BLOOMINGTON, Ill. -- In this small city rising out of the cornfields, two new attractions have opened on Main Street in the past year or so: a nightclub and a bookstore, both catering to lesbians and gay men.
A decade ago, there was almost no visible gay presence in Bloomington, a city of about 55,000. But a meeting in November for homosexuals interested in starting an advocacy group drew more than 150 people.
And a proposal to ban discrimination against homosexuals, accompanied by the familiar backlash, goes before the City Council for a vote tomorrow.
"The community here is really starting to come alive," said Dave Bentlin, a 33-year-old gay accounting clerk, who is a leader of the Advocacy Council for Human Rights, the first such group for homosexuals in Bloomington.
Gay life and culture, traditionally a province of major urban centers, is beginning to thrive in smaller cities, towns and rural areas throughout the nation.
"The center of gravity in the gay and lesbian movement is shifting," said Robert Bray, a field director for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, who has traveled more than 100,000 miles around the country as an organizer.
"Small towns are where we're seeing the biggest changes right now. In the past, gays and lesbians from rural areas have picked up and escaped to big cities. They're not willing to do that anymore.
"Like everybody else, most of them don't want to live in big cities now. Instead, these native sons and daughters of small towns are keeping their roots, and making their presence felt.
"I have seen with my own eyes a lesbian rancher in Arizona, a gay cop in the Badlands of South Dakota," he said. "Every rural area I have traveled through -- Laramie, Wyo.; Bloomington, Ill.; Caribou, Maine -- I have talked to gays."