During the ‘wild, bucking ’70s’, Iowa City’s lesbian and gay communities were often at odds. A crisis brought them together.

This article is part one in a three-part series from Adria Carpenter exploring the history of HIV/AIDS activism in Iowa City. Part two and three will be published in the weeks to come.

Michael Blake poses for a portrait in his home in Iowa City, Iowa, on Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022. – Adria Carpenter/Little Village

In the early 1980s, Rev. John Harper was a fresh-faced graduate student at the University of Iowa and a semi-active member of the Gay People’s Union.

He’d heard about some disease affecting gay men in New York and San Francisco. He started being more careful, though he doubted whatever it was would spread as far as Iowa.

But by June 1983, Iowa’s first case of HIV/AIDS was reported in Des Moines, and when it finally hit Iowa City, the disease multiplied fast.

“There was a period of time when probably a dozen or more people I knew in Iowa City died pretty quickly,” Harper said.

This article is the first in a three-part series that will document how AIDS changed the LGBTQ community in Iowa City. The second and third parts will be published online in the lead-up to Pride Month, June 2023.

This first installment will cover the ’60s and ’70s, focusing on the gay and lesbian communities, and their occasionally competing interests.

The second article will show the beginnings of HIV/AIDS in the ’80s and Iowa City’s reaction, leading to the creation of organizations like the Iowa Center for AIDS Resources (ICARE), the AIDS Coalition of Johnson County and the university’s Virology Clinic.

The final article will describe the end of the AIDS crisis, spurred by effective antiviral treatments, and how ’90s activism adapted following a decade of homophobic rhetoric and policies.

Out of the closet and into the streets

John Harper was born and raised in Des Moines, from a long legacy of native Iowans. He attended UI in 1964 to finish a degree in business and stuck around, serving as an English professor for 37 years.

He came out in 1968, a year before the Stonewall riots ignited the Gay Liberation Movement.

“When I started it was pre-Stonewall. So, there wasn’t a whole lot that was known about what it meant to be gay,” he said. “I had so many gay friends who felt they had no option but to marry a woman and have children because anything else would be suicidal.”

The ’70s were “wild, radical times.” Like elsewhere in the country, LGBTQ activism in Iowa City sprouted from the ’60s anti-war movement and protests against the Nixon administration.

This became the bedrock of early activist groups, including the Rape Victim Advocacy Program, Domestic Violence Intervention Program and the Emma Goldman Clinic, according to Laurie Haag, a program director at the Women’s Resource Action Center (WRAC).

Madde Hoberg shows off her favorite material in the LGBTQ Iowa Archives and Library — a portrait of Chris Keebler — on Aug. 17, 2022, in the basement of the Wesley Center. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

On Sept. 23, 1970, a small group of gay and bisexual students at UI gathered in the Wesley Center to discuss equal rights in education, housing and employment. In attendance was Ken Bunch — the first to apply for same-sex marriage license in Iowa, with his partner, Tracy Bjorgum — and Rick Graf, who later co-founded ICARE.

That was the first meeting of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), one of the first university-recognized LGBTQ student groups in the country. Other inaugural members included Garry Smith, Paul Hutson, Paul Hauer, Dean Blake and Raymond Perry.

GLF, as their name suggests, were willing to use militant, “in your face” tactics that could be “loud and obnoxious,” said Michael Blake, a later member.

Their public displays were eye-catching and unapologetic. Harper recalled men in drag roller skating around the Pentacrest.

The Gay Liberation Front’s homecoming parade Cadillac in 1970. The float was covered by NBC Evening News and caused protests against the University. – image courtesy of the University of Iowa Archives

The group’s first outing was the UI Homecoming Parade in October 1970. GLF rode through Iowa City on a Cadillac convertible with signs reading, “Out of the closet and into the streets,” “Gay pride is gay power” and “No racism, no sexism, no classes.” They chanted “Two, four, six, eight, gay is good as any straight” while tossing Hershey Kisses to spectators, and they ended the parade by crowning an “anti-queen.”

