People's memories of Indiana LGBT history often stop at the annual Pride parade. Mark Lee, a local photographer and longtime NUVO freelancer, is not one of those people. He has been documenting it from the time the AIDS crisis first began to the celebrations when the ban against same-sex marriage was struck down.
This is the story behind the man and the exhibit that will mark the first time that LGBT history has been recognized by a state institution.
Mark Lee wrote in the publication Traces, a magazine for the Indiana Historical Society, about staying with his grandparents. His great-grandmother is often considered the family historian.
"I believe that that down deep in the heart of everyone, or at least most of us, there comes a time when we ask ourselves the question, 'When did I come, and wither am I going?" he remembers her saying.
Today, Lee and his great-grandmother are a lot alike. Instead of pursuing his own family tree and lineage, though, he's pouring over old articles, categorizing interviews and labeling thousands of photographs of people he's not related to by blood. Lee is keeping one of the first documentations of LGBT history of Indiana.
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Lee has been taking photos of Indy's LGBT community for the last 30 years, and soon they will be on display at the Indiana Historical Society. In February of 2014, John Herbst of the Historical Society asked Lee to undertake a rather intensive project: to conduct 20 interviews over six months (that number expanded to over 60 interveiws in the same amount of time) and file as much archival material as he could (from February until the end of the year) that would document the struggle of being LGBT in Indiana.
"I am trying to get snapshots of people's lives," says Lee.
The interviews have ranged from one to seven hours. During his conversations with people across the state, Lee has found a few key players who kept reappearing. People like Stan Berg, the politically active mind behind The Works magazine and the owner of a local bath house; Reverend Howard Warren, Lee's own Presbyterian minister when he was growing up; and Chris Gonzalez of Indiana Youth Group.
"We have always had a pretty active foothold," says Lee, commenting on the level of political activism that he has witnessed over the years. "I think AIDS probably made a lot of people more politically active. Well, I mean fighting for their lives. AIDS did a lot of things. It gave us a lot of allies that we didn't have before. Because people realized that they knew people who were gay and who were dying."
It's amazing who becomes an activist when their child who is sick or when they have to watch a friend's partner be turned away at a hospital visitation check-in. It's foolish to think that the AIDS crisis is over, but during its beginning the disease mobilized people to political action.
Lee never dreamed that he would see the number of political rallies he's attended or be as engaged in the community as he has been over the last 30 years. In fact when he was young, Lee wanted to pursue a career in the church. He marks the seventh grade as the first time he wanted to be a minister — a dream he didn't let go of for years. Today, if you ask him about his religious convictions he slides in the joke, "There may be several reasons that I am going to burn in hell, but one of them isn't because I am gay."
When he came to terms with his own orientation, Lee he went to Bullwinkle's at IU, a local gay bar. He sat at the bar, nervously thumbing through The Works magazine where he read about what would later be known as HIV/AIDS.
"I was officially gay for less than a minute and already there was disease that was out to kill us," wrote Lee in his Traces article.
When Lee came out to his father they were at a restaurant in Bloomington. After he finally overcame the lump in his stomach, and told his father, he simply responded saying how proud he was of his honesty — and that it was the first time he thought of him as his son.
His mother did not take the news with as much grace. She insisted that Lee be sent to a psychologist to be cured. Once Mark realized that he had no choice in this matter, he insisted that the family find a doctor that Lee at least liked. After all, there were other things that they could talk about besides his sexuality. After meeting with three doctors, the last one asked why Mark was there. Lee told him how his parents had sent him to be "cured." The psychologist looked at him and said, "Poof! You're cured!" And that was the last they spoke of it.
It was through the church that Lee met the two men who would serve as his surrogate parents for years to come.
"Mark was the dad and Michael was the mom," laughs Lee.
Mark Wright and Michael Hendren were 20 years older than Lee when he met them through a lecture that Wright gave at his church. Lee's pastor, Warren, directed him to the Damien Center as a place to volunteer. Lee quickly became a "buddy" where he was assigned an individual with AIDS. They would spend most their time just hanging out as friends, but the idea was to have someone there when the medical issues started to flare up. Though neither Wright nor Hendren were Lee's "buddies" he got to know them from seeing them at support meetings.
Seven of Lee's closest friends have died from AIDS. Two of them are memorialized with quilts that he made as part of the Names Project: one for Mark Wright and one for Sam Rios (his official "buddy" through the Damien Center). The Names Project was created by Cleve Jones, an activist who worked with Harvey Milk and was originally from Lafayette, Ind.
One of the most memorable photos at in the Historical Society installation is a portrait of Wright and Hendren embracing.
"I took that picture in '88 about two years before they told me that they were positive," says Lee. They had asked him for a picture of themselves while they were still young and looked good.
"After they told me they were positive the two of them split up," says Lee. "Mark went to travel the country and max out every charge card imaginable."
Eventually he came home, and Wright and Hendren both lived in Riley Towers but several floors apart.
Lee ended up moving in with Wright during the last two weeks of his life to take care of him. Wright wanted the entire time documented.
"I was in the room at the hospice with him when he took his last breath," says Lee.
Lee began to chronicle many of his friends with HIV/AIDS. He would often give 5x7 prints to their families after they died.
