Monday, April 10, 2006

Small Indiana Town Shoots for LGBT Tourism

(Link) Upside: Bloomington has the nation's fifth-largest per capita population of same-sex couples. Downside: Half an hour's drive north or south and you're in Klan Country.


LNewsEditor said...

JIC Post:
By Thomas Conner
Chicago Sun-Times

In recent years, several U.S. cities have launched campaigns to lure gay and lesbian tourists to their towns, including a few in the Midwest. Minneapolis has one, Chicago has one (sort of, see sidebar) -- even Bloomington, Ind.


Yes, Bloomington. In Indiana. Wants gay folks.

"We get that reaction a lot," says Rob DeCleene of Bloomington's Convention and Visitors Bureau. "It works in our favor. We've received a lot of publicity because of that."

Indeed, in a state often tagged for its former Ku Klux Klan prominence, now this little 'burg in the Indiana foothills gets write-ups like this, from the July-August 2005 issue of Out Traveler, a gay tourism magazine: "Whether you're gay, straight or somewhere in between, Bloomington offers something rarely found in this country: a small town with a bold history of openness and acceptance."

Some of that recent history includes:

# In the '90s, Bloomington added sexual orientation to its human rights ordinance -- a rarity for cities of this size (population 69,291).

# The city hosted the Sexual Minority Youth in the Heartland conference in 2002 and 2004.

# An annual gay film fest, the PRIDE Film Festival, was launched in 2004 -- and is expanding this year to a semi-annual event.

The CVB also loves to tout a recent discovery in the 2000 U.S. Census data: Bloomington has the nation's fifth-largest per capita population of same-sex couples.

"We knew we had a significant population, we just didn't know it was that dense," DeCleene says. "We're behind San Francisco, Santa Fe [N.M.], Portland [Maine] and Miami-Ft. Lauderdale. Chicago's not even in the top 25."

Gay tourism represents about $65 billion -- that's about 5 percent of the $1.3 trillion Americans spend on travel annually, according to Community Marketing Inc. With all that, the famed Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction still based at Bloomington's Indiana University, plus two annual drag pageants -- Miss Gay IU was just crowned two weeks ago -- and it's little wonder CVB officials pressed ahead to launch and start inviting tourists to come out and come on down.

A welcoming community

"It's comfortable here. There's a safety here," says Helen Harrell. "You go north half an hour or south, you're in Klan country. But Bloomington seems to have this way of maintaining a message of safety."

Harrell hosts "bloomingOUT," a weekly hourlong show on Bloomington radio station WFHB-FM, featuring news and features about the regional gay community -- the only such program in the state. She's been with the program since its beginning, nearly three years ago.

"If people haven't been here or don't know much about the university or the area, I can see why they'd be surprised to hear about this going on here," she says. "But Bloomington and the people here try hard to be diversified. ... That's part of why Bloomington has such a great cultural environment, too. The school of music, the theater, the Lotus [World Music & Arts] Festival -- that all stems from an open mindset."

In fact, when most folks involved in gay businesses or tourism in Bloomington are asked what there is to do in town for gay and lesbian travelers, they rattle off an impressive array of attractions, including two wineries, the lakes, museums, entertainment options, 200 downtown restaurants -- not one of which sounds especially gay.

"We have four gay bars," DeCleene says, after some prodding, "but that's not what we're marketing. We're marketing to the gay traveler exactly what we market to the straight traveler -- the lovely community shops, antiques, the beautiful natural atmosphere. It's a community you can come to and feel comfortable going to a restaurant or a performance, or checking into a hotel as a same-sex couple and asking for a room with one, king-size bed -- and not getting funny looks about it."

David Wade, manager of The Inner Chef, a gay-owned business downtown, chuckles when asked why no one is mentioning the bars. "One, the bars in Bloomington are not glamorous by any stretch of the mind. They really, really aren't," he says. "Another part is, they are definitely student-driven. Local adults don't really have anyplace to go, in that respect -- and if you're visiting here, God, no. But Bloomington is such an accepting community, there are really no major problems with [same-sex] couples going into any restaurant or pub, especially in the downtown area. No one's going to hassle you. It's just not a problem."

Isolated incidents

Bloomington isn't completely over the rainbow, of course. The city's human rights commission established a campaign in 2002 called "Every Minute Counts," which seeks to be "conveying the message to hate groups that the Bloomington and Monroe County community values diversity." Necessity breeds such innovation.

Smalltown Bloomington has had its share of anti-gay incidents. 2001: "Die Fag" and "Die Homo" are spray-painted along the side of an IU dorm building. 2002: An area church demonstrates publicly against homosexuality (which spawned the "Every Minute Counts" campaign). 2004: Protesters object to a local production of "The Laramie Project."

And then there's the flag burning.

Last year, a church group demonstrated on the IU campus, decrying the university's LGBT diversity program and burning a rainbow flag (a common symbol of gay liberation). That was shortly after police chased three youths for stealing a rainbow flag from the front of The Inner Chef and later torching it.

"That was a patriotic misunderstanding more than a matter of sexual orientation," DeCleene says. "The initial display was a U.S. flag, but instead of the red and white stripes, it had the rainbow stripes. That's what they took offense to. They thought it was mocking the American flag. They've since put up a regular rainbow flag, and nothing's been said about it."

"We actually met with those boys and their parents," Wade says. "They learned a large, valuable lesson that day. They replaced the flag. ... One of the mothers said, 'Oh, you are so paying for this.' "

An isolated incident, they all say. Harmless bumps on such smalltown roads.

"You know, I've had a few comments in the 23 years I've lived here, but nothing bad, nothing threatening," Wade says. "Opening this store was an obvious extension of who we are, and we've had nothing but support from Bloomington. Even the Chamber of Commerce is working on its mission to get more gay and lesbian travelers into Bloomington."

"That's just smalltown Indiana," Harrell says of the occasional incident. "You don't want to get rid of all that. Diversity goes both ways."

rosewood said...

I've always wanted to go to bloomington and I'm glad that it hasn't changed. I sort of think of bloomington IN as the mid-western sister city of Santa Cruz.

And we only have one gay bar.