Hello, Columbus

T Magazine   11/12/2010   By Tim Murphy

IN THE HEARTLAND Union Cafe, a popular gay and lesbian hangout in Columbus, Ohio.
IN THE HEARTLAND Union Cafe, a popular gay and lesbian hangout in Columbus, Ohio.
The artist Brian Reaume in his studio
The artist Brian Reaume in his studio
STYLE COUNSEL Gabriel Mastin at the Short North design shop Collier West.
STYLE COUNSEL Gabriel Mastin at the Short North design shop Collier West.

Lean, tattooed and hunky in the way of a young Henry Rollins, Brian Reaume is living the life of a gay indie Brooklyn or Bay Area artist. He lives in what real estate agents call a ‘‘transitional’’ neighborhood, in a house filled with midcentury furniture and quirky art by him and his friends. In a small shop on a funky strip of cafes, bars and galleries, he sells his paintings along with the vintage housewares that he collects with the shop’s co-owner, Nancy Carlson, who lives upstairs. Two years ago he created ‘‘There’s No Truth in Silence,’’ an installation in his studio — which is among a warren of artists’ spaces in an old warehouse — that drew thousands one weekend with its controversial use of the American flag, a swastika, a cross and a chair emblazoned with the word ‘‘fag.’’

But the life that Reaume leads isn’t in Brooklyn or San Francisco. His tatty-cool neighborhood isn’t Bushwick or the Tenderloin; it’s Kenmore Park in northeast Columbus, Ohio, in, as he put it to me on a recent visit, ‘‘a very good pocket in the middle of the ghetto.’’ And that funky strip with his shop, Birchwater Studios, is North High Street in Columbus’s Short North, which has gone from sketchy to stylish in the past 15 years.

Reaume, 37, grew up outside Detroit and 10 years ago was on his way to an artist’s life in New York. But his brother, already in Columbus, needed a roommate for a year. So Reaume came — and never left. ‘‘I fell in love with it,’’ he told me at his shop. ‘‘There’s so much opportunity to show work here.’’ Reaume has found a market for his abstract canvases and sculptures along with income as a window-display builder for Victoria’s Secret, whose owner, Limited Brands, has its headquarters in Columbus. He’s also the father of an 11-month-old son, Thadeus, having been the sperm donor for friends, a lesbian couple, and he lives in a four-room 1948 Lustron ‘‘kit home’’ that he bought for $63,000. Rather than move to New York, Reaume said, ‘‘I turned Columbus into New York — and made my environment what I wanted.’’

In Ohio’s capital city, gay men, lesbians and bisexuals make up about 6.7 percent of the population of about 750,000, according to a 2006 study by the UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute. That’s a far cry from more than 10 percent in San Francisco, Atlanta, Boston, Minneapolis and Seattle, but it’s higher than most Midwestern cities, including Chicago (5.7 percent). And in several Columbus ‘‘gayborhoods’’ — like the Short North, German Village and the lesbian stronghold of Clintonville — the gay quotient is far higher than 6.7 percent.

That’s due in part to Ohio State, the nation’s second largest university, with 55,0000 students. The campus, adjacent to the Short North, is a youth-driven city unto itself that draws thousands of young people from all over the Midwest each fall, among them lesbians, gays and transgender students hungry for the relative openness of the city and the campus. (Campus Pride, a national gay college group, just ranked O.S.U. among the nation’s gay-friendliest campuses.) ‘‘You have this new crop of hot young guys
that come every year,’’ said Brent Clevidence, a co-owner of Level, a sleek, year-old restaurant and bar in the Short North that is popular with the gay crowd. ‘‘It’s just a very vibrant community.’’

