by Kevin Williams
Virginia West— Columbus’ drag matriarch— and many artists associated with the “West Family” have long wanted a space that was centered for performers and by performers. For years now, there has been rumblings and rumors of a forthcoming venue, maybe headed up by Virginia herself, maybe someone else. Well, in 2020, that space is finally here.
But the timing though, right?
COVID-19 has put a big hold on nightlife: last call is at 10 PM and Ohio bars have to empty the establishment by 11 PM. Also, social distancing means that patrons have to stay seated, six feet away from others, and can’t mingle as they once could.
It has definitely taken some adjustment.
But despite the curves and challenges that 2020 has thrown at all of us, drag has persisted. Drag performers have done their best to roll with the punches. Oh, the club is closed? No matter, many queens, kings, and other performers decided to take their talents online. Is it too risky to perform indoors? Ok, let’s have an outdoor, socially-distanced show. Can’t hand out paper money directly to the performers? Alright, well here’s my Venmo account.
Although COVID regulations have put a damper on what we can and cannot do, what is safe and what is not , many of us have found ways to support our drag performers. Despite the hellscape that is 2020, we’ve shown up for drag.
And now District West is showing up for Columbus.
Officially opened in late September, District West has already put forth a range of shows, all of them polished and choreographed to the gods. Located on Long Street in downtown Columbus—behind longstanding lesbian bar, Slammers—the interior is chic and performer-focused. A large stage sits in the center of the space, flanked with tables facing the performance area.
In the far corner, there’s a bar staffed with some familiar faces from other bars that unfortunately haven’t been able to weather the effects COVID has had on their business. Because of social distancing requirements, capacity is limited, so seating is done on a reservation-only basis. You’ve got to act quickly as the first few weeks of performances have been booked solid.
A friend of mine had a spare seat available at his table the other night, so I accompanied him to check out the space.
Like many gay bars, the drinks are strong and the service is fast and friendly. Having spent most of the past six months inside, cut off from gay nightlife, I did not realize how much of a relief it was to be here. I almost felt normal. The energy in the air was overwhelmingly positive, the room was full of smiling faces, entranced to finally enjoy a show without any intrusion the chaos of the outside world.
You’ll take notice right away that the shows are very inclusive. Criticism has routinely been hurled at the drag community and those booking shows for heavily—if not outright exclusively—focusing on cisgender white male drag queens. But at District West, clear efforts have been made to feature a spectrum of performers. On stage, you’ll see artists of all shapes and sizes: drag queens, drag kings, drag performers, and people of different backgrounds, races, and gender presentations. Each performer has their place, with none of them taking up space or haphazardly thrown into the show without consideration. The bar really is “by performers” and “for performers.”
On Sundays, drag queen Anisa Love has imported a new version of the now-defunct “Church” to District West. This new event, called “Revival”, features 90’s-era R&B jams, paired with a male revue. Church, which had been a classic staple at Axis, sees a new life at District West. Other bars, such as Daddy’s, located on the south end of Columbus, have taken to live-streaming some performances from District West as a sort of overflow. District West clearly aims to support other bars, not tear them down, especially not now.
No one really knows what the future holds — either with COVID, or the 2020 election, or the economy. But, despite everything, District West is managing to entertain us and uplift performers. For that, I see why people show up — and why we’ve got to continue to support our LGBTQ+ spaces.
- Support local businesses as much as you are able.
- Wear a mask.
Kevin Williams is a gay writer and journalist, Ohio State Alumni, and originally from Akron. Now Columbus based, he writes and reports on structural inequality, especially concerning BIPOC. Follow him on Twitter at @GaytonaUSA.