It is an affront that Governor Mike Pence managed to make it through an entire debate without being confronted with his signature piece of legislation: an anti-LGBTQ* bill that inscribed discrimination and hatred into the laws of a state known for its hospitality. As a Hoosier and LGBTQ* American, I must urge voters to consider this law not as poor judgment but as an attempt to endanger and alienate vulnerable members of our society.
Growing up as a gay teen in the South and spending my adult years in Indiana has shown me first-hand what it is like to be confronted with your otherness. When I was 18 years old, I left my college dorm, drove three hours to my home in Western Kentucky, arrived at midnight, and told my mother I was gay.
We sat at the kitchen table, where all southern serious conversations take place. She drank her bourbon, and I gushed that college had revealed an inherent truth in myself. I was gay, I said, and I had met a cute guy. This is who I was. I loved her and I hoped that she didn’t think I was going to hell.
She hugged me, reassured me of her love and pride, but then began to cry as she came to the false conclusion that she would not have grandchildren. It was a long journey for us to be completely comfortable with the topic but her love and tenderness never wavered.
Coming out to my father was a different experience. Once again discussing the issue over bourbon, albeit much more, his reaction was not kind or affectionate. Visits home were fraught with antagonism, name-calling, and suggestions of reparative therapy. It was my first confrontation with anger, reluctance to empathize, and disgust. These sentiments confront LGBTQ* Americans every day. However, college had instilled a strong defiance and independence within me and I stood my ground. He’s since apologized for his behavior and I’m proud to say that my family surrounds me with love and joy and has eagerly and earnestly accepted my long-term boyfriend with the kindness, and of course the comfort food, only a southern family can provide.
After I graduated from college, I moved from my native Bluegrass state to the crossroads of America in the cornfields of Indiana. I enrolled in a Ph.D. program at Indiana University—Bloomington. I had high expectations for the hospitality of the Hoosier state and was not disappointed by the kindness and warmness I found in Bloomington.
However, this all changed during the election of 2012 when Mike Pence became governor of Indiana and subsequently signed into law one of the most egregiously discriminatory laws against LGBTQ* people that has been seen in the country.
For those outside Indiana, it may be difficult to imagine the turmoil that Mike Pence put our state through in order to appease a conservative Christian base and to speak out against civil rights and equality for LGBTQ* communities. Following the landmark decision by the United States Supreme Court in United States vs. Windsor and later Obergefell vs. Hodges, DOMA was dismantled and marriage equality was granted to all citizens regardless of sexual orientation.
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act was a law passed by Indiana legislators and signed by Governor Mike Pence despite widespread condemnation by social groups, citizens, and large corporations. This bill allowed places of business to refuse service to gay couples under the citation of religious conviction. Folks outside of Indiana have to understand that Governor Pence signed into law the ability for someone to refuse service based on assumption, generalizations, and discriminatory ideas! What kind of man, claiming to be a Christian, casts out entire groups of people?
I am fortunate to live in Bloomington. It is a thriving college town that is rich in culture, diversity, and empathy. The passing of RFRA instigated an immediate backlash from local businesses that refused to participate in obvious unconstitutional discrimination. Rainbow stickers declaring “WE SERVE ALL” could be found across countless storefronts and this revealed a degree of unity and hospitality in the people of Bloomington that Governor Pence had clearly overlooked.
The same cannot be said for all towns across Indiana. Furthermore, the children of Indiana follow the example of our leaders regardless of whether we think they are paying attention. My heart breaks for the young man, young woman, or young trans student searching for community and understanding only to find that their state legislature and governor has openly rejected them. How humiliating it could have been for a young person to be turned away from a local diner because their classmate, serving behind the counter, had heard rumors about their sexuality?
The passing of RFRA brought about a black cloud over the state of Indiana. I found myself trying to account for my behavior and my dress. What if someone knew or thought I was gay? Suddenly, walking in the evening with my boyfriend became much more sinister. Leaving Bloomington to explore the state became an exercise in courage rather than an exercise in adventure and exploration of my new home.
Fortunately, the law was met with several high profile withdraws and threats from major corporations including Angie’s List and the NCAA (The NCAA has proven to be an exemplary ally in their rejection of Governor Pence and Governor McCrory of North Carolina and their hateful rhetoric and legislation). The effects made clear how Governor Pence’s eagerness to discriminate against those different than himself resulted in poor judgment that affected the economic stability of the state and adversely affected all Hoosiers.
In Tuesday night’s vice-presidential debate, Mike Pence declared, “A society can be judged by how it treats its most vulnerable—the aging, the infirm, the disabled, and the unborn.” The governor must not realize that according to The Trevor Project, suicide rates among LGBTQ* teens are four times higher than that of other children their age. The passing of RFRA enshrined discrimination against a vulnerable group of children and young adults, and life-long and new Hoosiers alike. If held to his own word, then it is Governor Pence who should be judged for the way he treated some his most vulnerable constituents.