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

The Works, January 1985, 9, Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives, IUPUI Library.

Heart racing, 31-year-old Steven Ott escaped the aggression of his companion, whom he met at Our Place (now Greg’s), by jumping out of the car near 34th and Georgetown Road. He fled to a nearby Taco Bell and ran towards three Indianapolis Police Department (IPD) cars parked in its lot. Ott recounted the frightening experience to the officers, who offered to call him a cab, but refused to do anything about the assault.

“Faggot,” stated one of the officers as Ott waited for his cab. Ott took down the license plate number of the offending officer only to be arrested. According to Ott, when asked why he was being arrested he never received a reply. He spent the night in Marion County’s jail and when he appeared before a judge the next morning he was told simply “that he could go—no hearing, no formal charges.” Reportedly, the officers initially charged Ott with public intoxication, although they never filed an affidavit with the court. [1] 

The Works, December 12, 1985, 9, Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives, IUPUI Library.

Indianapolis’s LGBTQ community encountered and protested numerous challenges posed by law enforcement in the 1980s, including police surveillance of cruising sites, harassment at safe spaces, and possible prejudiced police work as homicide rates increased for gay men. Bars served as a popular safe space or third space environment where members of the queer community could socialize. But they were also the site of harassment, surveillance, and violence. Gay rights activist Mike Stotler recounted police harassment at Terre Haute’s gay bar, R-Place. [2] He reported “You can be in the bar for maybe just one hour, and be asked to present ID to a police officer four or five times. The police also routinely copy down license plate numbers in an attempt to intimidate the bar’s patrons.” Stotler also described violent harassment, stating that one man en route to R-Place alleged that two police officers picked him up, drove him from the bar, and beat and verbally assaulted him. Despite broken ribs and a hospital stay, “The victim has so far been afraid to report the crime, for fear of losing his job and coming out to his family.”

Michael Petree, courtesy of The Works, February 1983, 8, Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives, IUPUI Library.

Mistrust of police following such encounters would stymie efforts to solve a string of murders, tracked back to 1980 but most likely earlier (either not reported by the news or not explicitly stating the victims were associated with an LGBTQ identity). There was fifteen-year-old Michael Petree, murdered in 1980 and left in a ditch in Hamilton County. [3] Then it was twenty-five-year-old Gary Davis, murdered in 1981 on the Southside of Indianapolis. [4] The following year, twenty-six-year-old Dennis Brotzge was murdered on the Northside of Indianapolis. [5] The body of Delvoyd Baker, an eighth-grader who was last seen in an area of Monument Circle known for teenage prostitution, was found in a ditch in Fishers. [6] With his death, police ramped up efforts to find the perpetrator. Police Chief Joseph G. McAtee stated, “I believe as chief of police when a 14-year-old boy gets picked up downtown and murdered, and young teen agers are getting money for prostitution on the Circle, we have an obligation not to let this happen to our young people.”

Delvoyd Baker, courtesy of The Indianapolis News, October 4, 1982, 13, accessed Newspapers.com.

However, president of LGBTQ civil rights organization Justice Inc. Wally Paynter told The Indianapolis News in 1998, “‘The police put this on the back burner. They didn’t discuss it across jurisdictional lines. . . . If these had been CEOs’ bodies scattered across the community, there would have been a manhunt the likes of which you had not seen.'” Out & About Indiana author Bruce Seybert had a different take and told the News that he believed “some police officers honestly didn’t know how to plug into the gay community for help, but that they learned along the way and established longer-term contacts because of the investigation.” [7] Regardless of the extent of their efforts, police found questioning possible witnesses “extremely difficult” due to LGBTQ mistrust of the police. [8] This led the police to a new strategy—surveillance of cruising sites. Police undertook surveillance in the hopes of deterring similar crimes and catching the perpetrator, but also to “cut down prostitution, assaults and harassment of tourists.” [9]

In an era before dating apps, cruising sites provided common areas where LGBTQ members could congregate and meet other people. They tended to be associated with gay men gathering with the intention of a sexual encounter. In an article about why homosexual men took part in cruising, the New York Times quoted an anonymous participant, who stated “Society doesn’t accept us and it’s hard to meet people, sexually or socially.” In Indiana, areas like the downtown public library branch, Monument Circle, Fall Creek, and Skiles Test served as common cruising sites. In addition to surveillance, police went undercover in an attempt to arrest men for breaking “vice laws.” These efforts furthered suspicion of police motives among the queer community, especially because some officers conflated prostitution with homosexuality. With announcement of surveillance following Delvoyd Baker’s murder, the LGBTQ community expressed concerns that police would violate their rights by filming patrons frequenting gay bars, the videotapes of which police promised to make available to the public.

The Works, March 1983, 30, Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives, IUPUI Library.