NBC Evening News covered the parade float, and people protested the university’s tolerance of GLF, demanding it disband the group.

“This university was quite a pioneer in acceptance,” Harper said.

We didn’t get along

Unlike the united acronym of today, the ’70s queer community was split on gendered fault lines. GLF was technically open to anyone, but its members were predominantly men.

“Men had their own issues, and women had their own issues. And there was some crossover, but there was also some healthy distrust of each other’s issues,” said Haag, the founder of the Iowa Women’s Music Festival and Girls Rock! Iowa City. “But when AIDS started to be a real crisis, I think communities came together in ways that they hadn’t … If there was an upside, that was what the upside was.”

The Lesbian Alliance grew out of WRAC in the spring of 1974, alongside other feminist organizations like the Emma Goldman Clinic. The Lesbian Alliance was the square to WRAC’s rectangle. It was intersectional, focusing on women’s issues like reproductive rights, the Equal Rights Amendment, domestic violence and sexual assault, in addition to sexuality.

Activist group the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence originally formed in Iowa City in 1976, and are now based in San Francisco. — The Daily Iowan, June 29, 1987

Jill Jack, a native Chicagoan, came to the university the following year and cobbled together a women’s studies degree before the program existed. She joined WRAC and soon headed the Lesbian Alliance.

The university and student government treated the GLF and Lesbian Alliance as one entity, often refusing to fund Lesbian Alliance, Jack said. Unlike the women’s group, GLF was narrowly focused on gay rights.

“We didn’t really get along. For one thing, the culture was different early to late ’70s. We were always fighting with the university for lesbian rights to get funding,” Jack said.

In 1976, the Gay Liberation Front rebranded to the Gay People’s Union (GPU), a move to become more service oriented. They offered support and intervention services and a crisis phone line.

These support groups helped a young Michael Blake come out. Blake grew up on a farm in Riceville, Iowa, and was raised in a Catholic family with eight siblings. He graduated UI with an education degree in 1974 but couldn’t find a teaching job, so he decided to work at Student Health and join GPU.

Jack also joined GPU around the same time, becoming one of the first women in the group. She worked closely with Blake holding joint speaking engagements with GPU and the Lesbian Alliance, and organizing protests and Pride rallies (originally called Harvey Milk Week).

“We started to work across the aisle, as it were,” Jack said with a laugh.

“I think I got along really well with the women because I was always willing to give them deference,” Blake said. “I always knew kind of where the boundaries were with the women.”

The 1985 Gay and Lesbian Pride March. Image courtesy of the University of Iowa Archives.

Even still, they’d argue about the Gay and Lesbian Pride March — “Why are the women always second?” Jill said — and after many fights they decided to alternate the name every year.

The women’s groups had a separatist reputation. Women had their own establishments and community in Iowa City.

“We had the women’s press, women’s plumber — you’ll see where this is going — mechanics, electrical, carpenter. We kind of had all our own little stuff,” she said. “A woman in town would sell books, lesbian books, out of a suitcase. And then a couple of women started the women’s bookstore.”

The women’s bookstore was on the upper floor on 330 E Prentiss St, now The Vine, before moving to the Hall Mall. The women’s coffee house was in the same building. There was also a women’s gym near the 620 Club, and a women-only restaurant, Grace and Rubies, open from 1976 to 1978 at 209 N Linn St, now Brix Cheese Shop & Wine Bar (membership cost 50 cents).

The 1987 Lesbian and Gay Pride March. Image courtesy of the University of Iowa Archives.

Close-knit but cautious

The separatist reputation was a double standard, according to Haag. Some gay men’s groups could be exclusionary, and the Iowa Women’s Music Festival, for example, was welcoming of trans and nonbinary people, she said.

Still, distrust was prevalent.

“The women were more paranoid,” Haag said. “It was very covert.”

