Fort Wayne’s Charles Allen: Theatrical Ingenue & “Unsung Gay Hero”

Courtesy of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, caption: Pianist Charles Allen, left, and singer Steve Black were part of the entertainment scene in the late ’60s, when bars replaced coffeehouses as the centers of musical activity.

Legendary choreographer and “unsung gay hero” Charles Allen sat with a tape recorder in his Fort Wayne house, a veritable art museum awaiting curation. Sipping gin and orange juice from an empty peanut butter jar, he began to document his life. Notorious for self-mythologizing—once claiming to have killed a man using “voodoo and black magic”—some of the anecdotes he fed the tape no doubt were embellished.[1] These would prove unnecessary, however, as his legacy speaks for itself. Not only did Allen give “birth to generations of dancers and . . . change the way people looked at the world around him,” but he inspired and empowered LGBTQ+ Hoosiers, perhaps unintentionally. Upon Allen’s 1980 death, Jerry Jokay wrote in TROIS, Fort Wayne’s gay newsletter, that “Although he probably wouldn’t have seen it this way, one of his greatest contributions was that he was a gay hero. And he is a gay hero simply because his gayness was a trivial issue in his life even in spite of the oppression it caused him.”[2] Allen, on the other hand, would probably consider his greatest contributions to be advancing performing arts and instilling a love of storytelling and self-expression in Hoosiers.

Gene Stratton Porter, courtesy of the Indiana State Museum, courtesy of KPC News.

Born in 1912, Allen was likely raised by his aunt and uncle in Mongo, Indiana. Depictions of Allen’s childhood are characteristically colorful and include a traipse through Tamarack Swamp with famed author and naturalist Gene Stratton Porter in search of insects and plant specimens.[3] Allen “recalled dyeing his hair pinkish-brown as a child, catching blue racer snakes, putting them around his neck, and startling passersby on highway 20 near his home. A barefoot, innocent, wild-haired child of the swamp.”[4]  The spirited child attended school in Kendallville and spent free time in LaGrange, where he learned to play piano at Wigdon Theater. Fully enamored with artistic expression, he devoured performances delivered by a travelling company. The News-Sentinel reported “there was a troupe of four or five men, who did a two-reel silent movie, and set up an impromptu stage with an indian scene. There was singing, and two of the men did female impersonations. When he left the show, his life had changed. . . . He’d fallen in love.”

The production continued to call to him, long after the caravans departed. He left school, took a train to northern Michigan, where the travelling company had migrated, and became its new pianist. As despair deepened during the Great Depression, the public increasingly took solace in travelling shows. These provided Allen with opportunities to try his theatrical hand and hone his skills as a performer. The News-Sentinel noted, “People were doing almost anything for money. He fell in with a freak show,” dubbed the Palace of Wonders, for which he mesmerized crowds as the Human Pin Cushion. During this period, Allen learned how to perform the “half-man, half-woman” act, styling his feminine half after screen siren Marlene Dietrich. When he returned to Fort Wayne, he would perform this routine at local tavern, Henry’s, and played piano at bars like This Old House, Trolly Bar, and the Caboose.[5] Allen insisted that friends stay at his house once the bars closed down for the night, hating solitude.[6]

The eclectic career he had forged for himself was abruptly derailed by the conformist ethos of the 1940s. At a time of global upheaval, Americans held evermore sacrosanct heteronormativity. The News-Sentinel reported that during this “less enlightened age,” a judge sentenced Allen to six years in a Michigan City Prison after “an affair with a soldier led to a charge of sodomy.”[7] Allen recalled in the Fort Wayne Free Press that the judge declared ironically “we’re going to send you where you’ll be happy; locked up with a lot of men!”[8] This prediction proved correct, as he spent time with paramours in a makeshift room fashioned out of old pianos and curtains. On weekends, he played piano for the men waiting in line to watch a movie. While it played, a band mate would take his place at the piano, so that he could go hold hands with his companion. During his few years in prison, Allen made friends, assembled a band—for which he played the sousaphone—and learned how to dance.[9]

A sketch of Etheridge Knight in prison by Terrance Hayes, accessed theparisreview.org.

The News-Sentinel noted that in prison Allen “kept following his insatible [sic] desire to learn. Where he could find no one else to teach him, he taught himself. The creativity could never let him rest. It would be that way to the end of his life.”[10] This cultivation of self-expression paralleled the journey of African American poet, Etheridge Knight. While serving eight years at the Indiana State Prison in the 1960s, he discovered the restorative power of writing, culminating in his revolutionary Poems from Prison. Knight later stated that “Poetry and a few people in there trying to stay human saved me . . . I knew that I couldn’t just deaden all my feeling the way some people did.”[11]

So, too, did music and dance sustain Allen during his incarceration. Upon release, he returned to Fort Wayne, opening the Charles Allen Dance Studio.[12] According to the Journal-Gazette, he was the city’s only choreographer and, through his trips to New York and Chicago, “single-handedly” invigorated the city’s theater scene. Something of a cultural conduit, Allen traveled to Vera Cruz, Mexico to research indigenous dances. He studied dance at the University of Guatemala and the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico, imbuing midwestern students with unique material and perspectives.[13]

