Travel

Follow the Rainbow to One of the Biggest Pride Celebrations in the Midwest

This purple region could use some more sparkly sequins.

Photo courtesy of Experience Columbus
Photo courtesy of Experience Columbus
Photo courtesy of Experience Columbus

When it comes to Pride in the Midwest, Chicago tends to monopolize a lot of the rainbow-hued fanfare, but a couple states over, a rapidly growing city is giving the Second City a run for its money. Not only is Columbus booming in population-at a much faster clip than any other Midwestern city, making it the nation’s 14th largest-but Ohio’s capital has become a mecca of loud-and-proud queerness of late. It now has the 15th largest LGBTQ+ population in the US, with a Pride festival that’s risen dramatically in popularity.

After originating in 1981, Stonewall Columbus Pride has steadily blossomed in attendance to more than 700,000 (along with some 13,000 marchers in the parade), becoming a beacon of inclusivity, diversity, and acceptance not only for the state, but for the surrounding region. Its increasingly diverse populace continues to broaden the demographics and colour the landscape with all tints of the rainbow.

“Part of our vision is to ensure that queer identities are seen across our state and not only in queer spaces,” explains Densil Porteous, executive director and CEO of Stonewall Columbus. “Each year, we’ve worked to make space for the various identities within the LGBTQ+ community, while working to ensure our allies and accomplices are also a part of the moment of recognition and celebration for the queer community.”

And space for various identities is very much needed. Like many a swing state, Ohio’s social politics are fraught with challenges for the community-in most parts of the state, it’s still legal to discriminate against LGBTQ+ people, and recent legislation seeking to ban gender-affirming care is an unfortunate example of harmful policies sweeping the country. Ironic, then, that this type of legislative showdown ensues in a State Capital building surrounded by queer-friendly neighbourhoods and businesses, and a Pride festival whose attendance equates the population of Denver. Like Austin is to Texas, or Atlanta is to Georgia, Columbus has emerged as a queer haven for the region, turning this swing state from purple to a twinkling tint of sequin-clad lavender.

“I’ve always felt that it’s been more progressive, even through the moniker of being a ‘cowtown’ in the Midwest,” says Scott Heimlich, owner of longstanding Barcelona Restaurant in German Village. “It’s always felt safer here. We’ve had issues, and we’ve had to be careful, but it’s progressed much faster than other cities. It felt safe to come out for me. I knew I could be who I was in Columbus when I couldn’t in my hometown, a small rural farming community.”

Part of that safety, which comes with general population growth, stems from increased businesses and a Hogwarts-sized university that brings diverse people from all over the world. Says Heimlich: “It makes Columbus more inclusive and understanding.”

It’s no wonder, then, that Stonewall Columbus Pride has grown exponentially too, signalling an overall metamorphosis for a Midwestern city ever on the rise. Surely spurred by the desire to get loud and speak out against discriminatory legislation sweeping the nation, this year’s festivities are certain to be bigger-and prouder-than ever. Following a two-year pandemic-induced hiatus, Stonewall Columbus Pride Festival and March is back June 17-18, but before the celebration hits Goodale Park, here’s everything you need to know about one of America’s low-key biggest Pride festivals.

@experiencecolumbus
@experiencecolumbus
@experiencecolumbus

Why Columbus, Ohio?

Columbus’s Pride started in 1981, after a string of other cities following the Stonewall Riots in New York City. At a time when anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination ran rampant (ya know, even more so than today), Pride here was founded as a response to the religious right coming to Columbus, with the goal of increasing visibility and acceptance of the queer community. It started with a march so small and discreet that some attendees wore bags over their heads to prevent being recognized or outed.

“I remember 25-30 years ago when it was tiny, you were worried by participating in the parade who would see you,” recalls Heimlich.

A lot can change in 40 years, though. Ahead of the rest of the state in terms of social progress, Columbus passed an ordinance in 2008 that offered civil rights protections to LGBTQ+ people, followed by an LGBTQ+ partnership registry in 2012, anti-discrimination legislation in 2014, and the banishment of conversion therapy on minors in 2017. All the while, the city has continuously earned perfect scores on the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s Municipal Equality Index.

“Because Columbus is so open now, it’s a party and celebration,” Heimlich goes on. “This is who we are. You can just be out and there’s no judgment and it’s a great day to celebrate.”

From a pint-sized march that required bravery to attend, Stonewall Columbus helped catapult the growth and progress of the city itself. Gone are the bags over the heads, and in are the feather boas, the rainbow face paint, and the joyous cheers from all walks of life.

Martin Wheeler III/Shutterstock
Martin Wheeler III/Shutterstock
Martin Wheeler III/Shutterstock

Find your queer-friendly neighbourhoods

Unlike many US cities, whose queer scenes still are largely typified by one or two neighbourhoods, Columbus as a whole exudes acceptance and inclusivity.

