Columbus, Indiana hosted its first LGBT pride festival April 14, and by all accounts, it was a success. The event was planned and spearheaded by a high school student named Erin Bailey who began planning the event as a school project. More than 1,000 people reportedly attended, and the town’s population of 47,000 welcomed them generously with rainbow banners in the streets. The Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT rights organization, supported, promoted and attended the event as well.
When the event was first announced in late March of this year, it received recognition from dozens of international media outlets that celebrated the festival. Unfortunately, the enthusiasm had absolutely nothing to do with LGBT pride, equality or the ambitious efforts of an 18-year-old student hoping to bring laughter and celebration to her town. The focus was exclusively on the fact that the event was happening in Vice President Mike Pence’s hometown.
In March, Bailey stated, “I am organizing Columbus Pride Festival because I feel it is important for members of the LGBTQ community to know that Columbus is a welcoming and diverse community … Even though Pence is openly anti-gay, that doesn’t mean that all of us in his hometown are.”
The Human Rights Campaign, while listing a string of anti-LGBT offenses ranging from opposing same-sex marriage to supporting religious freedom laws and most absurdly, citing Trump once saying Pence would “hang” all gay people, declared, “We are honored to participate in Columbus’ inaugural LGBT Pride Festival and prove once again that love trumps hate … By fearlessly standing up for equality, Erin Bailey is showing Pence, who has a long, disturbing record of attacking and demonizing the LGBTQ community, that Hoosiers won’t stand for his brand of discriminatory politics.”
The Human Rights Campaign tweeted about the event reiterating this same message and tagged the Vice President. The event featured rainbow signs declaring “No Pride in Pence” and “Love Not Hate Columbus.” The mock-Catholic-Nun group called “The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence” attended with a sign titled “More Fornication Less Hate.”
Calling out Pence’s supposed support for gay conversion therapy, a t-shirt stating “Conversion Camp Orgies Are Intense” was captured as well as a mock Pence look-a-like named “Mike Hot Pence” in a suit jacket, rainbow tie and shorts carrying a charity bucket labeled “Mike Hot Pence Cares About LGBTQ Youth.” Bil Browning of LGBTQ Nation, an LGBT news site, who attended the event posted, “Over 1,000 people turned out for the first pride festival in Pence’s hometown. 20 years ago, a thousand people prayed in the streets of Columbus against giving gay couples insurance benefits. Looks like God answered their prayers in an unexpected way. Maybe Pence should take notice.”
Anticipating possible counter-protests, the local police were on the scene and prepared and when asked about hateful protestors, Bailey said, “I know there’s going to be a whole lot more supporters than there are people against so I’m just going to surround myself with the good people and if anyone comes we just won’t give them any attention.” As Browning reluctantly ended his report of the event confirming, “No religious zealots protested at the festival today.”
“Vice President Pence commends Erin Bailey for her activism and engagement in the civic process,” Pence spokeswoman Alyssa Farah said in a statement on the event. “As a proud Hoosier and Columbus native, he’s heartened to see young people from his hometown getting involved in the political process.”
Baily responded that if he were to attend, “I would ask him why he feels the way he does about LGBT people and their rights, and his stance on women having rights to their own body,” and complained that his statement of support was “vague” and “not sincere,” “because of what I know he really feels.” She added, “If Pence attends, I would thank him for coming and opening his mind to see the diversity in his hometown!”
When I was a senior in college, I spearheaded the first public celebration of Israel in our city. I brought up the idea to my Yiddish choir and despite skepticism at the potential interest or success, convinced members of my synagogue to support me in getting it started. I asked a local, highly pro-Israel church if they had interest and before we knew it we had more speakers than we had time for. I designed a t-shirt that we gave out for free and ran out within the first 30 minutes. The event was surprisingly popular, non-political or controversial and if I remember correctly, brought out about three counter-protesters. The event was inspired by an anti-Israel event on my campus and through discussion we decided the best response would be a positive celebration.
The event ran for four years and we always made sure it was focused on celebrating Israeli culture, history and the unity of support from diverse groups. From the start we all agreed not to use the event as a platform for political discussion, opposition or any form of protesting because we wanted our voice to be one of hope and honesty rather than opposition. In contrast, the anti-Israel events on campus were always characterized by explicitly oppositional messaging and often, hostile expression. We wanted to show the community what unity and celebration of Israel looked like rather than simply another argument.
Gay pride was once an expression of individuality and personal expression that required no larger social support or approval. It has slowly become little more than a confrontational opposition to the perceived larger population’s views and opinions. What is truly sad about this event is that this should have been an accomplishment and a celebration. Columbus just under an hour away from Indianapolis which has hosted gay pride events since the 1980s. LGBT members living in Pence’s hometown were not isolated away from gay culture or access to public celebration. Nothing Pence ever proposed or stood for would have prevented them from enjoying it. They have had the opportunity to publicly celebrate for decades. Their singular motivation was to confront a man who represents everything they believe they oppose at a time when said opposition is popular in Left-wing culture.
This young woman did something remarkable in organizing an event in which the entire city celebrated. There were no protests, no obstacles or any public or private opposition presented to them. They were free to celebrate in any way they wanted to with full support of their community. This should have been something to be proud of. Instead the only reason the LGBT media and larger community took interest was in the delicious irony of celebrating gay pride openly in the very hometown of their designated enemy as a show of defiance. The attention moved away from the accomplishment of this high school student to mocking and attacking the idea of a man they collectively hate.
The young woman said it was part of a class project. “I knew I wanted mine to really change the community,” she said. “I wanted to impact the whole city and make the LGBT community feel more welcome here.” She added, referring to Pence: “I’m not doing this in spite of him. We are so much more than just a small town that he grew up in.”
But the event was in spite of him and he was the singular focus of attention. The LGBT community wanted to take a jab at the vice president and they danced in the streets exclusively to do so. Their sense of identity wrapped around their opposition to a man they know nothing about but who represents everything they fight against.
Celebration of identity can be positive and any opportunity to bring a community together for shared values should be embraced. But public events designed exclusively to mock, attack, or confront an enemy, real or imaginary, do nothing but spread animosity and hostility. It is almost as if they were hoping for controversy in order to shine a brighter light on whatever it is they were hoping to expose with this event.
Clearly that did not materialize. As of this writing, very few publications have even mentioned the post-festivities and despite two major LGBT media groups attending, the day received minimal attention. This young lady will be remembered as leading the “first LGBT pride festival in Pence’s hometown” rather than as a leader in bringing her community together for a celebration of unity and uniqueness. The only person to recognize her for her work and truly celebrate her efforts was the very man she organized the event in defiance of.