The city’s biggest Pride celebration yet reflects the growing role the GLBT population has played in the area’s development
By Kitty McConnell
In 1981, a few dozen Columbus men and women—many wearing bags over their heads to conceal their identities—marched down High Street with signs demanding equal protection against discrimination for gays and lesbians. That was Columbus’s first Gay Pride march.
Contrast that somber procession with the campy floats and nearly 130,000 people expected to show up this weekend for Columbus’s 28th annual Columbus Pride Parade and Festival. Some of those marchers may don masks, but they certainly won’t be hiding their faces.
“Columbus has become more progressive over the years,” said Carla Rothan, executive director of Stonewall Columbus, the agency that’s staged Columbus Pride every year since the early ‘80s. For evidence, she pointed to the Citation of Recognition issued to festival organizers by Mayor Mike Coleman, and the fact that Columbus Pride 2009 events will be attended by City Council members, other local politicians and Gov. Ted Strickland.
“All over the country, because of the economy, I think, a lot of festivals and Prides are closing,” said Rothan. “But Stonewall Columbus has had a lot of support.”
Thanks to a long list of sponsors, including mainstream companies like Budweiser, Target, Macy’s and Time Warner, this year’s festival will take place over two days rather than one. To facilitate its growth, the event is being scheduled on a different weekend than Comfest for the first time in recent years.
This means it no longer has to squeeze itself into Downtown’s Bicentennial Park but will have the Short North’s massive Goodale Park all to itself on Friday night and all day Saturday. There it will feature live entertainment on two stages, local vendors and everything from a mechanical bull to a climbing wall.
Though the mood will be festive, the theme of Pride 2009—”Freedom”—begs the somber question posed on the Pride website: “Are we free in Central Ohio?” While the number of Pride marchers—and the everyday visibility of the GLBT community within Columbus—has grown exponentially in the past three decades, gay, lesbian, transgendered and bisexual Ohioans are still pushing for many of the same civil protections that the original Pride marchers were seeking back in ‘81.
“Ohio is dead last when it comes to civil right for gay people, as far as the states are concerned,” said Rothan.
Although Gov. Strickland implemented a policy protecting state employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation, Ohio residents can still be dismissed by private employers on the basis of their sexual orientation. The same holds true for Franklin County’s anti-discrimination policy, which affects only government employees. While Columbus city code was recently amended to protect citizens from discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation, the county and state are not yet as enlightened.
So Pride 2009 marchers are rallying for equal civil protections, domestic partner benefits and the abolishment of the military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
But Pride 2009 is not only about raising awareness of the discrimination still being felt in the GLBT community. Supporters said it’s also about appreciating the progress that’s been made by the community in the years since the founding of the original chapter of Stonewall Columbus nearly 30 years ago.
And there has been a lot of progress—progress that has affected both the gay community and Columbus as a whole, said Chris Hayes, co-publisher and editor-in-chief of Outlook Columbus.
“We have one of the largest gay cities in the country. That is from years of people coming out over the course of many years,” said Hayes. “We have lots of people that are from our community that are old-time community members that have stayed here and helped shape the city—not only in their business avenues, but also in social and political avenues.”
Hayes serves on the board of the Gay Ohio History Initiative, which he described as a statewide organization originally started by Outlook Columbus (then Outlook Weekly) that works in partnership with the Ohio Historical Society to “preserve, archive and curate Ohio’s GLBT history and culture.”
The initiative’s ever-growing collection of historical materials includes photos, letters, artifacts and archival footage. While the group is a state organization, Hayes said, “there’s definitely a lot of Central Ohio stuff just because we’re located here.”
So what would Columbus look like without what Hayes called “a rich history of activism” for gay rights?
“It’d be a lot more boring. I think you would see a big void in creative talent, nightlife—both things to do and people that have really helped shape the neighborhoods,” said Hayes. “Victorian Village, German Village, Italian Village—they were all brought up through the efforts of the gay community pioneering the blighted neighborhoods.”
Stonewall Columbus director Rothan agreed that GLBT people have played an important role in the city’s development. She, in fact, is a member of the city’s Recreation and Parks Commission and the 2012 Commission, which is charged with recommending expansion and development projects for Columbus in the years leading up to the city’s bicentennial.
“The GLBT community has renovated and restored many of the homes” in areas like German Village and the Short North, said Rothan, as well as leading the push for the restoration of neighborhoods like Merion Village and Westgate.
Rothan added that the influence of the GLBT community is evident in the city’s business environment as well. Beyond the success of the many GLBT-owned businesses and galleries in the Short North, she pointed out that larger Columbus-based institutions have implemented GLBT-friendly policies.
“Nationwide has given domestic partnership benefits. So has OSU. Our Columbus Public Schools…some of our businesses and industry—our GLBT population have been instrumental in strengthening those institutions,” said Rothan.
This was my first Pride, march and I have to say, it was an awesome experiance. I had a lot of fun supporting Columbus and they GLBTQ Community.