They were always out there, hidden in the shadows. You might find one Downtown, if you had a friend who'd been there. The place probably didn't have a sign. It would never, ever have windows.

They were always out there, hidden in the shadows.

You might find one Downtown, if you had a friend who'd been there. The place probably didn't have a sign. It would never, ever have windows.

Before going in, you might stand for hours on a nearby corner sizing up patrons to make sure it was safe, that your kind of people were inside. Some joints were so secluded from the outside world that a flashing light had to be installed to warn patrons when cops were about to bust in on a raid.

For decades, that's what you found at a gay bar in Columbus - a speakeasy of sorts serving a GLBT community that was marginalized, criminalized and kept at bay. Unlike today, these weren't the type of places you and a few straight friends grabbed Sunday brunch.

The Columbus Pride Festival celebrates its 29th anniversary this weekend, and the past three decades have seen the gay bar undergo the unthinkable - transforming from a small, secretive safe haven into a thriving part of local nightlife.

"If you had gone back to any of us and described where things are today, we would've looked at you and said you were crazier than hell," said Steve Shellabarger, a Short North activist who came out in 1968. "We've come a very long way."

Though established in Columbus as early as the 1930s, after-dark haunts for gays and lesbians remained small and out of sight because they had to be. During a time when many never came out to families, neighbors and bosses, being caught at a bar could mean getting disowned, evicted or fired.

In Columbus, police arrested men for dancing together as recently as the 1960s.

"[The gay bar] was a place to go and be yourself and not worry what people are thinking - people from your family, friends, business," said Karen Blazer, who has owned Blazers Pub in the Short North for nearly 15 years. "You could be who you wanted to be."

Local GLBT culture has always flourished on the fringes. Gay house parties were held in Columbus during the '60s and '70s, and leading GLBT figures would organize secret costume extravaganzas like the Berwick Ball.

Bars eventually came to serve the growing need for community in a more permanent way.

At early establishments like The Kismet on Gay Street and Ty's on High Street, you could talk about GLBT issues. You could organize a rally. You could buy someone a drink without fear.

These spots were secluded but available, a bit risky but reliable. You always knew where they'd be and who would be there.

"Before things like 'Outlook,' there were various rags aimed at gay people, and that was the only place you could find them," said Rob Berger, a Grandview attorney who collects stories from GLBT senior citizens. "The bar would be the place where you would meet. You didn't have to worry about someone overhearing or being harassed."