Museum News

Jan Lancaster -- 2024 History Maker

March 27th, 2024

She is “Momma” to many searching souls, looking for a safe haven. Jan Lancaster has operated the Bistro, Bloomington LGBTQ+ friendly bar, since 1993. Those who needed a ready ear, support, and kindness found in a bar more than a business; it has been a community outpost that welcomes all in a supportive environment.

Jan grew up in Normal. Her mother was a social worker for the Department of Children and Family Services. As a child, Jan remembers that frequently other children were at the family home, young people who needed shelter for a night or two. Jan is the same open shelter to the local LGBTQ+ community. She was married at 18 and has two children, Sara and John.

Owning her own business was not her original intent; she worked first for Johnny Martin Chevrolet and for the Music Shoppe for many years, tracking accounts, showcasing school band instruments throughout Illinois, and assisting this family business. She discovered the Bistro and found its atmosphere welcoming, becoming a regular patron. The owner convinced her to purchase the business, which she completed by cobbling together a bank loan, personal funds, and supportive friends. Her advice to anyone hoping to open a business is, “keep your day job.” 

In 1996 she was a partner in opening Lancaster’s, a downtown Bloomington fine dining establishment, which closed in August of 2014. Jan notes that “bartenders are a different breed” and she loves to create a party atmosphere, including twice staging an indoor beach party, which included two and a half tons of sand in the building. Her workforce includes some with over 15 years at the Bistro. She values her staff as deeply as she does her customers.

When she first opened the Bistro, she took down the dark awnings and created a more welcoming environment. During the 1980s and 1990s she helped care for AIDS patients. In her early years, many Bistro patrons would park blocks away, careful they were not outed by entering a gay bar. The local climate has changed, thanks to persistent efforts. People came to her for a welcoming environment, particularly if families were not supportive. For many years she hosted Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners for those who had nowhere to go or were not comfortable with their family. Angry parents would call her, and she would counsel them, “talk to your child,” asking them to support their young person.

Locally she has watched the climate change. Expanding the local discrimination ordinances to include LGBTQ+ people took three attempts over decades. In 1984 an ordinance expansion was rejected in Bloomington and again in 1996 in both Bloomington and Normal. In 2001 Normal passed the ordinance and Bloomington in 2002. Today’s Prairie Pride Coalition was originally the Advocacy Council for Human Rights, initiated by Lancaster, David Bentlin, and others to lobby for equality.

Lancaster started downtown Bloomington’s Pride Fest in 2018, missing one year for COVID. It has become a premier downtown activity, now attracting 8,000+ people. Lancaster is proud that families come and celebrate with their neighbors, without regard to sexual orientation. On a more somber note, the June 12, 2016, Orlando, Florida, Pulse night club shooting is commemorated annually outside the Bistro. When the shooting took place, a solidarity march was held from the Bistro to Miller Park, organized in a few hours and attracting hundreds.

Jan is a continual advocate for Bloomington. She has served on the Bloomington Human Relations Commission, Uniquely Bloomington, and the Public Safety and Community Safety Board. She is a past president for the Downtown Bloomington Association and also helped organize the Bar Owners Association. She is a continuing advocate for downtown Bloomington renewal. She credits the City for its openness to new ideas and the Bloomington Police Department for their vigilance for her patron’s safety.

In 2007 Jan was recognized as a Woman of Distinction by YWCA McLean County and she was honored by the Downtown Bloomington Association in 2002 as the Jean Anderson Award recipient. Jan’s History Maker nominator, Dave Bentlin, President of the Prairie Pride Coalition, states, “Her service to and presence in the LGBTQ+ community is historic, important, and irreplaceable.” While society has changed for more inclusion, over the past thirty-one years many found sanctuary, friendship, relationships, and a welcoming environment, thanks to Jan Lancaster’s embracing heart.

Mike Matejka

2nd Vice President