Discovering Columbus’s LGBT Midwestern Sensibility
I've always had an odd relationship with Ohio. As a native Michigander, I was taught from an early age that Ohio was a state to hate anytime sports rivalries came into play - which in the Midwest is often. But since my mom was a native Ohioan, half of my relatives lived in the Buckeye State, and I spent many a young summer there. Yet during those early years, by far the queerest thing I ever saw in Ohio was myself in a mirror.
So when Columbus started attracting national attention a few years ago as one of the nation's hippest undiscovered gay destinations, I was more than a little surprised - truth be told, I was downright suspicious. But a few days in modern Columbus revealed a cool capital that's inclusive, innovative and still brimming with innate charm, one that's well worth a visit and absolutely worthy of the hype. What's more, the Human Rights Campaign just granted Columbus a perfect score of 100 on its 2013 Municipality Equality Index, one of only 25 cities in the country (and the only one in Ohio) to achieve such a rating.
With some 800,000 inhabitants, Columbus is both Ohio's capital and its largest metropolis. It's also the 15th biggest city in U.S., home to a bustling economy (Abercrombie & Fitch is among the many major corporations based here), a vibrant arts community, a rich culinary landscape and a shockingly large and diverse gay scene spread across multiple neighborhoods.
And indeed, Columbus is a city of neighborhoods, where gays are prominent fixtures in several of the finest. From the art- and shopping-heavy Short North to the historic German Village to the eclectic Olde Towne East, rainbow flags are common sights, which says nothing of the powerful LGBT presence in the University District around Ohio State University.
Like many newbies, I began my gay Columbus experience along High Street in the Short North neighborhood, which stretches from just north of Downtown to just south of the OSU campus. Here a funky mix of galleries, boutiques and cafés (many of them queer-owned and frequented) makes this one of the city’s busiest pedestrian areas - especially on weekends, and even more especially for the monthly Gallery Hop every first Saturday.
In late June, Short North is the setting for Columbus Pride, with a two-day festival at Goodale Park and a Saturday parade down High Street. It’s all organized by Stonewall Columbus, which also operates the city’s drop-in LGBT center at its home base on High Street. Just a few blocks down are the headquarters for Outlook, Columbus’s own monthly gay magazine and a mandatory read for visitors. Several of the city’s top gay hotspots are also on High Street, including dining/drinking destinations Union Cafe and Level, as well as full-on dance club Axis.
The shopping along High Street is some of the city’s best, with an array of fantastic local boutiques sharing space with a smattering of bigger trendy chain stores like American Apparel. My personal favorite is Tigertree, an emporium of highly hip but supremely functional clothing that is operated by the adorable and friendly Josh and Niki Quinn, a California couple who stopped off in Columbus on their way to the East Coast some years back and loved it so much that they never left.
It’s a common theme of late: transplanted coastal folk who never thought they’d linger in Columbus for long, but fell in love with its charms, stayed, and have now become part of its new extra-Midwestern fabric. Other prime (and equally adorable and friendly) examples of this movement are Brady Konya and Ryan Lang, who each came to Columbus when their partners took new jobs here. Brady and Ryan soon joined forces to create Short North’s Middle West Spirits, one of the city’s hottest business success stories with its Oyo whiskey and vodkas - already hugely popular locally, and quickly gaining national acclaim.
Before leaving Short North, be sure to check out the phenomenal new Pizzuti Collection, the culmination of four decades of art collecting by local businessman Ron Pizzuti. A historic 18,000-square-foot former insurance building along Goodale Park has been transformed into a contemporary art extravaganza, with superb pieces by the likes of Frank Stella and Ai Weiwei. There’s also a fantastic exhibition of contemporary Cuban art, which runs through next June.
Columbus’s other main gayborhood is German Village, an area just south of Downtown that in the 19th century was none too surprisingly originally settled by German immigrants. Post-Stonewall gays - quick to spot the beauty of the neighborhood’s old brick buildings - have been a vibrant part of the area and its renaissance for years.
Mainly a residential neighborhood, German Village isn’t as loaded with gay-specific businesses as Short North, but you’ll see queer folk just about everywhere. Many of the city’s best restaurants are here, including Harvest Pizzeria, the Spanish-inspired (and gay-owned) Barcelona, and Pistacia Vera bakery and café.
German Village also offers up a juicy morsel for the art lover, the often overlooked Keny Galleries. Set in a gorgeously preserved period home, Keny specializes in American art, with watercolors by the likes of Georgia O’Keeffe, John Singer Sargent and Andrew Wyeth. It also boasts a strong collection of works by nationally known Ohio artists like George Bellows (about whom more in a moment).
Conveniently positioned between Columbus’s two main gay enclaves is Downtown. Here you’ll find the Columbus Museum of Art, which through January 4 presents George Bellows and the American Experience, an homage to one of the city’s favorite native sons. Whether by design or luck, Bellows’ works are often homoerotic - hunky boxers entangled in combat are a recurring theme. In February, CMA will present Toulouse-Lautrec and La Vie Modern: Paris 1880-1910, a collection of avant garde works from turn-of-the-20th-century Paris.
Downtown is home to one of the best-known gay-owned Columbus-based businesses, Sugardaddy’s. Founded by Mark Ballard and Tom Finney, Sugardaddy’s and its scrumptious brownies and blondies were the winners of the Food Network’s Throwdown with Bobby Flay, and were also green room fixtures on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. Sugardaddy’s has now expanded to three Columbus locations and ships throughout the country (from oven to door in 24 hours or less). Next door is the upstart Columbus wallet maker Zeroz, with its cool line of micro-wallets created by Paul Westrick.
Another must-see Downtown attraction is North Market, the city’s best food and produce market. With more than 35 merchants, it’s also home to September’s Columbus Microbrew Festival.
Just two blocks away is the perfect home base for Columbus exploration, the Hilton Columbus Downtown. Opened just over a year ago right on High Street, the gorgeous and art-minded Hilton boasts a dazzling atrium with 15,000-square-foot skylight. In homage to the nearby Short North Arts District, more than 150 artworks by central Ohio artists grace the property, both in the public spaces and guest rooms.
Two of Columbus’s top gay dance clubs are located Downtown too, the newly reopened Garage and one of the Midwest’s biggest lesbian clubs, Wall Street.
Next page for more highlights around town and our quick resource guide.
Elsewhere Around Town
Several of Columbus’s other neighborhoods also have notable gay presences. Just east of Downtown, the still-gentrifying Olde Towne East is the home of the popular military-themed gay bar AWOL. Olde Towne East was even the setting for the 2003 PBS documentary Flag Wars, which revealed the tensions between the neighborhood’s older black residents and the incoming gay settlers who were displacing them. To the north, a large number of lesbian couples have historically called Clintonville home.
Need To Know
Less than 200 miles from both Indianapolis and Pittsburgh and under 150 from both Cleveland and Cincinnati, Columbus is easily reachable by car from much of the Midwest. Fifteen airlines serve Port Columbus International Airport with 34 direct flights to nearly every major hub in the U.S.
For more info about gay Columbus, check out:
ExperienceColumbus.com, the city’s official tourism portal that features a dedicated LGBT page.