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

Friends Meeting House on Talbott Street, courtesy of the North Meadow Circle of Friends.

Before same-sex marriage was legally recognized across the United States in 2015, Quaker organizations in Indianapolis had upheld their roles as LGBTQ allies by marrying same-sex couples, like Mary Byrne and Tammara Tracy, in informal religious meetings. From their advocacy of the abolitionist movement to more modern issues of social justice, the Religious Society of Friends—or Quakers—have a unique relationship with marginalized communities. In Indianapolis, this relationship becomes even more intriguing when looking at Quaker connections to the LGBTQ community, specifically the activism of the North Meadow Circle of Friends, located at 1710 North Talbott Street, in the 1980s. Their meeting house served not only as a site for political engagement, but also as a location where same-sex couples could be wed long before same-sex marriage was legalized. The North Meadow Circle of Friends’ devotion to and involvement in issues central to the LGBTQ community provides a contrasting narrative to the prevailing one that all religious groups have historically opposed same-sex marriage.

Quakers believe God resides in every individual, providing them the ability to discern the will of God. They see each human life as possessing an unique worth, and they rely on the human conscience as the foundation of morality.[1] Throughout history, Quakers have sought to improve their own lives by placing an emphasis on education and the improvement of the lives of others. Friends have co-existed with Native Americans and supported the abolition of slavery. Activism involving abolitionism began with the adoption of strict policies regarding slavery, and by 1780, all Quakers in good standing had freed their slaves.[2] In addition, many Quakers’ homes, including that of Indiana residents Levi and Catharine Coffin, served as “stations” on the Underground Railroad.[3]

This legacy of embracing underrepresented communities is one reason many LGBTQ individuals in the 20th and 21st centuries have found acceptance in the Religious Society of Friends, including the North Meadow Circle of Friends. While generally the Quaker faith has a long history of inclusion, the religion itself has split over LGBTQ inclusion and issues. Some Quaker churches continue to view “the grouping of homosexuality and transsexuality with sexual violence and bestiality” and will only acknowledge a marriage between a man and a woman.[4] This has caused a divide in the Quaker community, as other Quaker churches view being an LGBTQ ally as a foundation of their faith. The North Meadow Circle of Friends has chosen to position itself as one of those allies through association with national queer-friendly organizations and conferences.

“’March On Washington’ April Meeting Report,” The New Works News 6, no. 8 (May 1987): 6, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives.

One such organization is the Friends for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Concerns (FLGBTQC), a North American Quaker faith community that gathers twice yearly and is a proponent of Quaker support for the LGBTQ community. The FLGBTQC has collected minutes of same-sex marriages and other commitment ceremonies from across the nation, one of which happens to be of the North Meadow Circle of Friends. On April 12, 1987, the North Meadow Circle of Friends wrote to the FLGBTQC that they “affirm the equal opportunity of marriage for all individuals, including members of the same sex.”[5]

In addition to the official beliefs expressed by the North Meadow Circle of Friends in Quaker conferences, their community involvement during the 1980s and beyond demonstrates their commitment to marginalized communities. The Friends engaged in political activism by offering their meeting house as a place in which to mobilize and plan protests. The location on North Talbott Street is mentioned several times in articles in The New Works News, a gay Indianapolis periodical, as a location for meetings in preparation for a “March on Washington” to protest violence against the LGBTQ community.[6] The planning committee held at least two meetings there in the course of organizing the march, which was broadly intended to “show that ‘we are out of the closet and we are not going back.’”[7] In addition to using the meeting house for activism, Indianapolis Friends published the phone numbers of Quaker organizations, like the Friends for Lesbian & Gay Concerns, in gay business and service directories.[8] This Quaker support network appeared numerous times in LGBTQ directories around the early 1990s, indicating the connections between the Friends and the larger LGBTQ community in the city.

“Quaker Group Leaves Church Over Lesbian Marriage,” The New Works News 8, no. 1 (October 1988): 6, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives.

At times, the North Meadow Circle of Friends’ devotion to the LGBTQ community superseded even their own relationships with Quaker organizations. The Friends at Talbott Street chose to withdraw from the Western Yearly Meeting after controversy followed the 1987 wedding for two women at the Indianapolis meeting house. Since North Meadow refused to rescind their statement on same-sex marriage or promise not to hold future same-sex weddings, they chose to withdraw from the meeting to prevent further fractures among the Friends.[9] The 2004 wedding of Mary Byrne and Tammara Tracy, a same-sex couple married at an Indianapolis Quaker meeting, would reaffirm support for the LGBTQ community and the recognition of same-sex relationships.

