John Livelsberger— June 17, 2015 Here’s one from the archives of Opus News Chicago and the Chicago Star Bulletin.
South Bend Mayor Peter Buttigieg. Photo: WNDU.
It is home to the most storied American Catholic institution—the University of Notre Dame. It is the fourth largest city in Indiana. It now also has one of the few out gay mayors in America’s middle and large-sized cities, now that he’s come out.
South Bend, Ind. mayor Pete Buttigieg, 33, decided to make a point that coming out matters. He did so in an essay published by the South Bend Tribune newspaper.
The revelation comes in the wake of Indiana legislating the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
In the law’s original form, it would have allowed businesses to deny service to certain persons based on their particular religious values. It was seen as targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons.
“Experiences with friends or family members coming out have helped millions of Americans to see past stereotypes and better understand what being gay is and is not,” Buttigieg wrote. “For most of our history, most Americans had no idea how many people they knew and cared about were gay.”
Buttigieg wanted to keep his private life private. But the first term mayor expressed that this was an opportunity to set a positive example for LGBT youth, and to an older generation not used to contemporary social norms.
“Putting something this personal on the pages of a newspaper does not come easy. We Midwesterners are instinctively private to begin with, and I’m not used to viewing this as anyone else’s business. But it’s clear to me that at a moment like this, being more open about it could do some good,” the mayor wrote.
“For a local student struggling with her sexuality, it might be helpful for an openly gay mayor to send the message that her community will always have a place for her. And for a conservative resident form a different generation, whose unease with social change is partly rooted in the impression that he doesn’t know anyone gay, perhaps a familiar face can be a reminder that we’re all in this together as a community.”
The young mayor is not new to national attention.
The Washington Post newspaper described Buttigieg as “the most interesting mayor you’ve never heard of.”
Local government innovation organization GovFresh.com named Buttigieg its 2013 Mayor of the Year.
As a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy Reserve, Buttigieg was called to active duty last year from Feb. 28 to Sept. 30. He was sent to Afghanistan—refusing his city salary during his service.
Buttigieg explained that being gay is “a fact of life, like having brown hair.” He said it is “part of who I am.”
To that end, Buttigieg was driven to pass an equal rights amendment for South Bend within 100 days in office.
Heling to get the amendment passes was Richard Sutton, then-president of Indiana Equality.
“He was a leader. It won 6-3,” Sutton said. “He had to fight Notre Dame, where his father taught, and the Catholic bishop. But his calm resolve carried the day.”
Buttgieg is optimistic for LGBT Hoosiers as more cities are expected to follow suit with local non-discrimination ordinances.
“We’re moving closer to a world in which acceptance is the norm. This kind of social change considered old news in some parts of the country, is still often divisive around here,” he said. “But it doesn’t have to be. We’re all finding our way forward, and things will go better if we can manage to do it together.”
Freedom Indiana, currently campaigning for such ordinances, spoke to Chicago Star-Bulletin.
“Mayor Buttigieg has been a strong voice for equality, and it says a lot that we live in a state where Hoosiers feel comfortable and supported being who they are,” the group said.
Porter Novelli was hired by Indiana after national outrage over the state’s anti-LGBT Religious Freedom Restoration Act was signed into law by Gov. Mike Pence.
According reports that were released last week from Indiana Economic Development Corporation, there was no real reason given as to why taxpayers were stuck with a $365,000 bill from New York-based public relations giant.
The record totaling 1,100 pages gave little to no information what was exactly gained by the hiring of the firm, or how the Hoosier State benefited from it, or why Pence terminated the contract just weeks after retaining them.
Porter Novelli did provide the state with a monitoring radar and daily reports on what was being said about the state in traditional media and social media.
This tracking system kept tabs on influential social media users like Republican pollster Christine Matthews, political strategist Donna Brazile, and Huffington Post senior political reporter Amanda Terkel.
An Apr. 15, 2015 report said that “a number of opinion writers and LGBT community leaders believe spending $2 million in taxpayer money is unnecessary, and that the state should instead pass non-discrimination laws.”
