The pages that follow explore the LGBTQ history of Bloomington, Indiana. Because many of the sources that were most readily available were related to activism originating at Indiana University, and because the students who conducted the bulk of this research were more interested in and familiar with campus life rather than town life, this history is weighted extremely heavily toward the university. Our hope is that in the future, others will add to, correct, and rebalance the initial historical sketch we offer here.
This website is organized into ten main sections, including this overview. Before Stonewall recounts some of the forces that have pushed the region’s LGBT population toward Bloomington, as well as some of the attractions that have drawn them there. The next section, From Stonewall to AIDS, explores local gay liberation and lesbian feminist culture between 1969 and 1981. The fourth major portion of the site, AIDS, Activism, and Community Visibility, covers the worst years of the AIDS epidemic, into the early 1990s. Queer Bloomington examines the shifts that took place in the last decade of the previous century, while Queer Here and Now puts the first decade of the current century in its historical context. In an appendix, we have compiled An Annotated Chronology of LGBT life in Bloomington: 1969-2009, drawn largely from newspaper sources, and another appendix compiles Profiles and Biographical Sketches. There is also a Photo Gallery of images associated with LGBT history in Bloomington, and, finally, a list of Additional Resources.
Bloomington: Anatomy of a College Town
Bloomington, Indiana, located 50 miles south of Indianapolis in verdant hill country, is a town of 70,000 year-round residents plus 40,000 students who attend the flagship campus of Indiana University. Without the university,
which was established there in 1820, Bloomington would undoubtedly resemble its nearest neighbors—small farming and trading centers of no more than a few thousand souls. Instead, it is an outcropping of semi-urban sophistication packed into twenty heavily populated square miles that range around the magnificent limestone buildings of the university and the adjacent downtown business district. Bloomington is consistently rated one of the best places in the United States to retire to, or to raise a family, and because of the university it has many cultural perks usually associated with much larger metropolitan areas.
“Fifth Gayest Place in America”
Based on figures found in the U.S. Federal Census of 2000, Bloomington has recently taken to promoting itself as “the fifth gayest place in America”—a claim derived from the fact that Monroe County, of which Bloomington is the
seat, has the fifth highest per capita ratio of same-sex households in the nation, at 1.55 per cent. The city has exploited this statistic for the sake of its tourism industry (the front page of the Bloomington Convention and Visitor’s Bureau website, for example, proudly features a rainbow-emblazoned link to its sister site, www.visitblooomington.com), and it has reaped the economic benefits: OutTraveler.com awards Bloomington the distinction of being the “#1 Surprisingly Gay Small Town Destination” in America.
The census figures are certainly hyped for all they’re worth, and the civic-booster marketing caters to a stereotype of gay and lesbian travelers as white, double-income-no-kids members of the affluent middle class, while largely ignoring counter-cultural queers, anti-capitalistic DIYers, trans and bi folks, the poor, immigrants, and people of color. There nevertheless remains a certain truth to the claim that Bloomington (at least for the white people who make up 95% of the population) is an enclave of progressive politics, smarty-pants academic types, hipster cafes, trendy indie music, funky shops, cheap ethnic eateries, gay-friendly upscale slow-food restaurants, and plenty of LGBT cultural visibility and sub-cultural buzz.
Bloomington holds an annual LGBT Film Festival at a lovingly restored artifact of Art-Deco Americana called the Buskirk-Chumley Theatre. It hosts the annual Miss Gay IU drag pageant as well as the Hoosier Daddy Drag King Competition. The BloomingOUT radio program has been a fount of information and analysis on queer happenings throughout the Midwest since its initial broadcast in 2003, and Indiana University boasts one of the best-endowed LGBT student services centers in all of American higher education. The queer ambience is enriched by such local institutions as the dyke-friendly Bleeding Heartland women’s roller derby team, the transgender-business-woman-owned Rachael’s Café, Quarryland Gay Men’s Chorus, and weekly drag shows at Uncle E’s (that’s short for Elizabeth’s), a popular gay bar on the edge of town.
Disturbing undercurrents nevertheless mar the celebratory façade of a “gay oasis” that official Bloomington seeks to maintain. The shocking murder on 27 December 2009 of Don Belton, a popular and highly respected member of the Indiana University English Department faculty, who happened to be both gay and African American, violently contradicted Bloomington’s self-image as an haven of tolerance and diversity. Belton’s confessed killer, Michael Griffin, a then-25-year-old ex-Marine and Iraq War veteran, grew up in the nearby countryside. As of April 2009, when this text was posted, the case had not yet gone to trial, but Griffin claimed to have killed Belton after being sexually assaulted by him, and was expected to launch a “gay panic” defense. Belton’s many friends and colleagues assert that a far likelier scenario was that a confused young man with post-traumatic stress disorder, experimenting with his sexuality, freaked out and committed murder after a consensual sexual encounter.
Whatever the legal outcome of this tragic event, Don Belton’s murder underscores the vulnerability LGBT people in Bloomington can face in spite of their proud cultural presence and a decades-long history of visibility, activism, and community involvement. It underscores as well the deep “town and gown” divisions that can exist between life-long local residents and outsiders who have no attachment to the area other than the university. This fundamental fissure in Bloomington’s social fabric often becomes the battle line where conflicts over class, race, sexuality, religion and culture play themselves out, with sometimes horrific consequences. Moreover, university life can have its own homophobic and transphobic dimensions, especially among the numerous undergraduates who swell the town's population for nine months of every year. A macho sports culture, the dominance of fraternities and sororities, IU’s reputation as a “party school,” and a pervasive tendency towards social conformism all contribute to an environment in which LGBT people can easily feel as marginalized as they do accepted.