In life and work, Allen gravitated towards those on the fringes, perhaps identifying with their struggles or the stigmatization they endured. He reportedly taught exotic dancers how to improve their performances and played piano at “houses of ill repute.”[14]  In his TROIS article, Springer wrote that Allen played piano and felt a “kinship” with Black Americans because “like him, they were among the outsiders of society.”[15] Though he was exacting and sometimes cruel, the News Sentinel reported that “he would work with beginners no one else had time for, work tirelessly because he felt a love of what he was doing.”[16] Janice Dyson recalled this experience, after her mom “scrimped grocery money to help pay” for lessons for her and her sister, Bernice. She recalled that Allen “was a real taskmaster. . . . Bernice was intimidated by him and quit after about a year. I wasn’t afraid of him, but I learned pretty quickly that when he said practice or else, he meant it.”[17] Perhaps he hoped to provoke the same grit he’d developed through surmounting the many hardships imposed by society.

While he worked with Fort Wayne performers, Allen reportedly knew the jazz greats, like Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong, and one friend noted that “a lot of famous people used to come here and have him fix their acts. Polish the acts. Reblock them or rechoreograph them.'”[18] Legend has it that one winter Allen sold his horse to pay the train fare to see Holiday perform in New York City. Due to a snow storm, he was the only person to show up at the theater. The usher relayed his presence to Holiday, who performed only for him, after which they went out for a drink. She reportedly drove him to the train station and ran alongside the cars, waving as the train departed. Allen was so moved by the experience that he wept while watching the train station scene in “The Lady Sings the Blues.”[19]

Family Theatre Festival (1975-1976), OnStage On Campus Collection, mDON: mastodon Digital Object Network, Helmke Library, Purdue University Fort Wayne.

Purdue University Fort Wayne (PUFW) recognized the ingenue’s talent, hiring Allen to teach courses like Stage Movement.[20] He felt immense pride about being self-taught. A man who embodied resistance towards oppression and convention, his influence intersected fortuitously with the cultural revolution of the late 1960s and 1970s. Friends and colleagues seem to agree that he was not an activist in the traditional sense, but he always answered when called to provide insight about homosexuality or the burgeoning “homophile” movement. He recognized that, as one of few men in the area living openly, if he did not engage in public discourse that no one one would. When asked by WANE-TV to serve as one of five panelists about homosexuality Allen agreed, saying “‘I’m all right here, I don’t have any problems because I’m not scared. But a lot of people are scared; they’re scared they’ll get arrested.”[21] He appealed to dozens of people to serve as panelists, but only two agreed. Those who declined feared that their parents would disown them or that they would lose their job, as had one of Allen’s friends who served in World War II. Others claimed the panel was unnecessary or worried that it would upset the “status quo,” which had provided a modicum of safety. To this reasoning, Allen said, “‘I thought if everything is so fine, why can’t they get on the air and say it’s fine. It’s because it isn’t fine.”[22]

Allen spoke about homosexuality at PUFW campus teach-ins and college classes, and wrote editorials for the student paper, The Fort Wayne Free Press, under the pseudonym “Claude Hawk.”[23] He wanted audiences to understand that sexuality was not a choice, noting that “My own doctor tells me that one gene or chromosome determines sexual preference—not butchness, effeminancy, athleticism, not militancy, but whom you want to go to bed with.”[24] He added that this knowledge, while “comforting,” doesn’t help if you get fired or the “bartender breaks your glass after each drink, etc., etc.” His efforts shifted the perspectives of students like Linda Lamirand and Katharine Stout, who attended a teach-in with the “brave man” who “sat up there and told it like it is.”[25] The authors were enlightened by Allen’s revelations that he knew he was gay at the age of four and that scientific studies suggested that biology dictated sexual preference.

Courtesy of The Fort Wayne Free Press, 3, iss. 16 (July 27, 1972): 9, accessed mDON: mastadon Digital Object Network, Helmke Library, Purdue University Fort Wayne.

In one Free Press editorial, Allen addressed those who had come to terms with their sexuality, but faced the question “where do you go?” to meet someone. Of the dilemma, he wrote:

You can’t find someone at an office party or at a neighborhood bar because someone would ‘find out’. So you experiment. You drink too much or get so horny that, without experience, you get your teeth bashed in saying something dumb to to the wrong person; or the right-wrong person who relieves you of your watch, wallet, and rings. Or sometimes you are picked up by a nicelooking, intelligent, young man with long hair and bare feet, who turns out to be fuzz and you are entrapped, fined, and-or jailed.[26]

He advised readers to find a “gentle, gay” friend, who can help navigate the covert social world, or a relatively tolerant restaurant or bar. A “third salvation,” Allen noted, was to “know an art or theater crowd who don’t give a damn. Not about you, but about it.” The theater provided a world in which he did not have to explain himself or act as a local spokesperson for homosexuality. He wrote that the “freedom, acceptance, and love” afforded by the theater community created “a place to breathe in this pollution of brotherhood. Since one doesn’t have to hide, or lose his job in these fields, these are the more obvious” ones in which to work.[27] In fact, Allen noted that living as a gay man paralleled life in the performing arts, writing:

“You are forced to think and live like a male and play the game so well that you are never uncovered. And this becomes an art, gives you a facility for understanding objectively what’s going on. It’s like a play, and while others are doing it naturally you’re listening for clues, and if well rehearsed, arrive at a happy ending.”[28] 

The Fort Wayne Free Press 4, iss. 3 (January 25, 1973): 6, accessed mDON: mastadon Digital Object Network, Helmke Library, Purdue University Fort Wayne.

