I live in Indiana, ostensibly a place where queer folks cannot get an appropriate florist for their wedding and restaurants have the right not to serve two women eating together if, somehow, they are read as gay. (How will the waitress know, I wonder? If they are holding hands? If they have rainbow flags on their backpacks? If they carry in a copy of The Well of Loneliness to read aloud to each other over bites of a pulled pork sandwich?)
In all the recent media maelstrom that’s come with the passage of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, however, a significant portion of the state has been ignored, those of us here, like the people I live with, who are unequivocally pro-gay and slightly more ambivalent about where we live.
This is particularly true in my town of Bloomington, the site of Indiana University’s flagship campus. From the towering Gothic buildings to the presence of shirtless young men in folding chairs splayed across front lawns anytime the temperature rises above 50 degrees, to the row upon row of stately (at least from the outside) fraternity and sorority houses lined up along East Third and Tenth Streets, the place is a location scout’s dream of Small College Town in Bucolic Setting. With an actual student population of over 42,000 (over 30,000 of whom are undergraduates) the town is, in many ways, an oasis of liberalism. This might be due more to the presence of its faculty than said students (who are, as far as I can tell, a largely apolitical lot more revved up by Little 5 weekend than any threat to human rights couched in the language of religious freedom).
I’m sure, for instance, that the rally against Governor Mike Pence I went to last week would have been far larger than the “hundreds” documented in our local paper if it was instead held to support a bill lowering the drinking age to 18 or if it included a waterslide and a wet-T-shirt contest. Still, in a state known historically for housing the earliest permutations of the KKK (in Martinsville) and now known for its intolerance towards gays, lesbians, and transgendered individuals, Bloomington is indeed an odd political duck.
Certainly, this isn’t the whole story. Many faculty of color, gay and straight, choose to live in Indianapolis, an hour and a half away, where there are fewer organic food outlets but also a population that is less relentlessly white, coupled, heterosexual. Random frat boys still shout “faggot” at protesters carrying rainbow flags down Kirkwood Avenue. It can be easy to forget these things when tolerance flows through the town like Willy Wonka’s chocolate rivers; you know, the ones you can drown in.
But everyone I know here has been appalled by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was signed into law two weeks ago. Their responses tend to cluster around one of two positions. First are the Facebook posts of embarrassment with faculty lamenting, “How did I ever end up living in this state?” (Well, you got a faculty job at a university, so.) But others just as opposed to Gov. Pence want to defend Indiana in general (and sometimes Bloomington in particular) claiming other states have this very same legislation, so why is everyone picking on us so much? (This is only partially true—no other forms of the act include for-profit businesses except for South Carolina and many contain the same anti-discrimination clauses that Pence has been embarrassed into including in Indiana’s). Much of the ire and defensiveness comes, of course, from the abject injustice of this law. But I think a part of it also comes from those who live in Indiana and who both identify and don’t with our “home” state.
And while I think this latter response may be heightened in a place fondly referred to by its residents as “The People’s Republic of Bloomington” I am not entirely sure it’s one that is completely alien to this (admittedly red) state. Gov. Pence, it should be noted, was elected by a 49.5% majority, certainly not a landslide by any measure. Still, he was elected, despite his heinous opposition to gay rights dating back to at least 2000 (The New York Times rated him the second-most conservative governor in the country).
I am not sure we should be entirely surprised that such a measure as this one would be signed into law in Indiana. But what has been surprising, at least to me, is how swift the backlash has been against this bill. Thousands protested at the statehouse in Indianapolis, many from other parts of the state, almost immediately after the signing. A city councilman in West Lafayette filed a resolution stating the city’s support of its LGBTQ community. Public statements were made against the bill not just from IU’s president but from those at Butler, Valparaiso, and DePauw. “We Serve Everyone” stickers started showing up here on local storefront windows and becoming nearly as common as the ones encouraging public breastfeeding. My local bagel shop hung an enormous rainbow flag that takes up nearly its whole street-facing window.
And within just a few days, Gov. Pence did backtrack, adding provisions to the bill that build in protections for LGBT individuals, not necessarily ones that go far enough, but certainly changes that would never have occurred without real rancor from real people who live here. Although Indiana doesn’t have a statewide anti-discrimination law, amendments to the act prohibit businesses from using it as legal defense should they refuse to provide services to anyone based on their “sex, sexual orientation gender identity.” Of course, much of the impetus to change the bill came not only from those of us who are here and (pro) queer and (not) used to being discriminated against so officially.
Much is simply the triumph of capitalism; those in power slowly starting to recognize (duh) that discrimination is simply not a good business strategy. Certainly if this law went into effect even Bloomington would lose its ranking as one of the “Top 10 LGBT Vacation Destinations” (why it is on the list, I am not quite so sure). And If Republicans like anything more than fetuses with assault rifles, it’s revenue. With entire states (Connecticut, Washington) as well as moneymakers like GenCon, Angie’s List, the NFL, NBA, NCAA, and even NASCAR all threatening boycotts, House Speaker Brian Bosma was forced to concede “after speaking with business and civic leaders” that “Hoosier hospitality has to be restored.”
It’s situations like these that make me, when people ask where I’m from, respond—despite living here for over ten years and liking it—with “I’m from California but I’m teaching in Indiana.” When friends come to visit I still warn them to stay calm and keep driving, that as they get farther south on Highway 37 from the airport the “We Buy Guns!” and “Abortion Stops a Beating Heart” billboard signs will end. when they arrive in Bloomington it will all be good and we’ll go out for Indian food and local whiskey and maybe a drag show. At the same time, it probably isn’t fair to judge any particular state by the signs along its rural highways, and doubt that the average resident of Orange County, California, a longtime Republican stronghold, is any less homophobic than the one in Walkerton, Indiana.
In short, I am likely feeling like lots of people in Indiana right now. We’re proud. We’re ashamed. We are, in a way, proud to be ashamed. In other words, Indiana is both a state where a discriminatory law such as this one could have been assumed to pass without any problem and a state where, in fact, passing it was a problem. Much of the rhetoric surrounding its opposition was that a law like this would be an embarrassment to the state’s reputation, and it’s this very embarrassment that led to its amendment within a week.
Just yesterday I went to get a pedicure at a salon here that is geographically and demographically rather far from the queer-friendly bakeries and bars closer to campus. The woman I normally see had moved her business there after an argument with the owner of her former salon (not about gay rights, I might add), a salon that held on its magazine rack amid last month’s People and Self and Vogue a copy of an anarchist broadsheet urging freedom for political prisoners.
I suspect my manicurist put it there: she’s a single mother with white blonde hair who is pierced over what seems like 25% of her body. She’s covered with tattoos, and once told me over a salt scrub that she demanded the hospital play her Metallica CD when her son was being born. Our conversations are as likely to be about the benefits of various brands of gel nail polish as they are to be about sexism and homophobia. As she was painting my toenails black a gentleman dressed all in camouflage came in to have his hair cut by the fifty-something male barber who also works there. Over Coca-Colas they discussed hunting, their kids’ baseball practices, and, I overheard, their opinion of Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The only reason I know they were in favor of it?
They looked over at the two of us and immediately started speaking very, very, quietly.
Jennifer Maher is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Gender Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington (though she's from California). Her work has appeared in Bitch: Feminist Response to Popular Culture, Brain, Child, and a variety of academic venues.
Image by Jim Cooke, photo via Getty