Brynna Fish (b. 1957) grew up in Youngstown and studied social work at Yeshiva University before moving to Cleveland Heights in 1979. In this interview, she discusses her involvement at the intersection of Cleveland's Jewish and lesbian communities, as well as her work with coordinating the annual Womyn's Variety Show and music festivals with Oven Productions and her founding of Chevrei Tikvah, a gay and lesbian synagogue, in 1983. She reflects on various gay and lesbian bars in Cleveland, and changes in Pride events since the late 1980s.
Brynna Fish [00:00:20] Absolutely. Thank you. And also, thank you so much for reconsidering the name of the project [from Queer Cleveland Voices to LGBTQ+ Cleveland Voices]. That means a lot to me.
Riley Habyl [00:00:28] Thank you very much for speaking with me about it. To begin, could you please state and spell your name for the record?
Brynna Fish [00:00:33] Absolutely. It's Brynna Fish, B-r-y-n-n-a F-i-s-h.
Riley Habyl [00:00:40] Thank you. So where and when were you born?
Brynna Fish [00:00:44] I was born in Youngstown, Ohio, [redacted] 1957.
Riley Habyl [00:00:49] Could you tell me a bit about your childhood and life growing up?
Brynna Fish [00:00:52] Sure. I had a great childhood in Youngstown. My grandparents were very active in the Jewish community, as were my parents. And then I got very active. My parents got divorced when I was six or seven. And nobody talked about it then. And then my dad got remarried. My dad got custody of us, which was also not really heard of in the sixties. And my dad met a woman and we became the Brady Bunch. So I have a younger brother and sister. My stepmom had three kids. And we really were the Brady Bunch—except we had two Davids, which was awesome. I went to day camp at the JCC [Jewish Community Center] and had a crush on a counselor named Jeanette. And I had a sense then that there was something different about me, but in a special kind of way. In high school I met a gal who was a year younger than me, and we became girlfriends, and lovers, and thought nobody knew about it. Later I found out that my—. One of my best friends in the mid-eighties (dog sneezes) in the mid-seventies, came to my house and said, "You know, I knew about you in high school, and I defended you to everybody because people talked." But I did not feel any prejudice or bullying in high school. Although in the sixth grade—. And I loved this. In the [sixties], I did have a crush on a girl named Bonnie, and she and I were best friends. And there was Teen Night at our local JCC—Jewish Community Center—and one evening I came out of a stall in the bathroom and two of my friends were in there, Wendy and Sidney–Cindy. And they did bully me, and they roughed me up. Pushing me around, knocked me into the paper towel dispenser in the sink, and all the while saying, "You're a lezzie. You're a lezzie. Brynna loves Bonnie." And then they left. I never told a soul about it. In the early eighties, I played a women's coffeehouse called The 10th Muse that was run by the—. Or it was founded by folks who were at Kent State at the time, students at Kent State. And—. Okay, now I don't really know who it was founded by. But there were folks there from Kent State who were involved in Kent State's LGBT thing. And the coffee house was held at Hillel on the Kent State—near Kent State campus. And during the break, I went to get a cup of tea from the little concession and Wendy—who beat me up in the bathroom—was there, and she was the president of the LGBT-whatever-it-was at Kent State. And then years—. A couple of years later, I saw Cindy at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival. So I love that both of them, from their early internalized homophobia, had recognized something in me that was in themselves. And, and so, of course (dog barks) I forgave them.
Riley Habyl [00:05:10] (dog growls) Could you tell me a little bit about your educational background? Where and when you went to school?
Brynna Fish [00:05:16] Yea. So, I went to—. You want to know, like, elementary all the way to college?
Riley Habyl [00:05:26] High school and college primarily. (crosstalk)
Brynna Fish [00:05:27] Okay. So high school I went to Liberty High School in Youngstown. And then I went to Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. But I really wanted to go to something—a college that was progressive and very liberal. (dog collar rattles) And my parents couldn't afford that out of town, you know, out of state, places that I wanted to go to. And so I was grateful that somebody who was a year older than me already at Miami University told me about a program called the Western College Program. So, this was Miami University—. Two years before I went to Miami [University]. So I started there in the fall of '75. I was in the second graduating class of this program, so sometime in the early seventies. Western College for Women. That was founded actually before Miami University closed down, and Miami bought the campus that was across the—. I'm going to say, one of the main roads, but very rural main road. And it was an interdisciplinary studies program with a community aspect of the program. And it was perfect for me, so that's where I went. And I spent four years living in the dorm. I became an RA [resident advisor] my junior and senior year. And part of what I loved about the program is some of the staff and professors lived in the dorms. There were also houses on the campus that some of the profs lived in. And it was—. It was small. You know, there were, I don't know, 80 or 90 of us in a class. And so we got to see it grow while I was there. But also, we got to create our own major. So the first two years we spent in the core curriculum classes. And in the second two years, we had less core curriculum and more focus on whatever our individual, I don't know, major was. So I created a major in—that combined photography and writing and journalism. And every student had to create something that was, like, even more intense than a master's thesis. And what I created was a project that was poems and photographs at the time. And I—. I'm so curious about this now as 66 year old lesbian. I said that I made up a persona, and the persona was the author of these poems on three topics. So it was the relationship with the persona and her girlfriend, that was really my girlfriend—and the persona and my mother, who I had a quite a challenging relationship with—and the persona and my grandmother, who had recently died. But that my professors let me get away with the persona part was fascinating. I don't think that would happen today, but it was the seventies. Anyway. And so my girlfriend came into town for my presentation, and my parents did. My mom and my dad, my stepmom. And I remember her calling me in college, maybe my junior year. And, you know, we had phones in our room, but we had a system. If I needed to talk to my parents, I called collect and said, you know—. We had a code. And then they called me back. And it wasn't like today, everybody's talking on their phones to each other. So when my step mom called me, I thought, "Oh, somebody died or was in the hospital or something." And she's just chit chatting with me. And finally I said, "You know, what—. Is something wrong?" And she said, "Well, I called to tell you that in high school I knew about you and Nancy. And it's fine with me, but don't tell your father. It will kill him." Okay. So then, the next year—the end of my senior year—they're both coming to see my opening gallery thing and poetry reading. And I'm like, "Mom, he's going to get it that I'm a lesbian." "Oh, don't worry." It was pretty awkward, but it was also really exhilarating that I got so much support from the folks around me in my college. But I'm glad I remembered this. So my girlfriend, Nancy, from high school—. Near the end of senior year when I knew where I was going to college and I was ready to move on, she informed me that she had been working independently to graduate a year early—and she applied to Miami and was accepted into the Western College program. And she wanted us to be roommates. And I was like, "Well, okay." And then we got to school, and she really thought we were going to have this isolated lesbian utopian relationship. And I was ready to stretch my wings. And it wasn't that I was interested in any particular human being. I just didn't want to be bound by that. And in that fall, she tried to kill herself because I basically said, "You know, we're not in a relationship anymore." And that outed me in my dorm. But again, I was really pleasantly surprised that nothing bad happened. So, she went on to stalk me. So she left that year, freshman year. She came back sophomore year, or junior year. I forget. And I was getting these letters—typed letters mailed to my post office box or, you know, the dorm post office box from a person named Frank. But—. You know, like, "Oh, I noticed you've got a camera. I noticed you're taking these classes," and it was really creepy. And I shared these—. You know, like, the second or third time I got a letter I shared it with the head res[ident advisor] in the dorm. And they took it to the police, and then the letters stopped. Okay, fine. Then I got a job at a Jewish camp—overnight camp—in the middle of Missouri, based out of the St. Louis JCC [Jewish Community Center]. And I show up to staff training, and there's Nancy. And I'm like, "This is really strange." And she became friends with a gal named Marty, who obviously was a lesbian—and another staff member and, and badmouthed me to this person—and then went to town with a bunch of counselors to do laundry and never came back. And so then I get pulled into the director's office, and we have Nancy's mother on the phone. "Do you know where she is?" I'm like, "I have no idea where she is." So that was—. That was strange and sad. But that—. So that was college. Then I went on to—. So I graduated in '79. I was supposed to move to Boulder, Colorado, with my girlfriend—who I met at that camp that Nancy stalked me at—the next summer. So between my junior and senior year, I met this girl Jodi and I was convinced we would spend the rest of our lives together. After graduation, I had all my moving boxes in my parents living room labeled '908 Pleasant Street, Boulder, Colorado.' She had gotten an apartment for us. She still had—. It was three years