While TROIS writer Jerry Jokay considered Allen “Fort Wayne’s unsung gay hero,” he noted that “his fortitude laid in the fact that he didn’t dwell upon his difference . . . Allen was preoccupied with being so much more, as his best friends attest.”[29] Preoccupied, he was. Allen informed Free Press readers about his life, writing in 1971 that “I ran my own school, taught at Purdue, played piano in bars, was connected with Ft. Wayne Civic Theater, Kenosha Little Theater, Theater Alanta, had choreographed a Broadway show, was a Japanese paper folder, an Arabian knot tier.”[30] He had traveled the globe in search of inspiration and imbued new generations of performers with it. The News-Sentinel wrote that “he became unique, in a world of his own creation. His art became his life, his life his art.”[31]

His life, his art. Perhaps it was his cancer diagnosis that inspired him to detail them on tape, stories that writer Dan Luzadder suggested “may have been plucked from the intensity of his nether world.”[32] We don’t know what stories he told, as he ran out of time to complete the recordings,* but perhaps he described the demands of caring for his pet python or recited original sonnets, haikus, and Limericks, “both clean and questionable.”[33] We can be certain that his life and art profoundly influenced those around him. This is evidenced by the obituaries written upon his death in 1980 at the age of 68. Luzadder wrote in the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel:

There was loneliness and insecurity. There were things that drove him. And there was tremendous courage to live through the times of his life, to aspire to art, to survive with nothing more than intelligence and faith in himself, to go hungry, to be alone, to see the world in its intolerance and still love it.[34]

Dell Ford, “Artists’ Artist Charles Allen Dies,” Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, March 20, 1980, 1C, 2C, ISL microfilm.

On March 21, hundreds of people from all walks of life—including actors, dancers, bartenders, city officials, and editors—stood shoulder-to-shoulder at the Performing Arts Center to pay their respects to the man “whose life had taught them the meaning of art.”[35] His memorial served as a final standing ovation, with Civic Director Richard Casey reading from “Hamlet,” poets performing spoken word, and dancers delivering a finale performance of “Mr. Bojangles.”[36]

Allen provides us with a window into the experiences of those who lived openly in Indiana prior to the liberating events of the 1980s and 1990s. Before a sense of community was fostered by the formation of groups like Fort Wayne Gay and Lesbian Organization (GLO), Pride Week celebrations, and the publication of gay newsletters, Allen drew upon a deep reservoir of self-assurance and creative impulse to fashion a fulfilling life.[37] In his 1980 tribute, Steve Springer described Allen as “an individualist. Society had its standards of behavior and Allen had his own.” And although he had suffered because of these standards, Springer insisted that “Long after Anita Bryant and her hordes of intolerants are forgotten, the legend of Charles Allen will live on.”[38]

* The author has been unable to locate these recordings. If you know of their location please contact npoletika @library.in.gov.

Sources:

All issues of The Fort Wayne Free Press were accessed via mDON Mastodon Digital Object Network, Helmke Library, Purdue University Fort Wayne.

[1] Dan Luzadder, “Charles Allen: His Life and His Art Were his Epitaph,” (Fort Wayne) News-Sentinel, March 21, 1980, 7A, Indiana State Library (ISL) microfilm.

[2] Jerry Jokay, “Who Was Charles Allen?,” TROIS (Three Rivers’ One in Six) (March 1983), Northeast Indiana Diversity Library Collection, accessed Indiana Memory.

[3] “Arts Center Site for Allen Service,” (Fort Wayne) News-Sentinel, March 20, 1980, ISL microfilm.

[4] Dan Luzadder, “Charles Allen: His Life and His Art Were his Epitaph,” (Fort Wayne) News-Sentinel, March 21, 1980, 7A, ISL microfilm.

[5] Dell Ford, “Artists’ Artist Charles Allen Dies,” Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, March 20, 1980, 1C, 2C, ISL microfilm.

[6] Dan Luzadder, “Charles Allen: His Life and His Art Were his Epitaph,” (Fort Wayne) News-Sentinel, March 21, 1980, 7A, ISL microfilm.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Claude Hawk, “Boys Will Be Girls!,” The Fort Wayne Free Press 2, iss. 1 (January 1, 1971): 3.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Dan Luzadder, “Charles Allen: His Life and His Art Were his Epitaph,” (Fort Wayne) News-Sentinel, March 21, 1980, 7A, ISL microfilm.

[11] Nicole Poletika, “Etheridge Knight: ‘can there anything good come out of prison,'” May 3, 2017, accessed Indiana History Blog.

[12] Steve Springer, “Chas. Allen,” The Communicator, March 27, 1980, reprinted in TROIS (Three Rivers’ One in Six) (May 1980): 5, 7, Northeast Indiana Diversity Library Collection, accessed Indiana Memory.

[13] Dell Ford, “Artists’ Artist Charles Allen Dies,” Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, March 20, 1980, 1C, 2C, ISL microfilm.

[14] Ibid.; Dan Luzadder, “Charles Allen: His Life and His Art Were his Epitaph,” (Fort Wayne) News-Sentinel, March 21, 1980, 7A, ISL microfilm.

[15] Steve Springer, “Chas. Allen,” The Communicator, March 27, 1980, reprinted in TROIS (Three Rivers’ One in Six) (May 1980): 5, 7, Northeast Indiana Diversity Library Collection, accessed Indiana Memory.

[16] Dan Luzadder, “Charles Allen: His Life and His Art Were his Epitaph,” (Fort Wayne) News-Sentinel, March 21, 1980, 7A, ISL microfilm.

[17] Janice Dyson, “Studio Marks 65 Years of Dancing,” KPC News, December 28, 2017, accessed kpcnews.com.

[18] Dell Ford, “Artists’ Artist Charles Allen Dies,” Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, March 20, 1980, 1C, 2C, ISL microfilm.

[19] Steve Springer, “Chas. Allen,” The Communicator, March 27, 1980, reprinted in TROIS (Three Rivers’ One in Six) (May 1980): 5, 7, Northeast Indiana Diversity Library Collection, accessed Indiana Memory.

[20] “Family Festival Slated,” Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, April 28, 1976, 6C.

[21] “It Isn’t Fine,” The Fort Wayne Free Press 2, no. 17 (September 9-23, 1971).

[22] Ibid.

[23] Claude Hawk, “Wherever You Are!,” The Fort Wayne Free Press 1, iss. 10 (October 7-21, 1970): 4.; Claude Hawk, “Out of the Closet,” The Fort Wayne Free Press 1, iss. 11 (November 2-18, 1970): 3, 6.; “It Isn’t Fine,” The Fort Wayne Free Press 2, no. 17 (September 9-23, 1971).

[24] Claude Hawk, “Wherever You Are!,” The Fort Wayne Free Press 1, iss. 10 (October 7-21, 1970): 4.

[25] Linda Lamirand and Katharine Stout, “Dear Freep,” The Fort Wayne Free Press 2, iss. 7 (April 22-May 6, 1971): 10.

[26] Claude Hawk, “Wherever You Are!,” The Fort Wayne Free Press 1, iss. 10 (October 7-21, 1970): 4.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Claude Hawk, “God Love Us All,” The Fort Wayne Free Press 2, iss. 8 (May 6, 1971): 9.

[29] Jerry Jokay, “Who Was Charles Allen?,” TROIS (Three Rivers’ One in Six) (March 1983), Northeast Indiana Diversity Library Collection, accessed Indiana Memory.

[30] Bob Ihrie and Charles Allen, “Holiday on Ice,” The Fort Wayne Free Press 2, iss. 2 (January 18-February 2, 1971): 3.

[31] Dan Luzadder, “Charles Allen: His Life and His Art Were his Epitaph,” (Fort Wayne) News-Sentinel, March 21, 1980, 7A, ISL microfilm.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Dell Ford, “Artists’ Artist Charles Allen Dies,” Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, March 20, 1980, 1C, 2C, ISL microfilm.

[34] Dan Luzadder, “Charles Allen: His Life and His Art Were his Epitaph,” (Fort Wayne) News-Sentinel, March 21, 1980, 7A, ISL microfilm.

[35] Dell Ford, “Funeral Celebrates Dance, Poetry, Drama, Music,” Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, March 22, 1980, C1, ISL microfilm.; Steve Springer, “Chas. Allen,” The Communicator, March 27, 1980, reprinted in TROIS (Three Rivers’ One in Six) (May 1980): 5, 7, Northeast Indiana Diversity Library Collection, accessed Indiana Memory.

[36] Dell Ford, “Funeral Celebrates Dance, Poetry, Drama, Music,” Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, March 22, 1980, C1, ISL microfilm.

[37] Nicole Poletika, “From ‘Gay Knights’ to Celebration on the Circle: A History of Pride in Indianapolis,” October 5, 2021, accessed Indiana History Blog.

[38] Steve Springer, “Chas. Allen,” The Communicator, March 27, 1980, reprinted in TROIS (Three Rivers’ One in Six) (May 1980): 5, 7, Northeast Indiana Diversity Library Collection, accessed Indiana Memory.

From “Gay Knights” to Celebration on the Circle: A History of Pride in Indianapolis

The New Works (August 1990): 15, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives.

* A note on terminology: We recognize that terminology referring to this marginalized community will continue to evolve. We have chosen to use “LGBTQ+” and “queer” after consulting with Indy Pride board members, historians specializing in the field, and new scholarship. We are cognizant that the community is not monolithic and that some individuals may not identify with these terms. It is also important to note that the mainstream civil rights movement excluded people of color, those living in poverty, and transgender individuals. 

