The sixth-annual Indiana Humanities Historic Bar Crawl on Wed., June 20, was simply sensational—this time with a fabulous theme: “Out in Indy: DraggingIndianapolis’s LGBTQ History Out of the Closet.” We “crawled” through Indy’s little-known LGBTQ history at six locations across the near northside, with Gregs Our Place on 16th Street as home base. If you missed the event, or if you just want to relish the fun all over again, read on for some of our favorite details from this year’s festivities. Here’s a tip: you’ll definitely want to check out the links!
Nurse Safe Sexx: The Indianapolis Bag Ladies, a charitable organization with the mission to raise money for AIDS relief and educate the public about safe sex, created a character called Nurse Safe Sexx in 1985. She promoted safe-sex practices both in person and in cartoons that appeared in local LGBTQ newspapers. During the bar crawl, an actor portrayed the nurse, treating attendees to a tour of past gay bars around the area.
Wedding playlist: Quaker religion is known for its nonhierarchical structure, which enables more tolerant approaches to culture. While there are usually traditional vows and a period of silence in a Quaker wedding, receptions can vary greatly. Crawlers got a taste of this flexibility when we re-created the reception from the earliest-known same-sex wedding in Indiana, that of a lesbian couple who were married by the North Meadow Circle of Friends in Hendricks County. The ceremony and celebration took place in 1987, 27 years before gay marriage became legal in Indiana. For our reception scene, we put together a ‘70s and ‘80s inspired playlist packed with familiar hits.
A sense of celebration: Make no mistake, there have been trials and tribulations in LGBTQ communities. But that’s all the more reason to celebrate what has been accomplished. Indianapolis’s first public Pride celebration was held in 1990, and it was the start of something big: today, Indy Pride’s annual festival attracts more than 100,000 people. At one of the bar crawl stops, attendees got to feel like they were part of the planning efforts for that first Indianapolis Pride, listening to organizers discuss preparations while making their own signs for the festivities.
Local celeb sighting: The Labyris, an Indianapolis lesbian bar established by Mary Byrne in 1979, was the setting of one of the bar crawl’s featured scenes. Byrne happened to be in attendance, and after the scene, she regaled fellow crawl-goers with stories from her days owning the Labyris. You can read more about her life and accomplishments by visiting the Indiana Historical Society and reading her oral interview.
Fierce fashion: In 1985 the Miss Gay America pageant came to Indianapolis but met resistance—it took the organizers three attempts to locate a venue willing to host the finale. Nevertheless, the show went on, and Lauren Colby was crowned Miss Gay American 1985–86 at the Indiana Convention Center. Bar crawl attendees took in a re-creation of the drag pageant before getting the chance to be a part of the action!
Screw Anita Bryant: In 1977, Florida orange juice spokeswoman and religious-right activist Anita Bryant held a “Rally for Decency” at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. Gay and lesbian Hoosiers organized a small counter-protest, in turn catalyzing a generation of gay activism. Responding to Bryant’s anti-gay rhetoric, bartenders boycotted orange juice and started mixing drinks with other juices. One of these cocktails made it onto our menu; in a play on the classic Screwdriver, participants enjoyed a mix of vodka and grapefruit juice called the “Screw Anita Bryant.”
Swag: As with any good gay-themed celebration, costumes and props ruled. Volunteers strutted their stuff in rainbow wristbands and capes, and a number of attendees embellished their own outfits. Once again this year, Indiana Humanities interns made buttons for participants, inspired by ’80s and ’90s designs. (Did you collect them all?) At English Ivy’s, participants received whistles—recalling the days when gay bars gave whistles to departing patrons so that they could blow them to summon help if they were threatened or attacked.
Group names: Bar crawl organizers chose group names around the theme of historic Indianapolis gay bars: Jimmy’s, the 501 Tavern, the Unicorn Club, The Ten and Labyris. Recognizing these bars was important to us. Gay bars have been a focal point of LGBTQ communities by providing social networks and private gathering spaces, but in recent years, increased acceptance of the LGBTQ community and the rise of smartphone dating apps have resulted in many of them closing.
Historical foundations: Public history graduate students at IUPUI conducted the research behind this year’s bar crawl, and it was rewarding to see that research come to life! If you’re interested in taking a look at the primary research documents yourself, head over to the Indiana Historical Society library and browse the Michael Bohr Collection of the Indy Pride Chris Gonzalez Library and Archives. For a more leisurely look through Indy’s LGBTQ past, try Wearing Gay History’s online exhibitions Out in Naptown: Gay Life in Indianapolis and Hoosier Pride.
We’re grateful for all the volunteers and location hosts, Indiana Landmarks, English Ivy’s and The Indianapolis Propylaeum who helped make this year’s bar crawl possible. Special thanks to Dan Shockley of the Indiana Historical Society and IUPUI’s public history program students for their help researching and creating the scenes and Sun King Brewing and Indy Pride for their support.