Indiana has so far failed to pass such laws during the current legislative session.
Chris Cotterill, general counsel for the IEDC, spins the hiring of Porter Novelli as nothing to do with RFRA. He explained, “The reason [to hire the firm] was there before. It’s not to make up for something.”
According to a press release that was scrapped just hours before it was sent out, Indiana Commerce Secretary Victor Smith said, “We must acknowledge the recent political controversy surrounding the Religious Freedom Restoration Act has damaged our reputation.”
The release went on to mention RFRA several times.
According to the report, IEDC officials and Porter Novelli edited out any mention of RFRA and the quote attributed to Secretary Smith.
When asked why this version of the release was not used, IEDC Spokeswoman Abby Gras said, “Various word choices were considered in the development of this particular release. All of our press releases at the IEDC go through several rounds of edits; this is pretty standard.”
The documents provided by the IEDC were only released because of a formal complaint issued to Public Access Counselor Luke Britt. He argued that the IEDC had violated the states’ public records law by not releasing the records after they were requested eight months earlier.
John Zody, chairman of the Indiana Democratic Party, submitted a public records request to Pence in July of 2015, seeking all documents and e-mails from Porter Novelli.
According to Zody, “Pence wasn’t being transparent with Hoosiers when he terminated the taxpayer funded contract with Porter Novelli the day before a long holiday weekend. Hoosiers need to know their tax dollars are being managed properly.”
According to Indiana law, public records requests need to rereleased to the requesting parties in a “reasonable” amount of time.
“Simply put, a reasonable period of time has long since elapsed,” Brit wrote in his opinion against the IEDC.
When the IEDC finally complied with the request, what it provided was a document that had either partially, or completely redacted, pages.
Fifty other documents were completely withheld.
According to Cotterill, the reason so much of the report was not made available was to keep top-secret marketing strategies out of the hands of other states.
“If, for example, the IEDC had to reveal all it’s marketing plans, then other states that are competing with Indiana for jobs would have Indiana’s playbook,” Cotterill said. “More than that, they would have the underlying opinions and analyses that lead to the development of our ‘plays’”.
Even after the $365,000 price tag, the RFRA law is still in place. Advocates say that the only damage control the state needed to do was pass LGBT non-discrimination laws, a solution that would have been much less costly both in finical terms and in terms of reputation.
Northwest Indiana is having a drought of sorts—but not for lack of water. Its gay bars have evaporated and left a barren desert when it comes to the traditional gathering places for gays to meet, socialize, and maybe hookup.
Eleven years ago, the popular Helen’s, in Michigan City, closed its doors for the last time. Just a few years ago, Encompass, in Lake Station, shut its doors, too.
If Chicago’s Boystown bars and clubs had a hard time keeping up with the Great Recession, imagine how much harder Northwest Indiana’s gay watering holes suffered. With their shuttering, Hoosiers who didn’t want to drive to the Windy City’s major gayborhood had very few options.
According to the Williams Institute, Michigan City—an hour from Chicago—ranks fourth in Indiana for highest percentage of same-sex couples. Hundreds in the area identify as LGBT. But for many of them, going to “straight bars” to socialize just isn’t the same—leaving many wanting more from the experience.
Gone, too, are the drag shows—a still popular form of entertainment in the greater LGBT community.
Welcome to the Other Side
There is a group of performers that have stepped up to fill the void that bars like Helen’s left. They call themselves, “Welcome to the Other Side.”
WTTOS is a troupe of drag queens and kings, traveling once a month to bars and venues all over Northwest Indiana to entertain, interact, and inspire local LGBT persons. The group managed to endear themselves to hundreds—their devoted fan base.
Once a month, these devout fans travel from wherever they are to places like Shenanigans pub in Portage, or Crossroads in Westville—what some would call a biker bar. There’s a bar attached to a Michigan City bowling alley, called Mug Shots.
While a pub, biker bar, and bowling alley aren’t places one would normally find a drag show, WTTOS have sold out the venues to capacity. Their most recent show was in the reception hall of Michigan City’s Clarion Inn. It brought in around 100 people—each paying $10 to get in.