The fabric of America has always been comprised of LGBTQ+ individuals, but due to social stigmas, legal discrimination, and the perpetuation of violence, many of these individuals lived quietly. While the 1969 Stonewall Uprising in New York City proved to be a watershed moment in the national fight for equality, those in the conservative state of Indiana continued to socialize privately, for the most part. In 1976, the first “Gay Pride Week” was held in Indianapolis, hosted by the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) and the Gay Peoples Union. Rather than celebrate publicly, attendees were invited to attend a picnic at Sugar Creek Park, donate blood at MCC, participate in a “Youth Kamp Disco,” and attend workshops entitled “Do I Tell My Parents?,” “Christian and Gay,” “Lifestyles in the ‘70s,” and “Gays and Government.” MCC pastor Rev. James Hill said the purpose of the week was “to make society aware of our presence and as a self-affirming thing for gay people as well—affirming they have the right to be.’”

Program, 4th Annual Gay Pride Week Brunch, June 24, 1984, Jeffrey L. Huntington Collection, L198, accessed Indiana State Library Digital Collections.

According to an article The Works, when Pride plans failed to materialize in 1980, activists gathered at the Ramada Inn and formed a Pride Week Committee, which sponsored the 1981 Pride Week Brunch at Essex Hotel House. The Indianapolis Star noted in 1982 that celebrations continued in an insular manner, writing that individuals celebrated “Indiana style—without marches or noisy rallies.” Instead, they raised funds for various causes, donated food to the needy, and “tried quietly to let others know they are here.” Celebrants in 1984 continued the tradition of picnics, in addition to raising funds for AIDS research. The summer of that year, hundreds of LGBTQ+ Hoosiers met at Monument Circle to socialize, listen to local activists, learn about their rights, and register to vote.

The Works (September 1984): 6, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives.

While organizers were careful to note that this was not a protest or demonstration, it was the first large public gathering of queer individuals in the state. Their goal was to increase visibility for the community, hoping the show of solidarity would lead to a decrease in police harassment and increased commitment to solving the murders of LGBTQ+ individuals. Mayor Bill Hudnut reluctantly issued a letter that was read at one of the gatherings, declaring a commitment to “an absence of anti-gay bias in all police matters.” According to a June 1985 The Works article, this marked “the first time any Mayor of Indianapolis has made any positive public pronouncement on gays in Indianapolis.” Although relations between police and elected officials and queer Hoosiers would remain relatively fraught, the Works considered the 1984 gatherings a success, writing that the events:

will go down in the gay history of Indiana as the first time gays in this state have exercised their Constitutional right to freedom of public assembly. Gays and lesbians exercised this Constitutional right in no less a place than the Monument Circle area of Indianapolis in full view of many Indianapolis citizens who came to see what gays had to say.

The Works (September 1984): 1, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives.

After the 1984 gatherings, which some dubbed “Gay Knights on the Circle,” Pride Week celebrations remained relatively private until 1990. That year, the twentieth anniversary of NYC’s first Pride Week, Indiana activists felt ready to celebrate publicly. Organized primarily by Justice, Inc.’s Ruth Peters, the New Works News noted that the June event would “provide an opportunity for gays and lesbians to increase their political and community awareness and visibility. Having the event on the Circle will provide both an educational and enjoyable atmosphere for the Indianapolis community at large to enjoy the speakers and entertainers.”

Some Hoosiers, like Drew Carey, feared making themselves vulnerable by attending the state’s first large outdoor Pride event. Nevertheless, he felt his presence was important, writing in an editorial reprinted in the New Works June 1990 issue:

I can’t tell you how much this intimidates me. I have never made such an open stand. But I’m going to be there, stomach in knots and all, because there is nothing so vitally important. . . . If we make excuses for not going, we manifest the internalized homophobia that will continue to keep us on the fringe, where society need not even recognize that we exist. We say to ourselves, to friends, to family, and to society, ‘I’m ashamed; I’m embarrassed about what I am. Your stereotypes about gays and lesbians are right.’

Those who turned out for the unprecedented event enjoyed entertainment like drag shows, learned about gay rights legislation, listened to AIDS activists, and interacted with those manning booths for the Indiana Youth Group, Damien Center, Act-Up Indy, Marion County Health Department Condom Contest, and Indiana Pro-Choice Action League.

“Circle Celebration Pics,” The New Works, 15, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives.

Despite the presence of protesters, the event empowered attendees, challenged social stigmas, and welcomed a range of sexual and gender expressions. The New Works News editor reflected in August, “As I looked around me . . .  I had but one thought: this is what a city is supposed to be like-alive, vibrant, filled with productive, enjoyable activity.” Carmen Kruer had a similar sentiment, writing in an editorial for the same issue that for the first time the community could:

socialize publicly with minimal fear of harassment and was also able to feel the strength that its numbers can provide. I was very proud to be a part of the lesbian and gay community as it drew together to support one goal – the attainment of a safe environment for all persons regardless of their sexual orientation, race, creed, or gender. I will always remember this day as I anticipate the next public celebration in Indiana.

“3000 Attend ‘Circle Celebration,'” The New Works, 1, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives.

With the event’s success, organizations like Justice, Inc. pushed to keep the momentum going through donations and activism. One writer for the New Works News wrote in July that the “Celebration on the Circle” was only the beginning, contending that “The Gay Civil Rights movement is at a critical point in its development. Much has been accomplished, but there is still much of a negative nature which must be overcome both within ourselves and in the public in general. . . . It’s up to us.”