An interview conducted by the Indiana Historical Society illuminates Mary Byrne’s and Tammara Tracy’s connection to the Quaker church. Tracy recalled learning that Byrne was a Quaker early on in the relationship, explaining “I kept asking her to take me to a Quaker meeting because they are a little different than just going to a church service where you can walk in the door and be anonymous and sit in the back pew and do that kind of thing.”[10] Tracy described her first meeting as “a really big click,” and recalled that it was a  “wonderful experience because it truly is the first religious experience in which every single part of myself felt welcomed. Not tolerated, not passed over, but actually, genuinely welcomed.”[11] Through the Quaker meetings, Tracy and Byrne were able to get to know each other better and, according to their recollections, they even attended a Quaker lesbian conference.

After being together for almost four years, in 2004 they asked to be married at their Quaker meeting. Byrne explained that a “Quaker meeting is un-programmed . . . whoever wanted to speak during it could speak and then at some point we got up and spoke our vows to each other and then we had a party.”[12] As the wedding was not legally recognized, all 135 attendees signed a certificate saying that the marriage occurred. After a federal judge ruled that Indiana’s ban on gay marriage was unconstitutional in 2014, the couple legalized their marriage.

Tammara Tracy holds up her wedding license as her wife Mary Byrne (back) is congratulated inside the City County Building, June 25, 2014, accessed IndyStar.

While many churches still grapple with whether to accept or wed LGBTQ individuals, decades ago the North Meadow Circle of Friends was unwavering in its support of both. In fact, North Meadow demonstrated how a church could actually enrich same-sex relationships. For the queer community, Indianapolis’s Circle of Friends provided another safe or third space environment, in addition to bars and public parks, in which they could find acceptance and gain equal recognition of their rights and relationships.

Sources:

[1] “What Is Quakerism?,” accessed Berkeley Friends Meeting.

[2] Rae Tyson. “Our First Friends, The Early Quaker,” Pennsylvania Heritage, 2011.

[3] “About Levi Coffin,” accessed Levi and Catharine Coffin State Historic Site.

[4] Megan Creighton, “Quaker Church Splits Over Disputes on LGBT Issues,” The Crescent, November 10, 2017, accessed George Fox University.

[5] Marriage Minutes, “North Meadows Circle of Friends,” April 12, 1987, accessed Friends for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Concerns.

[6] “’March on Washington’ April Meeting Report,” The New Works News 6, no. 8 (May 1987): 6, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives.

[7] “The ‘March’ Is Thus Far A ‘Stroll:’ ‘A Report on the March on Washington Committee,’” The New Works News 6, no. 5 (February 1987): 12, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives.

“The ‘March on Washington’ Gains Momentum,” The New Works News 6, no. 6 (March 1987): 5, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives.

“’March On Washington’ April Meeting Report,” The New Works News 6, no. 8 (May 1987): 6, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives.

[8] “NWN’s Gay Business & Service Directory,” The New Works News 10, no. 2 (November 1990): 21, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives.

“NWN’s Gay Business & Service Directory,” The New Works News 10, no. 4 (January 1991): 16, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives.

[9] “Quaker Group Leaves Church Over Lesbian Marriage,” The New Works News 8, no. 1 (October 1988): 6, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives.

[10] Mary Byrne and Tammara Tracy, interview by Mark Lee, January 17, 2015, 57, Indianapolis/Central Indiana LGBT Oral History Project, Indiana Historical Society.

[11] Ibid., 57-58.

[12] Ibid., 60.

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

In 2015, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend announced in a South Bend Tribune op-ed that he was gay, making him Indiana’s first openly gay mayor. Four decades before Buttigieg’s announcement, the city reportedly outlawed same-sex dancing. In 1974, Gloria Frankel and her gay club, The Seahorse Cabaret, withstood police harassment, challenged regulations against LGBT individuals, and endured a firebombing. In this post, we explore the fight for gay rights in the Michiana area and the intrepid woman who lead the charge.

Gloria Frankel (right) and friend, circa 1950s, courtesy of LGBTQ Collection, Michiana Memory, St. Joseph County Public Library.

