Rainbow City: How Columbus Became So LGBT-Friendly

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

It's 1984, and an ordinance that would bar employers from discriminating based on sexual orientation has been brought to City Hall. Council members have agreed to hear testimony from opponents and proponents. A preacher is the first to take the stand.

"Homosexuality is an unclean practice," the preacher spits, his voice rising as blood rushes to his face. "They should not be forced to be hired in to spread diseases that have no cure-it's foolishness. You don't let a leper person in among clean people." The AIDS crisis was in full swing, exacerbating anti-gay sentiments.

"I can't believe that the great city of Columbus is considering the passage of a bill of this nature," another speaker, also a preacher, shouts. "I believe if we pass it, it'll give Columbus a bad name. Homosexuals from surrounding states will flock here. They'll realize they can be protected in Columbus."

He closes with a rhetorical question: "Who in the world wants Columbus to be known as the gay capital of the Midwest?"

Today, those words-captured in a grainy video-are so pointed they elicit a jaw drop.

"That's exactly what happened," says Douglas Whaley, a law professor who helped draft the ordinance 30 years ago and testified that day in its favor. When Whaley took the stand, he predicted, "There will come a day where this will be considered as silly a matter as discriminating against blacks or women."

Three decades later, Columbus prides itself on being a place where residents are not only tolerant but supportive of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. The local tourism bureau markets it, corporations brag about it and city politicians back it-it's become another badge used to attract a younger, more enlightened generation of residents. The city's LGBT-friendly reputation isn't merely anecdotal.

In March, Gallup released a ranking of the nation's top 50 metropolitan areas, based on the population of adults who identify as LGBT. Columbus ranked No. 15 on the list, with 4.3 percent, which is higher than rates in New York City, Miami and Chicago.

Columbus didn't arrive here overnight.

"My generation was fueled by anger," Whaley says. "But today's generation is fueled by a sense of entitlement. Young gay people just accept this as their due. The American dream must include them, and they should get the same things everyone else has. As straights came to believe the same thing-by the hundreds and thousands and millions-like magic, it happened."

Those responsible for changing the hearts and minds of Columbus residents were a diverse group of passionate activists who spoke out against injustice and fought for civil rights at a time when being openly gay was not only socially damaging but physically dangerous. Shaping Columbus into a city known as one of the friendliest LGBT destinations in America took guts, gumption and a whole lot of serendipity.

This month, Stonewall Columbus will host its annual Pride celebration-a weekend-long festival culminating with the famed Pride parade-in a supercharged climate as the nation awaits a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that could, in effect, legalize gay marriage throughout the country. Ohio has a big role in this potentially historic moment: Among the same-sex marriage cases being considered is Obergefell v. Hodges, named for Jim Obergefell of Cincinnati, who, along with husband John Arthur, sued the state before Arthur died in 2013 of Lou Gehrig's disease. The men had been legally married in Maryland and wanted Obergefell designated as a spouse on Arthur's death certificate; the case eventually went all the way to the Supreme Court. Obergefell will be grand marshal in Columbus' June 20 parade. Should the verdict in his case be handed down before then, there will be even more cause for celebration during Pride week-or all the more reason to march, depending on the outcome.

More than 300,000 people gather in the Short North for the parade, which is the second largest in the Midwest, next to Chicago's. But Pride is more than a great party-the three-day extravaganza is the largest fundraiser of the year for Stonewall Columbus, the nonprofit that provides the local LGBT community with counseling, HIV testing, social meet-ups, clubs and more. Today's growing organization is a far cry from the tiny assemblage that bred the local movement decades ago.

"They didn't have any support. There was no money," says Karla Rothan, executive director of Stonewall Columbus. "It just took people finding one another and saying, 'There are a lot of people we need to touch. Let's make sure we stick together.' It was very grassroots."

It all started with a march that drew fewer than 1,000 people and a group they named Stonewall Union.

America's gay liberation movement began June 28, 1969, in Manhattan's Greenwich Village at a gay bar called the Stonewall Inn. When police raided the bar-a common occurrence-patrons rioted, drawing an estimated 500 to 600 people to the streets to partake in the revolt. Soon after, the first gay rights organizations in New York City formed, and the movement slowly spread across the country. It arrived in Columbus in 1981.

When leaders of the Moral Majority, a now-defunct political organization affiliated with the Christian right, visited Columbus to announce their intent to start a chapter here, various liberal groups protested with a march around the Statehouse. Since there was no LGBT organization in the city, a small group of men and women joined the other protesters to represent their cause. After the march, the newly invigorated gay activists reconvened at one member's house. It was there, with six or seven people sitting on a living room floor, that Stonewall Union was born.

"We never planned on making an official organization," says founding member Val Thogmartin. "We just thought it would bring people together."

