If members of the Columbus Gay Men’s Chorus had any doubt that one of its newest baritones, Chet Ridenour, was straight, it was obliterated when he revealed that he didn’t know much of anything about Cher.
“They believed me then. … It comes with the territory,” said Ridenour of the fact that many people assume that, despite his heterosexuality, he is gay because of his advocacy. “If you’re doing something no one else is really doing, strongly, passionately and consistently and as an outspoken advocate as I have been, that’s going to happen.”
Ridenour’s story is just one piece of the ever-evolving relationship between the LGBT and heterosexual residents in Columbus. As pop culture, politics and gender roles change, so do the dynamics of the relationship, which can affect everything from dancing in the club to corporate office procedure.
To mark Columbus Pride’s 31st year of celebrating the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, the festival this weekend is also honoring a lesser-recognized portion of its supporters: heterosexual allies in equality. Columbus is brimming with them.
Let’s just be friends
A lifelong lover of music, Ridenour joined the chorus in January because he wanted to sing. Coming out as a straight man in a gay men’s chorus proved to be terrifying, but the fear was unfounded.
“Chet is so completely comfortable with who he is,” said CGMC member Mark Dunaway. “He is very genuine.”
It helps that Ridenour is outspoken in his support of LGBT equality. Earlier this year he founded Str8Nout, a support group for allies that meets at Stonewall Columbus in the Short North every third Wednesday of the month.
“It’s for people who are straight and are out of the supporters’ closet. It’s not a small step for everybody,” Ridenour said. “You’re doing something, you’re taking action to be part of the solution, to make progress to push that ball forward, or your silence is acceptance of and perpetuation of the status quo.”
During Str8Nout meetings, members discuss ways to be proactive in creating the change they wish to see. That could mean calling a political representative or going to a drag show to support the LGBT community’s performers. The goal of Str8Nout, Ridenour said, is to give exposure to allies’ support, which can only advance the movement for change.
In the social realm of things, though, where the rules of engagement are fractured, the interaction between the LGBT and straight communities gets a little more complicated.
“There is such judgment on both sides of the coin, gay or straight,” said Andrew Levitt, also known as drag queen Nina West. “Gay men of my generation gravitated toward women initially because, I think, of the protection, the lack of judgment. Straight men seem to have this hyper-masculinity about them that they have to adhere to so as not to seem weak or so as not to seem like they’re gay or feminine.”
Levitt, ally and doctor Randy Sharma, and Candle Lab owner Steve Weaver started Project: Zero Ohio, a nonprofit that raises money for AIDS awareness and other resources. It’s been nearly a year since the launch, and they’ve raised around $15,000.
Levitt (as Nina West) and Sharma have become the faces of the organization, a role that has led some to wonder why Sharma is involved (answer: as a doctor he’s seen patients who could not get funding for all their AIDS treatment and medications, leaving him frustrated and eager to do something to help). People wonder whether Sharma is gay.
“It doesn’t bother me. It’s fine,” said Sharma, whom Levitt said frequently surprises him with his openness and acceptance. “When I was growing up, it was me and one black kid in my class. We were in a rural community. I have been in that other role of being judged. Even when I meet people, I’m kind of apprehensive about what they will think about me. As I’ve gotten older, I really don’t care.”
In fact, the two friends’ first interaction came when Sharma was at a drag show at Axis Night Club (Nina pointed him out from the stage and said M. Night Shyamalan was in the house). Gay bars have become a place for progressive straight people to meet, Sharma and Levitt agreed.
“I think 10 years ago, when I first started doing drag, [straight women going to a gay bar] was definitely a novelty. It was kind of taboo,” Levitt said. “Now it’s kind of like, ‘Hey look, we’re all here having a good time, I’m going to dance provocatively with a gay guy and it’s not going to go anywhere.’ Sure, it might get annoying. But if everyone steps back, there’s commentary here that [these women] only feel safe to dance like that in our bars.”
That change in outlook has allowed Nina West to become a local darling. Even Levitt will admit that his “success has been through the roof” with straight Columbus. He attributes it to the fact that Nina West is a lovable, fun personality. She makes people laugh, and that transcends sexual preference.
“It’s insane,” Levitt said of his surge of popularity. “I by no means want to be an authority or be the go-to for the gay community because I don’t think I represent what the gay community is fully, but I will say I take my responsibility within the straight community very seriously. I think I’m in a very unique position to change people’s perspective on what it is to be a drag queen and what it is to be gay.”
The heterosexual community is ripe for a sea change in perspective. A lot of acceptance has already taken place in Columbus, said Karla Rothan, executive director of Stonewall Columbus, the presenter of this weekend’s Pride festival.
She points to the festival itself as an example. The event costs about $206,000 to put on, and much of Pride’s financial backing comes from sponsorships of companies like Budweiser and Battelle.
“Those are straight allies at the heads of those companies who support us,” Rothan said.