Wilma Fingerdo is a self-described “football player in a dress.” She stands at 6’4”, without heels, and weighs 250 pounds. She is hard to miss in the crowd.
Wilma is mistress of ceremonies for the show—even called the “Mrs. Garrett” figure in the group, taking care of promotions, public relations, and books the gigs.
Talking with Wilma Fingerdo, Jayda Pill, Dena Richards
Wilma spotted us when we walked in, giving a wave and warm smile. It was two hours before the show even started, and she was working the room with her partner (in business and in life), in drag, Jayda Pill.
I caught local drag legend Dena Richards as she entered the room, and then shortly thereafter, E.J. Marx and Kane Richards—the two resident drag kings.
After trying all week, I’m finally able to get the very busy cast together in one spot to talk to Opus News about the business of doing drag in the Midwest, and how they are more like a family, than just performers who work together.
This evening’s event is a celebration of sorts. May 16 marks the third anniversary of WTTOS being asked to perform at The Warehouse in South Haven.
Jayda, who at over six-feet tall, is sporting a cat-suit with a pattern of Quaaludes and other assorted pills. She’s accessorized her look with high heels, pearls, and a bright orange wig. She towers over me as I start to ask her questions about that first performance.
She seems to remember it like yesterday.
“There was like 300 people. It was over 300. It was a little crazy because I remember being up there doing a number, and I’m forgetting my words almost, because I’m looking at a sea of people,” Jayda said. “They would have to get a bouncer to help get us to the stage for us to do it.”
After that performance, things took off, she explained.
“We thought there’s a need here. So we said, ‘Let’s just do it.’ Bar owners started coming to these shows and started asking us to perform at their bars, like we were doing out in Westville.”
Owners of “straight bars” saw that these shows brought hundreds of new people to their establishments—people who normally wouldn’t come in. Of course, they’re bringing their wallets with them.
What did the regular patrons think about a drag show invading their local watering hole?
Wilma explained that they didn’t seem to mind.
“Even at the Crossroads in Westville! Not to use the terms in a derogatory fashion, but they had a lot of bikers and truckers,” she said. “If we were doing a show and they were to come in, the bartender would explain to them what kind of a show it was. And they would hang around. They almost always had fun.”
How much of an influence do reality shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race have on those bar-goers who stayed for the show—or the general public, for that matter?
Dena—a fixture in Chicago, especially Atmosphere ion Clark Street in Andersonville—chimed in.
“Thank God for RuPaul and his show, because he brought drag to the entire nation,” she said. “Now everybody in Westville has an idea what happens, and how it goes. They were seeing it on their television on a weekly basis so they knew we were out there. They just had to make the connection to see who was out there.”
Dena has been performing in Northwest Indiana for 30 years. We’re told by Wilma that her age is a “highly classified secret.”
“After the bars closed, we had to do something! So, there were little house parties and a couple little venues that were letting us do things on the side, and banquet rooms and stuff like that,” Dena explained. “Then, when they found out we were willing to fill a place that would hold 300 to 400 people, word got around. Next thing you know, everybody wants a piece of that pie.”
Does Northwest Indiana need gay bars?
Most of the audience members I caught up with at the anniversary show said they’re regulars.
Did they think the area needed a gay bar, or had the community outgrown them?
One gentleman answered with an enthusiastic, “Yes!”
Another said, “No.”
The person that said no also said that he felt that a weekly drag performance would be too much exposure for WTTOS. If you only see them once month, then the excitement builds as you wait to see the next one, he explained.
Jayda thought the disappearing gay bars might be part of a generational shift.
“[We’re] in a different generation now…with the Grindr app, and Guy Spy, and all those different ones. This is how kids are meeting each other. They’re not going out and having a social experience.”
So, they’re ordering in, as it were?
“Yes, that’s what it is,” Jayda said. “It’s sad to see that. The physical connection of meeting someone [at a gathering place like this]—that’s very important.”
Wilma, like the others at WTTOS, agree and put a lot of value in face-to-face interaction that they can’t get on an app.