Besides Limited Brands (the owner of Henri Bendel and Bath & Body Works as well as Victoria’s Secret), Abercrombie & Fitch is also based in Columbus, and both companies lure top design and retail talent — many of them gay — from larger cities. They come and stay for at least a few years, maybe buying a jewel-box Victorian or Craftsman fixer-upper for as little as $200,000. ‘‘We have tons of crossover here from New York and San Francisco, people constantly moving in and out,’’ said Chris Hayes, 37, an Ohio native who moved to Columbus after several years in New York City. ‘‘Columbus really turned itself around in the late ’90s,’’ said Hayes, the editor in chief of Outlook: Columbus, the town’s glossy gay monthly. ‘‘We’re not recession-proof, but we’re not a manufacturing economy, so we’ve done O.K.’’ Four years ago, he paid $281,000 for a 1,400-square-foot loft downtown. ‘‘It’s like my New York dream apartment, but it was affordable.’’

According to longtime residents, Columbus has long had a robust gay population. But like many other cities in the past two decades, it’s become more visible and woven into the town’s broader culture and night life. ‘‘When I first started going to the bars, in the ’80s,
you had to go into blank doorways or down alleyways,’’ said Jackie Vanderworth, a stylish, statuesque woman who was holding court one raucous Saturday night at Union, a sprawling restaurant and bar on North High Street. ‘‘Now you have neon signs and people holding hands in the Short North.’’ Vanderworth has been openly transgender at her job at the local Fox TV affiliate since 1996. ‘‘They didn’t bat an eye,’’ she explained of her colleagues’ reaction to her gender transition. ‘‘Our news director has me over for dinner parties.’’

While life here seems easygoing for gay folks, it’s especially so if you learn to love college football. The Ohio State Buckeyes, the reigning Big Ten champion, create citywide mania. ‘‘You can either dive right into the O.S.U. craziness when you move here,’’ Hayes said, ‘‘or you can hate your life for six months.’’ I was in town on game day — when the Buckeyes, to no one’s surprise, trounced small-fry Ohio University, 43-7 — and seemingly everyone in town was wearing scarlet-hued Buckeyes shirts and strings of buckeyes around their necks. That included a dozen members of Scarlet and Gay, O.S.U.’s G.L.B.T. alumni group, plus their friends and lovers, whom I joined at their tailgate party.

‘‘It’s pretty much a spiritual experience when you walk in here and see thousands of your brothers screaming like a fraternity,’’ said Troy Fabish, a real estate agent with a Buckeye-red pompom bobbing from his jeans pocket. ‘‘You feel like you’re part of the family.’’ He said he was even comfortable enough for public displays of affection, and kissed his boyfriend to prove it. During the game, the men took no pains to hide their particular enthusiasm, exclaiming their crushes on certain players. Everyone around them seemed happy to have them in the mix.

That welcoming spirit isn’t surprising, given that Columbus is a fairly progressive city, its broad-minded tone set by Michael B. Coleman, the black Democratic mayor since 2000. ‘‘The G.L.B.T. community is important to the city’s future and economic vitality,’’ Coleman told me, adding that he is working to get the City Council to pass a bill giving health benefits to the domestic partners of city workers.

The fact that such a benefit, available in more than a dozen states, would be a major step forward is a reminder that Columbus is still a gay oasis in progress, in a state that, though it voted for Barack Obama in 2008, remains deeply conservative in some parts. Ohio attracted national attention during the 2004 election when the state passed a referendum, by a two-thirds majority, banning any version of gay marriage whatsoever. It was a devastating margin to Tom Grote, 46, the son of the founder of the region’s 200-store Donatos Pizza chain. ‘‘I totally thought of leaving the state,’’ he told me, recalling the hurt of seeing houses with pro-ban signs in so-called liberal Columbus neighborhoods. Instead, he and a handful of other influential Ohio gays founded Equality Ohio, the state’s first well-funded gay-rights lobby, focusing on efforts like passing a state bill banning work and housing discrimination against homosexuals.

Grote met Rick Neal, then an advocate for refugee issues in Washington, D.C., in 2006. Today the two live in a refurbished 1907 brick house on Schiller Park in German Village. They’re the fathers of 19-month-old Amoret, whom they adopted from a local agency. (Since Ohio forbids gay couples from adopting a child together, Grote is the legal father and Neal has co-custody rights.) Neal said the three of them attracted more gawkers on a recent trip to Germany than they do around town. ‘‘Even in Berlin, Munich — holy cow, their eyes fell out,’’ he said. ‘‘Here, we might get a few stares out at the big mall in Easton. But no comments. This is the Midwest — people are polite.’’ Grote smiled. ‘‘What makes Rick really proud,’’ he said, ‘‘is when African-American women say he does a nice job with Amoret’s hair.’’