difference, so I guess she had three more years of college, and I was confident that I'd get some journalistic or photography job in Boulder. So then, literally like two days before I was supposed to get in my car and drive to Boulder, she called me in tears saying her parents had just figured out that we were lesbians and were going to cut—. If she didn't agree to go home to Memphis and see a shrink, they would cut her off from the family. And she was very close to her family, plus her family was very wealthy. So cut off meant from the family and financially. So—. Broke my heart. I did have to tell my father then. And there was a place in our house where—. In my parents' bedroom there were two chairs and a lamp between them. And that was the place that if we were ever in trouble, that's where one parent or the other had the talk with us. So my—. I went to my—I call her my mom, but my stepmom first. And I told her and she said, "Well, now you have to tell your father. Go upstairs." So I went upstairs. I was standing, looking out the window. He walked in. He put his hands on my shoulder behind me and said, "I don't know why you are the way you are, but you're my daughter and I love you." And then he walked out. And I was like, okay, well, that was maybe easier than I thought it was going to be—but also still really awkward. And he ended up getting lung cancer and dying very quickly in '83. So that's four years later. And literally on his deathbed in the hospital when he was incoherent, I said, "Dad, I hope you can hear me, and I'm so sorry that this has been so hard for you." And he sat up, became very lucid, and he said, "Brynna, I love you, don't worry about it." And that was like the last lucid, coherent thing he said. And he was gone a couple of days later. So I ended up staying in Youngstown the summer after I graduated. Getting a job at the JCC [Jewish Community Center]. And I didn't really know what to do with myself. I got a job offer. I was active in this—very active all through high school through this Jewish youth group for the conservative movement called United Synagogue Youth. I had been the regional president of it when I was in high school, and the guy who was the regional director was also the part time Hillel director at Miami University. So he would take me to the conventions and I'd be staff. And I was also active at Hillel there. And I was the Jewish guitar song leader, and that's what I did at this camp in Missouri. But anyway, so he was going to retire and recommended that I take his job. So while I was, you know, in this sort of summer shock of—my girlfriend's not accessible to me, and I don't know what I'm going to do with the rest of my life—I get a phone call inviting me to go to New York and apply for his job, which I got. And—. So that was the fall of of '79. And they said I could live anywhere in the five states in a major city. But my mother was from Cleveland, and I was familiar with it, so I chose Cleveland and I moved here, and—. And then at a convention that I was responsible for in Louisville, Kentucky—I think in '80. Early '83, maybe '82—I met a gal in Louisville who was in rabbinical school at this convention that—. She was—. She grew up in Louisville, and they brought her in to be a teacher. And we had sparks flying. But, you know, we behaved at the—at that conference. But afterwards, she came to visit me and agreed to take a year off of rabbinical school to see if this relationship would work. And shortly after that, my boss in New York City called me and said, you know, "What happened in Louisville?" And I knew what he was talking about. Not—. I don't—. Not about Karen so much, the—my then girlfriend. But there were two kids. And in the early eighties that somebody would be out in high school was pretty rare. But in Cincinnati, there were these two kids—Leslie and Billy—and they were out. And at this—it was called a kenus, which is a gathering—they were being bullied. So as the adult in charge, I tried to make a learning thing about it and connected it to whatever the Jewish theme was, which—. I don't know. 'Love your neighbor as yourself,' or something. And some parents complained, and so I get this call from my rabbi. And he says, "Well, I have to ask you—." So I told him what happened. And then he says, "Well, I have to ask you a question." He said, "Are you a lesbian?" And I lied. I said, "No. Why would you think that?" I never, ever lied about it in my life, but I really felt like—fuck, my job is on the line. Okay, well, many months later, enough time had passed that I was like, phew. I get a phone call saying, "We've eliminated your position because of budget issues." And I was like, "There's no budget issues. I'm responsible for the budget, and I know we're okay." And they canned me. And actually, my dad was still alive. And then—. And he drove in, and the—. Corky and Lenny's is a deli that's in Woodmere, 271 and Chagrin. You could smoke in restaurants then. My dad was a chain smoker. So he drove in from Youngstown. We met there. He chain smoked while we talked. And he was like, "Brynna, we have to fight this." And I'm like, "There is no fighting this. There's—. We're not protected." And we're still not protected, but that was—. That was—. It was hard. I loved that job. But I stayed in Cleveland and decided to get my master's degree in social work. So then I went to Wurzweiler program of social work, which is from Yeshiva University in New York City. So it's an orthodox institution, but they have a great social work program. And of course, at orientation I met a lesbian. And we became pals, and we tried to start an LGBT affinity group in the social work school. And we were in a program called the BLOCK Program. It was an intensive nine-week summer program. And then we did—. Not remote learning because there were not computers yet, but we had assignments to do and we had a field advisor. So, a local person who supervised me. And anyway, so—. I don't know. A couple dozen people came to the meeting we had. And then we were basically not welcome to continue, and so we didn't. And actually, Yeshiva University is still struggling with having an LGBT alliance. And there's been lawsuits and blah-blah-blah—currently. But it was very easy to be out in New York City, and it was great to go to Pride there, and Christopher Street, and—. You know, the—. New York City, the population was so different and very progressive. So that's—. That was my education.
Riley Habyl [00:23:55] When did you come back to Cleveland from New York? Approximately what year?
Brynna Fish [00:24:00] Well, I'm—. I never left Cleveland, because I only went during the summers.
Riley Habyl [00:24:06] Ah, okay. That makes sense.
Brynna Fish [00:24:06] Yeah. Yeah, so it was three summers there. And my job at the time—. I got a job at the Bureau of Jewish Education doing their community programing. And I grew up actually really hating social workers because when my parents got divorced, my dad made me see a social worker who was out of Jewish Family Services in Youngstown. My dad later became the president of Jewish Family Services, which I loved. And—. But anyway. And so it was ironic that I went to social work school, but I never wanted to be the counselor or therapist kind of social worker. I was very interested in community organization and nonprofits, and so my concentration was community organization, program planning and administration. So.
Riley Habyl [00:25:06] What did you pursue after graduating from college and getting your masters?
Brynna Fish [00:25:10] Well, I stayed at the Bureau of Jewish Education, and—. Until—. Because of genuine budget cuts, my position was eliminated. And then I—. By then I had—. When I moved to Cleveland, I sought out the women's community here. And there was a bookstore on Coventry called Coventry Books [1824 Coventry Rd.]. It closed in '82, unfortunately, but—. So the first two and a half, three years I was here, that was like where the lesbians went to—on the bulletin board to see what was happening. And there was a thing called Oven Productions, and I went to some of their concerts. And then I moved into—. Okay, then my girlfriend Karen decided she wasn't really a lesbian and moved back to Philadelphia to finish rabbinical school. I don't think she ever did. But then I moved, and I met a gal, I think, who worked at Coventry Books—Marty Webb—and we decided to live together. And so we got a house on Compton, not far from here in Cleveland Heights. And we sought out other lesbian to live there, so three of us. And she was–. Marty [Webb] was in Oven [Productions], and I was hooked. I was hooked on the community, and the celebration of being a lesbian and also the—. I learned how to be a sound—run sound. We had our own sound equipment, and I really like that. I loved the performers and the circuit that would come through town. And I stayed involved with that. I'm not exactly sure. There came a point where the number of people coming to concerts was diminishing. Because k.d. lang came out, and Melissa Etheridge. Like in the heyday, you know, we'd get, 500 to 1000 people in an event. And the numbers were shrinking, and so it wasn't financially feasible to keep going even though we were a nonprofit. We didn't seek grants or anything like that. It was all ticket sales. And we had a Womyn's Variety Show every year, which was a local talent show. Debra [Hirshberg] probably talked about that. And so—. And I helped coordinate many [Womyn's] Variety Shows. And actually started doing a program book—getting advertisements as another source of revenue. And I remember at some point in the late '90s, early 2000s, I think I stepped away and—. And then we haven't had a [Womyn's] Variety Show in a while, which is sad to me, but it's—. Some people might think it is a good thing because we're accepted in the mainstream now. Except that there are still lesbian performers who do travel in a circuit, and—. (dog sneezes) Anyway. I miss very much those lesbians faces. What was the question you asked me?
Riley Habyl [00:29:04] Sort of, what you pursued after graduation.
Brynna Fish [00:29:06] Oh, right, right, right. Okay.
Riley Habyl [00:29:08] Speaking about that Oven [Productions]—
Brynna Fish [00:29:10] Yeah.
Riley Habyl [00:29:10] Could you sort of broadly describe the lesbian and/or lesbian feminist community in Cleveland as you first encountered it?