The paranoia came from the Nixon administration, which was suspected of sending spies and informants into leftist organizations. The women’s community was close-knit but cautious.

“For years, I didn’t know people’s last names,” Jack said. “A lot of people had nicknames. And for some people today, I couldn’t tell you. Which isn’t unique to here, or even unique to the ’70s.”

The Lesbian Alliance and GPU held regular dances at the Unitarian Universalist Church on Gilbert Street. But they couldn’t advertise them as “lesbian dances” or put the church’s name on flyers, Jack said.

The old Unitarian Universalist Society church on the corner of Iowa Avenue and Gilbert Street in Iowa City has a rich history as an LGBTQ safe space. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

“You would put up a poster and you’d say, ‘Friday night, three o’clock, 10 South Gilbert.’ The bad part was we were right down from the police department. You didn’t really trust that you wouldn’t get raided, and you had to be careful,” Jack said. “I heard that somebody within the lesbian community was actually an informant. And some women got arrested and stuff, because it wasn’t legal. So consequently, when we’d hold the dances at the Unitarian, we’d have lookouts for the police. We’d have somebody at the door just to make sure the police weren’t gonna come in.”

The suspicion was warranted. In 1973, Iowa state liquor control agents, Iowa Highway Patrol officers, the Iowa City Police Department and the Johnson County Sheriff’s Departments raided a Gay Liberation Front dance at the church “for selling beer illegally,” according to Daily Iowan archives.

Like GPU, the Lesbian Alliance also held a phone line and provided counseling at WRAC, Jack said. They curated a resource book and offered spare bedrooms where women could spend the night. Oftentimes, women escaping unsafe, abusive environments would rely on that network.

“When you go to the Women’s Center, and you walk in, if you hadn’t been there before, it could be terrifying, a little intimidating and exciting all at the same time. We offered counseling, and I just don’t know how many women I’ve met with who were, ‘Well, I came into college with my boyfriend, but I really think I might be gay. I don’t know what to do,’” Jack said. “A number of women, who I don’t always remember, have come back and said, ‘You really changed my life.’”

WRAC and the Lesbian Alliance also had an unofficial phone tree to provide 24-hour guarding of the Emma Goldman Clinic, using walkie-talkies to coordinate — “an old version of Twitter,” Jack joked.

Starved for gay culture

The Lesbian Alliance didn’t have an official signup sheet, but Jack estimated that they had several hundred members.

“I would throw an event, and if women showed up, I’d count how many there were and then figured they’re lesbians and that’s how many are part of Lesbian Alliance,” she chuckled.

Jack went to picnics with friends and softball games in the summer. Blake belonged to a Sunday brunch group of 30 to 40 people, hosted on a rotating schedule. The Lesbian Alliance and GPU held movie screenings, usually of a crappy, independent film with a queer storyline, or a TV show with a lesbian kiss.

“In those days, people were so starved for gay culture, they would come to anything,” Haag said.

Gay men would hang out in “little pockets,” Harper said, like Kenney’s Bar, an artistic space also popular with the Iowa Writers’ Workshop students, and The Boulevard Room (later called That Bar), open from 1975 to 1977. The building now houses Artifacts.

Ethel and Gene Madison owned The Boulevard Room, but it wasn’t officially a gay bar.

“They made the mistake of hiring a gay bartender,” Blake said. “So a few friends of his started hanging out, and hey, it was fun … And before long, it became this gay bar. And of course, they hired a gay DJ.”

The crowd at The Boulevard Room was academic — college kids and townies, writers and poets — but there were also groups of gay farmers who tumbled into town.

“The gay farmers used to be a hoot,” Blake said. “Sometimes you forget here in Iowa City. It’s different.”

The Daily Iowan mistakenly labeled The Boulevard Room as a gay bar in a 1975 article, and the Madisons sued the Student Publications Inc. and the article author, Daily Iowan Assistant News Editor Kim Rogal, for libel. They won the suit, but “it was a big slap in the face” to the LGBTQ community, so the community boycotted the bar.

