Pride: The Union turns 20 (but, shhh, don't tell anyone)

Andy Downing, Columbus Alive

Prior to a Sunday Goodale Park vigil commemorating the lives lost in the mass shooting at a gay Orlando nightclub, Debe Turnbull, president of the Buckeye Region Anti-Violence Association (or BRAVO), described Union Cafe as "the Pulse of Columbus," making reference to the Florida club where the massacre took place. Turnbull just as easily could have described the long-running Short North spot as the pulse of the city's LGBTQ community, since its growth so closely mirrors that of the culture.

When Rajesh Lahoti, CEO of Union Cafe and Axis Nightclub, first conceived of the Union, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, he envisioned an inclusive "windows-open" gathering place for the LGBTQ community - a marked shift from the hidden, shadowy places of old, which remained secret and secure to guard against police raids and defacement by random vandals.

"The clubs in Columbus, you had to know they existed [to find them]. There was no signage and all the windows were boarded up. And rightfully so, because you could be raided, or people would throw rocks through windows," said Lahoti, who joined Union/Axis Chief Promotions Officer Sam Schisler for an early June interview at the cafe. "[When we opened in 1996] we said, 'That's over.' Why wear these threads if they can't be seen, right? We didn't want to hide anymore."

The decision to step out so prominently wasn't without its drawbacks - Lahoti said he received "one or two" death threats shortly after opening the establishment, though he brushed these aside as casually as a stray piece of lint from a suit coat. "One or two people hid behind their pens," he said, "but the other 1.4 million were happy to have us."

Prior to opening the Union, Lahoti and his business partners spent time shadowing the ownership and staff at Sidetrack, a popular gay bar in Chicago's Boystown neighborhood that served as an early template for the business.

"They told us what not to do, everything you had to do, as well as everything in between," Lahoti said. "Buy your land, give back to the community, don't use these finishes or they'll get destroyed. They taught us a lot of things we apply still to this day."

This advice is what led Union to relocate from the Short North Cap to its current digs in 2006, which it moved into after the building became available for purchase. (As a bonus, the new locale came equipped with a patio, which has since evolved into a prime summer hangout.)

Like its Short North home, the Union thrives on change, which is part of the reason the venue is approaching its 20th birthday the way most approach turning 50 - by pretending it doesn't exist.

"We don't dwell [on the past], but we laugh about it and think about things we've done and people we've known," Schisler said. "That's always going to be part of it, but we're always thinking about the future."

"That's why we didn't do a big branding campaign: Union 20," Lahoti said. "They have formed us - our successes, our misses, our makes - but we don't dwell on them. Our future customers are thinking about the next 20 years, not the past 20."