How gay clubs came out of hiding and moved into the mainstream

Even the genesis of the gay-rights movement traces back to a bar. When New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969, patrons fought back, refusing to forfeit their primary gathering place. Many who scuffled with police said that attacking the gay bar was the last straw - an assault on something their community simply couldn't lose.

"You'd like to be able to hold hands with your partner if it was an anniversary or something," said Karla Rothan, executive director of Stonewall Columbus, which organizes the annual Pride festivities. "You wouldn't feel comfortable holding hands in an establishment that wasn't labeled gay. It's a whole different day here."

Cultural change is often slow, painful and incomplete, and that day has come slowly to Columbus. Gay bars opened, folded and faded from memory. Most importantly, though, they never went away.

Gradually, one would put up a real sign or a neon banner bearing a rainbow. They crept into neighborhoods outside Downtown. In the '80s, places like The Eagle, The Garage and Wall Street fueled the movement toward greater GLBT acceptance and visibility, then reaped the rewards in return.

Eventually, in the mid '90s, openly gay places like Out on Main, The Grapevine, Havana and Union Station began competing with the best in the industry. These bars and restaurants never hid who they were - they simply invited everyone, straight or gay, to enjoy it.

"It was bright and kind of in the light, because we wanted to create a bridge to the straight community," said Tom Grote, former co-owner of Out on Main, which opened in 1995. "It became a cool, hip place to go to show you were progressive."

Other places followed suit, attracting a more empowered gay community and straight people less afraid to be near it. By now, you could actually find them. Opened in 1996, Union Station even featured windows.

Today, Union Bar + Food embodies the contemporary gay bar in Columbus. Centered in the city's main entertainment district, it's a place where businesspeople eat lunch and families come in for dinner. The bartender will still call you "Honey."

"The current crowd is a great, eclectic mix of people," said Rajesh Lahoti, CEO of Roy G. Biv, which operates Union, Axis and Havana. "It's no longer about who you're going with - whether they're straight or gay - you're going with your group of friends."

The GLBT community still battles countless issues in the political arena, but an increasing number of local bars foster a cultural blending that many advocates see as a distinct success.

Even the cultural cache of being progressive has worn off. Most don't go to Union, Level or Club Diversity to be seen with gay friends - they just go to eat, drink and dance.

Lahoti added, "For us, success is that when people walk down the street or come in for Gallery Hop, and they see two guys holding hands, it's not a head-turner."