- Associated Press - Monday, December 1, 2014

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - The October decision prompted great celebrations in Indiana’s gay community. The U.S. Supreme Court, by letting stand a lower court ruling, in effect legalized same-sex marriage in Indiana. The doings were front page news for days.

But another, quieter LGBT victory is unfolding in a different and less obvious setting - the halls of history.

Indiana Landmarks, the state’s largest historic preservation group, a year ago launched its LGBT Heritage program and began tracking down sites that played a role in Indianapolis‘ gay culture in years past. And last month the Indiana Historical Society announced it is launching its own effort to gather artifacts and documents of local gay history.

“There’s a realization that there’s a whole culture here, and it’s significant and interesting,” said Steven L. Tuchman, an Indianapolis immigration attorney, civic leader and arts patron who as a 68-year-old gay man has seen a transformation in the area’s attitudes.

At a party a year ago Tuchman ran into the historical society’s CEO, John A. Herbst. Tuchman wondered if the historical society would be interested in a donation of his personal papers.

“I thought I’d have to beg John to take the stuff. But he said, ‘Sure,’” Tuchman told The Indianapolis Star (https://indy.st/1vB7lqD ).

Tuchman’s papers, along with a recently acquired collection of photographs of Indianapolis gay life from the 1980s onward shot by photographer Mark A. Lee, are part of the historical society’s three-phase LGBT Collecting Initiative. A year from now the initiative will include 40 oral histories, an exhibit and possibly a publication, said Suzanne Hahn, the historical society’s vice president of library and archives. Eventually the society plans to expand the initiative to other cities and regions of Indiana.

Such an effort is a striking departure from the short shrift previously accorded local gay history. Until now, preserving it fell to one man, Michael Bohr. The 65-year-old retired auditor began collecting artifacts two decades ago after the death of an acquaintance whose numerous photos of gay events from the 1970s - picnics, parties, meetings - were tossed into the trash by the dead man’s disapproving parents.

As AIDS deaths mounted in the gay community, more such artifacts were kicked to the curb. Bohr started gathering material in 1995 and now has 8,000 items, such as photos, videos of drag shows, hundreds of T-shirts from gay festivals and out-of-print gay publications, including a 1966 copy of what is believed to be Indianapolis‘ earliest gay journal, “The Screamer.”

Bohr’s collection, named the Chris Gonzales Library & Archives after an activist who died of AIDS in 1994, is a labor of love and depends on free rent. Today it is housed in the basement of a building at 429 E. Vermont St. where the advocacy group Indy Pride is based. (The collection is open to the public on weekends).

The archive has been uprooted at least three times. First it was in an LGBT community center on Southeastern Avenue called the Diversity Center, but the center closed. From there it was relocated to a place on Mass Ave., but only briefly, and later Bohr was forced to place the archive in storage. At one point the only place that would have it was a gay adult video shop. That was as recent as 2008.

“Well, it’s 2014 now,” said Herbst, noting how the climate has become far more accepting of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

Hoosier history’s embrace of gay culture comes just three years after the opening of the GLBT History Museum in historically gay-friendly San Francisco. In New York a group called the Velvet Foundation is trying to raise money to start a national LGBT museum.

In May, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell launched an effort to identify places and events associated with LGBT Americans for inclusion in National Parks Service programs. One of the goals is to raise the number of LGBT-related places on the National Register of Historic Places.

Indiana Landmarks, in following the National Parks Service’s lead, joined forces with Indy Pride in October 2013 to learn about key sites in Indianapolis LGBT history and document them. But because gay people until relatively recently were generally secretive (proprietors of many gay bars boarded or plastered over their windows until just a few years ago), their history takes some time to uncover, said Landmarks’ Mark Dollase.

Landmarks’ project is a long way from finished, but the group has uncovered some gay history from long ago and not so long ago. The writer and poet Oscar Wilde made an appearance in Indianapolis at the English Opera House in 1882. In 1977 nearly 1,000 Hoosiers picketed Anita Bryant, who was at the Indiana State Fairgrounds to promote a bill in the Indiana statehouse that would criminalize sodomy.

History can seem quaint and harmless. But gay rights is still a contentious issue. Many Hoosiers, including a majority in the Indiana General Assembly and also Gov. Mike Pence, oppose same-sex marriage.

Micah Clark of the American Family Association, the most vocal of the many proponents of a ban on gay marriage, dismissed the historical society’s and Landmarks’ efforts. “I think most Americans are tired of hearing about (the gay lifestyle),” he said. “Now we want a historical display on how people have sex?”

Neither the Indiana Historical Society nor Indiana Landmarks plans to focus on sex acts, but the point Clark makes is clear: homosexuality is still far from being universally accepted.

Some of those opponents are people of means, and both the historical society and Landmarks depend on charitable donations. Herbst said he has “not heard any negative comments” about the historical society’s LGBT program.

When Landmarks launched its LGBT effort, “we did receive a few notes questioning why we were pushing the initiative,” Dollase said. But there has been “no negative effect on fundraising.”

“As a matter of fact, we view this as an opportunity to be more inclusive and bring more members and donors into our ranks.”

The Chronicle of Philanthropy, in a sort of primer published last year on how to cultivate gay donors, made the point that same-sex couples “are more likely than their straight counterparts to live in two-income households, without dependent children” and so present fertile ground for nonprofits.

Two decades ago Bohr, who is gay, told The Indianapolis Star that the gay community was responsible for preserving their own culture. “No one else is going to keep our history for us,” he said.

Now, that’s no longer true. Recently the historical society approached Bohr about acquiring parts of his archive and keeping it in its secure, state-of-the-art facility.

Bohr said no. He worries the pendulum may swing.

“Things are going well for the gay rights movement,” he said, “but history has its ups and downs. The political climate could change suddenly. (The historical society) depends on fundraising and so is susceptible to outside pressure. If the (historic society) had the archive, and the gay material became politically embarrassing, they could say, ‘Let’s bury it in the basement.’ Maybe that’s me being old and cynical, but it’s happened before.”

“The pendulum does always swing,” said James Madison, an emeritus history professor at Indiana University, a historical society trustee and author of the just released book “Hoosiers: A New History of Indiana.” ”I can’t predict the future. But there are donor agreements - (Bohr) could attach conditions.

“But the larger issue to me is: Of course the pendulum could swing. But I think on this issue, and on other issues of justice and liberty for all, I think it’d be very hard to go back.”

Madison’s new book - 400 pages, covering Indiana’s history from the Ice Age to the present - touches only briefly on gay history. The book notes in the final chapter that an effort in 2014 to introduce a gay marriage ban into the state constitution failed.

“I would have included more but there isn’t documentation,” he said. “There has been a lack of scholarship. Very little is known (about Indiana’s gay history).”

That’s about to change.

___

Information from: The Indianapolis Star, https://www.indystar.com


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