Ways in being Ron
In the world of writer and performer Ron Ehmke, who arrived in Buffalo via Louisiana and Texas in 1982, there are no easy answers or handy definitions. When conversing with Ehmke, expect complex and multi-digressional responses.
Ehmke has worn many hats—including those of Spree’s associate editor and as director of communications for Righteous Babe—but his most important contribution to Western New York’s arts community is arguably the founding of the Ways in Being Gay festival, which he started in 1989, during his tenure as performance curator at Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center.
Ehmke has also been writing and presenting his own performances for almost three decades—as a solo artist, as a founding member of Real Dream Cabaret, and as a cofounder of Buffalo’s annual Infringement festival. Ehmke has always surrounded himself with creative activity; it is not an exaggeration to say that, at the age of fifty-two, he is considered a mentor and elder statesman (in experience if not years) by many artists, curators, and arts administrators, straight or gay.
In 2008, Ehmke married his longtime partner, Donald Kreger (shown above). They live in Tonawanda, where they entertain, host informal performance workshops, and manage their ongoing interior/exterior renovations.
You came from Rice University to study for a doctorate in English at the University at Buffalo. How did you become involved in Hallwalls?
I wasn’t getting what I went to grad school for—an engagement with the art of our time. In grad school, everyone was a specialist; the people at Hallwalls—staff, visiting artists, and audience—were much more open in their tastes. The ability to interact with artists of all types was amazing. I couldn’t find a community that mattered to me here—the gay culture was so based around bars—so I tried to create one with likeminded people.
So you went to work for Hallwalls.
I replaced another out gay guy, Steve Gallagher, who was booking queer films and performance, and I brought in a lot of gay performers as well. It made sense to package all the programming into a festival, so I started Ways in Being Gay. It was the heyday of performance and independent film and video—and back then you had to see these films at a space like Hallwalls. There were no DVDs, YouTube, etc.
Why didn’t you feel connected to the WNY’s existing gay scene back then?
I used to think I couldn’t be a gay man because I had no interest in Judy Garland or Cher. I am fine with them, but not in that adoration way you see with the Stonewall generation. I was much more interested in punk music; the Continental was the closest thing to a gay dance club in Buffalo—at least one where I felt comfortable. In many ways, Buffalo in the eighties was like New York City in the pre-Stonewall sixties.
What do you like about living in Buffalo, as a gay man, or for any reason?
It’s very comfortable here. I don’t see a lot of the hassles large cities face. You can have a fulfilling life—socially, culturally, economically. My sense of what it is to be a gay man is intrinsically tied to living in Buffalo, and it’s gotten better as Buffalo has evolved. Pride is such a huge thing. We go and we don’t know a tenth of the people. The book The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture, by Daniel Harris, maps this particular moment, and he finds that things are both gained and lost. A subculture comes from a minority attitude, a private language. Visibility and becoming part of popular culture can be delightful, but it’s possible to miss the mystery of the subculture.
And why did you decide to get married?
I had performed many weddings for straight couples by then, and was feeling left out of that kind of opportunity to publicly acknowledge and celebrate our union. (We’d already been together for thirteen years when we got hitched.)
Don’s reason was more pragmatic; after working for the state for more than thirty years, he didn’t want to see his retirement money disappear if he died before me. Recent court decisions had affirmed that same sex spouses were indeed eligible for a retiree’s pension benefits, the same as heterosexual ones.
The resistance I initially felt to getting married was that I am strongly suspicious of assimilation. It’s more important to me that, all people, whoever they are, are free to make any kind of lives for themselves that they want. My one fear is that once gay marriage is universally legal gay people will face the same pressure to get married that straight people do.
How does your partnership work?
Don is incredibly open person. For example, we’re going to a documentary festival in Toronto that he would never attend on his own, but he is always ready to participate in anything.
When I first moved to Tonawanda, I created Suburban Samizdat—a series of informal evenings where artists share works-in-progress—and Don has been a full partner. I bring ideas to the table and he helps execute them.
What’s next for you as an artist?
I am planning to revive my performance piece Not for Profit in July in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and I may perform sort of a marathon of the piece in a few different spaces in Buffalo.
Elizabeth Licata is editor of Buffalo Spree.