To recruit members for Stonewall Union, Thogmartin and the other founders set up information tables in gay bars. Whaley stumbled upon the Stonewall crew at a bar one night and signed right up. He remembers the early days, when they'd meet at members' houses to stuff and lick envelopes. They'd pass a hat to collect money for stamps. "Money was the biggest issue in those days, trying to keep the organization afloat," Whaley says. "Those were pretty desperate days."

In 1982, Stonewall hosted its first parade, which over time morphed into the Pride we know today. It's been said the protesters at the first few parades outnumbered the participants, some of whom wore bags over their heads to conceal their identities. Others held signs that read things like, "Hi Mom I'm Gay," and "There are gays in Yellow Springs." Thogmartin, in his early 20s, stood out from the crowd as he balanced on a 6-foot ladder attached to a van rolling along High Street. While he shouted through a bullhorn, he was pelted with eggs flung from protesters on the sidewalk.

Whaley can't watch clips of the first parade without tearing up. "Those people were so brave to march," he says.

Chris Cozad joined the movement in 1983, after she and her longtime partner, Gloria McCauley, were victims of a string of hate crimes. Their house north of Ohio State's campus was vandalized so persistently their young daughter was too fearful to play outside.

"The first thing I did was volunteer to work security at the gay pride parade," says Cozad, who owns Alternative Auto Care in Victorian Village. Soon, her activism was deeply rooted. The AIDS epidemic slammed into Columbus just as it had in other cities around the nation, leaving a sea of grief, fear and anti-gay hysteria in its wake. Those who became infected had little by way of medical help and often were dead within two years of being diagnosed. Tragic as it was, the AIDS crisis galvanized the community. "We stopped fighting for civil rights and started taking care of our dying friends and family," Cozad says. She founded a local chapter of Blood Sisters, a group that encouraged lesbians to donate blood on behalf of gay men who were banned from doing so. Cozad credits the crisis with bringing together the men's and women's gay communities. In some cities, gay and lesbian communities are segmented and tend to work independently of one another in achieving civil rights. "The women's community really stepped up to take care of our brothers that were dying," she says. "That was part of what got our communities working together."

In 1996, Cozad and McCauley founded the Buckeye Region Anti-Violence Organization, which provides counseling, safety training and cultural sensitivity training related to hate crimes, discrimination, domestic violence and sexual assault in the LGBT community. Today, Cozad is Mayor Michael B. Coleman's liaison to the LGBT community, and she leads a roundtable group of activists and allies who have been meeting to discuss issues ranging from public policies to fundraising since the early 1980s, when they referred to themselves as the Breakfast Club.

"We strategize," she says of the group of leaders, who still operate along the same vein as they did 30 years ago. "We talk about what's going on in our community and how we can help each other. We want to make sure we're not duplicating efforts. It's informal, but it has a very real impact."

M eanwhile, in the early 1980s, a different sort of group was taking shape in Columbus. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC, known then as the Human Rights Campaign Fund) was an organization based in Washington, D.C., whose sole purpose was to raise money for political candidates who supported gay rights issues. Today, HRC lobbies the federal government to achieve LGBT rights and educates the public on equality issues. Then, the tiny startup was still trying to gain support outside of the nation's capital. Vic Basile, HRC's first executive director, had heard about the gay community forming in Columbus and visited in hopes of finding a local leader. He met Steve Shellabarger, a retired school teacher and art dealer, through a mutual friend.

"To me, HRC made sense," says Shellabarger, who eventually became chair of HRC's national board of directors. "We have to assume our place at the table, force our way in. How do you do that? You do it with money. There's a place for standing out on the street corner with a sign, but if you're looking at laws and policy, you need to have the contacts and the money."

The first fundraiser for HRC in Columbus was held late one night in the party room at a condo complex. It wasn't publicized. No signs flagged the location. Even the blinds on the windows remained shut.

"We were scared to death," Shellabarger says. "You may have been known to be gay, but you weren't out. Even if people knew you were gay, it wasn't talked about."

Almost everyone donated cash, fearing their checks would be traced. Still, the event raised $8,000, "which was pretty significant in the '80s," Shellabarger says.

Basile says activists in Columbus were way ahead of those in other cities, even Chicago, "in their ability to organize and make political gains. That first event had a ripple effect of creating political change in the city and the state," he continues. "Columbus is still way ahead of any city in Ohio. You do have a lot of activity now in Cleveland and Cincinnati, but I think Columbus has really led the way and been kind of a beacon."

HRC gives Columbus a score of 100 out of 100 in its Municipal Equality Index, which rates the laws, policies and services of cities based on their inclusivity of LGBT people. For comparison, Cleveland earned a 79, Akron earned a 68 and Toledo earned a 58. On the other hand, Mobile, Alabama, earned a 4 and Jefferson City, Missouri, earned a 10.

