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”

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

Famous Door Kick Line
Performers at The Famous Door, an Indianapolis club known for its drag shows, ca. 1975, accessed The Michael Bohr Collection of the Indy Pride Chris Gonzalez Library and Archives, courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.

“In our endeavors to attain social justice, we cannot afford the
destructive luxury of discriminating against one another.”

Justice, Inc., an LGBTQ+ rights organization, issued this statement in 1989 after some gay bars in Indianapolis refused to serve cross-dressing and transgender individuals.[1] The city’s queer community had already encountered and protested numerous challenges posed by law enforcement, including police harassment, surveillance of cruising sites, and possible prejudiced police work as homicide rates increased for gay men. Although gay bars afforded a degree of shelter from discrimination, not all were afforded the opportunity to patronize them.

While examining Indiana’s gay newsletter The Works, I came across recurring incidents of discrimination within Indianapolis’s queer population. In 1973, outspoken transgender rights activist Sylvia Rivera drew attention to these incidents on a national level at New York City’s Christopher Street Liberation Day Rally. Rivera had helped found the Gay Liberation Front and, with her friend Marsha P. Johnson, the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) in NYC, which provided desperately-needed shelter and food for homeless trans youth.

In addition to advocating for people of color and the impoverished, Rivera advocated for white, middle-class men and women jailed because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. She also fought for the women’s liberation movement. Despite this, she was shunned for her attempts to include trans individuals in the broader gay rights movement. She famously addressed this ostracism after pushing her way on stage at the Liberation Day Rally. There, she passionately addressed the crowd, stating “I have been beaten. I have had my nose broken. I have been thrown in jail. I have lost my job. I have lost my apartment for gay liberation and you all treat me this way?” Her speech was met with a smattering of jeers and applause.

However, marginalized individuals within the queer community have been increasingly recognized through public artwork, Netflix documentaries, and seminars like The New Republic’s recent “Sex Workers as Queer History”. Cecilia Gentili, founder of Trans Equity Consulting and transgender actress in the Netflix show POSE, recalled in the seminar that gay men had significant power over transwomen and if you “weren’t fabulous enough” then you couldn’t get in the bar. She likened these experiences to the “criminalization of gender.” In this post, I examine similar incidents in Indianapolis, as well as strategies employed by the victims of discrimination to help secure rights for all.


Kerry Gean, dressed as the “woman I am deep inside of my biological male self,” and friends went to the Varsity Lounge in February 1989. After they were seated, their server singled out Gean with a request for identification. The server then informed her that she was breaking the law because the photo on her I.D. did not identically match her face. Humiliated and hurt, she returned home, changed into “male” clothes, and upon return was immediately served. After Gean’s experience, she asked readers in an editorial for The New Works News “Are we now turning against ourselves? Can we forget what it feels like to be barred from a public place by the owner, or even a bartender, who has some reason to hate us for the hard but true choices we have made?”[2]

Roberta Alyson, courtesy of The New Works News (August 1989): 1, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives, IUPUI Library.

By June, things were no better for Roberta Alyson, described by The Works as a “pre-operative transsexual.” Alyson was denied entrance to the gay bar Our Place on the grounds of not meeting dress code and identification not matching Alyson’s face, despite having a doctor’s note confirming the necessity of dressing as a woman. Bar officials got an off-duty officer who worked security to check the 31-year-old’s ID. He crumpled up the doctor’s note and Alyson “regrettably began to panic,” walking away from the parking lot. When the officer pursued and arrested Alyson, who later said one of the back-up officers was abusive and tried to lift Alyson’s skirt. Alyson was charged with and fined for fleeing an officer.[3] 

Alyson addressed the implications of such discrimination in a letter to the editor of The New Works News, noting Our Place’s dress code “flies in the face of the Stonewall Riots and sends a terrifyingly repressive message to the ‘straight’ community.” Alyson noted, “There were ‘genetic females’ in the bar on the night I visited it” and asked “Am I somehow more of a ‘threat’ to the bar’s image than a woman born?” Reflecting Gentili’s recollection, Alyson wrote “We, the greater gay community, are seeing a disturbing trend in that ‘gay rights’ seem only to apply to gays and lesbians who ‘fit in.’” Simply put, “Gay rights are human rights, and they apply to all of us!”[4]

