Why is Columbus so Gay?
How the capital city of a conservative state became the GLBT mecca of the Midwest
By Travis HoewischerPublished June 1, 2011
On a sunny weekend afternoon, dozens of men and women clad in a variety of fashions stream through Union Cafe, beginning their day at one of the most popular brunches in the city.
The intricately detailed walls and glowing crimson lamps overhead provide a warm backdrop for a relaxing day in the city.
This same tranquil space was also the setting of a raucous drag show the night before.
Such is the duality of life in Columbus, Ohio. Not San Francisco. Not New York. Columbus.
This melding of lifestyles is now the norm in one of the strongest and most vibrant gay communities in one of the most conservative states in the nation. Gay Travel named Columbus its Most Underrated Gay City and Gay Cities named Columbus as the Up-and-Coming Gay City of 2011.
The catalysts for our progressive identity as a city are as diverse as the citizens it serves; our economy, our urban landscape, our reputation as a business incubator, and even our overall quality of life have all been bolstered by a local culture whose attitude goes beyond basic tolerance. The chorus of support for our GLBT residents is increasingly encouraged – not simply tolerated – by a community working together to make Columbus a more progressive city as a whole.
The rise of the city’s gay population has been steady and strong for the past three decades, going from hidden and quiet to mobile and militant to open and accepted. This year, as we celebrate more than three decades of progress with the 30th anniversary of the Columbus Pride Festival, we examine just exactly how Columbus became one of the gayest cities in the Midwest.
The Initial March
Columbus didn’t become a bastion of acceptance overnight. In 1971, a decade before the first official Pride Parade was held in Columbus, gay rights activists had filed 18 applications to march on West Broad Street, all of which were subsequently denied. Two local judges at the time summarily dismissed the requests by deeming them as “aiding and abetting the solicitation of an act of perversion.” Throughout the 1970s, small groups of less than 300 marched down High Street to the Statehouse, but it wasn’t until Craig Covey, founder of the Stonewall Union, helped lead more than 3,000 marchers in commemoration of the infamous New York City Stonewall riots, that the public really took notice.
Karla Rothan, the current executive director of Stonewall Columbus, a community center and outreach organization that bears the Union’s name, beamed as she boasted about the estimated 210,000 people that will spill into the streets of downtown and Goodale Park this month for the 30th Pride Festival.
During the first Pride Parade in 1981, only hundreds participated, and they hid their identities by wearing bags over their heads.
“[Businesses] are paying to be in the parade now,” Rothan said. “They want to be seen, they want their logo out, they’re paying to sponsor it . . . Columbus just ‘gets’ it. That is to the credit of all those people that didn’t give up and didn’t stop and just kept going even when we were being harassed.”
A New Landscape
Columbus is set up perfectly to be a gay-friendly city, says Chad Frye, director of sales and marketing with Outlook Media, the city’s robust GLBT publication.
“There are all of these great neighborhoods that went into decline, where there were opportunities for gentrification, and they’re downtown-adjacent,” he said. “You don’t go into many cities today and find something like Victorian Village two minutes from the heart of the city.”
Or German Village. Immigrants may have founded the historical area, but it was the city’s native and transplanted gay population who reclaimed and revitalized the neighborhood in the ’80s and ’90s. The combination of less children and larger household incomes (the 2007 LGBT Census of Central Ohio shows GLBT incomes to be more than 10 percent above the city average in five of the six highest brackets), made them ideal urban pioneers.
Rothan recalls her partner applying for a home loan and being met with skepticism and surprise from the bankers.
“They said, ‘Where’s your husband? Where’s your man? We’re not used to having a woman get a loan for a property without a man.’ She replied, ‘Well, you better get ready because they’re all coming. It’s not just me.’ And they have. They’re all urban pioneers and they’ve been instrumental.”
The boom in German Village set the pace for Central Ohio. Terry Penrod, a gay realtor and national board member of the Human Rights Campaign, remembers the transformation of Columbus’ urban areas.
“In these communities where there was flight to the suburbs and urban decay, GLBT people who didn’t have children were more likely or able to go into older neighborhoods and redo these Victorian and German Village homes,” Penrod explained. “Once they were rebuilt, it fostered more people coming into the central city.”
