Notes on living and moving as an out queer person in the Rust Belt
By Harmony Cox
It’s time for me to move.
About five years ago, in 2014, my now-ex-husband and I moved together to Clintonville, a hippie-yuppie enclave in Columbus, Ohio where people pretend to be bohemians while they run yoga retreats in the backyards of $500,000 homes. We rented a place in an old brick building covered in ivy, with old hardwood floors and beautiful built-in wood cabinets. The landlord welcomed us easily, saying he was happy to fill the spot with another batch of newlyweds and that this apartment is usually the last stop for a couple before they purchase a home. I filled the place with heavy wooden furniture, beautiful oak desks, and a large vintage sectional couch. I purchased anchor after anchor, believing they would hold us fast.
I didn’t know then that, over the next three years, I would realize I was gay, come out of the closet, and ask my best friend in the world for a divorce. I didn’t know the beautiful ivy on the sides of the building was growing out of the plumbing beneath the house, choking its exhalations; that the landlord thought we were a good Christian couple due to the Adam and Eve art I hung in our hallway (a tapestry that was made by a religious relative I loved but to which I had no particular spiritual attachment); that he would grow increasingly hostile upon learning that my husband moved out. I didn’t know that all the heavy wooden furniture I had purchased to keep forever would end up on Facebook marketplace, priced to move, until we ran out of time to sell it and had to pay someone to haul the good stuff to the furniture bank and the broken stuff to the dump.
In all fairness, it took me until I was in my mid-thirties to realize I’m a dyke. Sometimes you miss stuff.
Either way, I know I’ll never feel okay in this house, with this landlord. I need to find a place where I can start over. I sit and imagine what a safe place would feel like for me, as a single queer person. I think about where I know queer people live in my city. I imagine a small, clean, sunlit space with a cat tree in the window and room to hang my first pride flag off the front porch or balcony. I begin to search.
Finding housing in Columbus is no easy task. Since 2015, the city has seen one of the most rapid population booms in the history of Ohio, paired with a rapidly-inflating housing market. I try my luck with a neighborhood I’ve always enjoyed walking through, German Village—a historic community with massive, beautiful homes and old-world architecture alongside factory buildings that are rapidly being remodeled into condos. Many of the roads are still paved with brick, and the houses on those tiny brick streets are cute, single-story cottages that will set you back about a million bucks.
Renting is supposedly easier than buying in this neighborhood, but my first viewing is a nightmarish experience. The rental agent who shows me around looks like a sweaty car salesman character from a bad 80s comedy. The “classic” molding is covered with peeling paint that flakes to the floor as I walk by. The front window is broken and fixed with duct tape. The back window is also broken, but apparently not a maintenance priority. The back door has clearly been kicked open. The frame is busted up, the door bent inward like a boomerang. I ask the agent about this and he says he fixed the lock. Reassuring!
I ask if there is a washer/dryer in the unit. He opens another door leading into the basement. I go down a few steps and see the dark trails of mold dripping to the floor, the cracks in the cement walls, and a gigantic ginger fellow clad only in his boxers and a Make America Great Again hat shoving some pants into an ancient washing machine. The rental agent slams the door behind me.
The man at the washing machine looks me up and down. Suddenly, I see myself through his eyes: a short, fat, dyke-y lady in rainbow glasses and a “Black Lives Fucking Matter” t-shirt. I panic, turn around, hurry back up the steps, and let the agent have it.
Later, when I tell friends about this event, the reactions are mixed. The women and non-binary people I know agree it was terrifying. The men ask why I’m so sure this large fellow in a Trump hat represented a threat to my safety. I didn’t quite have the language to explain. It was dirty, sure, and being trapped in a dark underground space with a large man I do not know is never a scenario that fills me with confidence. But looking back, it was absolutely the Trump hat.
I should not have been surprised that I’d have a Trump-supporting neighbor in German Village. It is a popular and comforting fiction in my urban city that Trump’s wins in Ohio were powered by rural voters. And it’s true in a sense—he won those rural votes by a great majority. However, the exit polls from the election indicate that there are plenty of Trump voters in Ohio’s suburbs and big urban cities as well. It isn’t even an economic insecurity issue, as Trump dominated among middle class and affluent voters alike. In fact, those from lower-income households in Ohio were actually more likely to cast their vote for Biden. The only truly powerful predictors for a Trump vote in Ohio are that it usually comes from a white, conservative Christian.