Grote and Neal, a Milwaukee native, said Columbus, with its quaint neighborhoods and network of gay parents, is a perfect fit for them. But it can feel limited if you yearn for the cosmopolitanism of bigger cities. Such is the plight of Gabriel Mastin, 28, a personal stylist at Nordstrom who is known to many as the town’s most fashionable young man. The night I met him, Mastin showed up with three of his female friends for dinner at Rigsby’s Kitchen, the city’s culinary pioneer in the Short North. He wore chunky glasses, a silk scarf tied around his neck, pleated trousers made by his tailor and sneakers by John Varvatos for Converse, and he carried a vintage periwinkle American Tourister airline bag.

‘‘Columbus isn’t awful if you find your niche to plug into,’’ he said. ‘‘But it can be tough. It’s very Abercrombie-cornfed-jock-I-eat-at-Max-&-Erma’s-and-Bob Evans. Some of the older gay men are a little more sophisticated.’’ Mastin grew up in Mansfield, Ohio, and told me that his parents have rejected him for being gay. ‘‘We do holidays and birthdays, but that’s about it.’’ In Columbus, he’s found a surrogate family of established, mostly partnered gay men with whom he has thrown himself into activism. Still, he said, ‘‘I want to make major bank and move to London. When I meet someone here who has style, I’m like, ‘Who are you? Can we be friends?’ ’’ Most of the time he just tries to get his male Nordstrom clients out of pleated Dockers and into skinny jeans.

Yet Mastin is doing more in Columbus than just biding his time. ‘‘Gay Pride here is amazing,’’ he told me over wine and Donatos Pizza at Grote and Neal’s house. (Amoret was brought down to say good night in her red Donatos onesie.) ‘‘We get up and dance on boxes with our shirts off every year.’’

‘‘Well,’’ Grote corrected him, ‘‘maybe every few years.’’

ESSENTIALS |  Columbus, Ohio
Hotel The Lofts Large, comfortable rooms in a refurbished downtown brick building near the Short North. Bike rentals available. 55 East Nationwide Boulevard; (614) 461-2663; 55lofts.com; doubles from $179.

Restaurants and Cafes
German Village Coffee Shop A neighborhood staple since 1981. 193 Thurman Avenue; (614) 443-8900. Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams The hit artisanal ice-cream chainlet, featuring flavors like Salty Caramel. 714 North High Street; (614) 294-5364; jenisicecreams.com. Level Dining Lounge Sleek hangout with margarita martinis and decadent sweet potato fries. 700 North High Street; (614) 754-7111; levelcolumbus.com; entrees $8 to $17. Rigsby’s Kitchen The 24-year-old Short North game changer serves top-notch Mediterranean fare. 698 North High Street; (614) 461-7888; rigsbyskitchen.com; entrees $19 to $33. Union Cafe Attracts a gay following with its vaguely Asian décor and menu. 782 North High Street; (614) 421-2233; unioncafe.com; entrees $11 to $20.

AWOL Hole-in-the-wall gay bar in quiet, less gentrified Olde Town East. 49 Parsons Avenue; (614) 621-8779. Bodega The Short North’s mixed-crowd hipster dive. 1044 North High Street; (614) 299-9399. Exile Gay bar popular with the leather crowd. 893 North Fourth Street; (614) 299-0069. Wall Street Nightclub Popular lesbian dance club in the Downtown District. 144 North Wall Street; (614) 464-2800.

Birchwater Studios Brian Reaume and Nancy Carlson’s Short North gallery and vintage furnishings store. 815 North High Street; (614) 598-1830; birchwaterstudios.com.

Collier West Stylish home goods and antiques shop in the Short North. 787 North High Street; (614) 294-9378; collierwest.com.