Megan Bursey noticed something different about Columbus when she visited her girlfriend last December.
“There were just pride flags everywhere and 'Make America Gay Again’ flags," Bursey says. "I was looking for a bicycle and all the bike stores had flags everywhere and it was really nice to see that. People were very openly gay, which was very comforting, too.”
The experience spurred her to ask WOSU's Curious Cbus project, “Why is there such a large LGBTQ population in Columbus?”
Data backs up Megan’s instinct. A 2015 Gallup poll put Columbus in the top 15 of the nation’s 50 largest metro areas with 4.3 percent of its population identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. That's a larger percentage than New York City and Washington, D.C., let alone fellow Midwest cities like Indianapolis (4.2 percent), Cleveland (3.7), Cincinnati (3.2) and Pittsburgh (3.0).
In 2010, the Gay/Lesbian Index listed Columbus as one of the top 20 “gayest” cities in America.
Those designations may be relatively new, but Julia Applegate from the Institute For LGBTQ Health Equity at Equitas Health says the question is anything but.
“People have been asking this question for the whole 25 years I’ve been here," Applegate says. "'Why? Why Columbus?'”
The answer, for her, was pretty simple. As an out lesbian navigating her identity as a young adult, Applegate says she wanted to be surrounded by other people in the LGBTQ community.
"I moved here with that whole purpose in mind. I had no job, I didn’t have an intention to stay, really," Applegate says. "I didn’t really care - I didn’t know anything about Columbus. I wasn’t drawn to the city itself. I was drawn to knowing there was a community here."
And she found that community almost immediately.
“I got my first job after graduate school at a coffee shop that was really like the Cheers of the LGBT community. It was all queers, all day long, all the time," Applegate says, laughing. "Most of the employees were LBGT-identified, and that was a really safe space to be every day.”
The roots of Columbus’s status as a LGBTQ-friendly city predate Applegate’s move here in the 1990s.
Eric Feingold, curator at the Ohio History Connection, works with the Gay Ohio History Initiative. He says that the city was, in general, far ahead of the rest of the state.
“Columbus has been holding, for instance, the Pride Parade since right around 1981, 1982, and other cities in Ohio have just hosted their first Pride festivals in the last few years," Feingold says.
He adds that cultural events like Pride and organizations like Stonewall Columbus earned the city a reputation.
“Columbus is seen as kinda the epicenter of LGBTQ life in Ohio, and certainly between the big three cities - Cincy, Cleveland and Columbus," Feingold says.
That, in turn, inspires others to come here. Amin Ghaziani, a University of British Columbia sociologist who studies the intersection of geography and LGBTQ identities, says an out-and-proud culture leads to a snowball effect.
“Several decades ago, it may very well have been the case that simply sharing a sexual orientation, and a minority sexual orientation specifically, was sufficient to say that is where you want to live," Ghaziani says. "So we see the emergence of these gay districts.”
Ghaziani says cities with a high percentage of LGBTQ populations often share a few common factors - Democratic political leanings, good nightlife and social scene, major universities - all of which Columbus boasts.
In Columbus, for example, the artsy Short North historically held a place as the city's "gayborhood." A 2015 Census survey showed the area had a higher percentage of same-sex partner households, as did German Village and Merion Village. A map compiled by Experience Columbus in 2017 shows a concentration of LGBTQ bars and restaraunts in those neighborhoods, as well.
But Ghaziani says the landscape is changing, and expanding, as acceptance grows.
“Gay neighborhoods are a spatial response to a historically specific form of oppression," he says. "To borrow a beautiful phrase from geographers Mickey Lauria and Larry Knopp, ‘When the nature of oppression changes, so too should the spatial response,' which is why we are increasingly seeing this incredible diversification of same-sex locations.”
Applegate doesn’t deny the city has become more welcoming and safe for LGBTQ populations since she’s moved here.
“It’s better, there are more options, but it’s not resolved," she says. "That’s why I have a job, that’s why I work in this field, because it is not resolved. There’s a lot of work to do still. We are not in a completely safe environment."
In the meantime, the Make America Gay Again flags will keep waving in the Short North.
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