Cover Story: Fun with Gays and Lesbians

The closet couldn't possibly hold all this activity

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A Circle of Friends

Every Monday evening from April through Labor Day, Doug Wainscott puts on his tennis shoes and athletic wear, grabs his bat and catcher's mitt and hits the field in Miamitown, looking forward to working up a sweat with his softball team.

Like many people who participate in the great American summer pastime, Wainscott and his teammates like to swap jokes, drink a few beers and generally unwind from their stressful daily routines involving jobs or families.

"It's a good social gathering," Wainscott says. "Most people arrive before the first game begins at 6:30 and stay even after their team is done playing, past the final game around 10 o'clock. It's a fun time for everybody, the players and the spectators."

Included among the typical trash-talking about each other's abilities and the trading of news about friends, however, are inquiries about boyfriends or a comment about how cute a guy looks on the opposing team.

This isn't your father's softball team. Or then again maybe it is.

Wainscott is part of the River City Softball League, which features teams comprised mostly of gay men. The league is one of numerous social networking organizations and activities available to area gays and lesbians — some of which are well-known and others that are relatively obscure, even in their target demographic. Appropriately, they mirror the diversity of choices and interests represented in the heterosexual community, ranging from euchre and bowling leagues to choruses and from camping groups to movie-going excursions for film aficionados.

The activities provide opportunities for people who are tired of the bar and club scene or never liked it in the first place. For others, they are merely another option for meeting new people and having fun.

Setting the pace
That such options even exist in the conservative enclave of Greater Cincinnati often surprises people, both straight and gay.

This is the city, after all, that's known nationally for having the infamous Article 12 on its books throughout the 1990s, a law pushed by the religious right and passed by voters that prohibited local officials from passing any laws aimed at protecting gay and lesbian people from discrimination. The prohibition was the only one of its kind among U.S. cities.

Also, this is the area that's home to Citizens for Community Values (CCV), one of the most active opponents of gay rights in the nation. Among its dubious accomplishments, the group successfully lobbied for passage of an Ohio constitutional amendment in 2004 that banned gay marriage in the state. CCV also promotes an annual "Day of Truth" in U.S. high schools to counter what it calls pro-homosexual propaganda to teenagers about "destructive lifestyles."

Although nearly two decades have passed, many people still associate Cincinnati with the obscenity charges filed against the Contemporary Arts Center in 1990 for exhibiting artist Robert Mapplethorpe's homoerotic photography.

But Cincinnati is changing.

City voters repealed Article 12 three years ago by a comfortable 54-46 percent margin after a broad campaign in which the mayor, local Catholic archbishop and area CEOs of Fortune 500 companies lent their support. A petition effort by CCV last year to revive Article 12 couldn't even muster enough voter signatures to make it on the ballot. And let's not forget that, despite the outrage proclaimed by local prosecutors, a jury acquitted the museum of all charges in the Mapplethorpe case.

As Cincinnati and the region gradually become more diverse, attitudes toward its gay and lesbian residents have softened. Still, even among many gay visitors from other Midwestern cities such as Columbus and Indianapolis, Cincinnati retains a reputation — deserved or not — for having a fractured and not very active gay community that largely avoids the public eye.

Still, just as the toughest plants will find a way to grow in harsh climates, the Queen City's gay and lesbian subculture is thriving in some unlikely places.

Jamie Markle, 38, of Northside usually meets three times a week with his friends in the Cincinnati chapter of Front Runners (, a running and walking club for gays, lesbians and their supportive straight friends. For Markle, the time is a way to get exercise while also making connections with different people.

"It doesn't cost anything to have a nice, leisurely walk," Markle says. "We have all shapes and sizes in our group. There's no pressure to be beautiful or impress anyone."

Formed in 1992, the local group has been a consistent presence in Cincinnati's gay community. Runs begin on Tuesday evenings in Mount Storm Park and on Thursday evenings in Eden Park. But its most popular activity is the Saturday morning trek, which begins at Spring Grove Cemetery and is followed by a communal breakfast at local restaurants. The friendships spill over, too, with members often holding pasta and DVD nights at their homes.

About 50 people participate in the local chapter, with members ranging in age from the late 20s to the early 50s. Some run, others walk, and the atmosphere is low-key and inviting.

"Usually we have a couple of different paces, so there's two groups," Markle says. "This isn't about competition."

Two kinds of pitch
The River City Softball League ( also begins its season with non-competitive, round-robin style play involving all 12 teams in the league, then splits into a competitive division and a recreational division in early summer to accommodate more aggressive players.