One obvious enclave is the Short North, an arts district that’s home to Goodale Park, where the crux of Stonewall Columbus Pride takes place. Unsurprisingly, the downtown-adjacent neighbourhood is now one of the city’s most vibrant-and the one most synonymous as a gayborhood-thanks to its abundance of LGBTQ+ businesses and havens.

This includes Axis Nightclub, the largest dance club in the city, featuring cabaret and entertainment from nationally revered drag queens; Out of the Closet thrift store, with profits going to the AIDS Healthcare Foundation; Union Cafe, an LGBTQ-friendly restaurant with drag brunch and “Flirtini Fridays”; and Torso Short North, a scantily-clad shop specializing in “sexy underwear and accessories.” Short North is also home to the Stonewall Columbus Community Center, a 12,000-square-foot space of year round programming and events.

West of the Scioto River, another neighbourhood takes its queerness a step further by hosting Pride events all its own. Franklinton Arts District is a funky, warehouse-filled sanctuary of open-minded makers and artists. It’s home to a kaleidoscope of galleries, like Secret Studio, 400 West Rich, Side Hustle Gallery, and The Vanderelli Room. The district started its own mini Pride festival in 2019, featuring music, drag shows, food trucks, beer gardens, and activations like a Rocky Horror Picture Show sing-along.

Just east of Franklinton, downtown Columbus puts its Pride front-and-centre as well. You’ll find centrally located gay club AWOL Bar; Slammers, one of a scant few remaining lesbian bars in the country, where the business motto is “all walks, one groove”; and Columbus’ newest LGBTQ+ bar, District West, a performance venue for some of the city’s most iconic drag queens. One performer is Virginia West, “drag mother” to local celebrity Nina West, who earned Miss Congeniality on season 11 of RuPaul’s Drag Race and has a children’s book due out this fall about kindness and self-love.

Bake Me Happy
Bake Me Happy
Bake Me Happy

Shop at queer-owned businesses

Throughout the city, queer-owned businesses and queer-friendly spaces are ubiquitous. Altogether, Columbus boasts more than 15 LGBTQ+ bars and 100-plus LGBTQ-owned businesses. Dispersed throughout the city, and encompassing everything from retail shops and pet care to financial services and restaurants, these include Heimlich’s Barcelona Restaurant, an upscale Spanish staple for 25 years, where it’s patatas bravas with a side of Pride.

“From day one, we were very up front with the staff and the community,” Heimlich says. “It became known that it was gay-owned, but our clientele is every walk of life and ethnic group, and you should feel good being here, whoever you are. It’s a culture that has no tolerance for anything but full acceptance.”

Other queer-owned eateries include gluten-free Bake Me Happy, where the rainbow sprinkle cakes match the flag displayed in the window; Cavan Irish Pub, the only gay Irish pub in the state; and Barroluco Argentine Comfort Food, a paella-packed restaurant that parks its food truck at Stonewall Columbus Pride.

Beyond food, other queer-owned businesses run the gamut from vintage wares at Flower Child and literary-themed candles at Paper Crown Candles to eBike shop Orbit City Bikes and furnishings and decor at Fourth Home.

For more detailed information on LGBTQ-friendly businesses and organizations, Stonewall Columbus runs Lavender Listings, an extensive and searchable online database for queer-owned and inclusive resources throughout central Ohio.

Stonewall Columbus Pride Festival and March
Stonewall Columbus Pride Festival and March
Stonewall Columbus Pride Festival and March

Pride today: Bigger, prouder, and queerer than ever

This year’s festival runs June 17 from 4 pm –10 pm and June 18 from 10:30 am–8 pm in Goodale Park. The event will feature more than 200 vendors, two performance stages, a dancing area, and myriad community resources for LGBTQ+ members of all ages. The Pride march, meanwhile, kicks off at 10:30 am on June 18 at the corner of Broad Street and High Street, commencing as a giant rainbow-filled cavalcade up High Street towards Goodale Park.

Beyond the festival, though, Pride is on display year round in Columbus. “We call it Pride 365,” says Porteous. “Stonewall provides an array of programs and services for the LGBTQ+ and allied communities in particular around identity enrichment, personal wellness and health, economic empowerment, and family creation.”

Ultimately, what makes Columbus such a queer oasis isn’t just that its festival is larger and louder than others; it’s that this thriving melting pot of a city shows its Pride 365 days of the year, from the queer-owned businesses and endless drag shows to the omnipresence of rainbow flags that refuse to be confined to a month.

“Pride is a great way to bring a spotlight and awareness, but as individuals we have to try and live that every day,” Heimlich adds. “I’ve got a Pride flag that flies on the building year round. It may cause me some trouble, but I can’t hide the rest of the time. We just have to be open about who we are all year round.”

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Matt Kirouac is a travel writer with a passion for national parks, Disney, and food. He’s the co-founder and co-host of Hello Ranger, a national parks community blog, podcast, and app. Follow him on Instagram.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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