July 22, 2019

Recovering Queer History in Indianapolis

During the National Trust’s 2013 PastForward National Preservation Conference in Indianapolis, preservationists from across the nation were invited to donate to launch a survey of LGBT history in Indiana’s Marion county. At the time, the attendees did not know they were helping build a years-long project to discover and document marginalized histories in the Midwest. Now, this project is coming to fruition as Indianapolis recognizes over 100 historic locations of LGBT significance.

The Preserve Indy Initiative began with environmental research conducted by Indiana Landmarks. Jordan Ryan recalls laying the framework of the project with they first joined the organization as a surveyor about five years ago. Ryan, now an archivist with the Indiana Historical Society, remembers an early exhibit that helped spark this initiative: an oral history and photo gallery called “Be Heard.” In the gallery, historians interviewed local LGBT residents. In 2016, Indiana Landmarks conducted a building survey of Marion County. The survey uncovered 419 locations that were historically significant to the local LGBT community. Of these sites, 104 were already located in protected historic districts.

Many people think of the east and west coasts as centers of LGBT culture; however, Indianapolis demonstrates a rich queer history in the middle of the United States.

Three years later, the Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission (IHPC) hopes to put this 2016 survey data into action. Earlier in 2019, Meg Purnsley, an administrator at IHPC, collaborated with Indianapolis universities, the state preservation office, and other partners to analyze the properties from the initial survey. The first goal of the 2016 survey was to identify which buildings had historic LGBT importance. For the sites that are already under state and local commission jurisdiction, the committee established a new goal: to make people aware of the unrecognized LGBT history in buildings throughout Indianapolis.

Purnsley mentions that many buildings in downtown Indianapolis have long been safe spots for LGBT people, and these individuals later lived in or invested in these havens. She says, “We owe members of the LGBT community for their preservation efforts because there was an interest in those neighborhoods, people still playing a role in preserving and living in those sites.” The Damien Center, the Quaker Friends Meeting House, and The Ten/The Ruins bar are three such locations that emphasize the range of Indianapolis’ LGBT history.

The Damien Center's second location is a brick building. Two trees grow by either side of the front door.

photo by: Photograph by Kurt Lee Nettleton

The Damien Center has moved locations and now occupies a brick building with trees in the lawn.

The Damien Center

The Damien Center has been foundational for many of Indy’s LGBT people. In fact, Indianapolis’ current city encyclopedia contains only two entries relates to LGBT identity: the Damien Center and AIDS. While the center is Indiana’s oldest AIDS facility, it has had several uses over time.

The Damien Center was founded in 1987 to combat the local AIDS crisis and support the LGBT community. Zach Adamson, the first out LGBT council member in Indianapolis as the VP of the City-County Council, describes the unique heritage of this location.

The organization was named after Father Damien, a Catholic healer who treated people with leprosy. Adamson says, “AIDS was considered the modern leprosy, but the Damien Center showed that you still had to help people with pastoral care."

More personally, Adamson remembers the Damien Center as a welcoming space for him when he was a teenager. The Damien Center also hosted the meetings for a group of LGBT youth, and Adamson would drive 85 miles each way to attend. Additionally, the Damien Center housed the gay and lesbian switchboard for a period of time. “Before the internet,” Adamson explains, “the switchboard was the only way that people could get info about how to get tested or where to meet people.” While the Damien Center is now in a new building, it continues to provide many of the same services to Indianapolis.

The Quaker Friends Meeting House

The North Meadow Circle of Friends regularly meets in the Quaker Friends Meeting House on Talbott Street. The house remains an operational religious location in the community, but few community members know of its LGBT history. Purnsley describes how many Quaker groups, such as the Friends in Indianapolis, supported the LGBT community in the 1980s.

Nonetheless, the Quaker Meeting House is also a living history of a lingering conflict about LGBT acceptance and authority in Quakerism. In 1987, the Quaker church announced a policy change: it would allow gay marriage.

The front of the Quaker meeting house, blanketed in snow, displays a sign that reads "Friends Meeting House."

photo by: Meg Purnsley, courtesy of the IHPC

The Quaker Friends Meeting House remains an active location of worship.