According to Ben Wineland’s “Then and Now: The Origins and Development of the Gay Community in South Bend,” Frankel opened South Bend’s first gay club in the early 1970s. Its opening followed the famous Stonewall Riots of 1969, in which members of New York City’s LGBT bar community responded to a police raid with a series of violent protests. The riots immediately forwarded the gay liberation movement and the fight for LGBT rights in America. LGBT individuals in smaller cities capitalized on the momentum by opening bars that fostered gay communities and provided them with a relatively safe space for entertainment, dialogue, and activism.

Frankel filled this role in South Bend with The Seahorse. She hosted shows and events, and distributed fliers for them, an act “which embodied the new kind of confidence and visibility that the Stonewall riots helped to create.” Also like those who frequented the raided Stonewall Inn, patrons of The Seahorse encountered an intimidating police presence, in which officers would “‘walk around and make people nervous. ‘Cause it was a gay bar'” (Wineland, 74). In 2005, Frankel recalled “I always wanted to open a bar where gay people openly socialized with each other. Back when I first opened the bar, people were ashamed of who they were and frightened of the severe consequences if they were found out. And at the time, being caught in a gay bar would land you in jail and lose you your job.” Wineland contended that The Seahorse was considered a threat by law enforcement because it “became more than just a hole in the wall, it looked to the opposition like hope; a hope for visibility, mainstream appeal, and a point of organization for the gay movement.”

Lambda Society of Michiana, newsletter, February 1975, courtesy of LGBTQ Collection, Michiana Memory, St. Joseph County Public Library.

According to oral history interviews with Seahorse patrons-conducted by Katie Madonna Lee, producer of a forthcoming documentary about the club-a city ordinance prohibited same sex dancing until 1974. One interviewee recalled that if men were found dancing or being affectionate they would be arrested, escorted to the police station, and charged with a lewd act. According to these interviews and Frankel’s obituary, Gloria combated this by successfully challenging the City of South Bend to allow same sex dancing. More research should be undertaken regarding her reported legal battle. The Lambda Society* of Michiana was also concerned with laws discriminating against the gay community, urging newsletter readers in 1974 and 1975 to write their legislators.

Lambda Society of Michiana newsletter, p.4, February 1975, courtesy of LGBTQ Collection, Michiana Memory, St. Joseph County Public Library.

In a May 1974 newsletter, the organization noted a desire to evolve from social objectives to those also involving advocacy. It noted that the organization was founded “because gay is more than sexual preference, and because gay can be more than just an alternative life style. Lambda has struggled through nine months offering little more than social functions as an alternative to the bars, baths, and bus station.”

Newsletter articles about the 1974 Indiana Gay Awareness Conference in Bloomington, Indiana give a window into the origins of mobilized political action for Michiana’s LGBT community. One article noted that after discussing issues that gay individuals encountered with their families, police, landlords, and employers, the decision was made to “address the problem, which is not that we are criminals, but how to help others deal with their problems with homosexuality.” There was a panel discussion regarding “Gayness and the Law” and efforts were made to aid attorneys handling related cases. When discussing Indiana laws “hope was expressed that in the re-codification of our criminal code, consenting adult acts will be eliminated.” Notably,

mention was made that Illinois and Ohio have already removed consenting acts by adults from the criminal statues, that legislation is now pending in Michigan, and Kentucky is also considering some similar action, leaving Indiana ‘an island of persecution’ (perversion?).

Cover of TIME.com, September 8, 1975, a year of national conversation about gay acceptance.

The conference also held sessions about topics such as “Telling Your Parents,” “Professionals,” and “Racial Problems.” One newsletter author reflected candidly that “to say that this conference produced any dramatic changes or systems for dramatic changes, would be wrong.” However, it planted the seeds for unified efforts to change perspectives about homosexuals. The newsletter article noted that the conference showed “groups and individuals that there are others in our state willing to meet and try for change. As with all new associations, time and experience with each other and ourselves will cement the relationship into a working coalition for change.” The author concluded by stating “I learned more about others and my own attitutes [sic] towards homosexuals and straights. . . . we all joined hands in a circle, raised them high, singing We Shall Overcome – I was frightened – I was thrilled – I couldn’t have done that 24 hours earlier.” A 1975 newsletter illustrated some community support, printing an invitation from the Michiana Metropolitan Community Church, whose objective was to “better relationships amongst ourselves and within the community around us.”

