LGBT Pride festival flourishes in small town of Spencer

Some 50 miles southwest of Indianapolis, down a stretch of highway filled with trucks, and then along a winding two-lane country road, tiny Spencer looks almost exactly like what you would expect from a Midwestern small town.

Almost.

A quarter buys you two hours on the downtown parking meters. Railroad tracks cut through the town square. At the heart of Spencer, a historic county courthouse with a copper dome pays homage to war heroes with memorials around the immaculate lawn.

And at one end of downtown, two towering rainbow flags stand outside a storefront. This is the new home of Spencer Pride, a local lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender nonprofit organization.

From the outside, many in the town of 2,217 seem unerringly polite, downplaying any clash between the LGBT community and conservative residents. People say a certain amount of “live and let live” allows everyone to stay in their corners.

Yet messages of opposition to the LGBT community are clear: snide remarks and smashed mailboxes, intimidation and bullying.

Still, it can be hard to hate or oppose someone you know, someone you talk to, someone you work with.

“Can’t be a stranger,” said Spencer Pride co-founder Judi Epp. “Everybody knows you. Approve or don’t approve, they see us as people.”

Once smaller, quieter and more apprehensive about how it fit into the community, Spencer Pride has now carved out its place in town. Through volunteer work and downtown revitalization efforts, Spencer Pride is finding common ground even with those who disapprove of the LGBT community.

And Spencer Pride’s presence is part of the town’s rebirth: After more than a decade of advocating for LGBT people in rural Indiana, Spencer Pride opened a volunteer-run downtown storefront, selling locally made jewelry, soaps and other gifts while providing LGBT resources to the rural area.

Spencer Pride says it’s the smallest community in the United States with an LGBT center.

And while several of Indiana’s larger cities have Pride events – think Indy, Fort Wayne, Lafayette and Bloomington, to name a few – Spencer may be one of the smallest Hoosier communities to celebrate and support its LGBT residents, with its annual festival this weekend.

The message that Spencer Pride sends with its tall rainbow flags is twofold, aimed at both the LGBT community and the Spencer community at large:

We’re here.

Eleven years ago, back when marriage equality existed in one state, the founders of Spencer Pride gathered for their first festival.

They had wanted to raise LGBT awareness and support, particularly given high rates of suicide among LGBT youth, but were unsure how a parade or festival would go over in Spencer. They decided on a picnic, pooling their money to buy hamburgers and hot dogs to give away.

In a park on the edge of downtown Spencer, tucked up against the White River, the little picnic was public but not publicized. When people stumbled upon the event, Spencer Pride members told them who they were and what they were about.

Before this debut event, the LGBT group – not yet dubbed Spencer Pride – met quietly in members’ homes. It announced its meetings but not locations; you had to call to find out where gatherings would be.

The apprehension stemmed from mixed reactions within the town. Epp, 68, remembered what she called her public coming-out after she retired and moved to Spencer in 2000.

Many in her secluded lake community knew she lived there with her wife, and the couple never encountered problems there. But when Epp volunteered at the local senior center to help people do their taxes, one woman would ask her every time: Are you married yet?