A Queer Hoosier on Still Loving Indiana

Start your day with TPM.
Sign up for the Morning Memo newsletter

This past weekend I went back to my home state of Indiana to watch two of the best people I know get married. It was a bit of a miracle that I made it, and I was loath to return for a few different reasons. One of the big ones was that the Governor of Indiana, Mike Pence, had just signed a bill called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. You may have heard of it. It’s the bill that many say would give businesses a license to discriminate against LGBT people.

I tried to put the news out of my mind as I watched my friends celebrate their love. It wasn’t lost on me that the black bride and white groom would have had their own trouble finding a venue, catering, and a pastor to preside over their wedding only fifty years ago—less in some places. My table buzzed with conversation about the bill. Another guest said, “Imagine if there was a LGBT person here tonight, how they would feel about this backwards-ass bill.”

In this case, the hypothetical was real. I am queer. But as I was sitting at this wedding, surrounded by love, joy and celebration, I felt my self-righteous loathing fall away from me. These people around me—the ones lamenting the state of this bill, and discussing how they were fighting back—they were Indiana. Not Mike Pence, not this bill. And I couldn’t believe I’d momentarily forgotten how being from Indiana actually got me here.

Fort Wayne, Indiana is the first place I kissed a girl.

Weeks before the end of my sophomore year of college, my boyfriend of six years broke up with me. (He was gay; it was understandable.) I returned to my hometown that summer not exactly heartbroken, but committed to making up for half a decade of monogamy. I started to consider my body—and my sexuality—in ways I’d suppressed my entire life. My ex claimed his freedom, and I wanted to claim mine. When Casey pressed her lips against mine in the linen section of the Bed Bath & Beyond where we worked, I was already prepared to be wild.

In the “city of churches,” any sexuality that doesn’t include a man and a woman is a damnable choice.

It took the whole summer to come to terms with the fact that I was bisexual. I was living with my grandmother, who was loving and supportive, but ultimately had very strong opinions about “lifestyle” choices. She was raised in the church, and still rarely missed a service. Fort Wayne is known as the “city of churches.” There’s one on every corner, and almost all of them are filled to the brim on Sundays. Any sexuality that doesn’t include a man and a woman isn’t a sexuality, it’s a choice. A damnable choice.

When I was a child, my grandmother would take me with her to church. I remember the black patent leather shoes I wore, adorned with the ruffles stitched to the tops of my bleached-white ankle socks. My grandmother would poke me all through the service to make sure I was awake, and before the collection plate came, she would slip me my offering as either a dollar bill, or a handful of change. I preferred the change, because I could slip a quarter or two into my shoe without her noticing. Maybe I was already a little wild.

The author as a teen on the Headwaters Park bridge in her hometown. Credit: Brett Tubbs.

One day, after church, my grandmother came home to tell me someone in our family had the nerve to come out to her. She was seething. What was she supposed to do with that information? I gathered up a little bravery and asked, “Well, what did you tell them, Grandma?” She stopped fretting, got eerily calm, looked straight into my eyes and said, “I told her I was disgusted.”

At that moment, I thought, she knows. How could she not know that all summer I’d been having “sleepovers” with girlfriends where very little actual sleeping occurred? Grandma knew everything, didn’t she? She kept looking at me after she said the words. I couldn’t look up at her. I said I had to go to work. (Bed, Bath & Beyond had a really low tolerance for lateness.)

Casey was the last big secret I ever had. I’d never, and have never, spent that much time with one person and told no one in my life about them. Especially not someone I was actively sleeping with. She was long and tall, red-headed and big-eyed. We would lie in her bed for hours, naked, and I would feel more comfortable in my body than I ever had in my life. She was the one who named what I was experiencing. She rolled toward me in bed, smirking, and said, “This state isn’t big enough for the wild version of you. Passion doesn’t grow in Indiana.” Even then, I didn’t believe her. I knew plenty of wildness in Indiana. It’s just that I’d only recently leaned into mine.

Everything about us felt temporary. I would be returning to Ball State in just two weeks, and Casey would return to Indiana University in three. I didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t want to say things I didn’t mean, or make promises I couldn’t keep. I thought I was being wild by being intimate with Casey, and wild didn’t ask questions. Wild was all external and hedonistic. When I said a final goodbye to her, one more kiss in the linen section, I didn’t feel wild at all.

I feel like I lived two lives in Indiana: one that got me, and one I never gave the chance to get me.

By the time I returned for my junior year of college, still in Indiana, I was ready to calm down, but I still wanted to explore my sexuality. I would continue to date a boy here or there, but I was also actively involved in our campus LGBTQA group, Spectrum. I identified to them as an ally, mostly because I thought it would be “cheating” to identify myself as bisexual since I was dating boys again. Luckily, new friends and mentors helped me figure out that my queerness was everpresent. Being with a man didn’t mean I stopped being attracted to women, it just meant that I happened to be in a monogamous relationship with a man. It sounded so simple, but it was such a hard concept to grasp.