Brynna Fish [00:29:18] Sure. I didn't really understand what feminist was. I didn't understand the—. Even though my dad ran a family business and—. Before they—my parents—got divorced, you know, we lived in the new suburb, and they had new cars, and we belonged to the Jewish country club. And then after the divorce—. And also, the family business fell apart. So, you know, I went from my mother going from Youngstown to Cleveland to buy clothes for us, because she thought there was nicer clothes here, to being raised by a single dad and having all hand-me-downs and used cars. I—. So I experienced the difference in how you live when your resources change. I didn't get it about the difference between a professional class, and a working class, and the socioeconomic, and poverty, and racism. And so I got an education in Oven [Productions] that was sometimes hard. And at the same time, I'm—. I was somebody who, I always—. I speak what I believe in. I'm not shy. I like to make connections. I like to build community. I'm sure there are people I owe apologies to. But I also learned about consensus, because Oven [Productions] made all its decisions by consensus building. So there was no voting. And if somebody was—had a difference of opinion, even if it was one out of the six or seven of us who were in the collective at the time, we had to keep hashing it out until everybody felt comfortable. And that was that was an amazing thing to participate in. And also because of being involved in Oven Productions, I started going to different women's music festivals. And I went to National Women's Music Festival as a participant. And I went to the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival for their 10th. They were started in '75. I went to '85—to their 10th as a festival goer. And then after that I went as a worker and I worked at—. For a couple of summers I worked at the New England Women's Music Festival. A couple of summers I worked at Sisterfire, which was a one-day festival in Washington, D.C.. A couple of summers at the National Women's Music Festival. I helped start this Association of Women's Music and Culture—which was basically the performers, the record distributor, distributors, the record labels and the women's production companies around the country. And then I got custody of my nephew [Shiah Fish], and that hampered my ability to do so much traveling. Fortunately, working for nonprofit organizations, I got enough vacation that I could go places. But I chose the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival as the festival that I would work at every summer. And I did that from '86 until 2015 when they when they closed—shut down. And that, that all started because of Oven Productions. And the way Oven [Productions] functioned around community and consensus is also a lot of the ways Michigan [Womyn's Music Festival] functioned. You know, there were the producers of the festival, but they really involved the workers in addressing issues and raising questions and hashing stuff out. And I appreciated that. And I learned that from Oven [Productions]. And then I started to learn about, "Oh, well, these—. This ideology is feminism" And I was like, "Oh, okay. Well, that makes sense." And I also was one of the founders of Chevrei Tikvah in 1983, which was a gay and lesbian synagogue. Which I actually just learned that—this past Sunday—is officially gone. And the—. I was already organizing Jewish women's stuff here. We had a Jewish women's seder before Chevrei Tikvah started, and—for a couple of years. And then that—. We blended in with Chevrei Tikvah. And then I learned that gay men aren't feminists. And I'm like, "You're oppressed. Lesbians are oppressed. Bi [bisexual] people are oppressed. Why don't we have a commonality?" And then I'm like, "Oh, yeah. Because you earn more money, and you're inherently patriarchal. And it's not necessarily your fault because this—." You know, it's also the eighties, and there wasn't as much speaking out as there is now about this. And I don't even know what wave feminism we're in now, but—. It was the first—. I became a co-president of Chevrei Tikvah, I don't know, in the mid-'80s. And I quit because I couldn't tol—. I quit the presidency because—my co-presidency. I couldn't tolerate being in meetings with men that felt that their opinion and position had greater value than the lesbians'. And then the numbers that Chevrei Tikvah—. In the late 2010s and early, you know, the late 2000s and early 2010s, the numbers started shrinking. And in the reform synagogues, it was starting to be welcoming. And so we became a chavurah, which is basically like an affinity group. So we became a subgroup of [Anshe Chesed] Fairmount Temple, which is a large Reform synagogue here. And then even the numbers of the chavurah started shrinking. And the folks who were staying involved were the older folks. And I personally felt like, "Okay, I understand that because you older folks grew up where this was—had such a stigma." But the younger folks are trying to stretch our wings and say it's okay to be LGBT—. There wasn't even Q [queer] then. I don't even know if there was—. T [transgender] was just starting. Anyway. And I was the Jewish song leader person at those services and helped lead services. And even I started feeling like, these aren't my people. And new people would come to town and find us—young people, students, young professionals—and they'd come once and not come back. Because I think they looked around the room and went, "These aren't my people. These are old fogies." And there were a handful, a half a dozen people hanging on. Nobody really wanted to step up into leadership positions. And then COVID hit, and I started to see in the synagogue bulletin there aren't Chevrei Tikvah services anymore. And a woman who was involved very long—her name was Barbara Louise. Just passed away, and we had a very small memorial for her at Fairmount Temple. And that's when I learned that, you know, there's not really—. There's not a "there there" anymore. And I sort of felt like for the past decade and a half—put yourself out of your misery. Now, even the conservative synagogues are welcoming and they're—. There's an effort here for some of the progressive Orthodox synagogues to be welcoming. So, again, it's a bittersweet thing. Sort of like Oven Productions. Where, yeah, do I miss gathering with LGBT Jewish people? Yes. But I would rather gather with LGBT Jewish people from, you know, teenagers to the older folks, not just a little slice of us. So.
Riley Habyl [00:39:30] Speaking of Oven Productions, could you tell me a bit about more—. Er, sorry. A bit more about women's cultural production in Cleveland in the eighties that came out of Oven Productions? Like some of the events that they held, and some of the things that came out of Oven [Productions]?
Brynna Fish [00:39:47] So the first concert that I went to was a Theresa Dell concert, and it was at Case Western Reserve University. And a friend of mine, Merle, who is still one of my, my dearest best friends—and just visited from Columbus this past weekend. She worked at Coventry Books, and so she took me to this concert. And actually, Debra Hirshberg was a ticket taker. And Merle was all excited to introduce me to Debra Hirshberg, who was also a lesbian Jewish person. And then I worked a show that was a woman named Rita Coriell [De Quercus]. She recently passed. And then maybe Ferron was next. And we did home hospitality then. And, you know, the performers' riders had things like, "clean sheets and a bedroom door that closes." And I was super excited to have Ferron sleep in my bed on a—clean sheets with a door that closed. Anyway. Oh, Holly Near. Cris Williamson. We did a Holly Near-Ronnie Gilbert show. There's a place on Mayfield Road called the Civic [3130 Mayfield Rd.]. It used to be a synagogue, and we had concerts in the main sanctuary. It was before my time, but Oven [Productions] started doing its shows at a church on Taylor Road. And we were having the [Womyn's] Variety Show also at the Civic. And it always humored me that, you know, we went from church basements to synagogues. And we did—. So, Olivia Records—which is still around now. They used to—. As a, as a record label they produced the records of many of the early women's music stuff. Cris Williamson, Margie Adam. They had their 15th anniversary concert and they were doing Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco, and New York City. And I was like, "Well, what's wrong with Cleveland?" We were the oldest continuously running women's production company at the time. We even started the women's production company a year before the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival started. We started Oven [Productions] in—. It started in '74, I believe. And, so I convinced Judy Dlugacz. You know, I had been around the festivals enough, and had met Judy [Dlugacz] and knew her. She also happened to be Jewish. And so I convinced her that Cleveland could provide a strong audience. And so, she agreed that they would do their first concert in Cleveland, and that would give them an opportunity to work out some of the kinks that might happen producing a show that included all the Olivia [Records] recording artists at the time. And so [Olivia Records 15th anniversary concert] came to Cleveland, and we had it at the Civic. I'm sure we sold it out. And I was—. I, you know, got the sound people. We brought in Myrna Johnston, who does sound at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival. We used the local lighting company, but had women who ran the lights. And we had to build the sta—the, you know, what was the—. Pulpit? We had to build that out with scaffolding to fit all the performers. So I coordinated all that kind of stuff. And Judy [Dlugacz] was so impressed with the job we did here in Cleveland that she invited me to come and work on the other shows. So I got to go to San Francisco, L.A., Boston, and then Carnegie Hall. So that was really cool. Oven [Productions]—. We had a lot of shows that were in venues at—on the Case [Western Reserve University] campus. I used to joke that the [Womyn's] Variety Show, which happened the same weekend in February every year, that if we didn't—. We did mailings, right? All this is before social media, and so we did mailings. And I was involved in a lot of white-collar crime because I used the—I used to run fliers off. You know, I'd go in like on a Sunday and run the fliers off, put them through the folding machine. And then we'd go to somebody's house and put the address labels on them and sort them, you know, to be bulk mailed. Anyway, I used to joke that even if we did no publicity, the women would show up for the [Womyn's] Variety Show. And I always marveled like, "Where do these women come from, and why don't they still come to the concerts?" And that's how the [Womyn's] Variety Show lasted longer than us producing women's music and culture. And we did get a reputation here—like the League of Women Voters, the people that started the Near West Side Theatre. I'd have to wrack my brain. But it astounded me as I just went around my everyday life that people would say, "Oh, you're in Oven Productions." And I'm like, "Oh, that's cool." At some point, '89-ish I think, when the Bureau lost funding for my position, I decided I was going to be a producer. And I produced—. I was taking these women's performers and putting them here in mainstream venues. So I did Kate Clinton, who is a lesbian comic [at] Peabody's Down Under. I had to add a second show. I did Ferron at Peabody's Down Under [2045 E. 21st St.]. Phranc, P-h-r-a-n-c. Jasmine. I don't know. I have to think about who else. And I also was booking Sue Fink, Nancy Vogel, Adrienne Torf—and my cousin Scott. And then I did a show at the Agora downtown. We had the [Womyn's] Variety Show there one year. It was—. We also had the [Womyn's] Variety Show at the Grays Armory. But anyway, so Olivia [Records] came out with what they called the Country Blessed Tour. And it was Cris Williamson and Theresa Trull were the headliners, but they had an amazing band with them. Bonnie Hayes played keyboard—and she's now on the faculty of the Berklee School of Music in Boston. I forget who else. Anyway, it was the first—. I was the first concert in their tour. They were late with their promotional materials. I lost ten grand on the show and went, "I can't do this for a living." And that was a disappointment to me. But I picked myself up and I dusted myself off, and then I got a job managing a dance company, and—. They hired me to save them. They weren't honest with me about what their financial situation was, and I ended up putting them out of business. And then a friend of mine called me in and said that domestic violence program she worked for was hiring a development and PR person, and did I want—did I want to apply for the job? And I said, "I don't know anything about domestic violence." She reminded me that I was raising my nephew at the time because my sister was a victim of domestic violence, and he was. And so I applied and got that job. And then I did that work. I was there for, I think, seven years. And then I was invited to start a program [Project Chai] that did outreach to the Jewish and suburban community. And I did that until 2006, when I—. Simultaneously, I had been sick and I finally got a diagnosis that I had an immune disorder and I would not have been able to continue to work. But the Jewish Family Services didn't know that at the time. There was a guy who was a new-ish—a year or a little more than a year—new executive director. He didn't like that I was a lesbian. And we also think that he was abusive to his wife—and I was running the domestic violence program. I challenged some of the—. If things I didn't—. I didn't like some of the dicey things they were doing with the funding to my program, and I challenged that. And so, I was fired. I was terminated. I got a nice settlement from them. So I know that we started with an Oven [Productions] thing, and then I moved us somewhere else. Where are we now?
Riley Habyl [00:50:45] If we could sort of rewind a little bit back in time to the production company that you mentioned that you founded. Was that Bluefish Productions?
Brynna Fish [00:50:52] It was Bluefish Productions. How did you know that?
Riley Habyl [00:50:55] A little bit of research beforehand. But—
Brynna Fish [00:50:56] Okay.
Riley Habyl [00:50:58] So another question—. (inaudible) Oven Productions and the Womyn's Variety Show. Those were just for women, correct?
Brynna Fish [00:51:07] Yes.
Riley Habyl [00:51:08] So the acts that you produced through Bluefish [Productions], were those—?
Brynna Fish [00:51:12] Anybody could come to them. And primarily women. It was primarily women. But because I was in mainstream settings, yeah. And I did—. I didn't mind that. I thought, why not? Why not broaden the audiences for these folks?
Riley Habyl [00:51:33] Yeah. In the '80s, would you say that there was—. Or, how would you describe the either connection or disconnection between lesbian communities—at least that ones that you were involved in—and, say, gay men's communities at the time?
Brynna Fish [00:51:47] So there was a gay men's chorus and—. I don't know, I would have to go find some program book from somewhere, but I feel like there was a concert that Oven [Productions] and the Gay Men's Chorus did together. And it was at the medical library at Case [Western Reserve University] and—and that was okay. So I also got involved in Pride. So because Oven Productions—. When the first Pride was happening, I got a call asking if I would coordinate the entertainment. And so I—and Oven [Productions] helped—got the entertainment. And I think Oven [Productions] did the sound maybe even. And then I stayed involved. So for the first couple of years I helped with the entertainment, both the national acts and the local acts. And at the time Pride was happening on—. I always get confused whether it's West 28th or 29th Street, but where the, where the lesbian and gay Community Center was then [1418 W. 29th St.]. And it was there a couple of years. Then they—. It was growing and they advertised for a paid coordinator. And I had a full time job. I really wanted to do it. So I approached a guy I knew from Chevrei Tikvah named Izzy Schaffner, and so we applied together so we could, you know, not—manage it. And we did that for many years. The first thing I did was say, "Pride has to come out of the closet," and, you know, not be on this like ran—. Not random, but it [West 29th St.] was a side street in a not-so-great neighborhood. So we moved it to Public Square. And we also started a community process with committee meetings. And so, this is really where I got to know the community outside the Chevrei Tikvah—with gay men, community. And Oven [Productions], where there weren't, obviously, men involved. And that was quite eye opening to me. I still did feel like there were men who felt like their voices were—carried more weight than women's voices. And it was sometimes like herding cats in these meetings. I remember drag queens coming to the meetings. And there was always a rivalry between this drag sub-community that was managed by a particular drag queen and this other drag community that was by another, you know, managed by another drag queen. And skag drag was something. And it was, like—. How do I describe it without being rude or judgmental? The skag community was like rough and tumble drag queens. And then there were like, the elegant drag queens. And it was Izzy [Schaffner]'s and my job to help all of them find a place, and a way to be at pride. And the other big difference was—. So we outgrew Public Square after a couple of years, and then—. Oh, no. What happened is Public Square was starting a renovation project, and, and so the city offered us Voinovich Park, and we were like, "Awesome." And we were the second event once they built Voinovich Park—but we were the first event that brought in sound, and needed electricity, and did all that. It was wonderful. But something that we were able to do that we didn't weren't able to do at Public Square was sell beer. Okay. So we started a beer garden, and—. But it was—. A lot of the gay men were in the beer garden. And a lot of the women—. Yes, there were women drinking, but it seemed to be more of a mirror of the difference between the lesbian bars that were—existed at the time, and the gay male bars where there's a lot of hot, sweaty guys with their shirts off in gay bars. And in women's bars I think we were a little more civilized, and it wasn't about having sex in the corner. So, you know, that was interesting to pull all that together at Pride so that everybody had their spaces. And then, actually, there was a guy who used his penis for his brain who became the Pride president. And he destroyed Pride, which is when—. When was the Republican [National] Convention here? 2017? I don't know. We got—. Here, let's ask Siri—. (crosstalk)
Riley Habyl [00:58:11] '16, '17? [correction: 2016]
Brynna Fish [00:58:11] Okay, so—. I don't know, like three weeks before Pride, he called Phyllis Harris at the [LGBT Community] Center and said, "Pride is canceled because of security issues with the RNC [Republican National Convention]," which was an out-and-out lie. He just had spent the money inappropriately, and there was no money to put on [Pride 2016]. And to this day, I'm furious that we don't have the gumption to—. Oh, he also fired me. I had been the Pride coordinator through 2008 and for the—. For Pride season 2009, he said, "We don't need a coordinator anymore." I'm sure he was paying himself, but there wasn't—. There weren't strong enough people on the board to say, "Gee, no. We don't need a storefront to rent because we have our meetings at the at the [LGBT Community] Center." And I had tried actually to have the [LGBT Community] Center take ownership of Pride. I believed it belonged there. And there was a board president at the time and our Pride president at the time, Kelly Zender. Rankin, what was his name? Tom Rankin was the [LGBT Community] Center president then. We were this close. And, you know, nonprofits have big work to do with little budgets, and staff and board are pressed to you know, their gills are bursting. And it just became lost in that. And then this idiot Todd Saporito got involved with Pride and killed it. But anyway. An example of a male thinking that they can just do what they want because they're men.
Riley Habyl [01:00:20] Before we sort of get into some of the changes that happened to Pride over the years, I kind of wanted to circle back to some of the lesbian bars that you've mentioned. Can you sort of tell me about some of the specific—maybe bars that you had frequented, or that you had been involved with?
Brynna Fish [01:00:39] Yeah. Well, Isis [1400 W. 6th St.] was the first lesbian bar I ever went to. It was downtown off of Public Square. And, you know, there was no sign on the door. Then that closed. The Five Cent Decision [4365 State Rd.] was one of my favorite bars. And we actually did a thing—. It might've—. I don't remember when it was but I—. Bitch came to Pride and stayed—. I asked her if she would stay over. It might've been 2008, actually. Before I knew I wasn't the—still the coordinator, because it was Pride weekend—we did what we called Fish and Bitch at the Five Cent Decision. And it was to start to raise money for next year's Pride. It was a blast. I'll tell you—. Another story about the Five Cent Decision is a couple of years earlier, the Cleveland Visitors Bureau, which was— (Brynna walks away from recorder) Hang on. I'm looking for something here.
Riley Habyl [01:02:00] No worries.
Brynna Fish [01:02:11] (indicating to pamphlet) This one. So they—. They had me—. They hired me to take pictures. But they hired me to take pictures for the—. They were creating a tourist guide for the LGBT community. What year was this? This isn't the—. This isn't the one that I did. Because this is—. Did I take pictures for this one? No, no, no, no. I don't know. I'd have to look further through it. But for the first one, I took the pictures. And so I had to go to the lesbian bars and the gay bars, and so I took my son with me. He was a teenager at the time. And at the Five Cent Decision, he was welcomed. When we went to—. What was the name of the place that had a restaurant and was a gay bar? It was on the corner of Detroit and 28th maybe. I'm going to think of it. But—. So we went there and somebody hit on him and he's like, "Mom, get me out of here." And—. I don't remember the name of that. We'll find it. There was The Metronome [417 Huron Rd.] That—. It might be a parking lot now where they were, but when they were building the stadium. Is it Rocket Arena now? I don't even know the name of it. Where the Cavs play?
Riley Habyl [01:04:27] I think Rocket Mortgage [FieldHouse].
Brynna Fish [01:04:28] Okay. So—. And so they [The Metronome] lost their place, and—. Because the building was going to be torn down. But they moved, and they didn't survive the move so well. but I loved that place. Two Sues owned it. But this is sad to me. This is a 2010, 2009-2010 visitor's guide and it lists one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight nightclubs. And none of them is the one that I'm thinking of. And the Paradise Inn [4488 State Rd.] might be the—oh, and the Rec Room [15320 Brookpark Rd.]—lesbian oriented. The Stallion [Leather Stallion Saloon, 2205 St. Clair Ave.] was a hoot. I went there a couple of time with gay friends. Twist [Twist Social Club, 11633 Clifton Blvd.]—which is still there on Clifton, I think—
Riley Habyl [01:05:46] Yeah.
Brynna Fish [01:05:51] —a couple of times. But I miss those lesbian bars. So I would say that I frequented The Metronome. And I was a—. And I went to the Nickel [Five Cent Decision, 4365 State Rd.] a lot, too. And I also started this thing called Pride Nights, where, again, to raise money for Pride, we'd go into the bars. Volunteers would go into the bars. I liked to do the lesbian bars, but we always had volunteers with us. Guys would go to the men's bars. And we'd sell raffle tickets and we gave away—. I don't know, Pride stuff. But we also—. Belkin Productions at the time, which was sold to Live Nation, would give us concert tickets, you know, to the Indigo Girls or Melissa Etheridge or, I don't know, Margaret Cho, or whatever. Some national act that was coming to town that—. And that was really fun to do. Again, this is really before Internet. And so when we'd go into these bars, we needed a way to identify who we already approached to sell tickets to. And so I remember getting these things that would come in your, like, utility bills where it would just randomly come to say resident of whatever address. And it was the the company that sells you checks, but they also sold address labels. So I'd call this company and I'd say, "I need address labels. But instead of the address, I just want it to say Cleveland Pride. And could it have a rainbow on it?" And this woman I spoke to was wonderful. And so we—. That's what we used. And then went to some party center and bought rolls, and rolls, and rolls of rainbow stars. And this is before there was a proliferation of rainbow stuff. One year, it—. Well, actually, for a long time it wasn't rainbow stars. It was sparkly rainbows that, you know, sort of were—. We could say we're flamboyant.
Riley Habyl [01:08:36] Sort of thinking about how there were—. How the lesbian and women's community was—. You know, it sounded very vibrant in the '70s and the '80s.
Brynna Fish [01:08:45] '80s. Even the early '90s. Yeah.
Riley Habyl [01:08:47] And how the—. A lot of the bars that you mentioned like, you know, Godmothers, the Three of Cups— (crosstalk)
Brynna Fish [01:08:54] Wait, Three of Cups I—
Riley Habyl [01:08:54] All those places there?
Brynna Fish [01:08:55] I wish—. I wish I had been to the Three of Cups [12418 Buckeye Rd.]. I was—. It was before my time. And I've heard of Godmothers [Godmothers II, 1014 E. 63rd St.], but again I think that was before my time. Yeah. I mentioned that Coventry Books was, you know, a hub. And it was owned by a lesbian, Ellie Strong. But then Gifts of Athena [2199 Lee Rd.] opened up on Lee Road here, and that became a lesbian hub. And that was very—. Again, when, you know that met the same demise as the lesbian bars. Oven [Productions] used to have our meetings in the back room at—. You know, we had it in people's houses. And then Gifts of Athena opened and we had it in their back room. Those were the days.
Riley Habyl [01:09:54] What do you think has sort of contributed to the decline of those spaces over time? If anything.
Brynna Fish [01:10:04] Mainstream acceptance. Which again, is—. It's a double edged sword, right? Because there's less discrimination. People feel safer being out. And so they don't need those places as much as they used to. And so on one hand, there's acceptance and people feeling safe. And on the other hand, it—. It left the lesbian bars with less and less patrons. The bookstore with less and less customers. And then the interweb happened, and you could order everything online. Yeah. Even the festivals. There's—. The Michigan Womyn's Music Festival in its heyday had 8,000 to 10,000 women there. And there was a surge at 2015 because it was the last and I think maybe 4,000 or 5,000 people. But it got down to 3-4,000 people, and it just wasn't sustainable. The infrastructure needed to have the [Michigan Womyn's Music] Festival was—. You know, the worker community in the heyday I'll say was 600 to 700 women. And then the worker community had to shrink as the numbers shrunk. And so, you know, that's sad, too. There's no more Sisterfire, there's no more—. Numer—. The National Women's Music Festival, which was the first, is still going on. There's something called SisterSpace. There's just—. It's just not the same.
Riley Habyl [01:12:15] Sort of thinking about your involvement in Pride, and Pride events. In the eighties, would you say that there was—. Or, how would you describe the involvement of gays and lesbians in Pride events in the early years, like, say, '89, or '89, '90, '91? Like the first couple of years?
Brynna Fish [01:12:38] Yeah, there was a lot of involvement. People wanted to be involved. And even through 2008, when I was the coordinator we would have meetings and we did a—. We were very intentional always—from the beginning through—to make sure that the people sitting around the table represented the different things in the community. So we wanted the welcoming and affirming churches there. We wanted the bars there. We wanted the drag queens there. We wanted the sports things there. We wanted—. There was something else I was thinking of. And so the meetings were large. They got larger. In the early years, you know, there'd be a dozen people there. In the—. By the late nineties and early—in 2000 until 2008, sometimes we would have 20, 25 people, 30 people at a Pride meeting. because we really wanted it to be by the community, for the community, and that that was really important. And then we lost that.
Riley Habyl [01:13:57] At what point would you say that was lost?
Brynna Fish [01:14:01] When the man who used his penis for his brain took over. And actually as—. Thinking about this interview, one of the things that we lost—and Phyllis [Harris] and I have spoken about this—is we lost the Pride website. And the Pride website had the history of Pride. Every festival, how many people were there, who the entertainers were. And that's gone. And I know I have that information somewhere. And Phyllis [Harris] and I have spoken about how we need to get that information into the [LGBT Community] Center's website because it looks like Pride just started the summer of 2016 or '17, but it didn't. Yeah.
Riley Habyl [01:14:53] How or, how would you describe the initial mission of Pride? Say in like '89. How would you describe the mission of Pride when it was first—. When it first began, versus what it's evolved to now?
Brynna Fish [01:15:11] Yeah, great question. So I would say when it started, it was for us as a way to to say we're here and we're—. You know, we're loud and, and we want to be together and visible to show the rest of the Cleveland community that we're here, we're vibrant and—. And then, even before the [LGBT Community] Center gratefully took it over, there was—. As we grew—. So we used to get the funding we need by having folks at Pride literally go around with bags and buckets and ask people for donations. And then when we moved to Voinovich Park, where there was a way for us to naturally have an entrance, we started with 'make a donation.' And then we were like, "Well, we need corporate sponsors if we want to be able to afford to bring the acts that we want to." So that was a big—. That was a big change for us. And there was some, you know, ambivalence about that. Coors. I remember Coors had at some point in Col—. Coors is based in Colorado. There was a statewide boycott against Coors because of their LGBT something or other. They were—. They had—. They did something that was like anti-gay, I don't remember. And—. But they came around, they addressed whatever it was. And Coors wanted to be a sponsor. And I remember and people were saying, you know, "We can't take their money." I'm like, "You know what? If they want to give us that money, I think that's a good thing." And so we did accept their dollars. And I think the other thing that evolved was the people who were coming to Pride weren't just the gay people. It was allies. It was family members. I remember, I don't remember what year it was, but the year we had Judy Tenuta there, who is a comic. It was astonishing, the number of allies and family members who came. And I also taught religious school at the time at Reform synagogues, and I remember the parents of a kid that I had there with their son—who wasn't, you know, he was in high school, I think, at the time I taught sixth grade—came and thanked me. And over and over again, you know, from the '89 through, people thanked me and that was awesome. Then in the parade, another evolution was the bars, especially the gay bars. Oh, the Grid [1437 St. Clair Ave]. I love—. Jerry Czolka. I loved the Grid. It probably was my favorite gay bar. The Grid. There was like a competition among the gay bars about who was going to have the best [Pride] float. Even though we didn't have that—we did not acknowledge that. But those floats would get more and more risqué each year. At the same time, we were trying to really have Pride be family-friendly. There were more gay people who were having kids or who had kids when they were straight, who were bringing their kids to Pride. And we started having a kids area with kids activities. And so how could we be that and have these giant penises on the gay bar floats? And so we had to—. And that was challenging. But the gay bars did finally tone it down. And even though we had corporate sponsors and some of them were local, they weren't participating in the parade. It was still, you know, gay groups and people and, you know, the kind that, the—. What were they called, the Western Wranglers? There was an LGBT—. I'm saying LGBT, but I don't know how.
Riley Habyl [01:21:00] Rainbow Wranglers?
