Come OUT and Stay in Bloomington
“We don’t have a pride parade, per se in the month of June,” Erin adds, “because it’s gay everyday in Bloomington. It’s just our way of life.”
Throughout the country, college and university towns have become ideal hubs for travel destinations, because they are progressive in nature: places where people come together to explore and share ideas. Welcome to Bloomington, a small town with a bold history, and where the University of Indiana (IU) is home to a long-standing LGBTQ community.
Indiana, the Hoosier State, hasn’t made the top-ten list for LGBTQ travel destinations over the past few years thanks to then-Governor Mike Pence, who signed his Religious Freedom Restoration Act into law in 2015. “It was completely heartbreaking for the community,” says Erin Erdmann, director of Leisure Marketing and Media at Visit Bloomington. “As someone who makes my career out of promoting Bloomington as a destination; to be included under the auspices of this law—basically the antithesis of Hoosier hospitality—was incredibly difficult.”
Bloomington residents didn’t spend a lot of time dwelling on it, though. Instead, the law became a call to action making the city’s feelings on the bill known. They compiled a video featuring prominent city leaders, university officials and local business owners voicing the core belief of the community: Everyone is welcome in Bloomington, no matter who they love or how they identify themselves. Visit Bloomington became vocal on social media, engaging with the folks who had always known Bloomington to be a welcoming place. “We rolled out the red carpet and made sure everyone knew that in Bloomington, you are free to be who you are and we will celebrate that,” states Erin.
“One thing important to know is that Bloomington has always been this destination in the middle of the Midwest that gave people that feeling of openness and acceptance,” says Erin. As a city of over 100,000 (when IU is in session), it’s less rural than other parts of Indiana. Bloomington’s values can be brought back to Herman B. Wells, a visionary and former president of IU, who strongly supported academic freedom and civil rights. Wells was famous for advocating for inclusion in both the community and the university. “So many of the things that IU is now well known for are due to his influence. It’s the reason we have the Tibetan Mongol Buddhist Cultural Center,” explains Erin.
Herman B. Wells’s stewardship inspired the strong international community that still thrives today. Well-known filmmakers, chefs and musicians were raised in Bloomington, such as David Lee Roth, and some have now made the city their home, including American screenwriter and producer Angelo Pizzo, producer David Anspaugh, musician John Mellencamp and chef Daniel Orr, to name a few.
Bloomington’s steadfast support for the LGBTQ community cannot be negated. In fact, for the past two years, Bloomington has been given a perfect score on the Human Rights Campaign’s Municipal Equality Index, which rates how inclusive municipal laws, policies and services are for LGBTQ community members.
photograph by InBloom Photography
Being a pioneering LGBTQ destination is just part of the city’s appeal. In fact, Bloomington has always been a place where small business owners can have a successful start, and many LGBTQ-owned businesses have been thriving for a long time. “We don’t have a pride parade, per se in the month of June,” Erin adds, “because it’s gay everyday in Bloomington. It’s just our way of life.”
In August, during the first weekend before classes start, Bloomington hosts the Pride Summerfest. Between 10,000 to 15,000 people participate in the event, which features live performances, music, family-friendly activities, educational booths and local food trucks. It also provides educational opportunities for local teachers and schools to learn the best ways to engage LGBTQ youth.
Bloomington was founded in 1818 by settlers traveling west who named it after the “haven of blooms” they found in the area. Just two years later, in 1820, Indiana University was established. Its downtown area benefits from a rather compact land-use strategy, which makes it a very pedestrian- and bike-friendly city.
If hiking is your passion, within less than an hour drive there are three state parks surrounding the city, as well as Hoosier National Forest, Indiana’s only national forest, which is located partly in Bloomington. Whether you’re interested in outdoor or cultural activities, the city provides plenty of opportunity for both.
Lake Monroe, a pristine 11,000-acre lake, surrounded by Hoosier National Forest is located in Bloomington. It is Indiana’s second largest lake (after Lake Michigan). Homes and building are restricted around the lake, so when you’re out there, you are completely surrounded by nature. There are boat rental companies available for just about everything you can imagine: kayaks, paddle boats, jet skis, canoes, party pontoons and motor boats for water-skiers.
Bloomington is possibly most well known to cycling enthusiasts. Every year, IU hosts the Little 500 “Little Five” bicycle race. Modeled after the Indianapolis 500, bicyclists race relay style for 200 laps around the track with crowds of more than twenty-five-thousand people attending. If you’re wondering why this sounds familiar, it may be because the race was featured in the 1976 Academy Award–winning film Breaking Away, which was set in Bloomington.
