The city of Bloomington, Indiana holds a special place in my heart. Known affectionately by some who live here as an LGBT-affirming oasis in a vast, homophobic desert, it’s the place I’ve called home and come to think of as my own for the past several years – and the place where I finally feel I can breathe as a queer woman in this world.
There are many things I love about this city and many people and groups who have played a role in creating a supportive atmosphere for members of the LGBT community here. If I took the time to write out every one, I could fill a small book, and we’d be here for quite a while! So today, I’d like to focus on just one group, and just one event, which has played a significant role in helping Bloomington feel like a place I can call home. I’m involved in various ways with local organization Bloomington PRIDE, which boasts a film festival in the winter, a pride festival in the summer, a network for aging members of the LGBT community, and a composite social-support-activist group for youth ages 12-20 – all in our very own city. Back on August 27, 2016, they blocked off the streets of downtown for close to ten hours for that second event, a big rainbow block party of love and acceptance known as Summerfest.
On one end of the festival, community members and PRIDE volunteers engaged festival-goers in activities for all ages and skill levels, including bingo, bounce houses, and colorful crafts. On the other, an array of food trucks kept the crowd properly nourished and hydrated with delicious treats. In between, local vendors of all stripes – artists, merchants, representatives from the university, activist organizations, community groups, and more – helped deck out attendees in rainbows and informed those who approached their booths of the amazing people, programs, and resources making a difference in the state. On the main stage, musical and artistic performances of diverse styles and genres, including an original play called “The Gender Games,” a highly-anticipated drag show featuring Kaija Adonis and Axel Andrews from Pulse Orlando, and some late-night beats from headliner Will G.I.A.N.T. Sheridan, delighted for hours. Inside the historic Buskirk-Chumley Theater across the street, educational programs ranging from self-defense and yoga workshops to topic panels ran alongside the main stage entertainment for anyone who needed a break from the heat – or the crowd. Also inside the theater, a health program connected to the university offered free HIV testing all day. In front of a line of shops and restaurants, Blueline Media Productions snapped photos of expressions of love and handed prints to the friends and lovers who posed for the camera.
There was so much to see and do at Summerfest it was hard to keep track of everything going on! It was truly an event with something for everyone – which was good, considering the event was attended by people of all backgrounds and walks of life. I saw parents bend down to explain to their very small children why people were dressed up and dancing. I saw shy teens walk around the grounds with timid smiles on their faces, some of whom expressed quietly when I asked that they had just come out and it was their first-ever pride festival. I saw sixty-somethings revel in sharing stories of the early days of the LGBT rights movement with twenty-somethings. I saw couples share affectionate kisses in private and in public. Occasionally, I saw volunteers in grey T-shirts dash past with a walkie-talkie, a place to be, and a (metaphorical) fire to put out somewhere – Bloomington PRIDE’s board of directors, who dedicated an immense amount of time, effort, and energy to keep the event running smoothly alongside dozens of other members of the aptly-named Volunteer Squad, a title emblemized with pride on the front of their shirts.
Summerfest, like Bloomington, holds a special place in my heart. When I first moved here in the fall of 2014, the festival was my introduction to the city as well as to Bloomington PRIDE. I took it for granted at the time – it made sense to me that of course a town as liberal and accepting as this one was purported to be would have a pride organization and festival. Of course. What I didn’t realize then was that the organization we know now as Bloomington PRIDE had only formed within the past couple of years, and the festival arrived in town the same year I did. I no longer take either of these things for granted, and I have a much greater appreciation now for the work that goes into creating spaces where LGBT people feel safe to be themselves.
Why did I want to write about this event, other than the fact I like to talk up the place I call home and the groups I’m involved with? It’s no secret that I founded the Stories Project – a space to share stories about acts of violence, loss, and discrimination which have happened because of our or our loved ones’ identities – in part because of my own experience with anti-gay violence. For many years after that encounter, I was convinced I was doomed to a tragic existence that would probably be cut short before I was able to enjoy life as an out lesbian woman. Bit by bit, events like Summerfest, and groups like Bloomington PRIDE, are giving me back my joy. Bit by bit, I am starting to see that in spite of all the pain we have endured as a community, we still have so many reasons to celebrate. It’s healing to be joyful, to dance and drink and be merry. The continued value and benefit of events like these is that for people like me – like us – who have suffered as much as we have individually and collectively, they remind us that love and light and life still exist for us. In spite of everything.