“That was considered the impetus for 620, you know, ‘Fuck Gene and Ethel. We’ll get our own bar,’” Blake said. “There’d be this caravan of gays to Cedar Rapids to the gay bars up there. And that prompted Woody to open 620.”

Daryl “Woody” Woodson, who also owned The Sanctuary, opened The 620 Club at 620 S Madison St, an industrial building. A row of tables was elevated up on the side of the dance floor, along with a drape railing (Rick Graf, who was a carpenter, did construction inside). 620 was the first official gay bar in Iowa City.

Michael Blake as the Condom Queen. – courtesy of Michael Blake

It was open Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays (Tuesdays and Wednesdays with no DJ), and welcomed everyone. But patrons had to embrace the queer community, otherwise why were you there? A local artist painted a poster in the style of Soviet propaganda, depicting a muscly, idealistic man pointing at you with the words, “Are you queer?” in big letters.

“We were pretty militant about [the fact that] we were here, and we were gay. If you didn’t like that, you could go somewhere else,” said Riverside Theatre actor Tim Budd, who served as a bartender and doorman at 620, becoming manager in 1992. “We actually had a stamp that said, ‘I’m gay.’ And people hated it. They hated it. Because it takes a few days for that to wear off.”

Working the bar was hard. You’d hear the music echo in your ears long after the shift was over, Budd said. But it also came with memorable moments, like bartending on New Year’s Eve and seeing his friend meet his longtime boyfriend for the first time.

“We were who we were, because we felt we were on our own, and we would have to take care of each other,” Budd said. “The bar really worked as a community center as well.

“We had a Halloween Costume Contest one year, and the guy who won came in drag and wore a dress that was entirely made of condoms, still in their packaging. He made that whole dress out of condoms he’d taken from our bar, and then we gave him $150 for doing it.”

Budd would caravan to the gay bars in Cedar Rapids but thought they were boring, less atmospheric and smaller. It was an older crowd without the university’s presence, and Budd felt like a stranger.

You had to fight for it

Iowa City was the queer omphalos. If Jack had to be anywhere in the state, Iowa City was the place. But despite the relative tolerance in Iowa City, the LGBTQ community was constantly fighting to secure their rights and spaces.

“People were still getting beat up. I had death threats. I had my phone tapped because I was getting death threats,” she laughed. “I used to wear suits a lot, and walking downtown in a three-piece suit could be a little challenging at times. And when we would do Take Back the Night, they tried to run us over. That was not unusual at all. There were pipe bombs at 620 before.

“During those decades, the politics was front and center, because we had to move the needle. University wasn’t gonna do it. That’s for damn sure. The city wasn’t going to do it. That’s for damn sure,” Jack said. “You had to fight for it.”

A group from Iowa City piles into a bus headed for the Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. Photograph courtesy of Jill Jack.

One early victory came in 1977, when the Iowa City Council added sexual orientation to its non-discrimination ordinance. Iowa City was the one of the first cities in the country to include that protection in its human rights ordinance.

Tragically, advancements made by the nationwide Gay Liberation Movement were undone in the ’80s.

“AIDS was an enormous setback for basic rights that we take for granted today,” Harper said. “And not only speaking about the nature of unions, but housing, employment, medical, all kinds of things. Two steps backwards.”

“The sort of wild, bucking ’70s, it really came to a screeching halt. So many people died,” Haag said. “They didn’t change the world as much as they’d hoped to. But the world is kind of hard to change.”

The Cleve Jones’s NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt covered the National Mall at the Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. Photograph courtesy of Jill Jack.

Adria Carpenter is a freelance journalist based in Minneapolis and former LV staff writer. Thanks to everyone who decided to share their story with me, and thanks to the UI Special Collections and Archives for helping me sort through boxes and boxes of documents and materials. I hope this series does our history justice.