My friends kept helping me. They gave me books, and watched movies with me, dealt with dramatic late-night phone calls during which I debated whether I was living a lie. I became a “killjoy” who openly admonished people for saying, “That’s so gay!” and didn’t know how I tell them, when you say that, you’re talking about me, too. My roommate threw a house party and I drunkenly forced three men out who’d started harassing a young gay man dancing alone. The young man walked over and thanked me. I smiled weakly and hugged him, whispered in his ear, “If anyone says anything to you here, you find me.” It wasn’t what I should have said. I should have said, when they say that to you, they’re saying it to me, too.

None of this felt wild or free. It felt constrictive. Was I censoring people, or was I standing up for myself? Did it matter if I was right, if I kept making people angry by telling them how I feel? It was clear: “Wild” wasn’t the right word to define this shift in my life. Wild also suggested an ambivalence I didn’t have. I cared. I was queer and I cared that the people who loved me knew that, and knew how they made me feel. I was breaking my grandmother’s heart.

Until I left my college town, I only told about ten people I was bisexual. I only moved an hour down the road to Indianapolis, but it was a new world for me, a chance to reinvent myself. Here, I casually mentioned my bisexuality to people who didn’t blink an eye. I attended Pride and patronized gay and lesbian bars. For years I’d been speaking about equal rights and human rights, but in Indy I began to let myself write about and speak publicly about my queer identity.

Being open about being queer led to me moving to New York City for a job as a staff writer with BuzzFeed LGBT; my friends and family were shocked, but ultimately supportive. My ex, the gay one, texted me, “That’s ONE way to come out.”

I didn’t leave Indiana because I didn’t feel safe or loved or understood. Yes, there were issues with my family, but I was still in Indiana when I found my community, and when I found acceptance. I feel like I lived two lives in Indiana: one that got me, and one I never gave the chance to get me. But that doesn’t seem very rare. It seems like the complicated relationship most people have with their hometowns.

I don’t know every Hoosier, but I can’t find one who supported the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Everyone I know—myself included—has been speaking out, marching, letter-writing, doing whatever we can think of to get this bill repealed or tweaked. (There was some progress today, but not enough.) Meanwhile, artists, writers and performers from all over are pulling out of commitments to come to Indiana. “I can’t morally support Indiana with money, and money is the only thing that talks,” they say.

Ultimately, boycotting Indiana means boycotting the people.

A little research—just a tiny bit—would show that Mike Pence doesn’t care about money. He signed the RFRA against the wishes of the people who funded his campaign. Ultimately, boycotting Indiana means boycotting the people. Financially and culturally starving a state does not change the minds of the people, even if it does change the minds of the government. Art and media changes minds—at least mine. My thoughts were pretty much in line with the bigoted ones of my church before I stayed up late and watched a Made-for-MTV movie about Matthew Shepard, the 21-year old gay student in Wyoming who was beaten, burned and left to die. I cried all through the movie, the night, and into the next day at school. After that, I couldn’t imagine making fun of someone who was gay. I was twelve years old when I connected the dots. Governor Mike Pence is much older.

SB 101 isn’t the only thing happening in Indiana. The government shut down clinics that helped teach safe needle-sharing and now we have around 80 new cases of HIV in one town. A woman was recently sentenced to prison for inducing her own miscarriage— “feticide” they called it.

My liberal—and just reasonable—friends and family from Indiana are pulling their own hair out with frustration. I’ve dealt with people turning up their noses or scowling when I say where I’m from. They say they’re never going there and the whole state should fall into a sinkhole. Those of us who have moved on from Indiana, even though we still have roots there, have watched people in the media claim, in not so many words, that Hoosiers leading the backlash against the bill don’t exist. We’re expected to shun Indiana and pretend we don’t know what we know: This bill does not represent us.

I see what Indiana-haters are trying to do. They’re trying to stand up, be bold, be brave. I want to shake them, remind them that abandoning people isn’t noble or original.

“Why don’t you actually talk to people who are fighting this bill in Indiana, see how they can use you support instead of deciding you know a better way?” I say.

It doesn’t always get through. I get it. Getting mad feels productive even when it isn’t. It’s still not brave. Honestly, it’s not even wild.

Ashley C. Ford is a writer who lives in New York by way of Indiana, with work in The Guardian, BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post, and a other web and print publications. You can find her at @iSmashFizzle on Twitter.

Latest The Slice
Masthead Masthead
Founder & Editor-in-Chief:
Executive Editor:
Managing Editor:
Associate Editor:
Editor at Large:
General Counsel:
Head of Product:
Director of Technology:
Associate Publisher:
Front End Developer:
Senior Designer: