Small town, big pride: Spencer, Indiana

Small town, big pride: Spencer, Indiana

Spencer, Ind. — It is one of those places where, in that suffocating yet special small-town way, almost anything can achieve the status of myth: Origin stories are grandiose. Everyone knows every family that has ever lived in a given house. And who’s dating whom is always a hot topic down at the Smorgasbord buffet. It is a place where it can be refreshingly easy to find peace and quiet but impossible to disappear.

(Top) A home off East Street. (Bottom) Morgan Street, Spencer’s main thoroughfare, with a Methodist church in the background. Photographs captured on Google Pixel by Tag Christof.

And yet, this backdrop is the site of one of the most unlikely pride celebrations anywhere in America. One Saturday every June, Spencer’s population virtually doubles as its courthouse lawn welcomes about 2,000 LGBTQ community members, their allies and family; local businesses and curious onlookers. This year’s event culminated in a joyous drag show featuring Indiana favorites Patricia Yolanda Weave (aka Pat Yo’ Weave), Cassidy Fellows-Summers, Bendovah Plenti and a few other feel-good showstoppers.

Still, it is impossible to lose sight of the almost surreal disconnect between the celebration and the town. I rolled into Spencer the morning festivities began, past rolling fields punctuated by "Jesus Saves" signs. I parked between two pickup trucks festooned with NRA swag and leftover stickers for Republican candidates from the 2016 election. The vibe from almost every direction is solidly small-town conservative, so just how is something that seems so culturally at odds with its surroundings even possible here?

(Top) Indiana favorites Pat Yo’ Weave, Bendovah Plenti and Cassidy Fellows-Summers. (Bottom left) Entering Spencer's city limits. (Bottom right) Children crowd around end-of-day Pride festivities. Photographs captured on Google Pixel by Tag Christof.

Unlike Pride celebrations in most big cities and liberal small towns, it is immediately clear that Spencer Pride is less a day of out-and-out revelry and more a communal act of solidarity. There is no blockbuster parade, no risqué displays or gratuitous skin. The atmosphere is G-rated, cheerful and fun. While sponsor booths promote public health initiatives, mainstream progressive politics, getaways to inclusive local resorts and the like, many prominent businesses in the town are conspicuously absent, and even mainstream churches known for their relative embrace of LGBTQ individuals are officially MIA.

(Top left) Spencer home near Cooper’s Commons. (Top right) Gannon, a high school freshman and PFLAG volunteer. (Center) An activist staffs a booth dedicated to trans issues. (Bottom left) Indiana goods on display. (Bottom right) Josh and Emily Black, husband and wife volunteers. (Bottom) Teenagers attending Spencer Pride Festival. Photographs captured on Google Pixel by Tag Christof.

Reading between the lines of this polite mix reveals the key to Spencer Pride’s success: It is very difficult for any reasonable person, whatever their beliefs, to object to a wholly welcoming and family-friendly event. This is, after all, a town outside the historic South where more than a fair few homes and cars brazenly sport Confederate flags, America’s most potent and enduring signifier of hardline intolerance. In this potentially inhospitable environment, Spencer Pride’s organizers display a rare pragmatism by choosing to advance their cause via incremental action, civic engagement and education rather than overtly adversarial activism. Whatever one’s feelings about that tactic, it is hard to argue with the result: genuine visibility for an entire community that is often entirely marginalized in similar towns.

(Top) Holly Day, Spencer Pride Festival attendee. (Bottom) Drag performers take a breather after a crowd-pleasing performance. Photographs captured on Google Pixel by Tag Christof.

Jonathan Balash, president of Spencer Pride, and his husband, Jacob — neither of whom are originally from Spencer — chose to put down roots in the town and raise their son, Truman, there. The couple built a rustic modern house on a picturesque plot of land crisscrossed by brooks and walking trails. It’s a Dwell magazine kind of place, the sort of dream hideaway a coastal urbanite might stay in for a weekend trip to the Catskills or Napa (but would likely be out of reach to own in either). This abundant, accessible beauty certainly helps make the case for small-town living.

Nevertheless, as two of Spencer’s most visible LGBTQ residents, Balash and Jacob have dealt with their fair share of aggressions, from name-calling to pride flags being removed from their property and destroyed. They’ve displayed a steel resolve, never backing down but dealing with legal matters quietly and calmly. Most recently, after their mailbox was smashed, they simply cleaned up the mess and replaced it with a new one, encased in concrete, finished with stone and anchored deep in the ground. Sure enough, the would-be vandals struck again almost immediately, this time leaving behind a busted bumper and other smashed car parts. The mailbox looks good as new.

(Top) Jacob Balash's home. (Bottom) Balash and his son, Truman, at Cooper’s Commons. Photographs captured on Google Pixel by Tag Christof.