Brynna Fish [01:21:01] Yes. Rainbow Wranglers. Okay. And there was Windsong, the women's choir. That was never as big as North Coast Men's Choir. And—. Although both still exist. But the corporations and the businesses never participated in the earlier years of the parade. And then, and I don't even know. I'd have to look. I mean, I was always very proud of the number of corporate sponsors we got. And, uh... But what the center was able to do, and it's because of the changing climate and also the work that we did from the first Pride through 2008, Todd [Saporito] lost corporate sponsors between 2009 and whenever that was, '16 or '17, and it really turned into a big gay male party. It wasn't—. Pride wasn't as representative. I just— The [LGBT Community] Center just sent out this last week. What week are we in? It might have been, it might have been earlier this week. A video of Pride '23, and also a photo gallery. And I watched the video and looked at, I don't know, there were probably a thousand pictures at least. And seeing the groups marching in the parade. You know, Eaton, Target, banks, all kinds—. Progressive Insurance. A pet store, whatever the one is up here. Pet Supply Plus, no, PetSmart. PetSmart. I just was astounded. And even the police, like when we used to you know, we used Cleveland police officers and a security company. Tenable. But there were LGBT police officers who would not accept an assignment to be a police officer at Pride because they weren't out. They felt they'd be—they'd risk their job. And to see the police officers, clearly lesbians and gay people marching—. But that's incredible. So, definitely an evolution, and in a very good way. Except—. There was one lesbian vendor. There was one vendor at Pride this year that had lesbian stuff. And the entertainment—well, I didn't feel I was represented as a lesbian. But that the event itself was so huge is amazing.
Riley Habyl [01:24:52] What year was it that the location moved to, or in which part?
Brynna Fish [01:24:59] I was going to tell you something else about that.
Riley Habyl [01:25:01] We can go back to that then.
Brynna Fish [01:25:05] I'd have to find that document that I have somewhere. Um, so I think we were two years on Public Square and then moved to Voinovich Park. And Martha Pontoni will be able to tell you how many years we were in front of the [LGBT Community] Center. And then I know we were two years at Public Square and then moved to Voinovich Park. So one year—. It might have been the first year we were at Voinovich Park. And we had to rent tents. We had to rent—. We had to get ice machine. Ice, beer, sound equipment. We needed a company that would deal with the trash. And one of the things that we did is we—to encourage the places that we did business with, we sent out a survey. And we asked those companies, did they have an LGBT affinity group? Now, we knew the answer. But, you know, we—. Did they have employment policies? So we were trying to educate by doing a survey. And we got very few of those surveys returned. But that was okay. But one year—. So I don't remember, first or second year, at Voinovich Park. We're waiting for the ice to come and I call the place and they say, "Oh, we decided not to do it." So we called another company and they they stepped up for us on that day. But that was the only time we had a vendor go, "Oh, so sorry, we're not giving a—. We're not doing ice for the queers." Everybody else we ever dealt with was awesome. And I think that there was a ripple effect. As we grew and needed more stuff and we were using, you know, Aable Rents and Eighth Day Sound—which is a local sound company, but they were doing sound for Metallica. You know, they had contracts with performers in venues all over the country. And they were doing sound for us because, we also started using—. Oven [Productions] started using them. And I had a relationship with the owner, Tom Arko, because even though Oven [Productions] was doing its own sound, some of the performers that we were doing and the concerts we were doing we needed systems that were larger than what we had. So I think that that really helped the work that we were doing locally to break down barriers.
Riley Habyl [01:28:09] Were there ever any instances of—. I'm trying to think of a way to phrase this. Were there ever any specific instances that you can remember of negative reactions to—whether it be Pride itself or attendees from people outside the LGBT community?
Brynna Fish [01:28:30] I just was talking to a friend of mine, Katie Paris, who I met singing a decade ago, probably, in the Sing Out Choir to raise money for the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center. So she started an organization called Red Wine and Blue to educate suburban housewives about why their voice matters and—in politics. And she was one of many who worked actively on the Issue One thing. And I sent her—.So there was some—. The rhetoric that was happening in the—from the false media around Issue One. There was an article about that, some false media group against Red Wine and Blue and this false media group called them "Shaker moms for porn." Yeah. And anyway, so I was texting—. I texted her and said, "I read about you, and I wanted—." I said, "I don't know if it's any consolation, but I want to tell you that the very first time we had protesters at Pride, I felt it was a badge of honor." That we were so threatening to extreme—the radical Christian right that they would show up. It was the Fred Phelps people [Westboro Baptist Church], that they would show up and protest us. Okay. Well, we must be so powerful. And so there were some years where we had those folks protesting. And what emerged were then there were local church groups mostly who came up with this idea of dressing as angels and having wide wings. And then they stood in front of the protesters on the sidewalk when the parade came by to basically be a barrier. And that was brilliant. I don't—. I'm—. I don't know that—. I haven't seen any protesters happen at Pride in a long time. Even—. I mean, you know, I would say it was more in the early 2000s that we had protesters. The second year that we had Pride at Public Square, we found out that Billy—Billy Graham was having a revival at the old Cleveland Stadium. Which is where the new Cleveland Stadium is, but the old Cleveland Stadium. And we were in Public Square and people were on the Pride committee were freaked out of their ever living minds. Okay. First of all, the first year people on the Pride committee were freaked out of their ever living minds that we were going to be at Public Square. And I kept saying, "Listen, here's the good news. Downtown Cleveland is dead on the weekends. Dead!" Nothing happened. There was no nightlife or restaurants like there are now. And it was really a statement that we were making of coming out of the closet and being on Public Square even though there was no public downtown. Okay. So—. But then the second—. And so then those people, you know, collected themselves. Some people worked in the BP building. I'm like, nobody's going to be there. Okay. So the second year, Billy Graham is having his crusade and people are coming from the rapid in Terminal Tower and would be walking right past Public Square during Pride to get to the Billy Graham revival. Okay, so, there was a couple. I forget their names now, who were allies and connected to a church group. And so I reached out to them and they hooked me up with some—maybe it was somebody from the Unitarian Universalists because they have their headquarters here, and came to one of our Pride meetings and we were talking about how to, how to address this. And suddenly I was like, "Oh, my gosh, we should invite Billy Graham to speak at Pride." Now, we knew he'd say no, but, but this whoever this guy was, this minister was, he got us a phone number for Billy Graham's people. And I called. Again, this is—. There's no emails and social media. So I call this guy and I explain who I am. And we know Billy [Graham]'s going to be in town that weekend, and we would love him to come speak at Pride. Well, he'd get back to me. Okay, well he did get back to me, and, "Sorry, Billy has to—. He's honored that that you saw to invite him, and he has to decline." We had not one iota of trouble. And I believe it's because the upper folks got the message that we were there and made sure that there was no trouble. Okay. Now, even better than that is—. At the Five Cent Decision a couple of nights before Pride, I was there doing one of my pride things and, and we were selling Pride shirts. So this gal who is an independent videographer, Renee george, bought like a dozen Pride shirts and she had been hired by Billy Graham's crew to videotape the event. So her whole crew on the stage at Billy Graham's crusade—they were all wearing pride shirts. So.
Riley Habyl [01:35:08] Outside of those changes to Pride events, what would you say are some of the biggest changes that you've seen or experienced over the years within, with like, lesbian spaces and LGBT spaces more broadly?
Brynna Fish [01:35:25] Can you hold on to that?
Riley Habyl [01:35:27] Yes.
Brynna Fish [01:35:27] For one second, because I thought of something else that relates to the troublemakers question that you asked me. There was a guy on the Pride committee. Probably early 2000s or late nineties. His name was Dennis. There was a—. I had a guideline, which is—three weeks out from Pride, no new ideas. Let's focus on what we have planned. And even if it's a great idea, we'll save it for the next year. So this, this young guy, Dennis had an idea. I said, "Sorry, we'll put it on the list for next year." Well, he didn't like that. And Rick, Rick Stern was our president at the time. And he—. Dennis was at a gay bar, and he was bashing me right and left. And Rick called me and said, "Dennis, bad mouthing you." I'm like, "Okay, whatever." Okay. Then I get a call from a police officer, who had been one of the off duty police officers. Over and over, Elliott Cooper. He was amazing and awesome, straight guy. He calls me like the Thursday night before Pride in the evening. And he says, "Brynna, I have to talk to you about something. It's urgent. Will you meet me downtown?" Okay. So we met downtown at the Marriott, which is the hotel that we were using for our entertainment that night. And he said, "Listen, I know Dennis and I know his parents. And I heard Dennis talking about—that he was going to kill you and his father has a gun." And I'm like, "Fuck." And so he said, "You have to get a protection order." Okay, well, this is the last thing I need to be doing two days before Pride. So, so that Friday, we have set up at Voinovich Park for the event. And I called, we had a gal who was our pro-bono attorney, Rose Feeney. And I called her and I explained this, and she met me downtown. And we walked through the process to get a protection order. And I got it. And then he did show up at Pride. All the police officers were made aware, and Elliot, really, he was quite—he was really fearful for my life. I'm like, "Really? Somebody's going to shoot me at Pride?" But anyway, so we did. We went through with this. Well, he did show up at Pride with his gun and. And Elliot [Cooper] put him in a cab and sent him home. And he did not try to come back to Pride—but he did try to come to Pride. And I have to tell you, I carried that protection order with me for years in my wallet because then I realized—fuck, he could have. He could have killed me. So, you know, there are crazy people in all of us. Okay. So the question you asked me was?
