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The plan was to take a morning walk with our dog before tackling another busy Saturday.

It ended up being a stroll into the future of gay rights in America.

We headed for Goodale Park in Columbus, Ohio, where dozens of booths were opening for day two of the 31st annual gay pride festival. It was a pinch-me moment as we took in some of the festival sponsors: AT&T, State Farm, Target, Macy’s, Bud Light, Battelle, AARP, Chase, New York Life, Red Roof Inn and Key, PNC and Huntington banks.

It doesn’t get more mainstream than that.

“Times have changed,” 48-year-old Karla Rothan told me. She’s a lifelong resident of Ohio and the executive director of Stonewall Columbus, which sponsors the annual event. She’s also gay. She and Linda Schuler, her partner of 16 years, have witnessed firsthand the many changes unfolding in Ohio — which is always a presidential battleground state.

“Corporations are more in tune with what diversity means for their companies,” Rothan said. “How do you attract and retain talent in Columbus? How do you keep (Ohio State University) students here in Columbus? Businesses have figured out that supporting the GLBT community deepens your leadership and increases the number of people willing to invest in your community.”

More than 200 companies and groups sponsored booths this year at the Columbus Pride festival. This year’s theme was “Allies in Equality,” to honor straight allies. A record-breaking 230,000 attended the celebration.

If this could happen in Columbus, Ohio — the same state where voters eight years ago overwhelmingly rejected same-sex marriage — it’s only a matter of time before marriage equality is the law of the land.

I don’t say this as a blind optimist. I remember too well the outcome of that 2004 referendum on same-sex marriage and its impact. The Sunday after Election Day, my husband and I were sitting in Pilgrim United Church of Christ in Cleveland when the pastor, who is straight, asked those who were directly affected by the vote to stand.

More than 50 stood up from the pews. As I wrote at the time, they didn’t look angry or defiant. They looked abandoned. Many of us still sitting began to weep. Soon, we stood to join them. When you love or respect someone who is gay — and you probably do, even if you don’t know it — his or her pain is your pain, too.

It also works the other way, so the joy last Saturday in Columbus was infectious. There was much to celebrate, beyond the corporate sponsorships and record turnout.

Under the innovative leadership of Mayor Mike Coleman and the City Council, Columbus now offers partner benefits for city employees. President Barack Obama recently came out in support of gay marriage. The military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy is history, which made one young man I met Saturday very happy.

Lancelot Francioni was 17, a senior in high school, when he continued a long family tradition of enlisting in the Army. Five years later, the Army ordered Pfc. Francioni to leave after a doctor treating him for a skin rash caused by chiggers in the field outed him as a homosexual to his commanding officer. The doctor did this even though Francioni had denied being gay when asked.

At first, Francioni lied about his sexual orientation to the group of officers grilling him. More than anything, he wanted to stay in the Army.

“But then they left me alone to ‘think it over,'” he said. “I was secluded in a little office, bawling my eyes out. When they came back, I told them the truth. I didn’t want to go to jail for who I am.”

He emphasized the distinction: “For who I am, not what I am. What I am is a soldier. My love for my country is beyond belief, and there is no greater honor than to lay down my life for my country. Who I am is a gay man — a gay man who loves his country.”

And soon, he said, he’ll be a gay man who is back in the Army he still loves.

“I’ve lost a lot of friends in this war,” he told me on the phone a few days later as he drove an 18-wheeler through Kentucky on his way to Birmingham, Ala. “I’m a soldier. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.”

Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine. She is the author of two books, including “…and His Lovely Wife,” which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate. To find out more about Connie Schultz (con.schultz@yahoo.com) and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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