“We always come out an hour early to take photographs,” Wilma said. “Everybody wants a picture for Facebook and all that. We B.S., have a cocktail chat with the people that are there.”
“We always try to make sure we are approachable and friendly to the folks—the folks who’ve come out that we’ve known for years, and those folks who’ve come out for the first time.”
Drag kings E.J. Marx and Kane Richards
E.J. Marx and Kane Richards are drag kings with a following of their own—many of whom are straight women in the audience.
“You feel like a superstar,” E.J. explained his experience with WTTOS. “Like, these people follow you everywhere you go, and it’s amazing. They come and pay the money to get in the door, and they want to see your entertainment. They know you for the songs you do, and when they come up to you after the show, and they’re like, ‘Can I get a picture with you’ or ‘Can I get your autograph?’ I’m like, ‘Really? Are you serious? Absolutely!”
For Kane Richards, a trans man, the anniversary show was doubly meaningful.
“Today is my one year on testosterone,” he said. “I call it my maniversary.”
Kane grew up in a small Midwestern town that was sorely lacking in positive role models for anyone in the LGBT community. He explained coming to terms with who he is, after high school.
“You go through college, and you do all these things, and you find yourself,” he shared. “I found myself, but it wasn’t quite right. I never felt like this is how I was supposed to be.”
Kane said that drag helped him confirm his identity.
“When I put on the fake facial hair, and I see a beard on my face, and I bind my chest—the first time you I looked at the reflection in the mirror, I saw happiness. It was like, ‘This! This is right.’ It was like this light bulb came on and it was a wave of emotions. It was like no words can explain it.”
Both E.J. and Kane got the itch to perform after seeing drag queens perform.
E.J. said a drag queen cousin was an inspiration. After watching her perform, E.J. started to hang out and run in their circle.
“I was like, ‘You know what? I think I can do that. I want to be on stage.’ So they gave me an opportunity. My cousin did my makeup. I picked a number and they introduced me for just one number, one show, and I took it from there.”
Seeing drag for the first time was just as intoxicating for Kane.
“I saw a show and I was like, ‘I can do that. I need to do that. I want to do that. And I started messaging the queens and talking to them,” Kane said. “I did a duet with Dena, but it just kind of spiraled into a duet with me. ‘Do a spotlight with me’ finally became ‘Okay, come join the group.”
We are family
E.J. and Kane have very different acts with unique styles. But they refer to themselves as brothers. In fact, all the members of WTTOS find such closeness to each other. They support each other.
“We are just a big, weird dysfunctional family,” Kane declared.
WTTOS travels with its own disc jockey, DJ Mark Renicker. Like Dena, he was also displaced after Helen’s closed.
The troupe has professional lighting effects, backup dancers for the drag kings, and multiple costume changes.
The show has a lot of raw energy, sharpened wit and sexually charged teases.
How long do they think they can do this?
“It’s fun for me to go up and host a show—and make fun of those people who are my friends,” Wilma explains.
“It’s no different than us hanging out on a Saturday night and making fun of each other, bullshitting and having cocktails. So, I don’t know. As with anything else, it’ll runs its course. I think we will do this as long as we can, as long as it’s fun, and as long as it’s professional.”
“It is a lot of fun. We enjoy each other’s company, and we enjoy our crowds.”
THE SNYDER-HILLS, SOLDIERING FOR CHANGE, EMPOWER LGBT VOICES
ARMED WITH ANGER AND CONCERN, THE HOPE AND WANT FOR CIVIL RIGHTS, THEY GATHER AROUND THE SOLDIERS’ AND SAILORS’ MONUMENT CALLING FOR EQUAL PROTECTION UNDER THE LAW.
JOHN LIVELSBERGER — APRIL 8, 2015
It’s a cool spring Saturday in Indianapolis, Ind. The NCAA Final Four is in town and legions of college basketball fans have descended on Indy to show support for their favorite teams. It’s also a perfect day for a protest march by the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Hoosiers, and their supporters.