Riley Habyl [01:38:53] Some of the biggest changes that you've seen over the years, whether that be in the lesbian community or the LGBT community more broadly. I know that's a very broad question, but—
Brynna Fish [01:39:13] Well. So when I moved here and got involved—. Finding lesbians and starting the Women's Passover Seder and getting involved with Oven. It was about lesbians. It was about needing community. We needed to find each other. Not everybody felt comfortable going to the bars. And because bars just weren't their thing, naturally. There were, you know, consciousness raising groups. Um, there was a women's—. The Women's Building Project blossomed at the Civic. And there was What She Wants, the feminist newsletter. And then the Gay People's Chronicle started. And—. It was, I would say, what I experienced was a—. Something that needed to be insular because there were folks who were afraid of being out. There were folks who were genuinely afraid of losing their job or their housing. And there was an effort to respect that, to, going, "Okay, there's value to the lesbian and gay community coming together and start Pride," for instance. And there was a flourishing of lesbian bars. So there was Isis to begin with, and then there was a flourishing. I don't know. I think there were maybe up to 12 or 15 lesbian bars in pockets all around the city before everything shrunk again. And, and then the bisexuals spoke up and said, "We want to be, we want to be included." So, you know, we saw it go from LG, lesbian, gay to LGBT or to LGB. And then I remember when we added the "T" for the transsexual and the transgender. And then, and then, allies wanted to be recognized. So seeing that whole evolution was, um, was awesome. And, uh. And then seeing the, what I called "gay-okay" happen, especially the last, I would say, the last decade where synagogues and nonprofits and businesses are saying—. You know, wanting to recruit gay people. There was a time when I would get phone calls from random Jewish organizations that were having membership, declining membership, and going, "Oh, maybe the lesbians want to come and be involved in our organization." And I would say, "Well, if they wanted to, they would find you." And, uh, and so there was a time where I felt like businesses and organizations were recognizing that we could be a commodity to them, and that they weren't necessarily interested in genuinely supporting us, but that either building their demographics or, or building their economic base or making money off us was a good thing. I didn't like that time frame so much, and I would say that that was probably from the late nineties til maybe the early till the late 2000s. And—. but then seeing genuine, "Oh, there are gay people in the universe. And so let's represent, let's, let's honor that." And, and that feels very different than feeling like we were a commodity. Does that answer your question?
Riley Habyl [01:44:20] It did.
Brynna Fish [01:44:20] Okay.
Riley Habyl [01:44:21] I'm going to double check through my questions here.
Brynna Fish [01:44:23] Okay.
Riley Habyl [01:44:26] You know, it's about—. My clock's not working correctly. (laughs)
Brynna Fish [01:44:29] Yes. It's a little after—. 7 minutes after three.
Riley Habyl [01:44:36] I don't want to keep you too, too long. So I'm just looking— (crosstalk)
Brynna Fish [01:44:37] That's okay. That's okay.
Riley Habyl [01:44:50] So I've read that you had a part in organizing the LGBT Interfaith United Rally [Interfaith CommUnity Rally] in the aftermath of the Pulse [Nightclub] shooting.
Brynna Fish [01:44:57] Yes. Yes.
Riley Habyl [01:44:58] Could you tell me a little bit more about that?
Brynna Fish [01:44:59] Yes. So, was that five years ago? When was that?
Riley Habyl [01:45:10] 2016.
Brynna Fish [01:45:12] Okay. Oh, my God. Seven years ago. There has been an increase, obviously, in crazy people who think there shouldn't be gay people, who also think there shouldn't be Jewish people, and in shootings. And so when the Pulse nightclub shooting happened, the Jewish community had already been targeted. I started wearing my yarmulke, my kippah in public, and I also and, and, and I did this actually at at the RNC [Republican National Convention]. I went downtown and I had made a duct tape sign that said, I don't remember, "Tel Aviv, France—." I listed the places, "Orlando, Jew, lesbian, stop hate". And I handed out Hershey Kisses because it was the closest thing I could find to like a kiss or a hug. And I wore this everywhere—to Whole Foods, to Target, to the RNC downtown. But when the Pulse nightclub thing happened, that was the first time it felt really personal to me. And so the first thing I did was reach out to some Jewish organizations that I thought would step up and have a response. All right. Let's organize a vigil. When there's something that goes wrong in the Jewish community, the Jewish community has a vigil about it. I wanted a vigil. I wanted something to say, well, this is horrible. And so I contacted Phyllis [Harris], and I said, "Phyllis—." At the [LGBT Community] Center, I said, "If I organize this, can it be under the umbrella of the [LGBT Community] Center?" And she said, "Absolutely." So we reached out—. I reached out because of my involvement in the Jewish community and the LGBT community. I had a list of the welcoming and affirming churches, and I had an email list of rabbis in Jewish organizations. And we asked folks to be involved in the committee. The National Council of Jewish Women sent an organization which—sent a representative, which was great. We had, I don't know, a handful of meetings that at the [LGBT Community] Center. And we had a guy come from HRC [Human Rights Campaign]. Remember his name—Flournoy? [MacArthur] Flournoy. Anyway. I know where that is, so I can grab that for you. The program and the list of organizations and Staceyann Chin—who's a lesbian spoken word rabble rouser—was supposed to come and speak. And it ended up that she was stuck in Puerto Rico at their Pride and couldn't get a flight out. So we showed a video of one of her Pride speeches, but—. But yeah, so I organized that. And it was—. And the other thing we did is we didn't just organize it, but we had the faith guy from HRC [Human Rights Campaign] help us craft a statement. And the clergy that were represented there—we asked them to read the statement together, and that was really powerful. And I learned that—. I learned that move from going to—. There's an organization called Jewish Fund for Justice, and they were organizing faith based community organizing conference. And so I was invited with four other people from Fairmount Temple to go to their inaugural faith based—meaning Jewish—training for folks to come back to their synagogue and be involved in community organizing around issues of—. Anyway, it—. From that effort grew an organization that still exists. It's called the Greater Cleveland Congregations. And it's not just Jewish, it's everything. And they're addressing fair housing, access to healthy food, housing disparities, education. I forget. There's five things. And they're still very active. But anyway. So I learned about how to do community organizing, and part of the training is we went to what's called an action, where somebody who could be pivotal, that hasn't quite got the idea, is sort of put on the spot publicly. And so that's what we did at the [Interfaith] Unity Rally is we crafted this statement and then had the clergy read it there. And anyway—. Yeah. It came together and it was important.
Riley Habyl [01:51:21] Thinking about—. Maybe—. Since you've been living in Cleveland from the early '80s up to the present, how would you describe changes in visibility and acceptance more broadly?