With its vast road space, and its diverse landscape of perfect rolling hills, people love to bike in Bloomington. Combined with four distinct seasons to experience, it is a prime destination for cyclist and tourist alike. In fact, Bloomington has dedicated a lot of time and funding to create a bicycle infrastructure that makes it safe to use as an alternate mode of transportation. The League of American Bicyclists rated Bloomington a Gold-rated, bicycle-friendly community.
There are a variety of on-street and off-street bicycle facilities, including the B-Line Trail, a former railroad trail, which crosses the downtown area. The city has created a map for bicyclists that indicates routes and bicycle-friendly facilities that can be found in bike shops and throughout Bloomington.
Over the last few years, along with bikes, beer has become a thing in Bloomington. The city is home to six breweries, a distillery and two wineries, including the state’s largest and oldest winery. When you combine these two popular pastimes, have a great ride…but be safe!
Bloomington’s relationship with the university has given it a long-standing reputation as a cultural destination. The Bloomington Entertainment & Arts District (BEAD), an official Indiana Cultural District, is alive with “galleries, live music, performing arts, over 90 restaurants and 100 specialty shops, parks, hotels, cozy neighborhoods in ten distinct character districts—each with a personality all its own.” Included in the BEAD is 4th Street, which has an amazing international food scene. Old houses have been converted into ethnic restaurants, representing about 18 different countries. Large, old trees bow over the road, creating wonderful shaded spots for outdoor patio dining. Foods include Tibetan, Thai, Indian, Turkish, and Mongolian, to name just a few.
Bloomington is also home to the Buskirk-Chumley Theater, a renovated 616-seat vaudeville house built in 1922. Known to Bloomington residents as the “Indiana Theater” or the “Bus-Chum,” the building was donated to the community for use as a performing arts center. Today, the theater has become the primary venue for various cultural events, including the local LGBTQ film festival and musical acts like Indigo Girls, Regina Spektor, Keb Mo’ and Arlo Guthrie.
The Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center is the hallmark of Herman B. Wells’s legacy to the Bloomington community. Founded by the Dalai Lama’s nephew, its goals are to foster and preserve Tibetan, Mongolian and Buddhist traditions in America and among the Tibetan exiled communities.
The Eskenazi Museum of Art at Indiana University was designed by iconic architect I. M. Pei, who also designed the Louvre pyramid. It is one of the premier teaching museums in the country. The museum features paintings by Picasso, Monet and Pollock, as well as an African art collection, which is considered among the best in the country. It is currently closed until 2019 for renovations.
The Hyatt Place Hotel: Bloomington’s newest hotel with 172 rooms. It is centrally located downtown.
The Grant Street Inn : An urban bed and breakfast with forty rooms with diverse designs, from traditional rooms with porches to more contemporary styles.
The Biddle Hotel: Located in the heart of the university campus. This beautiful 189-room hotel just had a full renovation. It is located inside the Indiana Student Union—the country’s largest student union.
Aside from the international restaurants on 4th Street, some other highlighted restaurants include:
No Coast Reserve: Affectionately known as NOCO—a seafood restaurant “with a sustainable focus accompany global wines and beer in industrial-chic digs.” The seafood is flown in daily, to provide the freshest fare.
FARMBloomington: Gay-owned and -operated by Chef Daniel Orr. Orr and his chefs “create seasonally inspired dinner menus and daily specials that change with the availability of local ingredients and the bounty of both Southern Indiana and the world.”
Nick’s English Hut: An English pub celebrating 90 years this year. This is an iconic IU hotspot that evokes all the nostalgic feelings from when you turned 21 and could order your first beer.
photograph by InBloom Photography
Rainbow Bakery: For those of you with a sweet tooth, this is Bloomington’s vegan, gluten-free bakery in the heart of downtown. Serves roasted coffee from local favorite Hopscotch Coffee.
HOW TO GET TO BLOOMINGTON:
The Indianapolis International Airport is the closest commercial airport to Bloomington. It is about a 50-mile drive to Bloomington and is served by most national car rental companies.
MK Bateman is a writer and recovering urbanite, based in Central Vermont. He writes about an assortment of subjects, including travel, food, cinema and health. He is currently working on his first novel.
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