Out of the Closet: the LGBT Community in Indianapolis

You’re standing at the corner of Vermont Street and Pennsylvania Street, where the Circle City Pride Parade has marched by every summer since 2002. The parade is a celebration of the Indianapolis LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community’s decades-long struggle for recognition and acceptance.

Underground in Indy (1960-1981)

Until the mid-1980s, the Indianapolis LGBT community was “underground.” Fearing social persecution, gay men and women met covertly at the old Essex House Hotel, which sat here on this corner until it was demolished in 1994. A dinner at the Essex in 1981 is considered to be the first organized Pride event in the city. At this meeting and others like it, LGBT activists planned for the future of their community and circulated copies of The Mirror and The New Works News, Indianapolis’s early gay and lesbian papers. Perhaps the earliest LGBT publication in the city, The Screamer, dating back to the mid-1960s, features poetry, funny anecdotes, and recipes.

The Bag Lady Bus Tour (1981)

During the 1980s, Indianapolis became a Midwestern hub of awareness and treatment for the AIDS epidemic. In 1981, a small group of gay men transformed their annual Halloween bash into an HIV/AIDS fundraising campaign. The Bag Lady Bus Tour, so named for the drag makeup and apparel donned by its participants, raised just over three thousand dollars for its cause that first year. The bus tour, which visits local restaurants and bars in search of donations, has continued every Halloween to this day, raising money for HIV/AIDs and other charities.

The Damien Center (1987)

The Bag Ladies became one of the major fundraisers for the Damien Center, which was established here in the city in 1987 by the Reverend Earl Conner, an Episcopal minister, in conjunction with Christ Church Cathedral and the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul. The first such organization in the state, the Damien Center provided medical and housing assistance to people with HIV/AIDS in Indianapolis. Originally located in an empty archdiocese building one mile north on Pennsylvania Street from here, the Damien Center re-located to its current location at 26 N. Arsenal Avenue in 2001.

Circle City Pride Festival & Parade (1988-2014)

One year later, in 1988, the first official Pride Festival kicked off at the Indianapolis Sports Center. Attendance that year was only around 175 people, but it would soon grow enormously. In 1990, Pride moved to Monument Circle and attracted over 3,000 visitors. The Cadillac Barbie parade joined the Pride festivities in 2002.

LGBT in Indy Today

The 2015 Pride Festival takes place Friday, June 5-Saturday, June 13, 2015, with the parade beginning at ten o’clock in the morning on June 13. To page through back issues of Indianapolis’s first LGBT newspapers and explore other memorabilia from the early LGBT scene, visit the Chris Gonzalez Library and Archives at 429 East Vermont Street on weekends between noon and six. The LGBT community continues to work with its straight allies for rights and recognition in Indiana.

Images

Indy Pride 2013

Indy Pride 2013

The 2013 Cadillac Barbie Pride Parade on June 9, 2013. Image courtesy of user will139 on flickr.com. View File Details Page

Essex Hotel, 1957

Essex Hotel, 1957

The Essex Hotel at the corner of Pennsylvania and Vermont, pictured in 1957. One of the first organized GLBT events in Indianapolis took place here in 1981. Photo courtesy of the W. H. Bass Photo Company and Indianapolis Historical Society. | Source: W.H. Bass Photo Company Collection, Indiana Historical Society | Creator: W.H. Bass Photo Company View File Details Page

Bag Ladies, 1982.

Bag Ladies, 1982.

The Bag Ladies Bus Tour, pictured here on Halloween night, 1982, raised money for sufferers of HIV/AIDS in Indianapolis. They later became a key fundraising partner of the Damien Center. Photo courtesy of the Indianapolis Historical Society. View File Details Page

Earl Conner & Donor, 1987

Earl Conner & Donor, 1987

The Reverend Earl Conner, founder of the Damien Center, accepting a donation from Dennis Stover of the Bag Ladies. Photo courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society. View File Details Page

Damien Center Ad, 1988

Damien Center Ad, 1988

Poster for a Damien Center fundraiser in 1988. The Gala Masquerade is an annual event, first held in 1987, to raise money and awareness for the Damien Center and HIV/AIDS prevention. Photo courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society. | Source: Indiana Historical Society | Creator: Damien Center View File Details Page

Reverend & Protesters, 1992

Reverend & Protesters, 1992

The Reverend Howard Warren, openly gay director of pastoral care at the Damien Center, addresses anti-gay protesters at a Pride event in 1992. Photo courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society. | Source: Indiana Historical Society | Creator: Ted Fleischaker and "The Word" View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Meghan Hillman, “Out of the Closet: the LGBT Community in Indianapolis,” Discover Indiana, accessed May 28, 2017, http://indyhist.iupui.edu/items/show/35.

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