Indianapolis police liaison Shirley Purvitis, one of the first to be appointed in the nation, organized a meeting to try to resolve issues between “certain segments of the gay community” and local gay bars. These bars included Our Place, 501 Tavern, and The Varsity. She noted later that “one of the most effective ways to fight discrimination was to ‘shut up and listen to what the other person has to say.’” Bar Owners, members of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union and Justice, Inc., IPD vice officers, and members of the Indiana Crossdresser Society (IXE) attended the meeting, which was, “as expected, confrontational from beginning to end.”[5]

Courtesy of The New Works News (August 1989): 7, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives, IUPUI Library.

As to claims that individuals were being denied entrance due to discrepancies between their photo I.D. and their physical features, Excise Chief Okey stated that “the only requirement that excise has for a person being served alcohol is that they be 21 years of age or older. . . . crossdressing, either male or female, is not grounds for refusal of service.” Other bar owners stated blatantly that they refused to admit these patrons, not because they feared breaking excise laws, but because they intended to “‘preserve the established atmosphere of their bars.'”[6] A 501 Tavern spokesperson stated that these individuals “‘were not wanted there,’ and if they had been admitted violence might have resulted. The bar owners also voiced the fear that if they admitted people in drag their regular patrons might leave.” Gay TV producer Gregory McDaniel denounced this reasoning, stating, “‘What I’m hearing now is exactly what I heard 20 years ago when attempts were being made to keep blacks out of Riverside Park and other public places.'”[7] Aside from being morally wrong, McDaniel alleged this discrimination halted momentum in the broader fight for gay equality, noting, “The wire services have picked up these stories. This shows the dominate [sic] society that we are not unified and that they are safe in oppressing us.”

David Morse, manager of Our Place, stated at the meeting that he felt “‘very much trapped in the middle.’” He tried to reconcile the needs of both parties, “perhaps naively,” by establishing the dress code and I.D. policy. However, he noted that he “‘learned many lessons'” from the ensuing discussions. [8] Perhaps fear of losing the bars they fought so hard to establish—whether by mistakenly breaking excise laws or drawing unwanted attention to the establishment—owners implemented discriminatory policies. Unfortunately, the meeting to discuss these policies ended without much resolution.

Members of IXE, Courtesy of The New Works News (August 1989): 7, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives, IUPUI Library.

IXE met separately with Justice, Inc. to address the issue and one observer at the meeting speculated that “perhaps one reason that the crossdressers were causing such a stir in the ‘male’ bars” was because they looked:

‘too good and too much like natural, normal women and a far cry from the narrow gay-oriented perception of what “drag queens” look like. Perhaps some of the shakier ‘male’ egos couldn’t handle this unaccustomed image.’ [9]

By September, there seemed to be a bit more acceptance, as Our Place admitted Roberta Alyson, who by then had two pieces of “‘official’ feminine'” identification. The newsletter reported that Tomorrow’s and Jimmy’s had also been more welcoming.[10] McDaniel also commented that the The New Works News‘s extensive coverage of the discrimination showed that the community could be “introspective and self-correcting.”[11]

The New Works News (July 1989): 7, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archive, IUPUI Library.

Sharon Allan, of IXE, decided to affect change by sitting down with bar employees. She met with Brothers manager Michael David to ask if their policy that identification had to match one’s appearance was implemented uniformly. After he said yes, Allan informed him that she “had been in the bar four times, after work and in a tie and had never been asked for ID.” Allan reported to the New Works News that “Michael immediately saw the lack of universality in their policy and promised to speak with the owner at the next staff meeting.”[12]

Capitalizing on the positive momentum, Justice, Inc. hosted the second “Discrimination Within the Gay Community” workshop in December.[13] While the turnout was low, and bar employees noticeably absent from the meeting, attendees reported that most bars had “reversed” their discriminatory policies. At the meeting, Gary Mercer, of Goshen, quipped “’Before you judge other people in the gay community, you better walk a mile in their pumps.’” Gay Cable Network’s Eric Evans agreed, noting that “‘discrimination is usually the result of ignorance.'” He suggested ongoing education for “both the gay and straight communities.” This, he said, could be accomplished through television programming and by forming a Gay Community Center.[14]

