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How Nina West Channeled Her Republican Childhood into Queer Activism

Nina West Charity

I grew up in northeast Ohio in a small community called Canton. My father, his dad, and my great grandfather — I have a long line of family involved in politics, especially organizing and running the county Republican Party. So I grew up in a very conservative environment. I didn’t really understand what that was as a kid. I remember going to a lot of fundraisers and doing a lot of canvassing, like knocking on people’s doors at the age of 10, and giving people voters cards for Republican candidates.

In 1992 I went to the Republican National Convention in Houston. I was in middle school at the time and was in the Right to Life club. I was just really hoping to just make my parents proud but at this point I started to understand who I was, that I was different. A lot of it was a really great coping mechanism and cover for that. Like “Oh, he’s in Right to Life, he’s a Young Republican. He couldn’t be gay.” We all know that was a lie but that’s what I believed.

I remember the convention a lot. It was the first time I ever got drunk. I was with the Ohio Right to Life delegation at some Mexican restaurant. They were having an Ohio delegation party and I remember some woman getting me drunk on sangria. I remember meeting Charlton Heston as he walked by on the convention floor. My grandfather had given me his pass and I remember being on the floor watching everyone, meeting Dan Quayle, the former vice president. I remember seeing Bruce Willis sit in the presidential box next to Barbara Bush and I saw him get up and go to the back. I’m a notorious star fucker — I love meeting people who I love and have always been infatuated with celebrity for whatever reason. And I saw Bruce Willis get up and start to walk off the floor and I walked up to him. I was just a little kid, and I asked if I could get his autograph and he signed my delegate badge, which I still have. He was incredibly nice.

There’s been a large impact of being raised in that environment on who I am as a person. My parents wanted me to be a lawyer and then to eventually become a politician and I think that’s kind of what I’ve grown into in a different sense. As a drag queen, I feel that I am a politician and I’m a spokesperson for my community, which happens to be underserved and underrepresented and in dire need of rights and access. So knowing the environment that I came from, my parents practically bred me for this. We might not agree politically but I know they are proud of me and are incredibly in awe of the child that they raised because I’m so much of both of them. So much of that activist and that organizer and the person who wants to get answers, and they are too.

In Columbus, myself and my drag mother Virginia West, put together these big mainstage production shows that require about six weeks of rehearsals and all these production numbers and solo cabaret-style numbers. They are these huge events that have these 15-show runs in Columbus. Eighteen years ago, when we would do an encore for the show I started asking people to give anything they could. At the time I was raising money for the Columbus AIDS Task Force. I have known many people affected with HIV and AIDS so that was something that stuck with me.

It just progressed from there. The shows just kept getting bigger and the charity asks just kept getting larger. To date I’ve raised over $2.5 million for charity and I have my own charitable foundation at the Columbus Foundation. It’s called the Nina West Foundation and it’s a 501(c)3 and I primarily raise money for LGBTQ causes, particularly those that are affecting our youth.

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