In 1983, at the initiative of the queer community, leaders of the Indianapolis Gay/Lesbian Coalition (IGLC)—comprised of fourteen educational, religious, political, business, and social organizations—met with police officials to volunteer their help in solving the murders and improve relations with the IPD. They also made seven recommendations to police, including establishing a liaison to communicate with the homosexual community; cease video surveillance; train officers to be more sensitive in their interactions with the LGBTQ community; and educate the police force about homosexuality. Public Safety Director Richard Blankenship noted that the meeting “‘opened the door to better communication between gays and the Department of Public Safety. . . . We feel we can resolve our problems much quicker and more effectively than we have in the past.'” [10]

IGLC made progress in opening a line of communication between law enforcement and the queer community, which in turn may have improved efforts to solve gay-related homicides. This progress was intermittent however, and Stan Berg reminded readers of The Works “We must remember the conservative political and sexual climate of Indiana.” [11] In 1984, plainclothes policemen wrongly accused gay men of prostitution, an incident IPD officials described as “well-motivated but unfortunate.” [12] Three LGBTQ organizations in Indianapolis, as well as those in Muncie, Columbus, and Bloomington, either attended or endorsed a press conference denouncing harassment and the resumption of video surveillance.  Twenty-three individuals issued harassment complaints with the Indiana Civil Liberties Union. One of these was David Molden, who claimed officers choked and slapped him during his arrest for using false identification. [13]

The Works, August 1984, 8, Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives, IUPUI Library.

The New Works News noted in 1988 that, again at the initiative of the queer community rather than police officials, the IPD and LGBTQ community came together regarding a string of robberies of Indianapolis gay bars. Detective Don Wright invited representatives from all of the affected bars, as well as victims and witnesses. The New Works News described the meeting’s turnout as “heartening” and that “Each of the victims present at the meeting was asked to tell their version of the incident in which they were involved. All did so in detail and apparently in all of the incidents the attitude and discretion of the responding officers was exemplary, with one exception.” [14]

Detectives at the meeting pledged to dispatch more plainclothes officers at the affected businesses to deter future robberies. The LGBTQ community’s earlier efforts to help the IPD solve LGBTQ-related murders resulted in this more collaborative spirit. It is unclear if their assistance helped the police investigation, as some of the murders were not solved until 1998 with the discovery of Westfield serial killer Herbert Baumeister. In the case of some victims, police never identified the perpetrator. However, the murders resulted into closer communication between the queer community and the IPD.

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. Indiana’s 2015 Religious Freedom Restoration Act signaled that the struggle for LGBTQ rights in the U.S. endured into the 21st Century. However, the efforts of the IGLC and the Indiana Civil Liberties Union in the 1980s removed some of the stigma in seeking recourse against discrimination.

The Works, January 1985, 22, Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives, IUPUI Library.

A note on sources:

This piece used materials gathered by Indiana Landmarks’ Central Indiana LGBTQ Historic Structures & Sites Survey, a project to compile information associated with Indianapolis-area queer history, architecture, and places. The research materials have been provided to the City’s Historic Preservation Commission for incorporation into new local historic district neighborhood plans.  Additional sources include the following. All newspaper sources can be accessed via Newspapers.com.

[1] “More Police Harassment,” The Works, November 1985, p. 11, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives, IUPUI Library.

[2] “Trouble in Terre Haute,” The Works, December 1982, p. 12, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives, IUPUI Library.

[3] Susan M. Anderson, “Officials Identify Dead Boy,” The Indianapolis Star, June 24, 1980, 17.

[4] “Friends Questioned About Davis Slaying,” The Indianapolis News, August 13, 1981, 39.

[5] “Cause of the Brotzge Death Unknown,” The Indianapolis News, June 2, 1982, 49.

[6] Wanda Bryant-Wills, “Leads Come Slowly in Homosexual Killings,” The Indianapolis News.

[7] David Remondini, “Police Start Using Cameras to Help Cut Midtown Crime,” The Indianapolis Star, October 20, 1982, 51.

[8] George Stuteville, “‘Gay’ Area Probed for Clues to Youth’s Death,” The Indianapolis Star, October 5, 1982, 1.

[9] The Indianapolis Star, October 20, 1982, 51.

[10] The Indianapolis News and The Indianapolis Star, January 11, 1983.

[11] “Second IGLC/Police Meeting Yields Few Results,” The Works, May 1983, p. 12, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives, IUPUI Library.

[12] George Stuteville, “Harassment Charges Worry Some Police as well as ICLU,” The Indianapolis Star, June 30, 1984.

[13] “Gay/Lesbian Groups Blast ‘Harassment’ on Circle,” The Indianapolis News, July 12, 1984, 12.

[14] E. Rumbarger, “IPD Holds Meeting to Investigate Gay Bar Robberies,” The New Works News, January 1988, p. 1, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives, IUPUI Library.

“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.