While awareness and dialog did not end prejudice entirely within Indy’s queer community, reported incidents diminished in The New Works News. Genny Beemyn notes in “Transgender History of the United States,” that in the early 1990s a “larger rights movement” emerged, “facilitated by the increasing use of the term ‘transgender’ to encompass all individuals whose gender identity or expression differs from the social norms of the gender assigned to them at birth.”[15] Still, activists fought an uphill battle for inclusion, as the “March on Washington” steering committee voted overwhelmingly to leave them out of the  1993 “Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation” march, despite support from bisexual allies.[16]

New York dedicates East River State Park to LGBTQ activist Marsha P. Johnson
Rendering of Marsha P. Johnson State Park, courtesy of the New York State Parks, accessed timeout.com.

Discrimination and violence against transgender individuals, especially those of color, endures, although largely waged by those outside of the queer community. However, public recognition of those marginalized within the community has increased, to some extent. In 2019, New York City announced it would honor drag queens and transgender rights activists Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson with monuments. Scott W. Stern and Charles O’Malley noted in their 2019 “Remembering Stonewall as It Actually Was—and a Movement as It Really Is” that the decision:

reflects a dawning awareness (among those in positions of power) that the LGBTQ movement was always more diverse, more radical, and more closely connected with other social movements than is commonly believed.

Along with the statues of Rivera and Johnson, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced in August 2020 that the Marsha P. Johnson State Park, located along the East River, would be dedicated. This will be the first state park in the US honoring an LGBTQ+ individual, as well as a transgender woman of color. Stern and O’Malley argue that we should examine and commemorate those at the margins of equal rights movements not simply for history’s sake, but because “More accurate renderings of the past inform the way we act in the future; they inform whose lives we prioritize in the present.”[17] That is why we should be aware of Roberta Alyson and Kerry Gean, whose determination to transform humiliating experiences into policy change helped open the door to acceptance for other transgendered and cross-dressing individuals in Indianapolis. They remind us of the importance in engaging in conversations with “the other.”

*The professional study of LGBTQ+ history is relatively new.  We welcome feedback regarding accuracy and terminology, especially given the challenges in locating primary sources and the evolving conception of what comprises the queer community. We are especially interested in documenting lived experiences from a variety of perspectives.

[1] “Justice Investigation Calls for Uniform Bar Policies,” The New Works (October 1989): 8, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives, IUPUI Library.

[2] “Varsity Drag,” The New Works News (July 1989): 3, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives, IUPUI Library.

[3] “O.P.’s Dress Code Causes Arrest of TS: Transsexual Arrested Trying to Gain Admittance,” The New Works News (August 1989): 1, 7, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives, IUPUI Library.

[4] Roberta Alyson, “Crossdresser’s Visit to Our Place,” The New Works News (July 1989): 3, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives, IUPUI Library.

[5] “O.P.’s Dress Code Causes Arrest of TS: Transsexual Arrested Trying to Gain Admittance,” The New Works News (August 1989): 1, 7, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives, IUPUI Library.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] “IXE Meets with Justice,” The New Works News (August 1989): 7, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives, IUPUI Library.

[10] Gregory McDaniel, “Courageous Clear Thinking,” The New Works News (September 1989): 6, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives, IUPUI Library.

[11] Ibid., 3.

[12] Sharon Allan, “No Discrimination Intended at Brothers,” The New Works News (October 1989): 3, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives, IUPUI Library.

[13] “Justice Discrimination Workshop,” The New Works News (December 1989): 6, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives, IUPUI Library.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Genny Beemyn, “Transgender History of the United States,” in Laura Erickson-Schroth, ed., Trans Bodies, Trans Selves (Oxford University Press, 2014), p. 28, accessed umass.edu.

[16] Ibid., 29.

[17] Scott W. Stern and Charles O’Malley, “Remembering Stonewall as It Actually Was—and a Movement as It Really Is,” The New Republic (June 24, 2019), accessed newrepublic.com.

[18] Ibid.