The church’s allyship undercut the 1982 Indiana Yearly Meeting agreement that condemned same-sex marriage, and the Quaker Friends Meeting House joined a network of other affirming congregations throughout the 1980s. These meeting places hosted meetings to plan AIDS awareness marches and welcomed LGBT worshipers, who are called “Friends” in the Quaker tradition.

“Institutions that have been staples in the gay community have fallen by the wayside.”

Zach Adamson

The Ten/The Ruins Bar

The Ten/The Ruins operated as a popular lesbian bar in the 1980s. Adamson remembers visiting the bar in the ‘90s to see “amazing drag shows” with his friends. The bar closed in 2014, when Ryan and other Indiana Landmarks team members were conducting their survey. The next year, the empty storefront was overhauled. The vacant location evokes a bittersweet response. “It was the only real lesbian bar in the city,” Adamson says, “but over time, it declined in popularity due to crime and other businesses opening.”

Like many other gay and lesbian bars that have closed in the past decade, a variety of factors led to The Ten/The Ruins closing. Highway construction displaced community members and reduced access to the bar, and younger LGBT people found access to new meeting places.

Adamson says, “Institutions that have been staples in the gay community have fallen by the wayside.” Because LGBT people now have chat rooms and dating apps, “Many gay bars and other historic locations are no longer around today.”

The building still stands, and its facade has been renovated to attract new businesses to rent the space. However, the windows remain empty; there’s no sign of the queer customers that used to meet inside.

Many people think of the east and west coasts as centers of LGBT culture; however, Indianapolis demonstrates a rich queer history in the middle of the United States.

A Community Working to Uncover (and Make) LGBT History

These three sites offer a snapshot into the lives of Indianapolis’ queer community, and area historians continue to seek out other forgotten stories. Purnsley elaborates on the legislative importance of this long-term LGBT excavation: “We are updating all 17 area historic plans and committing to document all 104 properties in legal preservation plans. Now, we are getting ready to find and add additional properties.” These new designations will provide legal documentation that recognizes the LGBT history in each site.

Purnsley explains that “Because these legal preservation documents operate under state law, not only local law, the LGBT history becomes much more solidified [in these locations].” With the state’s preservation power and resources, these places are more likely to receive resources and attention that will protect them over time. When the project was proposed to local council members, it passed in a wave of bipartisan support.

“We owe members of the LGBT community for their preservation efforts.”

Meg Purnsley

The same week that the City-County Council passed the proposal, Ryan took the news to Indianapolis’ Pride festival. Ryan remembers the excitement of announcing the initiative at the festival onstage. Adamson has also been amazed by the social media and in-person response to this LGBT heritage: “What we’re doing, we couldn’t find any other city that was doing this.” He cites the hundreds of supportive posts online and countless community members—both Democrats and Republicans—who have congratulated Indianapolis on this historic (and unprecedented) progress. He says, “A community that is evaporated or erased needs a foundation. That’s why it’s so important to save and document these spaces.”

When asked to describe what's unique about Indy’s LGBT community, Ryan says, “It’s one of the smaller big cities, so people can be movers and shakers in numerous realms, and there’s an overlap between entrepreneurs, politicians, and other people who are making change in our community.” Locals have preserved history in innovative ways, including with Low Pone, a drag-collective that sparks larger conversations about LGBT history and representation by hosting their events in historic buildings. The adaptive reuse and reclamation of these historic places confronts the fact that many of the city’s buildings have not yet recognized their own LGBT history.

While Indianapolis is the first city to announce such a widespread LGBT heritage project, it won’t be the last. If local preservationists want to preserve their local LGBT history, Ryan offers the following encouragement: “Know the community that’s still there and collect archives and oral histories so there can be a shared heritage. You must build trust.”

Purnsley suggests that rural readers “record interviews with willing participants” and recommends partnering with any local or regional historical societies like Indiana Landmarks. From rumors of a secret Victorian stag house on the edge of town and the push for new legislation, one insight remains the same: “This work is never done."

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Laken Brooks is a current graduate student at the University of Florida. When Laken is not teaching or researching, she enjoys traveling, visiting free little libraries, and going to archives.

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