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IUB Archives

An IU ‘70s Lesbian Activist: Maida Tilchen’s Collection Comes Out

Sometimes when working in an archives, you come across someone in a collection that you really connect to and admire; for me, one of these individuals is Maida Tilchen. Maida’s a Long Island-raised lesbian activist who came to Bicknell, Indiana as a community organizer for VISTA, a federal anti-poverty program. She eventually found her way into Bloomington’s lesbian and feminist community. I started processing Maida’s papers shortly after they were gifted to the IU Archives and quickly understood the weight and importance of her stories of LGBTQ+ rights and women’s liberation in 1970s Bloomington.

Anyone going through these folders will recognize how much effort Maida put into this collection prior to donation: holding onto ratty protest flyers, identifying people in photographs, and writing a detailed context guide. Maida wrote a 13 page description of her collection complete with background explanations and stories to help researchers understand what these papers are and why they are important. In this guide, she first welcomes everyone who might look at her papers and then goes through the different topics found in the collection including the Bloomington Gay Rights Coalition, the Women’s Center, and the Gay Women’s and Men’s Literary Circle. Maida also shares her record of the women’s music concerts she helped bring to Bloomington. This guide gives a general road map of the collection, but it also offers an insider perspective on what it was like to be a woman and LGBTQ+ at a more conservative time in Indiana, wanting to find a place to fit in and experience community without judgement or hate.

Parts of this collection shed light on the homophobic and sexist history of Bloomington and the wider United States throughout the 1970s. One notable situation that the Tilchen collection showcases is the Backstreet Bar case. The Backstreet Bar was Bloomington‘s first disco bar and soon had a lively dance scene. One night in 1976, two patrons were physically pulled out of the bar for “same sex dancing.” The issue became widely talked about throughout town and IU, eventually becoming an issue taken on by the Bloomington Human Rights Commission. In the end, the commissioners ruled in favor of the bar and despite boycotts and levels of protesting, the bar continued their no same sex dancing rule throughout Maida’s time in Bloomington. This collection also makes wonderful connections to Maida’s life and acquaintances in Bloomington that gives researchers something many records do not: the ability to remember individuals from IU and Bloomington who lost their lives to AIDS. This includes a plaintiff in the Backstreet Bar case, Miguel Morgado, as remembered by Maida in her written contextual guide to the collection. Bob Doerr, in the photo below on the left, also succumbed to AIDS.  

Despite the size of Maida’s collection (under 1 cubic foot,) there are multiple subject areas where this collection shines. Being a personal papers collection, records reflect her time in Bloomington. As an IU student, she earned her Master of Science in Education – Instructional Systems Technology. She was also an employee for IU’s History and Philosophy of Science Department and the IU Center for Innovation in Teaching the Handicapped. Maida is a writer and from the 1970s contributed articles to LGBTQ+ and feminist magazines such as Body Politic and the Gay Community News and eventually authored two lesbian historical novels, Land Beyond Maps and She’s Gone Santa Fe. The Gay Community News is linked above, and it is also available for researchers in Microform on the 2nd Floor of the Wells Library’s East Tower. Maida’s collection includes a brief autobiography which is featured in the “Creator’s Notes” folder in the collection. Maida was interviewed on video in 2008 for Chicago Gay History in which she shares about her time in Bloomington and is also mentioned in an issue of Three Rivers’ One in Six (TROIS), a Fort Wayne based publication that can be found through Indiana Memory.

Poster for "A room of one's own," a women-owned bookstore in Bloomington. The poster contains an illustration of common feminist books.
Poster for “A Room of One’s Own,” a women-owned bookstore in Bloomington.

As a queer archivist myself, I understand how rare it can be to find LGBTQ+ joy in local records; I anticipate this collection being a oft-used and cherished addition to the IU Archives and Bloomington’s history. The Maida Tilchen papers are open for researchers and available to view (also soon to be digitized); contact the Indiana University Archives for a reading room appointment to look at the collection today!

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