BEFORE STONEWALL: WHAT MADE BLOOMINGTON A GAY OASIS?
Bloomington is a small place compared to major coastal cities, but as the 7th largest population center in Indiana, and the largest town in the overwhelmingly rural south-central portion of the state, it functions in many ways as an urban area, with a population that is much more diverse and internationally-derived than the surrounding area. In other regards, it remains typically rural. In spite of the town’s relative diversity, its population is drawn largely from a racially and ethnically homogeneous (white) hinterland dominated by evangelical Christian values, and it is relatively isolated from coastal cultural influences. All of these “push” and “pull” factors, combined with the region’s history and demography, converge to shape the parameters within which Bloomington’s LGBT community has taken shape over the past half-century.
The formation of Bloomington’s LGBT community over the second half of the 20th century cannot be separated from the broader and deeper history of the area. Its demographic composition has been shaped over the long term by a history of genocide, ethnic cleansing, and racism. The social regulation of white gender variance and homosexuality is linked to this history through the logic and practice of eugenics, as well as through the terror of white supremacist groups such as the KKK, the condemnatory beliefs of Christian fundamentalism, and the xenophobia that sometimes characterizes geographically isolated populations.
There is no one way to characterize the relationship between "queer" culture and rurality. Many LGBT people who remain in rural areas stay there by choice as well as necessity, bound by complex bonds of family, employment (or lack thereof), and a sense of belonging to place. Many who leave spend years circulating between their rural places of origin and the homes they have made elsewhere, and may in fact return permanently later in life. Some LGBT people from urban and suburban backgrounds find their way to rural areas as part of intentional communities such as "womyn's land" or "radical fairie" communes, by establishing second homes as a retreat from urban pressures, through retirement to a place with a lower cost of living, because of job loss and economic displacement, or simply because they like it better.
Our intention in bringing attention to what we're calling "negative pressures" is not to paint the countryside as a homogeneously "bad" place for LGBT people and other minorities; many kinds of lives are lived and honored in rural places by many kinds of people, and many kinds of welcome or belonging can be found there. We simply wish to note some of the forces that operate in rural south-central Indiana that tend to displace LGBT people toward locations such as Bloomington that offer them a wider range of possibilities in life.
In conjunction with the “negative” social forces that work to erase or expel those whose forms of love, structures of desire, expressions of gender, and racial/ethnic background differ from the dominant rural culture, life in the college town of Bloomington has long exerted a "positive attraction" for many queer folks. Some of the “positive” attraction of Bloomington lies simply in the promise of social, economic, and geographical mobility associated with access to higher education, and in the looser norms of personal behavior that characterize many sectors of the town’s cultural life.
In pointing out these "positive attractions," we do not intend to suggest that life in Bloomington is invariably "good" in contrast to the surrounding area. The town itself remains implicated in the same forms of social oppression that operate more hegemonically in the countryside, while offering a greater range of social possibilities, more cultural amenities, and larger numbers of like-minded people with whom to form community.
Some of the positive attractions of Bloomington, particularly its arts culture and its reputation for frank tolerance of sexual diversity, can be attributed to the influence of two men, Herman B Wells and Alfred Kinsey, profiled below. Other aspects of Bloomington's "positive attractions" for many LGBT people will be added as the site develops further.
Mixed Messages: Surveillance and Survival in the Cold War
Gay life in the 1960s culminated in the radical promise of the Stonewall Riots in 1969, but the decade began in a much more politically ambivalent mood. The pre-Stonewall 60s in Bloomington were characterized by a discreet LGBT presence, where those in the know could meet other like-minded individuals, but the decade was punctuated by periodic panics and waves of arrests aimed at keeping homosexuality out of public view. Constant surveillance fostered the sense of paranoia that was characteristic of the Cold War period.