If anyone asked me 50 years ago if I would be living my life as an openly gay man in the state of Indiana by the time I reached adulthood, I would have responded, "I sure hope so! Why wouldn't I be happy?" (OK, maybe 40 years ago, I'm not so sure I could have responded with such a "pithy" response at the age of two). If they asked me five years ago if marriage would be legal, or if I would help curate an LGBT History exhibit for the Indiana Historical Society, I would have laughed in his or her face!
As a gay man in my 50s, it can be argued men of my generation have lived our lives backwards: We dealt with death and dying in our 20s, started to adopt children and raise families in our 30s and 40s, and for those of us in our 50s and 60s who were lucky enough to survive the AIDS crisis unscathed, we are making it all legal by marrying our partners in crime. AIDS changed everything. It held us together in fear, and thrust us forward into a future we never could have imagined. Despite the heartache and the pain of losing the ones we loved, it forced us out of the closets, and into the hearts and minds of our family members, and our lesbian sisters who helped to care for us every step of the way. In the Big Picture scheme, it gave us much needed allies who came out to support us in our fight for marriage equality.
But I'm getting ahead of myself here. AIDS also gave us a crapload of enemies who would swear on their graves the disease was nothing more than the wrath of a vengeful God exacting retribution upon us for being gay. Coming out of the closet was the lynchpin; AIDS was merely the vehicle that forced us to burst open the closet door. And here in Indiana, closet doors can be very, very heavy.
In 1993 I set out to interview gays and lesbians who were 65 or older and had lived the majority of their lives in the state of Indiana. One of my favorite interviews was with a woman by the name of Clair. Clair grew up on a farm in southern Indiana, and married a gentleman she would end up spending the rest of her life with. Shortly after they had their first child, Clair met the love of her life. For the purposes of this story, we'll call her Judy.
Clair and Judy were madly in love, but these were different times. They decided to wait until Clair's daughter left for college, before Clair would leave her husband to be with Judy. Only before her daughter graduated high school, Clair's husband lost his eyesight, and since"guilt is the mother's milk" as Clair used to say, Clair stayed with her spouse. Judy moved in to help care for Clair's husband, and they remained together in that home until Judy passed away from cancer 30 years later. I met Clair at the March on Washington in '93, and she told me her story at the Women's Music Festival in Bloomington shortly after. At the time she told me her story, she was still caring for her husband, and her daughter had no clue about her mother's relationship with Judy.
Another gentleman told me stories about Claypool Court, a hotel located where the Artsgarden is now. Next to the door that led into the hotel, they had a drawing of a pansy, with the words, "NOT WELCOME!" printed underneath. The message was clear. There were NO PANSIES allowed!
A year after conducting these interviews, I led the Lavender Book Club at Borders bookshop. One of the regulars was a gentleman who drove from Bloomington, Indiana for the opportunity to discuss gay and lesbian literature with a group of about 20 people who shared his love for books. He marveled at how when he was young any books that remotely dealt with the topic of homosexuality were kept in the archives of the Central Library. The only way of taking a look at these books was by asking for the book by name, and letting the librarian know why you were interested in checking them out. The concept of a predominately straight bookstore such as Borders catering to the LGBT community was a novel concept for him.
The first public Pride event was held on the Circle in 1990. Gay men were still being arrested for "cruising" the circle, so it was important for us to take a stand. Before that, we celebrated Pride by paying $3 for a picnic at Westlake Park; and as early as 1981, LGBT people were invited to a private luncheon at the Essex hotel. The Circle brought us, and the people who were against us, out into the open. The very first year, 3,000 gays and lesbians came out for the "Celebration on the Circle", and they were greeted by 50 protestors. Some of them were carrying baseball bats, and several were wearing gas masks on top of their head in hopes of "not contracting AIDS". Before any trouble could begin, the Indianapolis Men's Chorus opened up the Pride Festival with the National Anthem. This confused the protestors to no end. They didn't know whether to continue protesting, or to stand at attention for the "Star Spangled Banner".
The following year, I had a booth set up for the Gay Games. In order to grab people's attention I had two posters: One was a photograph of a man who was all hot and sweaty from going on a run, and the other was of a shirtless man holding his newborn son close to his chest in a window sill. The protesters took one look at the photo of the man holding his son and said, "That's disgusting!"
Perceptions changed as the '90s progressed. Nowhere was this more evident than when Ellen DeGeneres came out on her sitcom Ellen in 1997. The Vogue in Broad Ripple was packed with people who came out for a special viewing of her show, and they erupted in cheers when she said the magic words, "I'm gay!"
For Michael Bohr, founder of the Chris Gonzalez Gay and Lesbian Archives, "I knew we made it as a gay community three years ago when they closed down part of Meridian Street for the Pride Parade. That's when I knew we had arrived!" The first Pride Parade was held on Mass Ave. 10 years ago, and if you blinked, you would have missed it! This past year it stretched out for more than two hours, and included politicians, numerous floats, and participants from major corporations such as Cummins, Dow Chemical and Lilly.
To paraphrase the Virginia Slims commercial made famous in the late '60s and early '70s, "We've come a long way, baby!"
Mark A. Lee is currently working with the Indiana Historical Society to help them create an LGBT History exhibit for the state of Indiana.