116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
The history of gay culture in Cedar Rapids is an elusive story to tell.
The laws and social attitudes of different eras relegated non-heterosexual life to an “othered” experience — often in the shadows.
Photos and documentation of people at area gay events before the 1970s are fairly rare, so much of what we know comes from an amalgamation of diaries, oral histories, stories passed down and clues left behind.
You’ll find writer and artistic photographer Carl Van Vechten (1880-1964) on any shortlist of notable gay Cedar Rapidians.
The son of educated parents (who founded the Cedar Rapids Public Library and Cedar Rapids National Bank), he moved away from the “unloved town” the day he graduated from Washington High School. He married twice but had several relationships with men.
An opera and modern dance critic for the New York Times, Van Vechten also was a connoisseur of jazz and a champion of African-American culture. His novel, “The Tattooed Countess,” about carefree characters who leave the fictional town of Maple Valley and then return, is a critical portrayal of Cedar Rapids society in the 1890s.
Grant Wood (1891-1942) famously chopped his 1938 painting “Sultry Night” in half and burned the half depicting a nude farmer bathing by a watering trough. The remaining fragment is on display this summer at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art.
The accompanying wall card asks, “Was this Wood’s ultimate act of self-censorship in a climate that did not allow for the open admission of his homosexuality?”
His sexual preference is referred to in a cryptic partial report in the University of Iowa Libraries Special Collections — part of an effort to get him fired. It is believed that in 1934, the only complete version of the report was placed in a cornerstone time capsule under the original UI Art and Art History Building, where it remains today.
Older members of the local LGBTQ+ community have stories about dinner parties decades ago where elder guests shared stories about Grant Wood. House parties, dinner parties and potlucks continue to be popular social gatherings in the LGBTQ+ community.
Mel Andringa fondly remembers gatherings at the home of Ray Westrom (1925-2008) who, through his connections as a chef at the Roosevelt Hotel, merged the social confluence of the local gay community with salesmen, artists, performers and other gay-identified travelers.
“Gay people in the closeted era found company in others who were characters and liked expressing their true selves,” Andringa says. “The arts were a legitimate avenue for self-expression that explored identity.”
The AIDS crisis brought an element of fear to public notions about gay life in the late ’80s. The gay community responded by organizing events to raise awareness and promote education about the disease.
“No last names, please — some of our guests are teachers,” is how Andringa remembers a host greeting him and his partner, F. John Herbert, at a gathering of “progressives” in northwest Cedar Rapids.
Andringa and Herbert had started the Legion Arts organization in the ’90s and were quick to bring gay art, artists and events to their CSPS arts venue and other locations, helping bridge the gap between the gay community and the rest of Eastern Iowa.
A number of bars have catered to gay and lesbian clientele in Cedar Rapids since the ’70s. They include The Side Track Lounge, Private Club, Side Saddle, The Warehouse, and Port in the Storm. Belle’s Basix is the only LGBTQ+ bar in Cedar Rapids today.
Softball teams have been popular in the lesbian community since at least the ’70s. Some older lesbians speak fondly of a fun-loving, gay-friendly Cedar Rapids C-League outfit called the Rooftop Maintenance team. The team was sponsored by contractor and gay ally Les Deal.
In 2009, the legalization of same-sex marriage in Iowa helped normalize the idea of families having two moms or two dads. Today, more than a dozen churches are known in gay circles as being welcoming to the LGBTQ+ community.
Cedar Rapids held its first Gay Pride Day in 1995. The first Gay Pride Month events in June 1998 are often remembered as the first Pride celebration in the area.
“It was a half-dozen booths and a stage,” says Susan Liddell, vice president of CR Pride. “It was very empowering being there, out in public in Greene Square Park, but at the same time terribly frightening.”
The event later moved to the Belle’s Basix parking lot and then to NewBo City Market, where it drew an estimated 9,000 people in 2019. The celebration did not take place last year or this year due to COVID-19. Liddell says CR Pride is seeking volunteers and board members to get the event back on track for 2022.
Joe Coffey, a freelance writer and content marketer in Cedar Rapids, writes this monthly column for The History Center. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org