Homophobes are made, not born. Mike Pence — basically the homophobe in chief — was made in Columbus, Indiana.
It’s a pleasant, small town in the southern part of the state. It’s home to a destination-worthy ice cream parlor, a putt-putt golf center, a surprising amount of world-class modern architecture, and around 45,000 people. It’s where Pence grew up and formed the values he would later bring to his work.
Pence, who served as Indiana’s governor from 2013 to 2017, describes himself as “a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order.” His policies during his time leading the state reflected those priorities, placing the civil rights of the state’s LGBTQ population in serious jeopardy. Now, he’s got the ear of the president and may, one day, hold the office himself.
So what’s it like to celebrate Pride Month in Columbus, the hometown of a man set on using policy to limit the freedoms of the LGBTQ population?
For Sameer Samudra, finding comfort in Columbus didn’t happen overnight. When he arrived in 2000, the city was mostly white, Christian, and conservative. Samudra, now 42, a gay man born and raised in Pune, India, says there was a certain degree of culture shock.
“I didn’t feel really welcomed or really part of it,” he says.
Samudra works for the city’s largest employer, Cummins, which is a company that designs and manufactures engines and generators. It’s under the company’s leadership that life in Columbus has improved for LGBTQ people and people of color.
The company began allowing domestic partner benefits in 2000 and recruits employees from all around the world, making Columbus slightly more diverse than neighboring communities. There are now more diverse restaurants and recent immigrants joining the community. It’s a welcome sight, even though the town remains around 82% white.
In large part due to the company’s push for diversity, Columbus feels more like home for Samudra. He married his husband, Adit, there in 2010. While friends from big cities balked at the idea of getting married in the small community, Samudra didn’t flinch.
“I feel like in the U.S., people have these conceptions about ‘a smaller town in southern Indiana,'” he says. “There are so many things that you can experience and explore in small Midwestern towns. It’s one of the reasons me and Adit … made Columbus our home.”
In 2015, Pence signed into law the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a piece of legislation that essentially allowed individuals and small businesses to discriminate on the basis of religion. The law became a national issue with vocal opponents, including longtime Columbus resident Sondra Bolte, 67, who protested against it. Bolte has lived in Columbus since 1981, and after experiencing harassment and intimidation before she came out of the closet, she knew Pence’s policy was a step in the wrong direction.
“It seems like it didn’t matter who testified, how much testimony there was in favor of our rights; it just always came down on the other side,” she remembers. “It was just really incredibly frustrating, but we’d get up and do it again the next day.”
Pence signed a “fix” to the bill just a few days later to assuage concerns, but the emotional toll on the LGBTQ community was immediately felt. Samudra says the policy empowered hateful groups and discrimination.
“It felt like someone just insulted me and slapped me in my face and punched me in my gut,” he remembers.
Now that Pence is out of state government, many in Columbus are cautiously optimistic. But mostly cautious.
Samudra believes the negativity and vitriol stirred and emboldened by Pence and the Trump administration may actually have worked against them because more allies are moved to act in the fight for equality.
“A lot of straight allies … didn’t realize how bad it can get,” Samudra says. “Now a lot of people are asking me, ‘What can we do to change this or help … the LGBT movement?'”
Indiana’s new governor, Eric Holcomb, has rolled back some of Pence’s policies, but the damage to the state, particularly the LGBTQ community, hasn’t been undone.
“I think [Holcomb] really cares about governing in the state of Indiana and he cares about the people, whereas I think Mike Pence cared about Mike Pence. Period,” Bolte says.
That’s why Pride Month — in Columbus and across the country — is so important.
For Samudra, it is a chance to celebrate LGBTQ visibility.
“This is a really huge community with their own unique needs and challenges, and [Pride Month] gives us that visibility and that sense of accomplishment,” he says.
For Bolte, Pride events put faces to the often monolithic “LGBTQ community” designation. These are friends, neighbors, colleagues, and family members — not just faces in a crowd.
Celebrations and events can give people still in the closet a boost, too.
“I believe that things have changed for us because people were willing to be out and take whatever comes their way,” Bolte says. “June is incredibly important to help people who are a little bit afraid go, ‘I can do this.'”
People like Mike Pence have the means and power to do serious damage.
They can strip away the rights, freedoms, and privileges everyone deserves. But they can’t take away passion, resilience, or pride, even in the place they hold most dear. Not now. Not ever.
And that’s something to celebrate.