In the ensuing years, Justice, Inc. and Indy Pride helped grow the event and by 2012 an estimated 80,000 people and 300 vendor booths attended the celebration. According to Indy Pride, the Cadillac Barbie Pride Parade “featured a float, an antique truck, a few drag queens, some antique cars, and several walking groups,” becoming a cornerstone of celebrations. Of the annual event’s significance, Indy Pride noted “In the years since Pride first ‘came out of the closet,’ the exposure has created a massive change in the society of the city of Indianapolis and the state of Indiana. The battle is not won until everyone is equal but the Indy Pride Festival and the Indy Pride Parade are Indiana’s symbol of a growing acceptance in our cultures.”

Indy Pride celebrant, Mark A. Lee LGBT Photo Collection, accessed Indiana Historical Society.

As with most efforts to secure civil rights, progress for the queer community in the city known for its “Polite Protest” and “Hoosier Hospitality” occurred in fits and spurts. The 2014 legalization of gay marriage and the 2015 enactment of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act exemplifies this duality. As of 2021, organizations like the Indiana Youth Group and Indy Pride continue to provide resources and press for equal protection under the law.

* Sources used to write this post can be found here.

Learn about the following Indiana LGBTQ+ history topics:

“’Actually, Genuinely Welcomed:’ How North Meadow Circle of Friends Embraced and Wed LGBTQ Individuals”

“Gloria Frankel & The Seahorse: The South Bend LGBT Club’s Fight for Gay Rights”

“How Indy’s Queer Community Challenged Police Harassment in the 1980s”

“The Debate over ‘Decency:’ How Hoosiers Challenged Anita Bryant’s Anti-Gay Rights Crusade”

“’Walk a Mile in Their Pumps:’ Combating Discrimination within Indy’s Queer Community”

“’We Had Sung Them Off the Monument Steps:’ Pride, Protest, and Patriotism in Indianapolis”

“We Had Sung Them Off the Monument Steps:” Pride, Protest, and Patriotism in Indianapolis

 

Indianapolis Men’s Chorus Singing for Indy Pride 1992, Photo courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.

Music has long played a vital role in not only American history but also American activism.  Slave spirituals were key to enduring the brutality of slave life and provided not only relief but also coded communication. Frederick Douglass wrote in his autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, “The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears.”  Similarly, music has been instrumental in a variety of modern 20th century movements such as the freedom songs of the Civil Rights Movement and feminist anthems of the Women’s Movement.  All movements have their anthems.  But what about when it comes to our actual national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner”?

Original manuscript, Francis Scott Key, “Star Spangled Banner,” accesssed Library of Congress.

It seems unlikely that during the War of 1812, when Francis Scott Key penned the poem that would later become our national anthem, he could have foreseen the controversy over the song that would occur centuries later.  Certainly, he could not have predicted black football players taking a knee during his now musical poem prior to a professional football game, for one, because Key could not envision an America where black people lived free.  While he viewed slavery as sinful (despite owning slaves himself at various points in his life), he was an anti-abolitionist who also at times upheld slaveholder rights. He personally supported the idea of black people “returning to Africa” if they were freed from slavery.

Wood Engraving, accessed Library of Congress.

His poem, set to the tune of an English drinking song, has been rife with controversy from the beginning.  Many critics thought it too militaristic, too long, or even too hard to sing or to remember the complicated lyrics.  It did not become the official anthem until 1931 during President Herbert Hoover’s tenure and there were many outspoken critics of the choice at the time and since (“America the Beautiful” has always been a fan favorite).  But enough about Key.

In recent years, and regardless of how one feels about it, it is clear that our national anthem has been at the center of controversy in terms of its meaning and our reactions to it.  The anthem is, for some, a sacrosanct representation of America and to question it, to kneel during it, has become an act of such disrespect as to dominate national dialogue for years.  But clearly questions remain regarding the idea of ownership and interpretation of the anthem.  If indeed the anthem belongs to Americans and represents us as a unit, how do we come to a common consensus in regards to it?  Do we even need to?  If so, which Americans get to determine our anthem’s meaning and how we should respond to it?  Who gets to embody Americanism and Americanness, and who gets to make the decision about how we display our patriotism or call our country to be its best self?

Celebration on the Circle Program, Jeffrey L. Huntington collection, Rare Books and Manuscripts Division, Indiana State Library, Indiana Memory.

These questions lead to a much less publicized yet incredibly important event that occurred in Indianapolis during the Gay Pride celebration called “Celebration on the Circle,” held at Monument Circle on Saturday June 29, 1991.  The gay community had been steadily growing and becoming more open in Indianapolis during the 1980s and early 1990s.  Yet, it was still dangerous in many ways to live openly as a gay man or lesbian in the Midwest at the time.  The vibrant gay bar scene and activism of the city were working on changing that by the early 1990s, but it was a long row to hoe, one that has not fully been completed across the state of Indiana.

