug 15. Just a few blocks down, on Euclid Avenue, is the innovative Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, since 2012 here in its new home designed by famed London architect Farshid Moussavi.