Some people who live in Columbus like to tell themselves that they are somehow insulated from Trump voters and the specter of violence they represent. It’s an easy thing to believe on the streets of German Village, when you’re surrounded by pour-over coffee shops and bookstores. It’s less easy to believe when you’re in the basement of an apartment you’re hoping to rent, and you’re wondering if a man wearing a red hat is going to realize you’re gay and try to start some shit. But I didn’t know how to explain that feeling then. I learned later on.
I know right away when I find the apartment for me. It’s catty-corner to a tiny old-fashioned grocery store, with a huge, airy wooden front porch and big windows that let in a lot of sunlight. And while it doesn’t have a ton of space, I like that the layout gives me a big living room and lots of storage in the bedroom. I walk through it with a notebook and sketch out where I’d place a couch, a cat tree, a bookshelf. I imagine sitting on the porch and drinking a michelada and staring out at the winking lights of Downtown, just barely visible over the two-story homes to the east.
The place is also in German Village, but it feels fresh and new in a way I am desperate to experience. It feels like a place I could start over. I hand a deposit check to the super on the way out the door and tell him to go ahead and shred it if my credit isn’t up to snuff, but otherwise I’ll take it. He cashes it the next day. I move in June 15th. I am home.
It’s my first Pride month in my new apartment, and I am intent on celebrating by putting up a Pride flag. I send an email to the super asking if I can hang one from the porch. His reply is a disappointment: residents aren’t allowed to hang anything from the porch railings because we might damage the wood. I could hang it in the front window, but I don’t want to block the light.
Then I have an idea: the large window in the front door is covered by a big IKEA blind, the individual slats of which could surely be transformed into a rainbow. So I buy a set of colorful tapes from a craft store and spend an evening creating a rainbow of blinds. After I finish the flag and put the slats back in place, I slip on some flip flops and turn on the porch light, then step outside to admire my creation. Light from inside the apartment bounces off the tape, making the flag look like a queer beacon from the sidewalk.
In the coming months, I use the flag on my front door as a landmark for visitors. When I have to take a Lyft home from my first Pride dance party because I’m too drunk to contemplate a bus, I ask them to park in front of the house with the flag. Friends pop by because they recognize the flag from Instagram, and we sit on the porch and order pizza and drink beers and watch the sun dip down into the trees.
I’m living as a single queer person for the first time, and I’m so glad I get to do it in German Village. I walk from my apartment to Bake Me Happy, a queer-owned bakery, and develop a dependency on the Oatmeal Dream cookies and wicked lavender cold brew. I walk to my favorite indie bookstore and café, Two Dollar Radio, multiple times a week, parking in their front window with a laptop while I beat various essays into submission. Eventually they carry my gay-stuff zine there, and a few of the staff begin to recognize me. I nearly feel famous. I sloppily make out with girls in front of my new neighborhood bar, Wunderbar, an old Max and Erma’s that has been turned into a hipster bar serving good Polish food and killer french fries and stiff cocktails until 2 a.m. every night. On weekends, I take the bus to a drag show or happy hour at Slammers, or the queer book club that meets downtown.
Every time I walk up my front steps and see the flag I made, I remember I am making this queer space mine. It feels so good, for once, to be home.
I first consider the idea that my neighbors in German Village could be homophobic when I learn of an effort by the German Village Association to get drag shows banned from Wunderbar. I am crushed. The idea that my bar is endangered is worrying to me, and that the neighbors are targeting it because of queer art makes it worse.
The pearl-clutching campaign hinges on an alleged code violation, a decades-old provision in city code classifying Wunderbar as a “cabaret” for serving alcohol and live music within walking distance of a school. The German Village Association puts out an explanation that is so out of touch it’s nearly a parody. A particular sentence infuriates me: “The German Village Society stands proudly on the shoulders of Columbus LGBTQ+ trailblazers Fred Holdridge and Howard Burns, who built our historic district and our organization to create what they lovingly referred to as Columbus’ first ‘Gayborhood’—a safe place for the LGBTQ+ community to live, work and play.”
Fred and Howard were well-known activists for both the arts community and the revitalization of German Village back in the 80s and 90s. They owned a wine and souvenir shop, Hausfrau Heaven, near Wunderbar, which also functioned as a ticket office for the Contemporary American Theater Company (CATCO). Fred himself was quoted as saying: “We had a paintbrush in one hand and a script in the other… [w]e enjoyed the arts and knew they needed our support.”
It seems ugly to me that the German Village Society would invoke the names of renowned gay patrons of the arts to shut down a drag show, but it is also sadly predictable. Ironically, the presence of those first gay pioneers made German Village desirable enough that the current generation of queer folks aren’t respectable enough to hang.
