In Memorium: Chuck Tierney

March 29, 1948 - October 11, 2017

As one of the first owners of a gay bar in Pittsburgh in the mid-1970s, Charles Tierney offered the city’s LGBTQ community a safe place to meet and mingle.

Much of America wasn’t exactly hospitable to gays at the time, and it only got worse once the AIDS epidemic began its roar in the 1980s.

But at the Holiday Bar on Forbes Avenue in Oakland, there was a sense of freedom. Patrons — both closeted and proudly out in the open — could relax and have fun.

The windows might have been bricked up to keep it incognito as well to keep those inside protected from flying rocks and angry, homophobic fists. “But there was safety in numbers,” said Chuck Honse, Mr. Tierney’s lifelong business partner. “It was a place where people hid in plain sight.”

“Chuck and Chuck,” as friends would come to call the pair, would go on to open three more bars in Shadyside and Downtown before selling the Holiday to Carnegie Mellon University in 2007. Yet Mr. Tierney’s pioneering spirit wasn’t limited to the bar scene.

When he died at Family Hospice in Mt. Lebanon from complications of liver cancer, the longtime Squirrel Hill resident was just as well known for his efforts to raise money and awareness for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning causes through his work with the Delta Foundation and other organizations. He was 69.

Born in Jacksonville, Fla., Mr. Tierney was adopted as a young child and raised in Munhall by a steelworker father and a mother who was a teacher. He moved to Shadyside after graduating from Munhall High School in 1966, and met Mr. Honse at age 24 on a trip to Atlantic City, N.J. While their romantic relationship would eventually fizzle, their friendship was such that their business partnership would span four decades.

Violence against gay men was commonplace before George H.W. Bush called for a “kinder, gentler nation” during his presidential-nomination acceptance speech at the 1988 Republican National Convention, Mr. Honse said. So when the couple bought the Holiday from Robert “Lucky” Johns in 1977, “it was like a dream,” he said, if also something of a risk.

Located halfway between CMU and the University of Pittsburgh, “the jock boys were always giving us a hard time and we had to literally fight in the street to keep our doors open,” Mr. Honse recalled. “And if we didn’t pay, we didn’t get protection.”

“You almost needed to have a psychology degree on top of everything” to run a gay bar at the time, said Gary Van Horn, president of the Delta Foundation, a nonprofit Mr. Tierney cofounded in 1996 as a spinoff of the Lambda Foundation and the organizer of the city’s annual Pittsburgh Pride celebration. “They obviously had a lot of folks that were coming to them to find out what was going on, or to drink away their sorrows.”

Patrons were especially concerned about the AIDS virus, which was devastating the lives of gay men and others in the 1980s and making them social pariahs. To help ease those worries, the Holiday in an unorthodox collaboration became a major recruiter for the Pitt men’s study, a confidential research project started in 1984 to study how gay men became infected with disease. Still ongoing, the study funded by the National Institutes of Health has gathered information and blood from some 3,000 men.

Even before he officially went into the bar business, Mr. Tierney was known as an “idea man” for the LGBTQ community. A founding member of the Pittsburgh Tavern Guild, an informal group of owners of gay and lesbian night spots, Mr. Tierney in 1974 helped form the Golden Triangle Picnic Association, which planned picnics in North Park and other outings for the community.

In 1989, he helped bring 2,700 panels from the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt to the David. L. Lawrence Convention Center on its second tour of North America. Three years later, he spearhead what is now an annual City Theater AIDS benefit to raise funds for Shepherd Wellness Community, a Bloomfield-based AIDS community center.

And in 2010, Mr. Tierney was honored along with Mr. Honse as grand marshal of what was then known as the Pride Awareness March.

A modest man who shied the spotlight, Mr. Tierney was a nuts-and-bolts kind of guy who was happy to stand behind the curtain while pushing his partner onto the stage to take a bow. “Chuck always said, if you’re in it for the credit, you’re in it for the wrong reasons,” said Mr. Honse, noting how Mr. Tierney’s many donations to the cause were always anonymous.

And if he saw things he considered unjust? “It was like a burr under his saddle. He would not let things go,” Mr. Honse said. “He was a quiet guy, but also a lion in the sense he was a force to be reckoned with,” said Mr. Van Horn, who first met him at the Holiday.

Mr. Van Horn viewed Mr. Tierney as a visionary, saying, “He was the guy behind the scenes, getting it done.”

Longtime friend Scott Noxon, who owned the Eagle on the North Side and the Downtown bar Pegasus and considered Mr. Tierney a mentor, also saw him as an introvert.

“But when he spoke, everyone shut up,” Mr. Noxon said, because they knew what he had to say would be important. In addition to Mr. Honse, Mr. Tierney is survived by a sister, Mary Dixon of Munhall.

By Gretchen McKay.
Reprinted from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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