Brynna Fish [01:51:40] Absolutely. Absolutely. So, in one of the [Womyn's] Variety Shows in the mid-eighties, probably, the Olympics were going on somewhere. And so a group of women did a skit about the Olympics, and they had a sign that was "Cleveland Heights City of Dykes." And I would say Cleveland Heights is—. Has—. I have always felt safe here as a lesbian, but visibility was not a thing. Actually—. And Lakewood was known for its gay male population. In the original Trivial Pursuit, there was a question, "Which city has the highest per capita gay population?" And it was like, "Fort Lauderdale, Key West, New York City, San Francisco, Lakewood, Ohio." Well, nobody picked Lakewood, Ohio. But guess what? The answer was Lakewood, Ohio. That—. It was per capita. So not—. So anyway. And I think that if there had been a lesbian question, it would have been Cleveland Heights per capita. But anyway. Again, I think the same evolution I talked about in terms of of pride and acceptance is—the visibility evolved. And as it became more okay, as—. Then you started seeing rainbow flags. Actually, I used to live in the white house on the corner. I rented before I bought this house. And two things happened when I lived there that I don't think would happen today. One is, I did hang a rainbow flag and somebody threw fireworks on our front porch that singed the house. And my son [Shiah] was like—he was a teenager then, "I told you, Mom." And I'm like, "Yeah, that's why. But that's why I have to fly the flag." Okay. Then another thing happened is, a friend of mine who lives in Chicago wrote a book about LGBT parents. And, you know, books take a long time. And if it—. When it—. When—. I think he was in fifth grade. And so I think she might have started working on it when he was in the second or third grade. And I said, "I'm happy to be in the book. But I feel like I need my son's permission, and he's too young to understand what the fallout might be." So we used pseudonyms. Is that the right word? We used fake names and—. But then Jill [S. Pollack] came to town to do—. She was on a book tour about it, and they did an interview with her. And now he's older, so okay. The Plain Dealer reached out to me and said, "Could we come do an interview?" And I asked him and he said, "Sure." So they did an interview about us being in the book. And then two things happened. One is he had an assignment every week to pick out an article in the newspaper, and everybody had to do a little—there was like a little mimeographed page, you know, "What's the name of the article? Why is it important to you? And tell us about the article?" And so he wrote, "The article is about me and my mom. It's about that she's a lesbian, and we're in this book. And so it's cool." And so I'm now a little afraid for him to go to his fifth grade class and make this presentation because I wasn't 100% sure that he wouldn't be bullied. And I didn't know how the teacher would respond. So I looked up the teacher. Mrs.—. You know, I forget her name. The Jewish woman, Borwick. And I call her, and on—. It was in the Sunday paper. It was a big article, big picture of Shiah and I. And I said, "Mrs. Borwick, I'm—." And she says, "Oh, Brynna, I saw the article in The Plain Dealer. It was great." I'm like, "That's why I'm calling you. Shiah is gonna—. That's going to be his thing." "Oh, don't worry about it." So I was like, "Okay." Well, the other thing that happened is—. When there used to be answering machines, I had one, and I got a hate call and—. You know, "I'm going to come kill you. You're a motherfucking lesbian dyke, blah-blah-blah." Said terrible things. Okay, I get it. My telephone number's in the phone book. Easy to find. But I called the police, and an officer—a big black guy, burly black guy—comes to the house and he takes a report. And I said, "Sir, I'd like you to listen." "Oh, no. I don't have to." I said, "Yes. I'd like you to listen." So we played it. This guy cried. He—. It—. And I was like, "Wow. Wow." And so here's something that was hateful, and it softened this guy's heart. Now I have no idea how this officer felt about LGBT folks before that, but I'm sure he felt differently after that. So, again, an evolution. A decade ago, an obvious lesbian couple is up on Lee Road having—I don't know what restaurant. And I introduced myself. They just moved to the neighborhood, and they asked me, "Is it okay for us to be out in the neighborhood?" I'm like, "Yeah. Where'd you come from that you felt like maybe you couldn't be out here?" A decade ago. So I think it's personal, and everybody is somewhere on a large continuum. But I would say that the community in the mainstream is welcoming. That was not always the case. Cleveland is a conservative city. And, you know, Columbus gets tens of thousands of people at their Pride. We're—. I think I just saw that there were 15,000 people at Cleveland's Pride. You know, we went from a couple hundred people to a thousand, two thousand. You know, that was a steady thing. I once congratulated Michael Belkin, k.d. lang, when she did her Liberace tour. Whatever the biggest theater is at Public Square—the State or the Palace, one of them. I went up to Michael Belkin, and he and I were—. We're—. We became friends because he showed up at my Phranc concert at Peabody's Down Under. And so I introduced myself, and we became friends. And I walked up and I said, "Michael, you have gathered the most lesbians under one roof than anybody else in the city of Cleveland." And I don't think there's been more lesbians under one roof since. But anyway. Yeah. It's changed, remarkably so.
Riley Habyl [01:59:41] I think I've gotten through most of the questions I was looking to ask.
Brynna Fish [01:59:43] Okay.
Riley Habyl [01:59:44] I just have a couple of ending questions.
Brynna Fish [01:59:46] Okay.
Riley Habyl [01:59:49] Well, before we get to my last reflection question, is there anything that you would talk about that we haven't talked about or that I haven't asked so far?
Brynna Fish [02:00:04] I'm a people person. I know a lot of people. A lot of people know me. Everywhere I go, people would come up to me and thank me for Pride, or thank me for my domestic violence program [Project Chai]. And I used to tease that I was in—when people had rolodexes, that I was in their rolodex for LGBT stuff. So I used to get calls before the [LGBT Community] Center had like a media person. I would get calls saying, you know, "Can you comment on blah-blah-blah. Jerry Falwell's saying bad things about the Jews," or—. There was legislation pending in the state of Ohio to make it illegal for LGBT people to adopt. And I got a phone call. And actually, Shiah, my son, (dog sneezes) who was working at Tommy's at the time. I think he was in college. And he spoke about, "Well, if that legislation existed I wouldn't have been allowed to be raised by my mom." By me. And so I used to tease that, you know, for domestic violence—for Jewish, to the non-Jewish community—and for LGBT stuff, I was in people's rolodexes. (dog sneezes) To this day—. Although not as much because we're older, and I've been less visible since 2006, when I got sick, and 2008 when I was booted from Pride. But I would meet people and go, "Brynna? Brynna Fish? You're Brynna Fish?" And that's heartwarming to me, especially in the LGBT community, because I worked so hard to make this be what it is now. And I think it's important historically for people to know on whose shoulders we stand and do the work that we do. So I'm—. I'm humbled that I can sit here and share these stories with you. I appreciate it.
Riley Habyl [02:02:20] Thank you very much for speaking with me. I have one reflection question to finish things up. So, what a the message that you would like others to hear about your experiences, or the experiences of others like you?
Brynna Fish [02:02:37] I was never one of those people that was afraid of losing my job—even though I was fired three times for being a lesbian. Once from teaching Sunday school, and the JFSA [Jewish Family Service Association] job, and the bureau job. But I still was never one of the—afraid of those people. I was never one of those people that was afraid of losing my housing or employment. I've always been a person who just picked myself up and dust myself off and move on. I've also been a person who believes that the universe—. Okay, I'll just—. Cleveland, our community should be welcoming of everybody. Muslims, every color of skin, every identity, even every political identity. We should (dog collar rattles) feel comfortable to be who we are. And that's what I've worked for. Now I forget what the question was.
Riley Habyl [02:03:40] I mean, I think that about sums it up.
Brynna Fish [02:03:42] Okay.
Riley Habyl [02:03:45] I can restate it if you'd like.
Brynna Fish [02:03:45] Yeah. Would you?
Riley Habyl [02:03:47] Sure, of course. What is a message that you would like others to hear about your experiences, or the experiences of others like you? Er, the experiences of others that share similar—
Brynna Fish [02:03:55] Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. So there was one thing—. One more thing I wanted to say about that is, so now that this gay, or what I call "gay-okay" has happened, there's a gap. I call it the donut hole where LGBT inclusion—LGBTQAII, whatever the alphabet soup is now—has become so accepted. And even my grandmother in the seventies chastised my father for uninviting a gay cousin of mine to Thanksgiving dinner who wanted to bring his lover. Okay. But my father was, you know, not—. It was a big deal. People heard all the time from their families, "Don't tell your father. It'll kill him." I think that's less—happening less so. But there are places, rural places, very conservative places where it's still hard. And so we still—. Even though "gay-okay", I'm—. I don't want people to be complacent. We still have work to do. And as you well know, I have now been—. Because "gay-okay" has gotten so big, and the use of 'queer' came back, and now is being used as its own identity. I'm working to make sure that the work we did about L [lesbians], which is—. Which is first. You know why? You know why L was first in the LGBT [acronym]?
Riley Habyl [02:05:42] I actually don't, but I would love to know that.
Brynna Fish [02:05:44] Well, because everything was gay pride, gay pride, gay pride—and then lesbians. And it was–. And it was GLB [gay, lesbian, bisexual]. And then the lesbians spoke up and said, "You know, we should be first because women are discriminated against." And so the L was moved first. And I would say in 95% of the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender] organizations that exist out there, the L is first. And I'm—. It's important to me that we [lesbians] not become invisible in the alphabet soup, and that we don't get misidentified under an umbrella that's queer. And so in a way, it feels like doing the work I was doing in the late–in the early eighties through the nineties, but doing it again in a different platform. So that's the thing I wanted to add.
Riley Habyl [02:06:49] Thank you.
Brynna Fish [02:06:50] You're welcome. And thank you again for being responsive to that.
Riley Habyl [02:07:01] (papers shuffle) I'm just looking through my notes here one more time.
Brynna Fish [02:07:02] Yeah. And I'm still trying to think of the name of the nightclub that was—. Bounce! It was Bounce.
Riley Habyl [02:07:10] Bounce Hinge? I don't know if that was the same place.
Brynna Fish [02:07:13] No. Bounce [2814 Detroit Ave.]. And it had a restaurant that had a—. Bounce, or something. Yeah, Bounce is in Hingetown, but Hinge wasn't part of the—. Hingetown wasn't called Hingetown when Bounce was there. But that was the gay bar that had a restaurant and then a club in one building—where my son got picked up. Tried to get picked up.
Riley Habyl [02:07:45] I think that is everything that I had on my notes.
Brynna Fish [02:07:48] Excellent.
Riley Habyl [02:07:48] Thank you.
Brynna Fish [02:07:49] You're very welcome.
Riley Habyl [02:07:51] Thank you sm—. Ah, sorry. Thank you so much for speaking with me, Brynna.
Brynna Fish [02:07:53] Absolutely. Totally happy to.
Riley Habyl [02:07:56] Is there anything else you'd like to add before I stop the recording?
Brynna Fish [02:08:00] Nope.
Riley Habyl [02:08:09] Fantastic.
Brynna Fish [02:08:09] (inaudible)
This collection features oral history interviews with LGBTQ+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Same-Gender Loving) community members, leaders, and activists in the greater Cleveland area. Interviews explore the history of Cleveland’s LGBTQ+ communities, groups, organizations, places, and spaces both past and present. Interviews in this collection were conducted by Riley Habyl, a graduate student at Cleveland State University Department of History, beginning in the summer of 2023.…