“Remember the good times for they outnumber the bad.”
Gloria Frankel’s motto to “remember the good times for they outnumber the bad” not only summarizes her leadership philosophy but also her experiences as the first owner of a gay bar in the Michiana area.
Gloria Frankel is a well-known name and figure in the Michiana LGBTQ community. In 1971, only two years after the riots at the Stonewall Inn in New York City, Gloria opened the Seahorse, South Bend’s first gay bar. During the time when homosexuality was still illegal in Indiana, the Seahorse was marked only by a blue neon seahorse hanging in its window. Gloria’s goal with opening the bar was to provide a safe haven for members of the LGBTQ community. Because homosexuality was still illegal, “people were ashamed of who they were and frightened of the severe consequences if they were found out.”
Gloria helped reduce the shame felt by many members of the LGBTQ community by openly advertising events and shows at the Seahorse. The bar became known not only for being a welcoming space where people could be who they were, but also for its drag performances and contests. The bar became so popular that Gloria moved it to a larger facility in 1975, opening what came to be known as Seahorse II. In addition to providing socializing and entertainment opportunities, Gloria also mentored subsequent bar owners who became known as her “bar children.”
Gloria, the Seahorse, and its patrons were the victims of various forms of harassment from members of the community, as well as the city of South Bend. In 1975, someone stole Gloria’s car and set it on fire. As a result, from that point forward Gloria required patrons to enter only through the front doors to protect them from random violence and attacks. In 1982, the bar was firebombed, causing over $90,000 worth of smoke damage. The bar was the victim of random police raids from the time it opened until the late 1990s. The police were also known to hang out in the bar harassing and intimidating drag performers.
Despite attempts to intimidate and shut her down, Gloria continued to keep the doors open and actively fought back against the city. In the mid-1980s Gloria was subjected to the city of South Bend code enforcement attempts to deny the Seahorse’s liquor license. In a letter to the patrons of the Seahorse, Gloria explained that “on November 13, 1985, the Seahorse’s unblemished liquor license was granted an automatic renewal and was approved by the St. Joseph County Alcoholic Beverage Board.” However, the city requested the renewal be postponed until a variance was granted for extra parking for the bar. The board granted the city’s request. Gloria noted that the city’s request and the Board’s approval were based not on existing laws, but “on the complaints of neighbors of the proposed parking lot who ‘think’ crime is generated by the bar’s presence even though there has never been an arrest of a bar patron for public nuisance.”
Despite these obstacles, Gloria continued to be an activist for gay rights. In the early 1990s, Gloria became a leader in the local fight against HIV/AIDS. She regularly donated funds to Aids Ministries and also allowed the Seahorse to be a site where patrons could receive free HIV/AIDS testing. True to her commitment to making the Seahorse a safe haven, Gloria noted; “At that time gays were being terribly discriminated against, and many were afraid to go [to] the health department to get tested. So, with the help of some friends, we cleaned up the back garage and turned it into a counseling center.”
In 1997, Gloria was recognized by the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce for 20 years of service to the LGBTQ community. The Seahorse closed in 2007 after Gloria passed away.
Information compiled from various archival sources including: “Gloria Frankel” Indiana Commission for Women blog, “Gloria Frankel and the Seahorse: The South Bend LGBT Club’s fight for Gay Rights” Indiana History blog; “Then and Now: The Origins and Development of the Gay Community in South Bend” by Ben Wineland, South Bend Tribune obituary for Gloria Frankel; and “To Concern [sic] Patrons of the Seahorse” letter housed in the LGBTQ Collection archives of Indiana University South Bend.
Gloria was a 2019 Celebrating Michiana Women Leaders honoree.