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Buck Harris, gay health and radio pioneer, dies at 70

September 5, 2018

Buck Harris, gay health and radio pioneer, dies at 70

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Michael “Buck” Harris, who died Saturday, pioneered gay radio, gay health education, naked yoga, a dog-friendly restaurant and more.

After several years of fibrosis, Harris died Saturday at his summer home in Provincetown, Massachusetts, from complications of lung cancer. He was 70.

“He was funny, gracious and fearless,” said Earl Pike, head of University Settlement and formerly of the Aids Taskforce of Greater Cleveland, where Harris had been a trustee.

In 1984, Gov. Richard Celeste made Harris what was believed to be the nation’s first state consultant on gay health. Harris taught safe sex at gay bathhouses and bars, which he defended against many critics.

“If you close them,” he told The Plain Dealer in 1985, “you are not going to stop gay sex any more than closing drive-ins will stop teenage pregnancy.

In 1993, Harris launched “The Gay ’90s with Buck Harris,” believed to be the nation’s first commercial radio show with gay themes. In recent years, Harris taught yoga, often to naked men.

“Clothes are sort of our coat of armor,” he told The Plain Dealer in 2007. “When you remove them, you’re more free.”

Harris grew up in Lakewood, graduated from Lakewood High School and studied communications at Antioch College. For seven years, he taught farming to adults with retardation in Charles County, Maryland.

Back in Greater Cleveland, he worked for the Family Planning Association and Planned Parenthood. He also taught sex education at the Cleveland Health Museum.

He gave up liquor for needlepoint and practiced the craft at meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous. He lost an early partner to AIDS.

As Ohio’s gay health consultant, Harris developed a training program for HIV counselors and conducted it throughout the state and beyond.

In 1986, attempting to retake the governor’s office, James Rhodes promised to make Harris the first person he fired. Rhodes lost, and Harris kept working into the early 1990s, despite legislative foes.

In 1988, he met his future husband, Michael O’Connor. The couple lived on the western edge of Ohio City, with vacation homes in Provincetown and Puerto Vallarta. Harris used to say he summered in Provincetown, wintered in Puerto Vallarta and did his laundry in Cleveland.

In 1993, Harris bought air time on WHK-AM for a show of gay news, talk, music and more. The first night, he received a bomb threat. After the broadcast, police escorted him and colleagues to their cars. But the show gained sponsors from the Cleveland Orchestra to animal hospitals.

In 1995, the show was pre-empted twice for the Cleveland Indians’ return to the World Series. Harris moved the show to WERE-AM.

In 1996, he played a straight man in the gay-themed “P.S. Your Cat Is Dead” at the local Cabaret Dada. “I spent the first 25 years of my life perfecting this role,” he explained.

In 1999, Harris closed “The Gay ’90s.” explaining in part that he’d hate to change the name for the next decade. He briefly partnered in Lake Effect, a new restaurant in Ohio City, and an early one to welcome dogs on the patio.

In 2001, he lost a primary for Cleveland City Council to future Councilman Matt Zone. He became certified in hypnotherapy and yoga. He taught yoga for many years at a studio called No Place Like OM.”

Some classes were for clothed students and some for naked men. He said the nude participants got no cheap thrills: “Naked is what gets them to the studio. Yoga is what keeps them coming back.”

He was asked what would happen if a fire broke out. “We would pray for handsome firemen,” he replied.

Harris was interim director of what is now the LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland. He also helped to found the Ohio AIDS Coalition and lead weekend conferences for people with HIV.

“The healing weekends are life-changing and magical.,” he said. “It’s the one place I’ve seen gay men feel OK about being gay.”

In his own neighborhood, Harris founded Bridge Brigade, which helped fight crime and blight on Bridge Avenue. He liked to sail, fish, play tennis, garden, cook, play bridge and teach the game.

Survivors include his husband, a twin sister and two brothers.

A memorial service will take place at 10 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 23 at the Capitol Theatre, 1390 West 65th St. Gately McHoul Funeral Home in Provincetown handled his arrangements.

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