The Avenue’s Black Drag Queens Cemented Indy’s Queer Visibility. But History Forgot Them.
The memory of the Black drag queens of the Avenue is frozen in time, stored in a freezer at the Indiana Historical Society. Their history is scattered in libraries and archives around Indiana. Much of it was likely never recorded. As the Black drag queens of the Avenue have disappeared from cultural memory, historians say their legacy remains. Those who have thawed the binders of their frozen photos or found their names in yellowed newspaper archives say these Black queer Hoosiers built the foundations for a visible queer community in Indianapolis. Jordan Ryan, an archivist at the historical society, said drag queens have long roamed the jazz clubs the Avenue was once known for. But these early performers were often seen as comedic acts. “Are there potentially sexist undertones to cross-dressing as a comedic expression?” they said. “Did this older version of drag promote the same deep exploration into personal identity that many drag performers experience today? Was comedic expression a safer place to play with identity than sexual expression? There’s simply no monolithic answer to this. There’s a spectrum of expression, perspectives and beliefs here.”