The History of Gay Rights in Columbus


I moved to Columbus, Ohio, in late 1975 from Indianapolis, where I was a Professor Law at the Indiana Indianapolis School of Law, to be a Visiting Professor at The Ohio State University College of Law.  On one level this was purely a professional experience, but, as I've explained in detail elsewhere on this blog (see Related Posts, below, particularly "The Aging Gay Rights Activist"), primarily what I was doing was leaving the straight world for a tentative step into the unknown world of someone who has finally figured out he is gay and is terrified by this leap off a very high cliff.

Douglas Whaley Moves to Columbus

The Reverend Jerry Falwell
For a few years I mainly explored the sexual adventures in this new (and very exciting) life, but then the budding activist in me took charge.  Fueled by anger at how homosexual men and women were then being treated, I looked for a venue in which I could make a difference.  By 1980, as it happened, things were hotting up on the local scene.  The Moral Majority (led by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, and which had the condemnation of homosexuality as a major component of its hatred) was trying to establish a presence in Columbus, and three brave men  (Craig Covey, Val Thogmartin, and Craig Huffman) and their partners and friends decided to protest Falwell's intrusion into our community.  Among the things these men resolved to do was start a gay rights organization in a city that had never had one.  They put up posters, erected tables in gay bars for signing-up, and called up all their allies for this purpose.  Walking into a gay bar in September of 1981, I saw such a table manned by the wonderful Val Thogmartin, signed my name to his proffered sheet, and the next thing I knew I was at the startup meetings for an organization then called "Stonewall Union" and now named "Stonewall Columbus."  [The "Stonewall" in the title refers to the June 1969 riots at the Stonewall Inn in New York City, which sparked the gay rights movement that is still going on as I type this; see]

New York Times, June 29, 1960
Much happened thereafter in Columbus, and looking back on late 1981 and the years that followed as we battled homophobia is a major threat.  In 2003 Stonewall Columbus asked me to make a presentation about the early history of the organization, and on June 12th of that year, at the Ohio State Law School (where by this time I was a longtime tenured Full Professor on the faculty), I gave my talk.  It was one hour and eighteen minutes long, and just this month (the 43rd anniversary of the Stonewall rights and the 30th anniversary of the first Columbus Gay Pride parade) I posted it on YouTube ("The History of Gay Rights in Columbus, Ohio").  Should you want to see all or part of it, the video can be found at:

I'm prejudiced, of course, but if you stick with it for ten minutes or so you'll be amazed at what follows: videos of the first march in 1982 (with 825 marchers—we know because we counted them!), the hatred of those who were astounded that Columbus might could be corrupted by this insanity, the 1984 battle at City Hall when the great Rhonda Rivera and her son took the podium to reduce all but the hardest of hearts to tears, and much, much more. 

When I think about that first march in June of 1982, or view the few tapes of it that still exist, I am much moved.  We were so scared!  Of what?  Well, first of all that no one would show up, that just the few people who constituted "Stonewall Union" would march through the streets of Columbus (say, thirty of us) to the jeers and taunts of the religious right, that the fledgling organization would die that very day for lack of support, that we were idiots for throwing ourselves against the high and sturdy wall of homophobia.  Terrified of these possibilities we plastered gay bars all over state with announcements of the parade, called in all the chips we had with friends, the media, the very few politicians who would say anything positive on our behalf, and then crossed our fingers, and with terror in our hearts went to the first march, gathering in Goodale Park.  The police reneged on their promise to honor our permit, but Rhonda talked them out of that (ever the lawyer, she threatened legal action).  When we stepped off, some of the marchers wore paper bags over their heads,  but they were there!  Our jaws dropped at the diversity of the crowd, and at their bravery.  An open gay and lesbian group from Yellow Springs, Ohio (which was the home of Antioch College, but a city of fewer than 3000 inhabitants) proudly marched with a banner that said "Yellow Springs Has Gays!"  The rally at the Statehouse was amazing, and by the time everything was over I walked home entranced by the greatest natural high I've ever experienced before or since.  It was a highlight of all of our lives. 

In 2001, the 20th anniversary of Stonewall Columbus's creation, I was one of the MCs at the rally in Bicentennial Park.  As I took to the microphone to begin the event, I looked out over the 100,000 people who had just marched, and was so choked up it took me a long time before I could welcome the crowd.  From 825 marchers to this! 

Rhonda Rivera
When Rhonda left the city years ago and moved to New Mexico, where she still lives, Stonewall Columbus threw her a major party and announced that thereafter the "Rhonda Rivera Human Rights Award" would be given annually in her name.  In 2003 I was suddenly given this award, and it was a shock.  It never occurred to any of us that there were awards in our future; we were busy trying to accomplish a daunting task: stop homophobia from killing the nascent gay rights movement in central Ohio.  I was also bothered by a long list of people, including the three organizers of Stonewall Union, who had not been so recognized.  But—what can I say?—of course I accepted the award, and it sits in my office right now, behind me on a shelf.  My five minute speech at the ceremony in which I sum up all that I think about the incredible events that had happened in Columbus between 1981 and 2003, follows: 


Related Posts:

“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013;
"The Aging Gay Rights Activist," March 24, 2010;
 “How I Lost a Gay Marriage Debate,” April 29, 2010
“How To Tell if You’re Gay,” August 31, 2010;
“The Thunderbolt,” September 3, 2010
“How To Change Gay People Into Straight People,” September 20, 2010;
"How Many Homosexuals Are There in the World?" November 8, 2010; "Choose To Be Gay, Choose To Be Straight," January 25, 2011;
"Coming Out: How To Tell People You're Gay," March 27, 2011;  “The Presumption of Heterosexuality and the Invisible Homosexual,” October 2, 2011;

“Disowning Your Gay Children,” October 9, 2013;
“What Should You Know About Gay History?” July 4, 2015;
"How To Cure Homophobia," July 30, 2015;
“Questions To Ask a Homophobe,” January 4, 2017;


  1. Thanks for doing what you did and do.

  2. I love the gay bar scene in Ohio. I am always going out and having the time of my life. Sometimes Gail comes in with me but most of the time she sleeps in the car. It is hard sneaking guys into the home. We usually go down into the basement and I start mixing drinks. Tony Klich Ohio


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