One important development, among many, of Indianapolis becoming a more welcoming community to LGBTQ folks was the founding and then performances of the Indianapolis Men’s Chorus.  The Men’s Chorus was a gay men’s chorus founded by the non-profit Crossroads Performing Arts, Inc.  Crossroads, whose steering committee was originally under the direction of Jim Luce, had been working since January 1990 to lay the groundwork for the Men’s Chorus with future goals to establish a Women’s Chorus and an instrumental group.  Recruitment for the Men’s Chorus began in earnest by the end of March 1990, and the founding choral director, Michael Hayden, who was a music professor at Butler University, was hired in August 1990.  Vocal auditions were held in late September and early October, and the Men’s Chorus began practicing in earnest on October 14.  The group planned to formally debut in spring 1991, which they did at the historic Madame Walker Theater on Saturday June 8.

Crossroads’ mission was to “strengthen the spirit of pride within the gay/lesbian community, to build bridges of understanding with all people of Indiana, and to enable its audiences and the general public to perceive the gay/lesbian community and its members in a positive way.”  It is not surprising then, that the newly formed Men’s Chorus was slated to perform at the Gay Pride celebration in Indianapolis in late June 1991, as part of their debut season.  This was only the second Gay Pride event held at Monument Circle.  Gay Pride events, hosted by various organizations such as Justice, Inc., had been held in the city in the past, but throughout the 1980s they were semi-closeted, meaning they were held in a hotel, bar or rented space that was not actually out in the public—it was deemed too dangerous to be that open.  In 1988, however, the Pride celebration expanded with a festival held at the more public Indianapolis Sports Center.  Approximately 175 people attended, and by the very next year, when the event moved to Westlake Park, the number had dramatically risen to 1,000.

Justice, Inc. Celebration on the Circle button. 1990-06-30, accessed Digital Public Library of America.
Indianapolis Star, July 1, 1990, accessed ProQuest.

Yet, the gay community still had real cause for concern, particularly as they began celebrating more openly and in highly visible spaces. In 1990, the Pride festivities continued to expand and moved to Monument Circle for an event dubbed “Celebration on the Circle.”  Virulent anti-gay protesters from a variety of Indianapolis churches wanted to intimidate them off the streets and back into the closets.  According to the Indianapolis Star, approximately 100 protesters were on the scene, “many of whom wore gas masks and shouted insults as they walked around Monument Circle.”  One anti-gay demonstrator explained why they were at the Circle: “We are all Christians who are here because we don’t approve of what these people are doing, trying to turn Indianapolis into another gay capital like San Francisco…I find it objectionable that they want to take their unholy, unacceptable lifestyle to the center of the city.”  Indeed, the Indianapolis Star described the rally as “a confrontation with fundamentalist anger.”

The climate was just as hostile or perhaps even more so for the second Pride event at the Circle.  First off, in April 1991, city officials denied Justice, Inc. permission to hold the Pride rally at Monument Circle, and cited a temporary policy limiting “traffic disruption and police overtime as the reasons.”  The Indiana Civil Liberties Union quickly planned to challenge the decision in court.  Within weeks, Safety Director Joseph J. Shelton relented, stating, “The thing that really changed my mind about it is the fact that regardless of what we say or what we do, the outright appearance was that we were only imposing this restriction on this group… just because of the gay and lesbian organization.”  After organizers were given the green light to host their event at the Circle, Pride attendees, including the Men’s Chorus singers, were still not exactly sure how they would be received by their own city and its citizens.

Indianapolis Star, April 6, 1991, accessed ProQuest.

Hayden recalled having conversations with the singers about whether they wanted to perform at the Pride event and how the chorus wanted to be sensitive to its members’ differing levels of comfort.  They were right to have concerns.  Religious protesters, even angrier than at last year’s events, were in the mood for blood.  And they arrived with baseball bats.  Jim Luce wryly observed, “Because Jesus would have a baseball bat, right?”

Hayden and the Men’s Chorus, including Luce, walked into a hostile scene.  As the 1991 Gay Pride event was getting ready to kick-off, approximately 40 protesters stormed the stage.  Lt. Tom Bruno, of the Indianapolis Police Department’s traffic unit, described the protesters as being armed with “an attitude of confrontation.”  As tensions mounted, John Aleshire, a spectator at Pride who later went on to chair the board of Crossroads Performing Arts, was unsettled by what was taking place before his eyes.  He was both fearful of what was to come and felt helpless to stop it.

Celebration on the Circle Program, Jeffrey L. Huntington collection, Rare Books and Manuscripts Division, Indiana State Library, Indiana Memory.

Right as the fundamentalist protesters and rally attendees including the Men’s Chorus, who had by then made their way onstage, seemed ready to clash, Michael Hayden, the chorus director, made a split-second decision.  He somehow had the knowledge and foresight to choose the only song that could defuse the tension and make the bat-wielding Christians stop in their tracks.  He looked at his men and said, “Sing the national anthem.  Right now.”  Pride attendees encircled the unwelcome protesters on the stage and assailed them with music.  According to the Indianapolis Star, “it was a tense moment,” but as Aleshire recalled, “something magical happened.”

As the Men’s Chorus armed themselves with their voices, the protesters were taken aback.  Luce described the scene: “It was fascinating to watch that group of people actively hating us while we were singing the National Anthem.  I mean they actively hated us.”  One onlooker later wrote, “Those who had wrapped their religion in Old Glory were hearing those ‘sissies’, ‘faggots’, and ‘moral degenerates’ demonstrating  that the ugly protesters held no monopoly when it came to expressing their love of country.”  And as Hayden queried, “What could they say?  How could they protest America’s national anthem?  There’s no way.”

