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WGLT's series that helps Bloomington-Normal's newest residents learn about the community as it exists, and empowers them to make it the home they want it to be.

Welcome to the 'gayborhood': LGBTQ transplants on finding B-N's evolving queer community

Crowds gathered downtown for Pulse memorial
Emily Bollinger
Members of the LGBTQ community and allies gather outside the Bistro in downtown Bloomington on Saturday, June 12, 2021. As Bloomington-Normal's oldest (and only) gay bar, the Bistro hosts an annual vigil commemorating the anniversary of a mass shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando.

Adjusting to a new place can be tough. But for LGBTQ people, moving to a new city can be especially complicated.

Lawrence Lair is a Twin Cities transplant originally from San Diego.

“Living in California was becoming untenable,” said Lair. Escalating housing costs were making life unaffordable for Lair and their spouse.

A person with glasses and short, dark hair smiles at the camera
Courtesy of
Lawrence Lair
Lawrence Lair

“We both work, but we couldn’t support the rent that we had to pay along with the cost of living,” they said. “We weren’t able to put anything away in savings, and we calculated out that, at this rate, we would own a home, uh, never.”

Lair looked at several states for a possible move. A graphic design job at Illinois State University brought them here.

“Deciding to move out of California as a queer person of color, there’s a lot of things to consider,” Lair said.

Lair moved to Bloomington-Normal in 2021 at the height of the pandemic and against a backdrop of discrimination against people of Asian descent.

“There was a lot of damage done to the Asian American community,” they said. “Also, it was the beginnings of, for lack of a better term, the culture war on trans people.”

Frankie Pelusi was raised in Bloomington but moved to Chicago after college. They left due to burnout.

“I was working at Trader Joe's when the pandemic hit and it became insane,” they said. "People were literally fighting over groceries. I just was like, I need to do something else.”

A person with dark, short hair smiles at the camera
courtesy of
Frankie Pelusi
Frankie Pelusi

Pelusi moved back to Bloomington in 2021. Despite having grown up here, Pelusi found that moving back home was difficult.

“I came back looking a little different,” Pelusi said.

They came out as gay as a high schooler and was part of the group who started Bloomington High School’s Gay Straight Alliance. While in Chicago, Pelusi came out as nonbinary and began hormone replacement therapy.

“I physically looked different and I use different pronouns,” they said. “I was getting looks and it became clear that it was not safe for me to express myself in the way that I had been previously expressing myself. I did actually go through a ‘going back in the closet’ period.”

Having no knowledge of central Illinois, Lair’s main concerns were safety and inclusivity, but they found Bloomington to be surprisingly progressive.

“I felt safe enough to come out,” they said. Illinois State University’s thorough nondiscrimination policy was another reassurance. “It was something that people did take to heart. There are a lot of places in which, on paper, you don’t discriminate for these types of things. But then it can be a really different thing in practice.”

A greater challenge has been squaring with the isolation Lair feels as a transgender person of color.

“I came from a pretty huge Asian community in San Diego,” they said. “Coming here and suddenly feeling very different looking and not being able to see some of the same staples like Asian grocery stores or Asian convenience stores – that part I felt really distanced from.”

Lair also felt gaps in the number of queer-friendly spaces compared to a large, metropolitan city.

“I didn’t see a whole lot of presence,” they said. “I would see the occasional sign or a rainbow banner in one or two shops in uptown or downtown. But we definitely don’t have a whole community of queer people as there was in San Diego.”

“If you’re coming from somewhere like Chicago, New York or California, don’t compare it,” Pelusi said. “It’s not going to hold a candle because it’s just a completely different ballgame. The culture’s different; everything’s different.”

The Queer Coalition at Illinois State University is an affinity group serving faculty, staff and graduate students. Among the Coalition’s many initiatives for the campus community are monthly Brown Bag Chats and a Transgender Day of Visibility Sashay, an annual march and rally promoting Transgender Day of Visibility. The 2023 Sashay took place Thursday at the ISU Multicultural Center.

Lair is a Queer Coalition executive board member and, as someone new to to the area, connected with the queer community through their involvement.

“From there, I learned about Prairie Pride Coalition, which is the community-level queer advocacy group,” they said. “It did take some digging but I find myself very comfortable in those spaces.”

While Pelusi said the Twin Cities doesn’t have a specific “gayborhood,” there are “queer hotspots” in uptown, downtown and Franklin Park. Businesses like Coffee House and Coffee Hound, Bobzbay Books and Under the Ground are not specifically catered to LGBTQ folks but provide inclusive spaces where all are welcome.

And one thing is clear: Bloomington-Normal loves drag.

Destihl and Mystic Kitchen periodically host drag brunches. And for three decades, The Bistro had been the center of Bloomington’s drag scene.

For many, the Bistro has served as an unofficial starting point for queer life in the Twin Cities. Opened in 1993, Bloomington’s oldest (and only) gay bar heads up several activist events, including a summer pride fest—a nascent block party, sans parade, that curiously is not held during Pride Month—and a yearly memorial on the anniversary of the 2016 mass shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando.

Prairie Pride Coalition and PFLAG of Bloomington-Normal head up several events and initiatives and are frequent partner organizations for activities like Bloomington Public Library’s quarterly True Colors Book Club. And for the queer nerdom, Red Raccoon Games hosts “Gaymer’s Night” on the third Saturday of each month.

Pelusi recommends Facebook as a resource for connecting with Bloomington-Normal’s queer community.

“There are more queer people here than you think,” they said. “Just talk to people and assume, for the most part, that people will be kind to you.”

LGBTQ-centered events this weekend include the Illinois Wesleyan University Pride Alliance’s Charity Drag Show on Saturday and Illinois State University’s Queer Heritage Night Drag Show on Sunday. Prairie Pride Coalition organized a resource fair for local transgender and nonbinary folks from 4-7 p.m. Friday at the Unitarian Universality Church of Bloomington-Normal.

And for the late crowd, there are yet more drag queens plus a set from DJ Rakestraw at The Bistro Saturday night, beginning at 11 p.m.

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.