Outlook co-publisher Michael Daniels gives further credit for the German Village revitalization efforts to the late Fred Holdridge and Howard Burns. Long known as the unofficial ‘mayors’ of German Village, the gay couple’s reputation as neighbors and community leaders gave them a high visibility beyond the gay community.
“I think what made a difference was that they got in, they dug into the neighborhood and they got their hands dirty and they started buying property and fixing it up – being gay was secondary,” Daniels said. “They became great ambassadors simply because their neighbors were like, ‘I’ve never met a gay couple before.’”
As more and more gay individuals purchased homes, the overall redevelopment of Italian Village, Harrison West, Clintonville and Grandview was fueled. This phenomenon not only helped boost the local housing market and the urban landscape, but also served as a physical catalyst for a more complete integration of the gay population over the entire city.
Now, the Short North, which shares borders with several of the city’s central villages, is a thriving arts area with a strong presence of GLBT business owners.
“While Columbus currently has and has had a series of ‘gay-borhoods,’ it’s never really had a [gay] ghetto,” Daniels explained. “I mean, there’s no Boys Town, there’s no Castro like in San Francisco. We have gay people who live all over everywhere and they’re out.”
Big Industry Buys In
The fact that more and more gay men and women have moved to Columbus in recent decades is owed to several factors, but the most significant factor has been the presence of the largest university in the country and its surrounding slew of liberal arts colleges.
Between its enrollment and its employment, The Ohio State University is responsible for importing thousands of men and women from around the globe, which has contributed greatly to the diverse culture of Columbus. Plus, statistics show that GLBT citizens are more likely to hold degrees than the average citizen. According to the 2007 LGBT Census, 33.1 percent of GLBT citizens have graduated college, versus 20.7 percent of the overall population of the Columbus Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA), and 29.4 percent hold a postgraduate degree, compared to just 11.3 percent of the MSA.
In essence, a more educated city typically means a more gay-friendly one – especially a college town built on the scale of a university the size of OSU.
Perhaps no entities have been more influential on a large scale in both promoting and protecting the gay community than Columbus fashion mainstays like Limited Brands and Abercrombie & Fitch. These companies’ home offices in Central Ohio employ thousands, including many imports who have found in Columbus a social scene and arts culture comparable to those of other major cities – but in a much more affordable area.
These companies also instituted domestic partner benefits for their employees long before many of their coastal competitors (Limited Brands began offering them in 1999). Offering these extended benefits allowed the companies to lure talent to Ohio despite the fact that the Midwest isn’t exactly the center of the fashion world.
“I think the industry that’s here recognizes that we don’t have mountains and we don’t have beaches,” Daniels said. “But they’re recruiting people from the areas that do.”
According to the Corporate Equality Index, created by the Columbus chapter of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) to rate companies on equality and benefits for GLBT employees, Nationwide Insurance, Limited, Chase Bank, Abercrombie & Fitch and Cardinal Health all score at or near 100 percent equality. Nationwide also expanded their benefits package to include domestic partners in 1999 and OSU has also offered domestic partner benefits since 2004.
“You know, you could live in New York and it’s no big thing to be gay – but the company you’re working for might not have domestic partnership benefits,” Daniels said. “So I think that we’re lucky in that we’ve had a great many people in the private sector who’ve really signed on early to that whole diversity and inclusion piece and I think that shows in Columbus.”
The fact that Columbus is more progressive than many of its neighboring metros, says Mayor Michael Coleman, goes “beyond just tolerance.”
“It’s the same question on immigration. Why are we such a huge city for immigration? Why do we have one of the largest Somali populations in the country? We have a culture all our own in this part of the country, and it’s a combination of the East Coast and the West Coast, right here in the central United States.”
Coleman, who, as an African American man, puts a strong emphasis on diversity, was the first Columbus mayor to attend Pride a few years ago.
“It was a big moment for me to stand up and say, ‘I welcome you.’ That’s just who I am. I come from a very diverse background myself. I wanted folks that were there that day to know that this city is a welcoming city, and if I am representing this city, I want them to know that we’re glad they’re here.”
