Indianapolis Rallies Around Its Gay Citizens After a Law Sets Off a Flood of Support

In a state perhaps best known for its hallowed speedway and lean-to-the-right politics, the pageantry of the past week might have seemed unexpected.

On Wednesday, a standing-room-only crowd snacked on rainbow-colored fruit skewers at a forum on transgender issues. On Thursday, men donned blond wigs and high heels at a drag show to raise money for charity. And on Saturday, gay men and women were expected to turn out by the thousands for the annual pride parade and festival. The mayor, a Republican, will serve as grand marshal, and several same-sex couples plan to exchange marriage vows.

It was all part of a nine-day pride celebration of Indiana’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender population. And it came against a backdrop of events that have suggested that Indiana is not of one mind in its views about sexual orientation as might have been thought.

Less than three months ago at the green-domed State Capitol here, the Republican-dominated state legislature passed, and Gov. Mike Pence, a Republican, signed, a religious exceptions law that many believed would allow business owners to refuse service to gay couples on religious grounds. The law, officially called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, was viewed by critics as a license to discriminate. But it set off a furious backlash not only from the gay community but also from corporate interests that pressured lawmakers to clarify that the measure could not be used to justify discrimination.

For many of the gay and lesbian Indiana residents gathered here for pride week, the rapid revising of the law marked a turning point, suggesting perhaps a budding tolerance for their community — as well as their growing political clout in this politically conservative state.

“We hate that we had to go through that,” said Chris Morehead, president of Indy Pride Inc., a local gay rights group that organized this week’s events. “But on the back side of it, we saw support from places we never imagined.”

Mr. Morehead said new corporate sponsors signed on for this year’s pride festivities, and many straight people became more vocal in their support for gay rights. Even Mr. Pence, who has said that he abhors discrimination and that the intent of the religious exceptions law was misunderstood, wrote a brief letter welcoming pride week attendees to Indiana.

Dr. Eric Doerr, 28, an Indianapolis resident who is gay, said Mr. Pence signing the first version of the law “definitely incited a lot of emotions and motivated more people.”

“I wish that could have been done without the legislation,” he said, “but I’m more than happy to see supporters.”

Dr. Doerr, a native of Terre Haute, Ind., has a life story that shares common threads with many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people here. He rarely saw same-sex couples when he was growing up, and he did not come out as gay until leaving the state for college. But since moving to Indianapolis, the state’s largest city, Dr. Doerr says he has found a welcoming atmosphere and vibrant gay community. Just days ago, Dr. Doerr and his boyfriend got engaged. (Same-sex marriage became legal here last year after a federal appeals court struck down Indiana’s ban.)

On Wednesday night, more than 100 people crammed into a used book store for the discussion on transgender issues. The store was at the end of Massachusetts Avenue, a center of Indianapolis gay culture, where rainbow flags flutter outside many storefronts. Interest was so high that there were not enough seats, and dozens watched a simulcast at gathering spots across town.

After the event, Aundrea Lacy, a transgender woman better known here by her stage name, Tia Mirage Hall, questioned whether a discussion of transgender issues would have found such an audience even five years ago.

“Indiana is a strict, Republican, old-school, man-woman-children” place, said Ms. Lacy, who has lived in the state her whole life. “Everything that is not of the norm is always not talked about, it’s pushed to the side, and we have to fight for it.”

But at least here in Indianapolis, those dynamics have started to change. Mayor Greg Ballard, a Republican, who will serve as grand marshal at the parade on Saturday, spoke out against the religious exceptions law from the start. He warned that it could be seen as discriminatory and hurt local companies’ ability to attract new employees. When the law’s signing prompted threats of economic boycotts, Mr. Ballard condemned the legislation and sought to calm the seas.

“There were some major, major conventions who were saying, ‘What’s going on?’ Our board of directors, our sponsors are telling us to pull out,’” Mayor Ballard recalled in a telephone interview Thursday. “We had to work very quickly.”

The days after Mr. Pence signed the religious exceptions law are recalled in gay circles here with dread. Vanessa Enos, an Indianapolis resident who is gay, said she contemplated what she would do if she were denied service by a business because of her orientation.

“For me, as a white female, I had never been very afraid of being discriminated against in a way that was very outright and vocal,” Mrs. Enos said. But the day the religious exceptions law passed, she said, “I was out to dinner with my wife, and for the first time ever, I was afraid that someone would ask me to leave their restaurant.”

But this week, as Indiana residents arrive in the capital for pride week events, she said the feeling has been different than it was a year ago, before gay marriage was legal, and before the outpouring of support after the religious exceptions law passed.

“I feel like there is more excitement from people outside the L.G.B.T.Q. community,” Mrs. Enos said. “And I think us as a community, it feels a little more electric.”

by Mitch Smith
Source – The New York Times