It’s Friday night at Axis nightclub and I’m watching Wilma Flintstone twerk against a beefy muscle dude dressed as a pterodactyl. The sexy stone-ager generates heaves of laughter from an amped-up audience of locals who’ve come to support Nina West, one of Columbus, Ohio’s leading drag queens at her latest revue, Nina’s Excellent Adventure. The time travelling-inspired show, which included multiple dedications to James Franco and a posse of talented backup dancers, highlights dozens of West’s wild impersonations, from Marie Antoinette and Pocahontas to glittery Indiana Jones and tasteful but slutty Monica Lewinsky. There’s even a downloadable phone app that lets the audience vote which move West will make next on stage in between acts.
“She’s sooo gonna make it to [RuPaul’s] Drag Race,” a screwdriver-sipping twink yelps behind me over a pumping hip-top track as men and women, young and old, go nuts as West continues with her hilariously eff’d up drag interpretation of the flame-haired Flintstone matriarch.
The tips are pouring in from the crowd, so much so that someone standing on a balcony stage right has removed their leather belt, attached some crinkly American bills to it and has begun to feed it over the rail, fishing it down towards West like worms on a hook.
The community’s pride in this queen is fiercely overwhelming. “She’s an ambassador that bridges the gay and straight community; a city institution,” a jolly man named Denver shouts in a thick Midwestern accent, slicing through the thumpa-thumpa beats.
Axis (axisonhigh.com) is Columbus’ longstanding gay dance club, but the crowd that night is both gay and straight, and everyone is there to support their local queen. There’s a sense of pride in the club that’s consistent with Columbus’ gay and lesbian community, a scene you don’t fully grasp until you’re there having a blast and wondering why you haven’t been here before.
“You don’t usually think of there being any gay-friendly cities in the Midwest,” says Brady Konya, who re-located to Columbus seven years ago from Seattle with his partner, Kyle, after the tech company he worked for was sold to Microsoft. “We were really surprised.”
Konya saw the capital city of Ohio as an opportunity to switch gears and in 2008 he co-founded Middle West Spirits (middlewestspirits.com), a high-end vodka and whisky distillery (which is worth touring). His partner, who worked for Abercrombie & Fitch in Seattle, re-located to A&F’s main Columbus headquarters. (Columbus is home to a slew of other major fashion brands like Victoria’s Secret, La Senza and Hollister, an industry that relocates many to the city.)
Today Konya can’t think of living anywhere else. “Columbus’ LGBT community is really integrated,” he says. “You don’t see the kind of separation like you do in other cities where lesbians go here and gays go there. Columbus is not what you’d expect.”
There’s many scenes in Columbus (or “Cbus,” as some locals call it) to explore in the pockets of neighborhoods that are the result of years of gay-trification. One must is German Village, an eclectic neighbourhood of restored cottages and homes just south of downtown that was settled by German immigrants in the early-to-mid 19th century. Its revitalization is owed to a well-known gay couple, the late Fred Holdridge and Howard Burns, who bought properties in the 1960s and ’70s, helped turned the area around and in the process won the community’s hearts. Lots of gay locals live in German Village today and it boasts gay-owned restaurants, such as martini lounge Club Diversity (clubdiversity.biz), Barcelona (barcelonacolumbus.com; the sangria will make you sing) and The Kitchen (thekitchencolumbus.com), a lesbian-owned participatory kitchen where guests don aprons and prepare their own meal (a good date spot, if you’re looking).
It’s here, at The Kitchen’s chic grand dining table, where I ate tasty fingerling potatoes while chatting with 24-year-old Kara Mitchell, who currently reigns as Miss Northwestern Ohio, the first open lesbian to do so. It’s Mitchell’s goal to bring LGBT issues to the forefront of the Miss America Pageant, tackle issues like same-sex marriage (it’s still not legal in Ohio) and offer “inspiration to the countless LGBT teens that need a positive role model,” she says.
I was floored; I didn’t expect to be dining with someone who could potentially alter the pageant system as we know it. So you got me there, Columbus. You’re not what I expected. Another thing I didn’t expect was how gay Columbus really is. LGBT travel outlets have pointed this out already. Gay Travel named Columbus its “Most Underrated Gay City” and Gay Cities named Columbus its most “Up and Coming Gay City of 2011.” Columbus is the 15th largest city in the US with a population of more than 822,553; in 2006 some 34,942 residents identified as gay, lesbian or bisexual, as documented in a study conducted by The Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy at the UCLA School of Law.