They’re still revved up against the Religious Freedom Restoration Act—signed into law by Republican Gov. Mike Pence. They’re also unhappy about a subsequent “fix” to the bill that only offers limited LGBT protections to cities and towns that already have LGBT non-discrimination policies on the books.
Armed with anger and concern, the hope and want for civil rights, they gather around the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument on Monument Circle calling for equal protection under the law. The gathering’s starting point is appropriate. It will be led by a famous soldier and LGBT activist, Army Maj. Stephen Snyder-Hill—along with fellow veterans of the U.S. armed forces.
The march will take the protesters to Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the Final Four. There, the protesters will stop to hear the soldier and his husband, Joshua Snyder-Hill. Other LGBT activists will speak to the already fired-up crowd.
In 2012, as an Army captain, Steve hit the national stage after being booed during a Republican presidential debate. He was still an active combat solider in Iraq when Steve submitted a question via YouTube for the presidential candidates to answer. He asked them if they would reinstate the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell ban on openly lesbian and gay members of the military.
In years since, Steve has become a vocal LGBT activist. He wrote the book, Solider of Change: From the Closet to the Forefront of the Gay Rights Movement. But most important to him, he’s settled into the role of husband.
After the march, with the protest chant “No hate in our state!” still ringing in my own ears, I caught up with the Snyder-Hills.
On first meeting them, they come across as humble, yet passionate and driven. They want to make sure that the LGBT community, in every state, archives civil rights and marriage equality.
The Snyder-Hills knew about the civil rights march in Indianapolis—named “Stop the Madness”—only days before. Just the weekend before, the couple was in California. After the stop in Indy, they will find themselves in Tennessee on the weekend of Apr. 10.
I asked if they saw themselves as gay superheroes, who drop everything at a moment’s notice to run to a cause in need.
“You know, the thing is, I think each one of us can become a superhero,” Steve said. “Harvey Milk, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr.—all of them used the power of their voices, and it means so much for us to come out. Sometimes it is a lot of going across the country, and when you hear people yelling ‘No hate in our state!’ then you just think, it’s not just our state. It’s all states, and we really need to be out there for everybody, no matter if it’s our state or somebody else’s.”
Just like going off to Iraq to fight for the freedoms of all Americans, Steve and Josh with Macho the dog, just along for the ride, do not think twice about driving over two hours from their home to help give voice to embattled Hoosiers. In the last two weeks, Indiana residents have taken a beating from the rest of the nation, elected officials, social media, and late night comedians.
Part of their drive and passion could, in part, be the fact that the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals chose to uphold same-sex marriage bans in Michigan, Tennessee, Kentucky and their own home state of Ohio.
I mentioned to Steve I had read somewhere that he said his husband has more rights on a military base than in their home state of Ohio.
How are they dealing with that frustration?
“I mean, it is really frustrating knowing that I fought for 26 years in the army, fighting for everybody’s rights, and I always felt I was fighting for everybody else’s except for mine,” Steve said. “And now, we’re kind of at a point where we kind of feel the same way as a couple—where all the things we’ve been fighting for is great, federally, for our protection, and our state does not grant us those things. So, we are going to keep fighting.”
Fight, they do, all over the country—whether it’s on the street, in news rooms, or in-studio on shows like The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC.
The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule later this Spring on state same-sex marriage bans, once and for all states. And many like the Snyder-Hills are hopeful they will rule in favor of marriage equality.
I asked Steve and Josh what they thought the most important cause for the LGBT community would be if that goal is achieved.
“Our next big thing will be our transgender community, because our own LGB community hasn’t been as accepting as we need to be for our transgender brothers and sisters.” —Army Maj. Stephen Snyder-Hill
“I think that [the need for LGBT to speak out] is never going to stop. There are people that are hateful everywhere. Marriage equality is inevitable, and it’s one step,” Steve explained. “I mean, in the mid ’60s, interracial marriage was illegal, but today African-American people still suffer from discrimination. Our own president has been treated so horribly by people, and I think we are always going to have a challenge. But our next big thing will be our transgender community, because our own LGB community hasn’t been as accepting as we need to be for our transgender brothers and sisters.”
