By Emma Cieslik
“Not only do LGBTQ people belong in the heartland, but also they have long created safe spaces for each other, developing alternative forms of kinship.”
-Doug Kiel, foreword, Sweeter Voices Still: An LGBTQ+ Anthology of Middle America
Religious Safe Spaces: St. Martin’s Episcopal Church of Chicago
“The fear of judgement by God and family are among the most powerful forces keeping LGBTQ heartlanders silent and in the closet,” write Ryan Schuessler and Kevin Whiteneir, Jr. in their recent anthology about LGBTQ Middle America . Saint Martin’s Episcopal Church of Chicago was founded in 1878, and before the 1990s was a predominantly a white parish. The surrounding neighborhood began to transition from white to Black in the 1970s, and as white parishioners left for the suburbs, church membership dwindled. By the mid-2000s, it was ready to close. Some saw opportunity in St. Martin’s, particularly Juan Reed, who assumed the role of pastor in 1991 and went to work refashioning the parish as a Black-affirming, LGBTQ+ affirming place of worship.
Parishioners singing at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Chicago, Illinois
Now led by Father Christopher Griffin, St. Martin’s is a thriving, multiracial parish that strives to affirm many different types of families, proudly incorporating a rainbow circle into its logo and working to “intentionally incorporate LGBTQ individuals and families in our congregational life.”  The church draws many people who have been alienated from traditional churches from across the Chicagoland area. Operating at the intersections of race and class, St. Martin’s is just one example of safe spaces created by and for LGBTQ+ people in the Midwest.
Gay Bars and Drag Shows: Mark III Tap Room and Irene’s Cabaret
Bars have been a central framework for the LGBTQ+ community for decades, and in the Midwest, that is no exception. The Mark III Taproom in Muncie, Indiana is the oldest LGBTQ+ nightclub in Indiana that predates the Stonewall Riots . The Carriage House also hosted gay visitors to the city of Muncie, Indiana, often well-known or celebrity visitors on behalf of Ball State University. Outside of Muncie, Irene’s Cabaret was a gay bar in Quincy, Illinois that opened its doors in 1980.
The Mark III Taproom was first established in 1968 and has remained for over four decades . The bar was originally founded by Ralph Hannon, a resident of Muncie. The Mark’s first home was on Walnut Street and later moved to be located on Main Street in Muncie, Indiana. Ralph Hannon purchased all of the supplies for the taproom from the Del-Mar Taproom in the Delaware Hotel. It was actually originally called the Mark III Tap Room because Ralph Hannon and his friend had been saving to buy a Mark III Lincoln Continental Car but instead used the money to purchase the building and a 3-way license with the money they had. After Ralph Hannon, ownership shifted to David Abernathy, and then later to Katasha and Keith Martz, who still own the bar to this day.
Learn more about the story of the Mark III Tap Room.
In its effort to uplift and celebrate the LGBTQ+ community, The Mark III has hosted many special events, including fundraisers, benefits and free AIDS/HIV testing. They have provided safe-sex supplies and information alongside drag shows and live entertainment. The new owners of the establishment, Natasha Martz and Keith Martz, proudly carry on the traditions and excellence that have made the Mark III a destination for many people. One of the house specialties is the Rainbow Long Island. The Mark III Taproom celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2018. Listen to a presentation by the Muncie Public Library about this establishment.
The Carriage House was a food establishment that was well-regarded for its menu . It was not a gay bar, but the owners were both gay men who were friends, one of whom was Bob McCurdy, with Ralph Hannon, who founded the Mark III Taproom. While the Carriage House was not formally a gay bar, the owners would host drag shows downstairs, and this is where Natasha Martz, now one of the two owners of the Mark III Taproom, attended her first drag show at the age of 11 with her father Keith Martz. McCurdy’s partner, Garth, was a drag queen that performed at the establishment, and the drag shows were patronized often by the LGBTQ+ community.
Irene’s Cabaret first opened its doors in 1980 and remained open for 36 years, serving as a safe space for the LGBTQ+ community in Quincy, Illinois, located on the border between Illinois and Missouri. The bar played host to drag shows, often featuring Willard Kaufman, the founder of the bar and the partner of Robert Clow. Willard Kaufman, under the drag stage name “Irene West'' served as a focal point of the LGBTQ+ community in Quincy, Illinois, often taking in young men who came out and were subsequently ostracized by their families, including Terry Crim who went to the bar for many years and considered the community he found there to be his adopted family.
“I was young and naive and gay living in Quincy along the Mississippi River. I desperately needed a place like Irene’s Cabaret. As I read news of the bar’s closing I was surprised that Irene’s had opened in 1980. I went there in the first years it was in business, but even then the place looked as though it had been around for decades.” 
Irene’s Cabaret was an important focal point of the Quincy community because many LGBTQ+ individuals, including Kaufman, faced violent persecution. In 1984, Kaufman was robbed, beaten and left for dead in his own home by attackers that bragged they had killed him after they identified him as a gay man. There were no LGBTQ+ hate crime laws at the time so the attackers were charged with assault instead of attempted murder. This attack came during increased tension of the Quincy community and the LGBTQ+ community during the AIDS epidemic, and Irene’s Cabaret was vandalized with homophobic slurs several times.
