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Columbus Activists Protest Mike Pence With 'Big LGBTQ Dance Party'

With Columbus Pride weekend in full swing, a "big LGBTQ dance party" might seem like an ordinary sight. But the party that took over Gay Street on Friday had one specific guest in mind: Vice President Mike Pence.

Pence was booked for an event Friday afternoon at the Columbus Renaissance hotel to talk about the GOP's federal tax overhaul. His apperance struck a sour chord with many organizers in Columbus, who criticized the Republican's stances on same-sex marriage and LGBT rights.

"We were shocked when we were saw he was coming during Columbus Pride given who he is and his record, and how the community feels about that record," said Seth Bringman, one of the party's organizers. "We just said, what can we do to respond? Given that it's Pride, what would be the appropriate response?"

Instead of an ordinary protest, LGBT activists opted instead to greet the former Indiana governor with drag queens, Pride flags and a whole lot of DJs. Even "Mike Hot Pence," a dopplegangerwho raises money for LGBTQ youth, showed up, travelingfrom New York on an overnight bus. "Crushing hate with joy," one attendee phrased it on Twitter.

"There's a lot of nerve to come here for some anti-LGBT shenanigans during Pride," said Nate Price. "So I figured we might as well protest and do it in the gayest way possible."

Bringman says organizers want to send a message that Columbus supports LGBTQ rights, even if Pence himself doesn't. Price shared that desire to make a statement.

"It's just kind of showing, hey, we can protest without there being hate, with it just being a very positive experience," Price said.

Jay Smith, another organizer of the event, said they hoped a party would carry their message further than a conventional protest.

"Honestly, I would like to invite Mike Pence to come and meet with us so we can have an honest discussion about the issues we have, and hopefully change his heart and mind," Smith said. That is what I would like to do."

Columbus Pride, one of the largest such events in the Midwest, kicked off its festival on Friday with a parade planned for Saturday. For some, Pence's appearance was somewhat apt.

"It just goes back to the original meaning of Pride and Stonewall, it's protesting," said attendee Zac Branstool. "If anything, I feel like he's given us an opportunity to go back to that spirit of protest and being proud of ourselves."

The party drew all types. Mitch and Mario Lowery told WOSU's Nick Evans that they identify as Christians and don't appreciate Pence's use of religion against the LGBTQ community. Meanwhile, John Mark Reddish came to show solidarity with people of "all walks of color, faith, religion, creed, whatever."

"We're showing them a little bit of love," Reddish said. "We're also protesting a little bit, saying, 'Hey, remember us, we're people here too in this great United States who need to be heard, not squashed.'" 

Attendees held up signs that ranged from confrontational ("Pence: Your Treatment Of Children Is Immoral") to affirmational ("Respect Our Existence Or Expect Our Resistance"). A handful of pro-Pence protesters also showed up with signs of their own, such as "Stop Hating Pence" and "Jesus Said: 'Go And Sin No More.'"

Some protests reached inside the Renaissance hotel, where Pence arrived shortly before 5 p.m. Though the event, hosted by the pro-Trump group America First Policies, was billed as about GOP tax policies, Pence's speech started off with on the president's meeting with North Korea and touched on immigration policies.

With Ohio in the middle of a busy midterm election season, Pence spent some time praising U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci, who's challenging Democratic incumbent Sherrod Brown for his Senate seat, as well as Brown's Republican colleague, Sen. Rob Portman.

"I've been telling people I've been a fan of Jim Renacci before it was cool," Pence said.

Several attendees wereremoved by police during and before the event, often drowning out the vice president's remarks. Protesters held up signs saying "Love Is Love," which members of the crowd attempted to rip out of their hands. One man was removed for yelling criticism about the administration's handling of the Affordable Care Act.

Credit Michael Lee / WOSU
Vice President Mike Pence speaks in Columbus on Friday, June 15.

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Republican governor candidate Mike DeWine also appeared at the event.

This article will be updated with more information as the story develops.

Gabe Rosenberg joined WOSU in October 2016. As digital news editor, Gabe reports breaking news and edits all content for the WOSU website, as well as manages the station's social media accounts.
Nick Evans was a reporter at WOSU's 89.7 NPR News. He spent four years in Tallahassee, Florida covering state government before joining the team at WOSU.
Michael Lee joined WOSU in 2021, but was previously an intern at the station in 2018. He is a graduate from Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism where he obtained his master's degree, and an alumnus of Ohio State University. Michael has previously worked as an intern at the Columbus Dispatch and most recently, the Chicago Sun-Times.