Over the past four months, I have dedicated my time as an Archives Apprentice at the Champaign County Historical Archives to researching and creating a digital exhibit on LGBTQ+ spaces in Champaign County. I found that Champaign County has a long history as a place where LGBTQ+ people have gathered and fostered community, and it was a leading city in Illinois to establish anti-discrimination laws on the basis of sexual orientation. 

There are challenges to researching LGBTQ+ history due to discrimination and criminalization. Until 1971, it was illegal in Champaign and Urbana to wear clothing “properly belonging to the opposite sex” in any public place. These laws were used to harass and imprison the gay community, specifically, people perceived as males dressed in clothing customarily designed for women. In October 1971, two people in drag were arrested in Champaign on the charge of indecent conduct. The LGBTQ+ community launched a campaign to repeal the two cities’ “cross-dressing ordinances.” By mid-February 1972, both cities repealed the discriminatory laws. The community then campaigned for legal protections to prevent discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, which was achieved in 1977. Once the City of Champaign passed its Human Rights Ordinance in 1977, the cities of Champaign and Urbana successfully held two of the earliest Human Rights Ordinances in Illinois. These ordinances became some of the earliest, strongest, and most comprehensive in the United States.

Although I could find the city-wide trends, it proved challenging to find materials that spoke to the daily lives of LGBTQ+ people in Champaign County. Due to discrimination and suppression, there is not a whole lot of documented history about where LGBTQ+ people have gathered, our community celebrations, or photos that are available to the public.

Thanks to social media, I was able to connect with Doug Barnes, a DJ who worked at some of the first gay bars in Champaign in the late 1970s - early 1980s. Doug Barnes generously shared with me his collection of flyers, newspaper articles, photographs, and over 600 photograph slides owned by Joe McNamara, showing LGBTQ+ life at The Balloon Saloon, Giovanni’s, and theBar. 

Photograph of a dark bar room. A few people are visible around the bar in the back.
Interior of The Balloon Saloon. From the personal collection of Doug Barnes.

One photograph captures the layout of Champaign’s first openly gay bar, The Balloon Saloon, and another shows the couple who owned and operated it, Jack Adam and Bill Burke. Another print shows Joe McNamara holding the keys to 63 Chester Street, the building that would soon turn into theBar and turn into C-Street five years later. Photographs show drag queens, a trio of drag kings, live performances, and joyous celebrations. I could barely believe my eyes, and numerous times became overwhelmed with emotion. Our community has been here, and successfully fostering spaces for us to safely come together for at least 46 years. 

Drag performance at the bar. Performers stand in front of a cheering crowd.
Drag performance at theBar. From the personal collection of Doug Barnes.

I invite you to check out the exhibit, LGBTQ+ Spaces in Champaign County, and learn about a number of private and public spaces where LGBTQ+ people have met, socialized, and fostered fun in our community. 

-Adam Beaty

Archives Apprentice