“Irene’s was a focal point for queer activity in the tri-state area. People would drive there from Keokuk, and Springfield, and Palmyra on the weekends. Irene was a true melting pot of drag queens, leathermen, hustlers, lesbian farmers, curious spouses, etc. Every combination of LGBT was represented at Irene’s almost every night of the week.” 
The bar closed in 2016 following the retirement of the owner Robert Clow, who remarked that, “You can be gay and go out to any bar in town now” . Irene’s Cabaret was recently featured in Sweeter Voices Still: An LGBTQ+ Anthology of Middle America in a short piece by Owen Keehnen titled “Last Call at Irene’s Cabaret.” Learn more about the bar’s closing in 2016.
Mental Health Safe Spaces: The Aquarius House
The Aquarius House was first started by Bill and Cindy Briton, an elderly couple that lived in Muncie. Bill Briton was a retired social worker, who ran lights for the drag shows at the Alcazar Bar (another gay bar located in Muncie, Indiana), so both Bill and Cindy knew many people in the gay community . The Aquarius House began as the Crisis Intervention Center, which was incorporated as a not-for-profit organization in August 1970. The center experienced a fire in 1973, believed to be arson. In 1975, The Aquarius House’s administrative office was at 103 E. Main St. #3, Muncie, Indiana 47305 and the walk-in center was at 300 W. Washington St., Muncie, Indiana 47305.
“Bill ran lights for one night. He ran lights for drag shows at the Alcazar, and they’re both straight [Bill and Cindy Briton], but because of their working at the Aquarius House, they knew a lot of drag queens. They knew a lot of people in the gay community.” 
By 1980, the Aquarius House, located at 413 South Liberty Street, Muncie, Indiana 47305, served as a “half-way house for drug addicts.” The center focused on suicide prevention with a 24-hour phone line service with trained volunteers as well as community events focused on health. On March 23rd, 1971, Mrs. Elizabeth Nolan Jackson, who wrote numerous sex education books, spoke at the annual meeting of the Crisis Intervention Center. According to their December 1980 newsletter, the hotline they offered and their staff focused on “drug information and identification; suicide prevention; the effects of alcohol; crisis intervention; role playing; and guest speakers from Coalition Against Rape and A Better Way.”
“It was sort of like this home where if you need a place to sleep that night, you can sleep there that night. They did like outreach where people would call them if somebody was having like a psychological episode of something like that.” 
Their primary focus was on alcoholism and drug addiction specific to its effects on the family. The Aquarius House and Crisis Center received funding through a grant by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and also by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Lafayette on its campaign for human development to support and treat those with drug addictions outside of police offices and formal healthcare settings. In doing so, they also provided safe, stable housing for those in the LGBTQ+ community in Muncie that needed support. .
Sober Safe Spaces: Queer Chocolatier
The Queer Chocolatier was founded by Morgan Roddy and her partner, Cheri Ellefson, a faculty member in the Department of Sociology at Ball State University. Roddy had been making chocolates since about 2004, but Ellefson encouraged her to open her business and later a storefront space to sell her chocolates. Roddy and Ellefson married in 2015. In 2017, they launched Queer Chocolatier, a local chocolate stop, to provide a safe space for queer and transgender individuals. As the company proudly indicates, “We also collaborate and co-author various think pieces of topics ranging from chocolate, food production, LGBTQIA, gender, and politics.” 
“I always said the word bisexual before that or bi, but then (I began) understanding the power and the rhyming factor of Queer Chocolatier. I think the word queer didn’t hit me until I really kind of starting thinking about it a lot more intentionally, and I’m glad I did because that’s what I’ve settled on.” 
Roddy and Ellefson actively acknowledge the political nature of their business and how they cannot separate their identities from the business. Although Roddy was fearful about opening an affirming business with “queer” in its name, she was surprised by the outpouring of positive and supportive responses from the Muncie community .
“People would have to know that I was queer whenever they would meet my wife Cheri who’s standing at my side, or what have you, but I think calling myself Queer Chocolatier made it so much more intentional and so much more transparent, and it gave me then like putting it out there, then gave me the confidence to be more outwardly queer, and I think what it did was kind of start this domino effect of like okay, now I’m called Queer Chocolatier, so now I’m going to have to be ready for a lot of questions and conversations about queerness.” 
After starting Queer Chocolatier, Roddy began to encounter the importance of queer sober spaces in the community, which allows people of all ages to engage in a queer space. In doing so and fostering this space, she fostered an opportunity for young people to be purposefully queer, especially young people from the Indiana Academy that would come to Queer Chocolatier when it was previously located in the “Village,” a small shopping area on the periphery of the Ball State University campus. She also expressed the importance of a queer sober space for those struggling with alcohol abuse, noting that the LGBTQ+ community has struggled with substance use, abuse and dependence for people of all ages, so gay bars can make it difficult for those individuals trying to overcome alcohol or drug dependency when they are pressured to drink or in areas where drinking is common. Her business, which will open at a new location in downtown Muncie in Fall 2021, is working to foster that environment for the future.
Learn more about the history of Queer Chocolatier and its founder Morgan Roddy.
These spaces, along with many elsewhere in the Midwest, were founded by and for LGBTQ+ people to create safe spaces for one another. Do you know of any other queer spaces that you would like to highlight? Please feel free to click here to share these spaces with us.