Indianapolis Star, accessed ProQuest.

Hayden in that moment understood what was at stake here:  not only their right to be out in public as gay men and women, but their very Americanism.  Hayden recalled thinking, “We’re Americans too.  Shut up.  We’re going to own this just like you.  That flag represents us as well.”  And the fundamentalists faced a choice as the notes of the “Star Spangled Banner” descended upon them:  put their hands over their hearts as they had been taught that all loyal Americans should do when they hear our national anthem or charge full-force ahead at another group of patriotic Americans, nee Hoosiers, utilizing their right to celebrate in a public space.  The protesters ultimately stopped and paid their respects to the anthem, and it was just enough pause to dull the escalating tension.  In Hayden’s words, “We had sung them off the monument steps.”

Rainbow Flag, Courtesy of the ACLU

After the protesters exited the stage, events were able to carry on without further disruption.  No arrests were made and no violence occurred.  Attendees were proud of how the Pride event transpired, but fear of being so openly exposed continued to permeate throughout the day.

Activists, particularly those with ties to the Men’s Chorus, remember with pride how they sang down the hatred using their own patriotism.  Hayden described the Men’s Chorus singers as being these relatively young “homegrown” men, Hoosiers in their 20s and 30s who were “from these great families from Indiana.”  And after the situation was defused, they started cheering and hugging each other, and processing what they had just done. The following month, Hayden wrote to his chorus to reflect on their experiences: “Seeing a man carry a ball bat or standing on the steps with them shouting in our faces just trying to enlist us to violence … and then this mighty male instrument opening its mouth and singing these ‘Christians’ right off the steps!  Goliath has never seen a stronger David.  I have never felt so proud to be gay, a musician, and what we know to be a true Christian in my entire life.”

Indianapolis Star, December 29, 1992, accessed ProQuest.

Decades later, Hayden could still recall the emotions, power, and importance of what transpired that summer day.  He reminisced, “We all felt it, and we knew we had done that with our voices and our national anthem.”  Aleshire confirmed these feelings, “It proved to me, once again, that music is one of the most powerful forces to bring down walls and build bridges in their stead.”

 

Sources Used:

Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, Written by Himself, Edited with an Introduction by David W. Blight, (Bedford St. Martin’s, 2002).

Norman Gelb, “Francis Scott Key, the Reluctant Patriot,” Smithsonian Magazine, September 2004, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/francis-scott-key-the-reluctant-patriot-180937178/, Accessed 3 January 2019.

Michael Hayden, Interviews by author, September 10, 11, 19, 2018, October 1, 2018, November 12, 2018, In possession of author.

Ruth Holladay, “A gay chorus? In Indy? Planners say it’s about time,” Indianapolis Star. Wednesday June 20, 1990.

Tim Lucas, “Career Changes are his specialty,” Indianapolis Star, Sunday June 21, 1992.

Mary Carole McCauley, “’Star-Spangled Banner’ writer had complex record on race,” The Baltimore Sun, September 13, 2017, https://www.baltimoresun.com/entertainment/arts/bs-ae-key-legacy-20140726-story.html.

Kevin Morgan, “Pride and protest at gay gathering,” Indianapolis Star, Sunday July 1, 1990.

“Indianapolis’ LGBT History,” No Limits podcast, June 7, 2018, https://www.wfyi.org/programs/no-limits/radio/Indianapolis-LGBT-History.

Indianapolis Men’s Chorus/Crossroads Performing Arts, Inc. Records, ca. 1989-1995, 2005.  William Henry Smith Memorial Library, Indiana Historical Society, Indianapolis, Indiana.

“3,000 gays expected for event,” Indianapolis Star, Friday June 29, 1990.

Kyle Niederpruem, “Gay bar patrons often crime targets,” Indianapolis Star, Sunday September 30, 1990.

Diana Penner, “Men’s Chorus keeps on singing in face of adversity and protest,” Indianapolis Star, Tuesday December 29, 1992.

Dorothy Petroskey, “Homosexuals told they can’t rally at Circle,” Indianapolis Star, Saturday April 6, 1991.

Jacqui Podzius, “Homosexuals show their pride at rally,” Indianapolis Star, Sunday June 30, 1991.

Don Sherfick, “A Salute to the Indychoruses Bridge-Builders,” https://indianaequality.typepad.com/indiana_equality_blog/2008/09/a-salute-to-the.html, Accessed 2 August 2018.

AJ Willingham, “The unexpected connection between slavery, NFL protests, and the national anthem,”  August 22, 2017,  https://www.cnn.com/2016/08/29/sport/colin-kaepernick-flag-protest-has-history-trnd/index.html.

Christopher Wilson, “Where’s the Debate on Francis Scott Key’s Slave-Holding Legacy?” Smithsonian.com, July 1, 2016, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/wheres-debate-francis-scott-keys-slave-holding-legacy-180959550/.

Indy Pride, “History of Pride,” https://indypride.org/about/history/, Accessed 15 January 2019.