It’s more than just personal – it’s professional. The city government’s backing of the GLBT community came full circle in November when they extended workers’ health benefits to domestic partners, a year after the Columbus Public School Board had done the same.
“I view it as an opportunity to market to the rest of the country,” Mayor Coleman said. “This is an asset of our city. The GLBT community is a community that is very creative, a community that brings a lot of opportunity with it. Jobs, economic viability . . . it all adds value to the community in a big way. When I go out recruiting businesses, I say this is one of the reasons why they should relocate their business to Columbus.”
Or why organizations should relocate their event. Last year, Columbus won the bid for the Gay Softball World Series, the largest GLBT sporting event in the world. Nearly 13,000 people from 20 states flooded into the city, bringing in more than $5 million over a weekend, according to Experience Columbus.
The organizers of the event were blown away by the support in Columbus, said Experience Columbus Media Relations Manager Scott Peacock.
“They were really surprised,” he said. “They couldn’t believe the level of support the community had given them.”
Experience Columbus has also hosted a dozen gay travel writers during trips to the city over the last year, including About.com’s Andrew Collins, who remarked that if Columbus was “on a bay and surrounded by hills, Tony Bennett would write a song about it.”
Collins used to visit Columbus in the mid-’90s, when he lived in New York City, and was immediately struck by how open gay life was here in comparison to what he had experienced in Cleveland, Indianapolis and Pittsburgh.
“Not only could you find a number of businesses owned or frequented by members of the community in several parts of town, but these businesses tended to have storefront windows and bright signs – they were conspicuous, in the way GLBT-popular businesses were conspicuous in other major cities. Unfortunately, at this time, gay bars and shops were often relegated to out-of-the-way neighborhoods or cloaked in windowless facades in many other large cities in the greater region.”
The local GLBT community isn’t just part of Columbus culture, it’s now a part of our city’s economic viability; the local gay presence is more ‘chamber of commerce’ than counter-culture.
“You better believe it’s good for business,” Mayor Coleman said. “Diversity is a real key to the city’s strength – economic strength, cultural strength, educational strength – it adds a lot of value to our community.”
“If you were to remove the gay population from the city of Columbus, it wouldn’t be as strong as it is – as good as it is.”
Using data from the U.S. Census, GayCensus and The Media Audit, Outlook Media calculates that GLBT consumer spending accounts for roughly $7.5 billion spent annually in our local economy.
“Columbus gets the fact that being an open and affirming city and attracting and retaining young talent – that happens to be GLBT talent – is important and it’s an economic value,” Stonewall’s Rothan said. “Who wants to cut out a percentage of their business right off the top?”
As gay men and women have become woven into the city’s business, social and cultural fabric, the strength of the allied community – the gay and straight supporters of the GLBT cause – has increased, particularly in the power of their dollars.
The spending power of the gay community, coupled with supporters who won’t frequent anti-gay establishments or businesses where they feel their gay friends aren’t welcome, steers the tide significantly.
“At some point, equality just becomes good business,” Daniels said.
Doug Fordyce and Lisa McLymont were part of a large number of GLBT Columbusites who spurred social action on behalf of the growing movement in the early to mid-’90s. McLymont once graced the cover of Alive! in a passionate kiss with her girlfriend. Fordyce participated in several local boycotts of products of national companies whom the GLBT community had felt displayed or supported intolerance. Both feel that today, the level of activism that was the norm 15 years ago is no longer necessary.
“I mean, I stopped eating Wendy’s for about 10 years – we were trying to get people not to buy Hondas . . . now, [major corporations] are sponsoring Pride. It’s so healthy,” Fordyce said. “I talk to a lot of young people, and I tell them, ‘Back then, there were like five bars. You could see everyone in the community in one place.’ Now, we don’t need gay-specific places and bars. We’re everywhere. We’re a non-issue now.”
These days, ‘gay issues’ is an almost outdated term, says McLymont.
“Now, we’re talking more about positive aspects of diversity and what it means for Columbus – all its different walks of people.”