The number of food vendors has doubled since last year’s event, and the accolades for the superiority of the festival over others in the Midwest just keep coming. This year’s Pride theme, “Allies and Equality,” is a testament to the role supportive heterosexuals play in creating change.
“The straight community has helped us in our fight for equality, to forge ahead and make a place for ourselves in Columbus,” Rothan said. “Times are changing very quickly.”
The reasons for that are multi-layered. Political and civic movements are the most tangible; Mayor Michael Coleman, the grand marshal of Saturday’s Pride parade, announced last week a proposal to create a domestic partner registry that would recognize lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered couples in the area. President Barack Obama’s proclamation that he supported gay marriage “changed our movement,” Rothan said.
There are also the less fact-based avenues through which straight-gay relationships are developing, like exposure to the LGBT community through social media, television and movies. Even the more tolerant way the media covers LGBT issues has profoundly affected the way LGBT people are treated in this country, Rothan said. (Columbus Dispatch archives from the 1970s and ’80s have plenty of examples, with Letters to the Editor that are particularly telling. One from 1988 had a headline reading “Gays Spoiled Visit to Capitol for Pennsylvania Family” and had this to say: “We were led to believe that Ohio was a wholesome Midwest state, but I found that it was nothing more than homosexuals openly showing that they can spread more AIDS whenever and wherever they choose.”)
Changes in the LGBT and straight communities’ relationship are happening quickly not just because of ideological or pop-cultural shifts, Rothan added. Often, it’s about what makes the most business sense.
Short North spirits store Europia sells more champagne and wine the weekend of Pride, Rothan said, than it does any other time of the year, including New Year’s Eve.
“There is a gay purchasing power, and our money is worth the same as anyone else’s,” Rothan said, adding that a quarter of every dollar spent in Columbus is spent by a member of the city’s LGBT community.
Taking care of business
That sentiment is not lost on big businesses in the area. As part of this year’s Pride, Stonewall is honoring 13 allies within the community. Nearly all represent and work for a company with a national or international reach — Budweiser, JPMorgan Chase, New York Life Insurance, Cardinal Health, Nationwide Insurance.
“The communities we live and work in are diverse. It makes business sense for us to be inclusive of all so we can do the right thing for our customers,” said Traci Dunn, inclusion and talent organizational effectiveness director of Huntington Bank and one of this year’s 13 honored allies. “We need to have people in our organization who understand all of our constituents.”
Last year the bank formed business resource groups for various minorities within the company (ie. people with disabilities, ethnic and racial minorities, lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered people). The groups are colleague-driven, and members discuss everything from how to improve policies internally to how to better serve customers with the same identity.
“When I hear feedback, it’s why I do what I do,” Dunn said. “It’s so exciting to see Huntington this open and this committed to the LGBT community. There are folks who weren’t being comfortable being out before because, well, you know, we’re a conservative bank.”
Dunn is especially appreciative of Huntington’s willingness to be inclusive; in the late 1990s, Dunn recalled, she worked at a company that tried to do something similar for its LGBT employees and customers. The reaction she received wasn’t as tolerant.
“I got voicemails from within the organization. I had people sending me Bibles with Scriptures quoted. It was certainly challenging, because people were looking at it just through one singular lens as opposed to looking at what was best for the company,” Dunn said. “The reason why we do inclusion at Huntington isn’t just to hold hands and sing ‘Kumbaya.’ It’s about a business imperative.”
That’s not always an easy point to get across in a corporate culture. Cardinal Health’s honored ally, Aida Sabo, vice president of diversity and inclusion, has worked on increasing diversity at three Fortune 500 companies over the past 12 years.
“The biggest obstacle has been the gaps in individuals’ understanding of and the ability to relate to the challenges that the LGBT confront in the pursuit of equality,” she said. “All our communities need allies. We all come from different backgrounds and cultures. Being an ally allows me to learn and also help spread the word to enlist more advocates, allies and friends. The fewer gaps we have between us, the more collaboration and inclusion we will have.”
And in business, the pursuit for equality can happen many ways. Harry Baucom, a gay man who has owned the West Side floral company Details! and Florabunda Designs since 1981, said that while he actively participates in promoting LGBT rights in his personal life, he doesn’t wear his sexuality on his sleeve while at work. The label, he said, shouldn’t matter.
“I find it extremely important to not wear ‘gay’ as a mantle for me doing a great job,” he said. “Being gay has nothing to do with the quality of your work. It’s simply that you do a great job and you happen to be gay.”
Be gay for a day
At this weekend’s Pride, Stonewall predicts more than 250,000 people will attend, and the allies in the crowd, Rothan said, are aplenty. Their presence and the continued dynamic relationship between straight and gay Columbus is one worth observing.
“It is the one time of year that we are all together,” Rothan said. “It is a very affirming time. Pride is inspiring and important.”