God only knows how many LGBT residents live there today, but a walk through this very walk-able town will make your gaydar go berserk. Every restaurant, museum or shop seemingly has a gay or lesbian person working there.
“You must have planned this,” I quip to my guide Roger, a 29-year-old tourism pro who works at Experience Columbus, as we pass yet another gay couple holding hands on an off-the-beaten-path street after being served by yet another gay waiter (like that’s really any surprise). “No! I Swear!” he tells me, throwing his hands up. The overabundance of gay people we see becomes a running joke all weekend.
The city’s substantial gay population could be due to the fact that Columbus is home to Ohio State University, one of the largest universities in the US. “This area is in constant flux,” says Sam Schisler, chief marketing and promotions officer for Axis, as well as Union Café (columbusnightlife.com), a busy dining and cocktail bar that could easily be The Abbey of the Midwest. The constant flow of students around town keeps the scene fresh and vibrant, says Schisler.
Most Columbus nightlife can be found in the Short North Arts District, an area along the High Street main drag that’s full of trendy bars, shops and art galleries. Here, you’ll find stunning murals of famous paintings on the side of buildings, from the Mona Lisa to American Gothic, and docking stations for the city’s convenient CoGo Bike Share program. Interestingly, the strip is framed by 17 wide arches, a nod to the arches that once covered Columbus in the late 1880s that lent it the nickname Arch City. Today, the arches are wired with programmable LED lights that turn into a million colours, including a rainbow. It makes for one mile-long light show at night.
The Short North is where you’ll find Axis, Union Café and the chic gay dining club Level (levelcolumbus.com). It even hosts a monthly Gallery Hop, where buskers and thousands of locals descend on the strip on the first Saturday night of each month starting at 4pm to explore the ’hoods’ many art galleries, which stay open late.
And, oh, if you enjoy RuPaul’s Drag Race, the Short North is the place to come across past contestants. A different queen seems to roll through like a glitter river every weekend. For me, this meant a brief encounter one Saturday night at Axis with Darienne Lake, a top-four contender on this past sixth season of Drag Race. Lake, a sassy, larger-than-life queen from Rochester, NY tells me she fell in love with Columbus two years ago when she came to town to perform with a friend. What sold her? “Jeni’s Ice Cream,” she screams. “I could poke a hole in it and make love to it!”
Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams (jenis.com), its official name, is the Marsha, Marsha, Marsha of Columbus. Everyone raves about it, pointing to its humble beginnings as a tiny market shop that went on to become a household name in Columbus and beyond.
And that’s what Columbus is all about. Be a local drag legend, an entrepreneur, a Miss America contestant or ice cream scooper, someone somewhere is cheering you on. It’s the people who’ll surprise you most. Columbus city councillor Eileen Paley, who addressed my tour group one evening at dinner, said it best: “We don’t have mountains, we don’t have a lot of water, but we have us.”
WHERE TO GO
Katalina’s Café Corner (katalinascolumbus.com). A groovy gem in Columbus’ historic Harrison West neighbourhood. Go for the Mexican French toast and spicy bacon, but don’t ignore the true talk of the town: pancake balls filled with your choice of Nutella, strawberry or dulce de leche sauce.
The North Market (northmarket.com). Buy local and explore dozens of delis, bakeries, fish, ethnic and pastry vendors at this popular indoor supermarket that attracts up to a million shoppers annually. Hot tip: go to Pistacia Vera pasty shop for the best macarons you’ll ever taste.
FOR A FANCY SHMANCY DINNER
Basi Italia (basi-italia.com). Italian and Mediterranean inspired entrees prepared by the type of chef that comes out from the kitchen just to pat you on the shoulder while sipping a bourbon-based watermelon cocktail and to ask, “How you doin’?”
Pizzuti Collection (pizzuticollection.com). A fascinating contemporary art gallery that showcases the collection of local philanthropists Ron and Ann Pizzuti.
Crowne Plaza Columbus-Downtown (ihg.com). Trendy, good service, walking distance to the Short North district. ‘Nough said.
The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium (colszoo.org). You can’t skip Jack Hanna’s famous animal emporium that USA Travel Guide calls the number one zoo in the US. Home to 9,000 animals, from elephants to kangaroos to manatees. There’s even a rhino named Rosie who’ll let you take a selfie.