Who We Are
Thirty years after the days when local politicians still looked on gay culture as a public deviance, gay citizens are now so entrenched in our city that the political landscape is insulated from being anything but gay-friendly. As Daniels puts it, “The two things that matter in the world are money and votes.”
“The major movers and shakers in industry here have been on the forefront of these kinds of progressive issues; they’re the ones who have put in initiatives to make sure they are recognizing and promoting women, people of color and GLBT folks,” Daniels added. “These are the people who have the ears of the local politicos.”
The GLBT community has also directly gained a louder political voice in recent years. Mary Jo Hudson became the first openly gay citizen to occupy a political office in Columbus when she was appointed to Columbus City Council in 2004. Three years later, she made state history when she was named the Director of the Ohio Department of Insurance by then-governor Ted Strickland, making her the first openly gay person to serve in an Ohio cabinet position.
Hudson seconds the role that OSU and local business leaders have played in progress, but also says that Columbus’ diverse citizenry has shaped a more tempered religious sector.
“Columbus is home to many open and affirming church congregations and that’s greatly contributed to the accepting community that’s developed here over the past decade,” she said. “You don’t just find that anywhere.”
The city’s GLBT citizens are “totally and completely integrated into every part of our community,” said Mayor Coleman.
“It’s not segregated, it’s not something that is underground. It’s not over in this neighborhood,” he said. “It’s just who we are.”
Strength in Numbers
Lori Gum, a lesbian and local book publisher, returned to Columbus for the first time in 30 years after stints in New York and Los Angeles and was amazed by the cultural transformation of the city.
“I think Columbus is by far the most gay-friendly city I’ve ever been in,” she said. “I came back and found not only a thriving creative city, but a thriving, positive and diverse gay and allied community.”
And that community is expanding. Between the increased numbers that come through Stonewall’s doors and the massive growth of Pride festivities, it’s clear the GLBT population is increasing. According to a study by the William Institute at UCLA Law School, Columbus’ approximately 50,250 gay citizens outnumber the percentage of gay citizens in Chicago.
Gum noted that being gay in Columbus is not as polarizing as it is in other major cities.
“In all those other cities, it’s over-politicized on both sides,” she said.
A large part of what keeps the gay community thriving is the fact that for many, being gay isn’t an issue the way it used to be in Columbus or in other Midwestern cities.
“I think it’s interesting that the longer I’m in Columbus, the more that being gay becomes the least interesting thing about me,” Daniels said. “And I like that.”
Why is Columbus so Gay?
Members of the GLBT community respond
“It’s so open. I moved here from Pittsburgh; walking down the streets there, you’d get so many dirty looks.”
– Ethan Werstler
“Central location. Everyone that is corn-pone and country moves into the city.”
– Matthew Magani
“I would say Ohio State. It’s so diverse, and we all come here to be ourselves.”
– Adam Burris
“Because it’s so accessible and anywhere you go in the city you can be who you are. Plus, we have the third most gay people per capita in the country.”
– Joel Diaz
“Columbus is so gay for two reasons: first, it has the best dance graduate program in the nation, and second, the flagship Abercrombie and Fitch store is here.”
– Erik Abbott-Main
30 Years of Pride
5 to 7 p.m. – Pride Art Show at Spinelli’s Deli
8 p.m. – Pride Movie Night at Gateway Film Center
8 to 10 p.m. – Dance for Pride at Wallstreet
11 a.m. to 7 p.m. – TransOhio Unity Picnic at Goodale Park
8 to 10 p.m. – Colors of Pride Art Show at 1st Community Bank
9:30 a.m. – Jaeger Run for Pride 5k Walk/Run at Goodale Park
11 a.m. – Pride Poker Run at Club 20
5 to 8 p.m. – Pride 30th Anniversary Party at Hubbard Grille
3 to 11 p.m. – Goodale Park Celebration
10 a.m. – Pride Parade Lineup
Noon – Downtown Step-off
10 a.m. to 8 p.m. – Goodale Park Celebration
11 a.m. to 1 p.m. – Pride Brunch at the Columbus Athenaeum Bat n’ Rouge Softball at Dodge Park
Visit www.columbuspride.org for complete details.