When I speak to straight people in my life about this, they are quick to point out that there are plenty of reasons families might not want to live next to a bar that does shows. The noise, perhaps, or the late-night disturbances. When I mention the code violation was sought only after the drag show began, it is dispensed as a matter of timing. People hem and haw about city codes and enforcement. Have I read the letter from the German Village Society about it? They ask. It’s quite good.
This is my first formal introduction to the catch-22 that has come to define my life as a queer person in our current political era: I feel like I am increasingly surrounded by homophobes, though I am always required to give people the benefit of the doubt, even when their homophobia seems fairly obvious. This frustrates me, because nobody seems to expect the homophobes I deal with to respond in kind. For example: when I got yelled at in a German Village coffee house for exiting “the wrong bathroom”, the person who did that didn’t stop to check in with me about my intentions. They just pointed at me and yelled “WRONG BATHROOM!”, like they were the sovereign of the toilets.
Maybe they were genuinely confused, or maybe they just wanted to embarrass me. Either way, it sucked, and made me feel scared and small. If that isn’t homophobia, what exactly is? I suppose it could actually be transphobia, or some mix of the two, but I am unwilling to do mental gymnastics on the part of someone who is trying to make me feel bad about myself. I just want to call homophobic things homophobic and move on with my day. The polite shit takes too long.
Unfortunately for me, the polite homophobes usually win. In this case, Wunderbar is informed by the city of Columbus that their live shows must end. So Wunderbar has to pull the plug on their live entertainment, and we all have to say goodbye.
I go to the final drag show at Wunderbar. Matriarch Mess, a beautiful bearded creature and a hell of an MC, marches us through the festivities and shakes us down for tips. There is a visiting performer from Chicago who does a terrifying dance with a defibrillator. There are local Drag Race-style death droppers who make us scream, and black genderfuck drag artists dancing to “Mississippi Goddamn” up and down the aisle of the crowded stage. The room is full of cheering queers, beautiful monsters in rainbow and glitter and denim vests who’ve come to shower their departing heroes in money and love. We throw dollars like confetti and they still deserve more than we ever could give them.
At one point, I go outside into the February cold to see if I can figure out why the neighbors were so offended. I couldn’t hear anything from outside. To be offended by the show, you would have to be standing where I was, staring in. Was that what the neighbors had done before they lodged their complaints, I wonder. Were they jealous? Scared? Disgusted? Did the NIMBYs in my neighborhood mean to close a small business because of their objection to queer art in their backyards? Does it even matter?
After the show, I walk home from Wunderbar, as I have so many times before. But this time, it feels different. The back of my neck prickles as I walk past lit-up windows. Are these the people who had complained to the city? I think about my appearance again. I am a three hundred-pound butch in a leather jacket. If you see me, you remember it. Am I welcome here, I wonder, or just tolerated—that is until I take up enough space that the straight-laced homeowners don’t want me anymore?
When I get home and see my homemade pride flag in my window, I wonder for the first time if my neighbors have seen it. I wonder if the guy in the Trump hat still lives around the corner. I feel unsettled and afraid.
It’s technically my second Pride Month in German Village, though Pride events have been cancelled along with everything else thanks to the pandemic. But most of the queer people I know are still out in the streets. That’s because George Floyd was murdered by the state. A man in Columbus went out to protest his death and was brutalized by the Columbus Police Department. Black activists called people to counterprotest, and suddenly the streets were swelling with righteous anger.
They call us “rioters,” but as far as I can see, nothing gets violent until the cops show up. There’s chanting, but it’s peaceful. People handing water bottles to each other, sharing extra masks, helping each other make signs. Then the bike cops show up and start biking down rows of people, blasting them in the face with pepper spray. Then come bean bag grenades, tear gas, camouflage humvees rolling past the boarded-up statehouse. I’ve never seen that kind of state-sponsored brutality. My queer friends tell me to be strong, chant loud, but hang back. They warn me it won’t be safe for me if I find myself in custody. They tell me stories about what has happened to them once police realize they are queer or trans, and encourage me to avoid it if I can. I wish I didn’t believe these things still happened, but I know they do.