The AIDS crisis compelled Lee to take a vast number of photos. "[When I was] starting to lose friends I wanted to document their history or their time together. I always thought it was important to let people know what was happening. I never dreamed of an exhibit like this.
"I prefer candid shots over portraits. I was accused of hiding behind the camera a lot ... it has always been a way to get involved with the community."
And that community was in full swing by the time that Lee left IU. Upon graduation he moved back to Indianapolis where he lived with Elmer Coe, one of the early members of Indy's Bag Ladies. The group that brough AIDS awareness to the forefront in Central Indiana. The house that they lived in became the place to get dressed, get your makeup done before the annual bus tour and fundraiser.
The Bag Ladies of Indy began in 1980. It was originally just a party, but once AIDS came to Indiana it became a vehicle to raise money. They've raised somewhere between one and two million dollars in the last 35 years.
Photos that Lee has taken on several of the bus tours (where the Bag Ladies go bar to bar and compete to raise the most funds) will have their own wall at the State Museum. One of the most well known photos is the large group shot that was taken halfway through one night's tour on the steps of Monument Circle.
Another highlight in the exhibit is Lee's photos of Pride spanning from 1991 to the present.
"The first Pride I went to was when it was at a park [in the late '80s]," says Lee. He went onto explain that it was a private function where you would pay a few dollars and play volleyball for most of the day, the event was hardly political in nature.
By 1990 there were 3,000 attendees — and about 50 protestors. It was then that Lee remembers the Men's Chorus singing "America the Beautiful," much to the surprise of protestors. "They didn't know whether to salute the flag or keep yelling." Lee later wrote about this experience for NUVO.
"There were several years in a row where I didn't even go to Pride because I was photographing weddings," says Lee.
He has since shot more same-sex unions than straight ones. In fact, the marriage equality section in his show begins with a wedding he photographed in 1990. Lee shot the brief two-and-half-day rush of weddings when Judge Richard Young overturned the ban on same-sex marriage before a stay was issued, the protests against HJR-3, the eventual ruling in the Seventh Circuit and the reactions to the SCOTUS decision in favor of equality this summer. Before one of Indiana's cases was moved to Chicago, Lee had gotten to know plaintiffs Glenn Funkhouser and Henry Greene from shooting these events. When their case was called before the Seventh Circuit, Lee was told that the room would only hold a small amount of people for the oral arguments. He also learned that his brother's childhood friend, Judge Dave Hamilton, would be hearing the case. Lee was nervous about not being able to get a seat so he arrived to stand in line at 3 a.m. There wasn't a second person to even form a line until 5:30 a.m.
Lee has been present to capture nearly every historical milestone in the fight for equal right and protection. The images that document Indy's Pride evolution and the fight for marriage equality will be displayed just beyond the HIV/AIDS crisis and Bag Ladies in the photo installation. There will also be two special displays: transgender rights and a tribute to five Hoosier activists who are no longer alive.
Remembering 5 LGBT activists
The five LGBT community members who are being honored at Mark Lee's exhibit at the Indiana Historical society. All five have passed away, but left their mark on Indy in some way.
"As a gay man in my fifties, it could be argued that men of my generation have lived our lives backwards: we dealt with death and dying in our twenties, began adopting kids and raising families in our thirties and forties, and marrying in our fifties and sixties," wrote Lee in his Traces piece.
It's this profound statement that became the skeleton of the exhibit. This heartbreaking order of events gives us a glimpse into the future of LGBT rights. Now that family is being discussed beyond the most basic definitions, protections (like amending the 1964 Civil Rights Act to include sexual orientation and gender identity) that should have come long before marriage will likely see their day in court. The dominant discourse around marriage has changed, and soon we will see society realize that their concepts of gender have little to do with reality besides being the foundation for our fragile identities and prejudices.
When asked why he documented all of these people and events Lee paused for minute before saying: "I have lived this. But there are so many people who have no idea what it means to be gay, lesbian or transgender, but it's a safe way for them to find out ... It's important to get our stories and our faces out there just to let people know who we are ... It is important for us to get our stories out there ... and not have other people tell us our stories."
Stories from anyone who have been seen as "less" must be told from those individuals' point of view. For anyone else to do so — though it's a show of support — wouldn't be nearly as authentic. In short, it's not their story to tell.
For Lee, the next chapter in LGBT rights is deeply rooted in gender, specifically in transgender rights.
Lee acted on this during his interviews for the Historical Society when he came across three individuals he felt needed to have their own stage. He quickly organized one of the first trans lectures in correlation with Indy Pride. The evening hosted the three speakers at Indy Reads and with Theater on the Square, Metro and IYG as satellite locations. At Metro, you could have heard a pin drop during the speeches. It was at this event that Lee first met Dominice Denney, the young transgender athlete whose struggle with the gender restrictions of amateur sports was profiled by NUVO in July of 2015.
It was during the Q&A at the end of the event that Dominice and her family shared their story.
"That in itself made the whole evening worth while for everybody there," says Lee.
Dominice is the last image in the exhibit; a photograph of her holding up a basketball over her head. To Lee, this is a perfect shot. It represents his hopes for the future.
"I definitely think that is our next step and where we are headed right now," says Lee. "The transgender community has unfortunately been put on the back burner for way too long. I think now is the time to step forward and make them a part of our community and help them."