Columbiana County’s first Pride festival promises a place to be safe, have fun and feel seen in rural Ohio

A first Pride festival will be held in this overarchingly conservative county, where churches dominate the rural landscape.
Columbiana County

Joey Shilot does not hesitate in giving his opinion on Columbiana County in east central Ohio.  

“Yeah, it’s not great,” Shilot immediately sighs. 

And he would know. Shilot was born and raised in this overarchingly conservative county, where Republicans outnumber Democrats 3-to-1 and churches dominate the rural landscape. 

Still, Shilot is determined to carve out space for LGBTQ+ Ohioans living in Columbiana County. For the past few years, he’s been co-hosting drag fundraisers as his alter-ego, Ophelia Bottom. To date, these events have raised tens of thousands of dollars for local nonprofits, including the American Cancer Society and the Pawz Dog Rescue

Now, a group of entertainers and local nonprofit leaders are putting together the first-ever county-wide Pride festival for this Appalachian community to be held on July 15 in Wellsville.

The Buckeye Flame chatted with Shilot to learn more about this inaugural Pride and the region in general.  

For LGBTQ+ folks who have never stepped foot Columbiana County, what would you tell them?

Joey Shilot: Yeah, it’s not great. Homophobic mostly. As of right now, I don’t want to say “not safe,” but it’s definitely not very accepting.

Were you born and raised there?

Sure was.

What have things been like there for you?

Pretty rough. It’s very religious. Everybody is either Catholic or Christian or something. Religion is very pushed down your throat. Honestly, it actually feels Bible-belty here. You really can just feel it. 

My whole life I have grown up in the church. It was miserable for a while. Then I stopped caring and it just got a lot better.

How have you been able to find LGBTQ+ community in Columbiana County?

I really hadn’t for a very long time. We would drive to Youngstown or Pittsburgh or Cleveland even to find the closest community to us. That was what we did.

Then three years ago, me and a friend of mine started an organization to host drag shows in Wellsville here in Columbiana County. They’re called “Drag Me Through the Valley.” We kind of created our own little community. We were just going to do charity shows, but then we started to do shows in local bars as well.

In the last three years, we have raised $20,000 for local charities. We have shows once a month in Wellsville, which is insane because that has really never happened [before]. We’ve all just been working on it to create a safer community for us in our hometown so we don’t have to drive an hour-and-a-half to get some sense of community.

Joey Shilot as his alter-ego Ophelia Bottom

How did the idea for Pride come about?

We wanted to have a Pride event since we started those shows, but we never got around to it. Then last year, Kinsey Kandray from the Columbiana County Young Democrats reached out and wanted to set up a Pride, and we’re now working together to put it on.

What can folks expect at Pride?

Folks can expect fun, inclusivity and, honestly, a place to be safe and feel seen. A lot of people in Columbiana County who are queer do not feel safe.

That’s our biggest goal. Even if there are four people there, it will be worth it. As long as there is one person there who says, “I’m happy to have this in my town,” it will be worth it.

Anything else you want folks to know?

I want people to know that we just want to get our community in a safe space here because we don’t have one. That’s the only goal we have. Pride is going to be a fun day. We’re going to have a Kidz Bop drag show, and then we’re going to have an 18+ afterparty afterwards. That’s really it! 🔥

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