Equity In Practice

Mapping LGBTQ Sites of Historical Importance in Central Indiana

In the past decade, there has been an effort underway to identify and document underrepresented histories in the Midwest. The historical significance of LGBTQ+ sites in Central Indiana, particularly Marion County, which contains Indianapolis, is one such area of research and preservation.

Community Challenge

Before 2014, much of LGBTQ+ history in Central Indiana was not documented in mainstream archives, and efforts to uncover history relied almost exclusively on personal collections and community-based documentation. Further, properties with any significant ties to LGBTQ+ history in the state had not been formally identified. This void underscored the historical underrepresentation of the LGBTQ+ population in Indiana.

The National Park Service's (NPS) launch of a Heritage Initiative in 2014 sought to amplify places important to queer representation across the country. The NPS requested recommendations nationwide for sites to be considered for documentation, as well as to nominate to the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) and as National Historic Landmarks (NHL).

A Survey of Historic LGBTQ+ Sites

Following the lead of the NPS initiative, Indiana Landmarks launched a survey of LGBTQ+ heritage in 2014. As the state's largest non-profit preservation organization, Indiana Landmarks sought to document spaces pivotal to LGBTQ+ activism, socialization, and support, shedding light on previously unrecognized aspects of local history. Indiana Landmarks partnered with LGBTQ+ non-profit Indy Pride Inc. and formed a committee of experts to aid in the survey effort.

Over three years, comprehensive surveys were conducted to document LGBTQ+ sites in Indianapolis and the surrounding Marion County area. The surveys utilized historical archives, oral histories, artifacts, personal papers, photographs, and local publications to identify sites of significance to queer history in Central Indiana. The themes of these sites included civil rights, the arts, leisure, and businesses, among others. Although many sites identified were already demolished, others have survived.

After the survey, 419 sites were deemed historically significant, and of those, 60 properties met the criteria outlined by the NHRP for nomination. Indiana Landmarks published their findings, as well as an initial shortlist of eligible locations for NHRP nomination.

Locations included The Ritz Theater, which hosted drag shows in the 1970s; The Varsity Lounge, a gay bar established in the 1940s; and The Quaker Friends Meeting House, which served as a safe haven for the gay community in the 1980s.

Planning Outcome for Historic Sites

Three years after the survey's conclusion, efforts to secure the state's formal recognition of the sites began to come to fruition. Raising awareness of the locations to ensure their protection required community support and working with local officials. In 2019, Zach Adamson, the first openly gay council member in Indianapolis, passed a resolution in support of the preservation of the identified areas.

Indianapolis is now updating its 17 historic area plans to include recommendations from the Indiana Landmarks study. The Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission is overseeing the updates and is working to have the updates completed this year. Integrating LGBTQ+ sites of historical significance into future planning establishes Indianapolis as a national leader in LGBTQ+ preservation.

Future initiatives aim to expand these efforts statewide, integrating LGBTQ+ history into broader preservation and educational frameworks. By uncovering and honoring these histories, Central Indiana ensures that the stories and contributions of its LGBTQ+ community are preserved and acknowledged for generations to come.

707 Massachusetts Avenue before

Constructed in the late 1880s, 707 Massachusetts Avenue (pictured in 1990) was renovated to house Metro, an LGBTQ restaurant and nightclub. Image courtesy of the City of Indianapolis, Department of Metropolitan Development, Indiana Historical Society.

707 Massachusetts Avenue after

Metro, a gay-owned and operated LGBTQ restaurant and nightclub opened at 707 Massachusetts Avenue, Indianapolis, in the 1990s. Image from Google Maps.

Considerations for Your Community

Through community engagement, committed research, data collection, and mapping efforts, the history and culture of the LGBTQ+ community in Central Indiana are being celebrated. Bringing this collective historical narrative to light fosters a more inclusive understanding of the past.

Documenting LGBTQ+ sites highlights the contributions and struggles of queer individuals, cultivating a sense of pride and validation for community members. It also educates the public about the diverse experiences and histories that shape society. Designating historical sites rooted in the queer experience serves the public good in various ways by enriching cultural heritage, strengthening equity, educating the community, and supporting broader social and economic benefits.

Top image: Flickr: Indiana Humanities, "Out in Indy: Dragging Indianapolis LGBTQ History Out of the Closet."  CC BY 2.0 

About the author
Dina Walters is part of APA's prioritize equity team.

June 24, 2024

By Dina Walters