"Some of our players are really good, and some have never played sports before," says Wainscott, who also is league commissioner. "We try to accommodate everybody. If teams need players, we'll add anyone who wants to join in."

The league, which has existed for about 15 years, has both male and female players, although teams don't need to be co-ed to participate. Although it's aimed primarily at gays and lesbians, some straight players also play who just enjoy softball or have friends in the league.

Three years ago the league reorganized and established a board to begin an expansion. Now more than 300 people are involved at the Riverfront West sports complex.

"You can't even find a place to park most nights," Wainscott says.

For the less athletically inclined, other options abound.

One of the longest-running local groups is Muse (, a progressive women's choir formed in 1984 to promote musical excellence and social change. The feminist-oriented group's members include lesbians and straight women of various ages, races, and ethnicities.

"We are a very diverse group," says Catherine Roma, the choir's artistic director. "In Cincinnati, we feel that's important. We want to reflect the lesbian and heterosexual audience we perform for."

Muse has a singing contingent of about 60 people and another group, nicknamed "the fifth section," of volunteers that help with administrative tasks. The choir's membership includes women whose ages range from the early 20s to 70-plus, and about one-fourth are women of color.

Muse commissions and seeks out music composed by women or musical pieces written specifically to enhance the sound of women's voices, focusing on songs that honor the enduring spirit of all peoples, Roma says. One of the choir's projects is New Spirituals, which involves the commissioning of new works by African-American musical artists in alternating years.

The choir typically performs about 20 to 25 concerts per season in different venues. Some past performances were held at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, in Cincinnati City Council chambers and at Fountain Square to protest the placement of a Ku Klux Klan cross there.

Muse's male counterpart might be the Cincinnati Men's Chorus (, a group that is celebrating its 16th season this year. The chorus is a not-for-profit group that strives to promote inclusion and harmony between the gay community and the general public — and to get toes tapping while doing so. Cincinnati Men's Chorus (CMC) usually performs three major subscriber concerts each year, based around different themes such as Tidings of Pride and Joy. Also, it performs at fund-raisers such as one earlier this month for AIDS Volunteers of Cincinnati, held at the Freedom Center.

CMC holds annual auditions, but participants don't have to be the next Tony Bennett or Hugh Jackman to join.

"It's mostly to decide on vocal placement and make sure you can carry a pitch," says Brian Reynolds, president of the chorus' board of directors.

Bears and queens
Reynolds, 29, of Mount Washington also is involved with another group of more recent vintage. Earlier this year, he formed the Cincinnati Movie Bears (, a group that meets monthly at local cinemas to watch a film selected by members, preceded by dinner at a restaurant. The group is modeled after similar ones that are common in larger cities like Chicago and New York.

For the uninitiated, a "bear" is gay lingo for a certain type of man, usually either hairy or stocky or both. But the movie group is actually open to all people.

"We describe it as for bears, their admirers and friends," he says. "It's for whoever wants to go. Almost everybody likes movies. It's just one more outlet for people to do something fun together and go out. I'm not into the bar scene much, and I have friends who don't like it at all, so we were looking for something else we could do as a group."

People seeking a more flamboyant time while also looking for a way to support local charities might want to head to one of the drag shows staged by the Imperial Sovereign Queen City Court of the Buckeye Empire of All Ohio — or simply "the Court" to its followers.

The Court is the Ohio branch ( of a community service organization that has chapters throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico and the United Kingdom. Initially starting as a bit of camp fun in San Francisco in 1965, the organization quickly grew into a fund-raising mechanism for charities.

Cincinnati's chapter formed in 1989. It hosts drag shows at area bars, clubs and other venues in which all of the tips to performers, as well as proceeds from raffles and the sell of Jell-O shots, benefit charities for HIV and AIDS awareness, breast cancer and other causes. In May, the Court raised $8,000 at one event alone.

"Everything we do, we give 100 percent to charity," says Michael Cotrell. "We don't keep anything ourselves."

Cotrell, 35, of downtown, performs at Court events under his drag name, Brooklyn Steele-Tate. ("You never ask a lady her age," he cracks, while being interviewed.) He is the group's "reigning empress," one of several regal offices voted on by members at its freewheeling, raucous annual dinner. Those elected to the offices must devise their own distinctive sub-titles; Cotrell's is "the Green-Eyed Forked Tongue Chameleon Empress of Class, Sass and Whipping Some Ass."

The Queen City event typically holds about two drag benefits each month. Although the group's unofficial homes are Shooter's and On Broadway, two local gay bars, it also performs regularly at straight establishments. That open-mindedness is one of the group's strengths and a key to its success, Cotrell says.