Overall, Ohio fares poorly in the organization's State Equality Index, which is similar to the municipal index and places each state in one of four categories. Ohio falls in the lowest-ranked category, "High Priority to Achieve Basic Equality," along with 28 other states, including Alabama and Missouri. The dichotomy is clear, says Lynne Bowman, who helped found local LGBT rights organization Equality Ohio.

"Nationally, Ohio is one of the worst in the nation in terms of legal protections," says Bowman, now a regional field manager for HRC. "Yet the hub of legal opportunity is right in the middle of one of the most welcoming places."

She points to how far Columbus has come in the past 30 years, from having two sexual orientation ordinances struck down in City Council to having two openly gay City Council members, an openly gay police chief and a mayor who is vocal about LGBT rights.

"There are so many more people in the community who are willing to speak out," she says. "That willingness is a direct reflection of how Columbus has evolved in terms of welcoming people."

That has a snowball effect, she says.

"Columbus is a town where a lot of people move to from various parts of the state, in part because they're looking for some place that would be more welcoming," she says. "That has helped over the years to increase the number [of LGBT people] who are here. When they're here, they help create a more welcoming place, so more people want to move here."

Rothan of Stonewall Columbus says Midwestern values also play a role in making Columbus more welcoming-not just toward the LGBT community, but toward minority communities in general.

"We're one of the most diverse cities in the nation, partly because of [Ohio State] and major corporations," she says. "The diversity of our city and the fact that we're open to that is important. I think the people who live here are very polite, and they welcome everyone. That's a Midwestern mentality. We are part of a bigger world here."

Columbus' reputation as a gay-friendly city isn't just something we praise locally. People in other cities recognize it, too.

Travel writer Joey Amato says Columbus is known throughout the Midwest as being gay-friendly and welcoming. When he visited Columbus for the second time recently, "every venue I went to, whether it was gay- or straight-owned, it was welcoming," says Amato, publisher of UNITE magazine. Columbus has a strong gay culture, he says, which is often directly related to the number of LGBT-owned bars and restaurants in the city. In Columbus, especially in the Short North, there's no shortage of those.

"The Short North is not technically considered a gayborhood, but it's close," Amato says. "It's the closest thing in the Midwest to Boystown, (the common nickname for Chicago's LGBT enclave)."

Columbus' now-storied arts district wasn't always the visible epicenter of LGBT culture it is today. There were gay bars around Downtown, but they certainly didn't advertise. They often were unmarked brick buildings without as much as a window. Most of the popular bars from the '70s and '80s have shuttered or changed ownership, though a handful-like Southbend, a show bar owned by Thogmartin and his partner, and Wall Street-remain.

"It was very secretive. You'd have to go at midnight," Whaley recalls. "We were all very deep in the closet."

When Andrew Levitt was in college at Denison University in the late 1990s-and beginning to come out as gay-he and his friends would make the 45-minute drive to the Short North to go to Union Station Video Cafe, which is now Union Cafe. He was surprised to learn it was the first gay bar in Columbus to have windows.

"The [LGBT] scene has drastically changed as a result of that," says Levitt, social media manager for Union Cafe and Axis Nightclub. For the first time, passersby could see gay people eating, drinking and socializing (read: being normal people) inside. "There's more openness and inclusion now."

Since moving to Columbus in 2001, Levitt has been an integral part of the LGBT community. Those who don't recognize him in his street clothes would probably recognize him in costume, as drag superstar Nina West, whose presence in Columbus has risen to that of local celebrity and cultural icon. Levitt shies from the notion.

"I just really love what I do," he says in response. In addition to performing at Axis every weekend and headlining a run of two-hour cabarets twice a year, Levitt frequently attends fundraisers and charity events as Nina West. "It's great to have such a platform to raise awareness for issues like HIV/AIDS and homeless LGBT youth, and have people embrace it," he says. While drag queens in other cities might be subcultural celebrities, they're mainstream in Columbus.

"That 100-percent speaks to Columbus," he says. "I'm only in the position I'm in because people in the city have allowed me to be there. I think the gay community has really been embraced by straight people. It's straight people who've put me on that level."

He's seen the LGBT community in Columbus not only grow, but also shift in dynamic. While gay culture used to be centered on nightlife, he says, it's now a more pervasive community that extends beyond the Short North.

"When I first came out, I would notice that a lot of gay people would leave Columbus for Chicago, New York, Miami or LA. They'd go to bigger coastal cities," Levitt says. "But a lot of people came back and said, 'I didn't have it as good there as I had it in Columbus.' The community is stronger here than it is in a lot of other cities because we're not so big, yet there are so many people out and being visible."

Indeed, members of the LGBT community flock to Columbus not only to visit, but also to settle in a city that offers protections the rest of the state does not, and to live, work and raise a family in a welcoming, affirming environment.

What would those preachers think?