I asked Steve if he thought shows like Transparent were giving a much needed voice to the transgender community.
“Anything that causes visibility to anyone can give them a voice,” he said. “I think that speaking up and telling your story gives people a voice and that’s what that community needs to do. You know I’m not transgender and I don’t know what it’s like to be transgender, but I ask every day for people to understand what it’s like for me to be gay. I ask them to accept me and to understand what I go through, so I need to do the same thing for my transgender community.”
Throughout our conversation, Josh is content to let Steve take the lead. But make no mistake, Josh is a formidable LGBT activist in his own right.
Joshua started fighting for LGBT civil rights while Steve was still deployed in Iraq. In the book Soldier of Change, Steve notes that Josh’s eyes “had changed” in the year Steve was deployed. Josh stopped being an “armchair activist,” got up, and got out to fight for equality.
I asked how the couple’s activism and certain amount of celebrity affect their families in Columbus, Ohio. Like a pro, Josh answered with the sincere, infectious smile that he has worn all day.
“Our families have been amazing. They’ve been really supportive,” he explained. “Steve’s mom texts us that Steve is going to be speaking at a library in Sandusky, and they are just so proud and supportive. They’ve been nothing but champions; they’ve come to our speeches. Steve’s parents came to a Ted Talk where he spoke. My parents came to Youngstown University. They have been nothing but huge advocates. Even our little nieces are big supporters.”
Steve was worried about a word I used.
“I hate that word celebrity, because I don’t ever want to feel like it’s about us. It’s not,” he insisted. “It’s about every one of us. We are all in this together, and our story is not Josh and my story—it’s all of our stories.”
Despite all the forward momentum that the modern LGBT movement gained, there are still many people that want to take away everything fought for, and earned, since the Stonewall Riots. Some of them are conservative elected officials—and some of those elected officials are also military service members.
I asked Steve how he felt about elected officials who don’t feel that same-sex couples have the right to marry, or should have access to spousal benefits, and would like to see existing benefits be stripped away. I used the example of Republican Indiana state Sen. Mike Delph, a staunch social conservative, who has been at odds with his own party about the way marriage equality was handled in the Hoosier State. Like Steve, he was a service member.
“He got to that position of power because people elected him,” Steve explained. “Probably the most discouraging thing is when I see that people don’t go out and vote, and then people make laws like [the Religious Freedom Restoration Act].”
The very law that was being protested in Indianapolis that day is the perfect example.
“You know this shirt that I’m wearing?” Steve points to his blue t-shirt.
Across the front of the shirt, it says “Veteran” but the “V” has been replaced with a pink triangle. The pink triangle memorializes the gay men in Germany and occupied Europe who, in World War II, were placed in concentration camps like Auschwitz. Gay men were made to wear a pink triangle instead of the Star of David that Jewish prisoners were forced to wear.
“The pink triangle means so much to me because, at one time, it was not only legal that people persecute and kill gay people—it was encouraged by that whole society in World War II,” Steve said. “I think that we need to not ever forget that, just like this logo says.”
Steve points to another logo on his shirt that says, “Silence equals Death.”
“We need to make sure we never forget where we come from and that it’s always possible for hateful people to get into positions of power. We need to remember that we have the power not to put them there,” he said.
Because of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Steve’s voice was forced into muted silence. Now that he can speak, he does and he does not hold back.
He empowers others to stand up and speak, to tell their stories. It’s the last thing Steve said to me as we ended our conversation.
“Always trust the power of your voice.”
The voices were loud in Indianapolis—and resonated with power. The Snyder-Hills helped see to that.
ARMYDADTDEFENSE OF MARRIAGE ACTDON’T ASK DON’T TELLGAY SOLDIERINDIANAINDIANAPOLISJOSHUA SNYDER-HILLLGBT SOLDIERRELIGIOUS FREEDOM RESTORATION ACTSOLDIERSTEPHEN SNYDER-HILLU.S. ARMYU.S. SOLDIER
FDA RECOMMENDS LIFTING LIFETIME BAN ON BLOOD DONATION BY GAY, BISEXUAL MEN