"The stuff we do — people are more accepting because it's for charity, not just entertainment," he says.

He recalls the warm reception that a recent Court drag show received at a straight bar near Miami University in Oxford.

"When it's for a good cause, I think we somehow come across as less threatening to some people," Cotrell says. "We have a lot of spillover with straight crowds. They see we're not so freaky. It's all about illusion, having fun and raising a bunch of money."

'Gay life is good'
Meanwhile, people afraid of sequins and makeup and who prefer to work on their tans can play in a sand volleyball league every summer on the outdoor courts at The Dock nightclub on Pete Rose Way. The league is recreational and features eight teams. Its cold weather alternative is the indoor league held between September and April, through the Cincinnati Recreation Commission. It features 16 teams and is more competitive.

Jim Ochs, 36, of Dent, a volleyball enthusiast who belongs to both leagues, says the winter version is the second-largest volleyball league in the recreation commission's system.

"It's really taken off and grown in recent years," Ochs says.

Other local groups include Dykes on Bikes, a contingent of lesbian motorcycle enthusiasts; and the River Bears, a burly all-male group that holds camping and canoeing outings.

Greater Cincinnati also boasts two gay bowling leagues — one that meets Sunday afternoons at King Pin Lanes in Anderson Township, the other on Thursday nights at Bellewood Super Bowl in Bellevue, Ky. — and a euchre group that floats among different bars.

With such a plethora of gay-themed activities available, opinions differ about why Cincinnati cannot shake its reputation as a city that's not friendly to gays and lesbians and about why its gay community seems somewhat apathetic compared to its seemingly more vibrant counterparts in Columbus, Dayton and Indianapolis.

"As a general rule, Cincinnati tends to struggle in the gay community about being united," says Ochs, a native who returned here in 1997 after living for several years in Arizona. "It tends to be very cliquey. I think part of it is the political climate here. It's difficult to be extraordinarily open here and do what you want with who you want. You will run into some opposition."

Cotrell agrees.

"We're kind of low on the spectrum of gay outlets and gay life," he says. "It's a conservative atmosphere."

Cincinnati might still be coming to grips with its changing identity, Roma says. Born and raised in Philadelphia, she came here in the 1980s to complete her doctorate studies at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music and stayed.

"It's smaller and doesn't feel comfortable with itself," says Roma, 59, of Northside. "I think it has to do with the climate of the city and not the individuals themselves. We have a strong fundamentalist streak here, and a lot of people choose to stay in the closet. That's not necessarily helpful to who we want to be."

The few statistics that exist on the topic bear out the assumption. For example, Greater Cincinnati ranks near the bottom of metropolitan areas with populations of more than one million people for the percentage of same-sex couples that live together, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. The region has 0.77 percent — with only Pittsburgh, Buffalo, N.Y. and Grand Rapids, Mich., ranking lower.

By comparison, Columbus had 1.2 percent, Indianapolis had 0.98 percent and Louisville had 0.92 percent. In fact, recently ranked Columbus among the top 10 under-rated gay friendly cities in the United States.

U.S. Census data indicates that about 3 percent of the nation's population is gay or lesbian; if the figures are accurate, that means there are about 60,000 living in the Tristate region — although it's often hard to tell.

The city's size has one advantage, Roma says.

"It generates a close-knit feeling," she says. "There's the potential here to be closer together."

Markle believes Cincinnati's insular spirit is partly to blame. This is a city where grown men and women frequently ask each other where they went to high school when meeting for the first time.

"The people who live here and grew up here tend to stay in touch with their families or their high school friends and don't join these groups or become active in the community," Markle says. "They already have their support systems. It's usually people from out of town that move here who become involved."

Patrick Baxter, 39, a graphic designer who moved from Indianapolis to East Walnut Hills last winter for a job, says finding your niche in Cincinnati can be more difficult than in other cities, but it can be done if a person is willing to make the extra effort. In his case, he's developed a group of friends centered around attending art hops in Over-the-Rhine, Pendleton and Covington.

"Gay life is good," Baxter says smirking, with cocktail in hand. "The architectural diversity in this city overwhelms our aesthetic senses and compels us to crawl around with contemporary art spinners."

Some gays and lesbians who are longtime Cincinnatians say there's no other place they would like to be. Living in the Queen City and learning to love it, they add, is similar to making any long-term relationship work — you appreciate the positive attributes, work to change some flaws and overlook the ones you can't. ©

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