Sea Horse II, moving announcement, 1975, courtesy of LGBTQ Collection, Michiana Memory, St. Joseph County Public Library.

Frankel too sought to forward the rights, identity, and well-being of the gay community. This may have been the motive behind someone stealing her car and setting it on fire in 1975. That year, a “Concerned Patron” wrote to the South Bend Tribune that the bar had to board its windows due to “rock and bottle throwing incidents” and that patrons only entered through the front door as a safety precaution. Nevertheless, Frankel’s Seahorse hosted Michiana Lambda Society events and successfully grew the local LGBT community, underscored by having to open The Seahorse II to accommodate an increase in patronage. Frankel also served as an unofficial mentor to others in South Bend who established gay bars, such as Jeannie’s Tavern and Vickie’s. She advised her “bar children” and had significant input regarding their businesses.

The Seahorse suffered a blow in 1982, when it was firebombed by an unidentified arsonist at 6:30 a.m. Residents who lived in apartments above the bar fled and one was hospitalized. Although firefighters contained the flames to the front of the building, it suffered approximately $90,000 worth of smoke damage.

The Seahorse after firebombing, 1982, courtesy of The Seahorse Facebook page.

Though devastating, the bombing demonstrated the solidarity of the South Bend’s LGBT community. According to code, the bar would be shut down if it could not get back to standards within ten days. Members of the community rallied to repair and clean it, shocking officials by getting the club back to code and reopening within the allotted time. They celebrated by hosting their annual anniversary party.

In the mid-1980s, the city used code enforcement to stymie Seahorse operations. This included denying the routine renewal of a liquor license and challenging the acquisition of a parking lot for customers. The Seahorse perceived these actions to be discriminatory, while the city insisted they were not.

Frankel continued to serve as a pillar of South Bend’s gay community when she led the local fight against HIV/AIDS in the early 1990s, funding AIDS ministries and making The Seahorse a cite of free HIV testing. Frankel stated “At that time gays were being terribly discriminated against, and many were afraid to go [to] the health department to get tested. So with the help of some friends, we cleaned up the back garage and turned it into a counseling center.”

The Seahorse continued to be foundational to South Bend’s LGBT community until 2007, when Frankel passed away. The club closed shortly thereafter and Jeannie’s Tavern became the home of Seahorse patrons and performers. However, Frankel’s pioneering efforts established South Bend’s enduring LGBT community.

The Seahorse Cabaret stage, courtesy of The Seahorse Facebook page.

*Lambda Legal Non-Profit Organization was founded in 1973 as “the nation’s first legal organization dedicated to achieving full equality for lesbian and gay people.”

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this blog, citing an oral history, suggested the profession of the arsonists. Also citing the same oral history, the blogger stated that Frankel erected a wall around the bar for protection. Former employees of the bar at the time of the arson have called into question the veracity of the oral history’s claims on these two points. In an effort for us to present an accurate account of the historical events, we have edited the blog accordingly.

Sources:

Conversation with Margaret Fosmoe, a South Bend Tribune reporter who graciously searched the newspaper’s archive for articles for this post.

Conversation with Katie Madonna Lee, producer of a forthcoming documentary about The Seahorse. Lee has conducted interviews and done extensive archival research about South Bend LGBTQ history.

Diane Frederick, “Homosexuality Laws Vary Widely,” Indianapolis News, August 22, 1975, 1, Indiana State Library, Clippings File-Homosexuality.

The South Bend Tribune, September 4, 1975, accessed Newspapers.com.

“The Seahorse,” The South Bend Tribune, September 11, 1975, accessed Newspapers.com.

Kathy Harsh, “Arson Suspected in Tavern Fire,” South Bend Tribune, November 26, 1982, Indiana State Library, microfilm.

St. Joseph County Public Library, Michiana Memory, LGBTQ Collection of the Civil Rights Heritage Center.

“Frankel Reaches 2 Milestones,” The South Bend Tribune, April 28, 2005, accessed Newspapers.com.

Ben Wineland, “Then and Now: The Origins and Development of the Gay Community in South Bend,” Indiana University South Bend Undergraduate Research Journal of History, vol. VI (2016): 69-79, accessed scholarworks.iu.edu.