I find it all difficult to process. I’ve participated in marches before, and I’ve always been privileged enough to believe that I could simply fight the charges if it came to that. But now I have a different reason to be afraid, one I cannot contest in a courtroom or clear up with the intervention of a lawyer. I have no idea how to balance living my values with my creeping anxiety about my new identity. And yet, I am all-too-aware of the sacrifices Black activists and activists of color have made for my safety and freedom. I am also aware of the more recent ways that the white queer community in Columbus has failed Black queer and trans activists, and I want to do better by my community than that. If the Black community in Columbus asks me to show up now, who the hell am I to stay home?
There’s a message being passed around by friends on Instagram. It’s from a reliable source, and it’s warning LGBTQ folks about increased activity from the Proud Boys and the Boogs and god knows who else on Inauguration Day. There have been several credible threats against trans people in the city and chatter about threats against the rest of us as well. We’re advised to avoid downtown, not to travel alone, and to check in on each other as much as we can.
The minute I see the message, I look to my front door and I see the Pride flag. A shiver crawls up my spine as I realize it’s been up for over a year, visible to anyone who wants to hurt a queer person for fun. It was a beacon for me and my queer friends over the last two years, but who is it calling to now?
I text a few queer friends and ask if I’m being too dramatic. They assure me I am not. Ohio is the number two state in the nation for violent anti-government activity. I live alone. I don’t know if my neighbors would help me if anything went wrong. At one time in my life, I could have taken that for granted, but not anymore.
I spend days waiting to hear my door shatter. I imagine it over and over again: the tinkling sound of glass hitting my beloved hardwood floors, the sight of my rainbow blinds being knocked asunder by the impact. I imagine feet in heavy boots stepping over the broken glass, hands in gloves knocking the larger shards away. And then I stop myself from imagining anything else.
I spend three days agonizing over what to do. Then I decide I don’t have a choice. I take each rainbow-colored slat down from my door, one by one. I do not hesitate, but move surgically and unemotionally, like I am removing teeth from an anesthetized mouth. I keep my mind carefully blank, willing my anxiety and nausea back as I work. I swap in a white slat every time I take a colorful one out. Slowly, a discarded rainbow collects on the floor by my feet. When I finish, I sit down and cry.
I do not know when I will put my flag back up. The sad fact is that I simply do not feel safe right now, and I have no idea when I will feel safe again. Four in ten Republicans agree that they will defend their “disappearing way of life” with violence. Many Trump voters in Columbus live in a neighborhood like mine. For all I know, the Trump fan I was trapped in the basement with a year ago never left.
Should I risk my window? Should I risk my safety? Should I risk my life?
It’s time for me to move again.
German Village is looking awfully different these days, at least the part I live in. The massive old homes are relatively unchanged, save a colorful new handful of “We Support Essential Workers!” yard signs. There are still brick streets full of million-dollar cottages. The bookstores and pour-over coffee places have hung in there too, though Wunderbar is long-deceased. We also lost the coffee shop where I got yelled at by a homophobe, so I guess there’s a silver lining to everything.
There isn’t a silver lining for everyone, of course. “For Rent” signs are becoming more and more commonplace as eviction courts start their work of displacing the impoverished. There’s supposedly a federal moratorium on evictions, but everyone knows a bad landlord will throw your clothes and furniture out into the street today if they want to and take it to court later if they have to. I will not be surprised if I am the only renter left by the end of the summer.
The grocery store across the street from me is officially closed, and the windows have been boarded up with plywood to protect the bare shelves from passers-by. It was purchased by a developer who is going to tear it down, of course. Staring out my window at the depressing shell is a bummer, but that’s nothing compared to the misery I will endure if I stick around here long enough for construction to begin. The new building will be five stories high and have a Whole Foods in the basement. The German Village Society is fighting this, too, but given the way development works in this city, I don’t think they’re going to be quite as successful this time. Too bad they’re fighting a multi-million-dollar community development cooperation instead of a handful of queer artists scraping by on tips. We know who can afford a lawyer around here.
I moved here to be queer, to be loud and gay and live out loud for the first time. And I managed to do it, for a while. But now it’s time to move on. Hopefully to a new neighborhood, where I can hang my Pride flag up once more. It’s hard to say what will feel safe for me, though. It’s hard to say what will ever feel safe again. Somewhere in the back of my head I’m always going to be trapped in a basement with someone who most likely wants to kick my ass.
Maybe I’ll get used to it someday. Maybe not. ■
Harmony Cox is a queer Midwestern essayist, humorist and storyteller. Her work has appeared in publications such as Catapult, Electric Literature, and Sweeter Voices Still: An LGBTQ Anthology from Middle America, available from Belt Publishing. Find more of her work at harmonycox.com.
Cover image courtesy Harmony Cox.
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