Like most non-touristy small towns these days, Spencer’s square has seen better days. Its stately 19th-century courthouse is flanked on all sides by mostly empty storefronts, filled intermittently by a restaurant or two, the town post office and the local Republican Party headquarters. Last September, Spencer Pride opened a permanent space, a “Unity Shop,” in one of those formerly vacant spaces. It’s a novel concept, giving them a stable headquarters and also making them one of the most visible organizations in town year-round. The group was also integral to helping raise funds to restore and reopen the Tivoli, the town’s antique theater just across the square, where they hold an annual LGBTQ History Month event and provide volunteers one night a week to staff the ticket counter, snack bar and projector.

These seemingly minor interventions go a long way toward garnering acceptance for the larger LGBTQ community around town. As far as the group is concerned, their work on renewal and resurgence benefits not just LGBTQ pride but also Spencer, helping to instill a greater sense of town pride among all residents. One indication this low-key approach is working: The local VFW donated this year to Spencer Pride for the first time, according to the group’s spokesperson, Judi Epp. Despite the recent rightward shift in U.S. politics, the support of traditionally conservative local organizations helps to reassure Epp that the group’s work is valued.

“Nationally, it’s looking so grim that it makes me want to bury my head in the sand until it’s over. But it’s even more important for us now to do what we can in our corner of the world.” —Judi Epp, spokesperson, Spencer Pride

(Top left) Chamber’s Smorgasbord restaurant, a local favorite. (Top right) Judi Epp, Spencer Pride spokesperson. (Bottom) Spencer Pride’s Unity Shop on the town square. Photographs captured on Google Pixel by Tag Christof.

Epp has been a guiding light and mother figure of sorts for the group from its beginning, just over a decade ago. Like Jonathan and Jacob Balash, she moved from elsewhere in the state and chose to make her home in Spencer. And despite the recent passing of her lifelong partner, she has been out in full force this month, organizing, delegating and nurturing. Of particular importance to her is acting as a bridge and translator between younger and older generations, whose familiarity and comfort with the LGBTQ community can be challenging. “It’s very important for us to be able to be ourselves here,” Epp said. “If you’re afraid to be yourself, how could you call somebody and say, ‘I need help with my wife?’”

Cathy Wyatt is another uniter of disparate cultures within the town. An elegant, silver-haired Spencer native, Wyatt was blindsided — and profoundly changed — when her youngest son came out. After having been a lifelong member of a fundamentalist church, she rejected its dogmatic incompatibility with her son’s humanity and entirely reoriented her faith. She found her way to a local PFLAG chapter and has been a tenacious ally ever since.

“Those are my heroes now, the entire pride organization. They are all such warrior heroes to me now. I think, 'gosh, they know what it’s like to be shunned and hated and pushed aside.' [They live that] and say, ‘We’re here anyway.’ That’s courageous.” — Cathy Wyatt, Spencer resident and PFLAG organizer

(Top left) PFLAG organizer Cathy Wyatt. (Top right) Coloring book pages by local artists. (Bottom) The controversial bathroom sign that caused a stir on the Monday following pride. Photographs captured on Google Pixel by Tag Christof.

The Monday morning following Pride, a handwritten sign that had been hung up near the courthouse bathrooms during the festivities caused a minor uproar among county commissioners. It read: “You are welcome to use whatever bathroom you choose.” In his characteristically empathetic approach, Jonathan Balash addressed the commissioners that day and managed to smooth over any misgivings about the sign and its message, even securing the right to install a larger one next time around.

Plenti makes her entrance. Photograph captured on Google Pixel by Tag Christof.

There is no silver bullet in the fight for equality. The incremental and unrelenting work it takes to organize and sustain a cohesive community is hard, but that work is certainly the best hope we have for building bridges to the sort of common understanding that defeats hate and intolerance. The many tireless individuals who have helped to build Spencer Pride from the ground up prove it can be done, no matter how unlikely the environment. As long as they’re in town, it will always be that rare kind of place where it is refreshingly easy to find peace and quiet without having to disappear.

Spencer, Indiana — Population 2,280

Spencer straddles a placid stretch of Indiana’s White River, about an hour’s drive southwest of Indianapolis by country road and a short drive due west of Bloomington. In many ways, Spencer is an archetypical American small town: quaint, quiet and conservative.

Indiana’s economy is mostly healthy these days, as it avoided the worst of the last decade’s financial crisis thanks to several sterling universities like Notre Dame and Purdue, its controversial right-to-work law, and steady foreign investment from dynamic multinational manufacturers. The state does not have a particularly progressive track record when it comes LGBTQ legislation; as of 2017, it is one of only five states without a law explicitly criminalizing hate crimes, for example. Indiana’s voting history has been mixed; while the state narrowly swung to Barack Obama in 2008, it was firmly back in the red column by 2012, and the population turned out overwhelmingly for Donald Trump in 2016. Owen County, however, where Spencer is located, has reliably skewed Republican.