Indiana town Loogootee rejected pride displays. This year, it will host first pride fest
Wayden Wagoner seldom returns to Loogootee, Indiana. Since they left around a year ago, whenever they're back within city limits, it doesn't take long to remember why. For Wagoner, Loogootee is a place filled with painful memories and stubborn reminders of what should have been and what could never be.
Recently, one of those reminders manifested at a hometown basketball game, the first Wagoner had sat down to watch in years. While they should have been just another attendee in the bleachers, Wagoner caught several sideways glances cast their way.
Earlier coverage:Threats, vandalism and the First Amendment: Indiana town divided by LGBTQ Pride display
Wagoner was used to stares. What was new was a feeling that unfurled in their chest as they glanced around the stands and spotted other residents in their own little bubbles, chatty and carefree. Out of nowhere, a twinge of sorrow struck.
"I longed for a life that I never even had," Wagoner said. "I just felt myself really wanting to be this small town senior girl at Loogootee High School, but I can never have that and that makes me so sad that I can never have it."
For Wagoner, a normal, midwestern life — free from stares and whispers — was fleeting in Loogootee. While they have early childhood memories of easy friendships and juvenile fun, that all changed when Wagoner was forcibly outed for their sexuality. They were just 12 years old.
Wagoner's identity became conversation fodder. Adults gossiped about them. Peers excluded them. Even people Wagoner considered friends revealed their true colors, tossing out barbed, generalized comments about the LGBTQ community, all the while backhandedly assuring, "I don't mean you, though. You're different."
"I never had the quote, 'normal high school experience,' because I was in rural southern Indiana and people look at you funny for just existing as yourself," Wagoner said.
More:Free speech lawsuit spawns new Bloomington city policy, leads to more criticism
For the next few years, while other kids were free to grow and explore who they were, Wagoner felt like they were under a microscope. They walked on eggshells during conversations. They had a difficult time sticking up for themselves. They were so afraid of making anyone feel uncomfortable they began compromising parts of themselves in the process. Their journey of self-discovery was stunted.
"I would say that what contributed most to my not being able to accept these parts of myself is just the very place that I grew up because these people barely accepted me as a gay man. I can't even imagine what they would think when they find out that I'm trans," Wagoner described.
After a tear-stained sophomore year, Wagoner had had enough. Using their talent in theater, they applied to a prestigious arts high school in Michigan, where they have been living and studying since.
“Leaving Loogootee, and as sad as this sounds, was the best decision I've ever made," Wagoner, now 18, said.
But this summer Wagoner will return, albeit briefly, to the very town they left behind, as a performer at Loogootee's first ever pride festival.
LGBTQ advocates secure city of Loogootee permission for pride fest after public strife
Tim and Tracy Brown-Salsman have been fighting for LGBTQ+ rights in Loogootee. For the past 25 years, the Brown-Salsmans have served as a source of inspiration and refuge for LGBTQ+ residents and allies in the rural southern Indiana city.
Their advocacy is still deeply needed. Half a dozen openly LGBTQ+ residents have spoken to The Herald-Times about their troubling experiences living in Loogootee. Just two summers ago, a woman had bricks thrown at her house one night while she tried to enjoy a quiet evening inside with her partner. Slurs and obscene gestures have been directed at same-sex couples on street corners and public pools. Tracy and Tim have had their own troubles in town, such as lit firecrackers and glass bottles being hurled at their house.
While Wagoner was not continually harassed or bullied for their identity, they always felt a persistent, intense isolation.
"When you leave a place like that, it's nice to get out. But sometimes, especially if you keep ties with a handful of people still there, you can almost feel a sort of survivor's guilt, because you made it out but there are still queer people who are suffering because they can't do it themselves and they're made fun of everyday just because of who they are," Wagoner said, noting one of their close friends still faces bullying there.
The underlying tension was brought to the surface last June when a controversy surrounding street decorations revealed a sharp divide among residents. To celebrate LGBTQ pride month, Tracy and Tim wanted to hang a diversity banner in the downtown square and stick rainbow flags in flowerpots. Their request provoked outcry from religious leaders and conflicting responses from city officials. Within about a week, all flags were taken down and a new ordinance was passed, affirming only city personnel were allowed to place displays on town property.
Since then, Tracy and Tim have remained stalwart advocates in city politics. They've attended nearly every city council meeting and privately met with city officials, trying to ensure everyone feels included and safe in Loogootee.
"It’s not about me. It’s not about Tim. It’s about all of us," Tracy said of their ongoing efforts. “You shouldn’t have to send your kids away to another school, (away) from their own community."
When a gospel event downtown was approved last fall, with temporary street closures and use of the city stage, the Salsman-Browns saw their opportunity.
"You let the gospel in. You’ve gotta let us in now,” Tracy reasoned.
City officials agreed. Late last year, the Loogootee city council approved a pride event, scheduled for June 10. The event will take place in the city's downtown, the same spot where the Salsman-Browns tried and failed to have a diversity and inclusion banner displayed last summer. An entire event is a far cry from their original goal of a few pride flags in flowerpots, and Tracy said this is an example of how perseverance can be rewarded.
With the approval behind them, Tracy notes, "now it seems like we get to start having fun."
Pride fest in Loogootee will be a celebration, homecoming for some
Going home to Loogootee is never easy for Wagoner.
"Without fail, every time I go home, it's hard for me to get out of bed. I just don't like being there. There's too many sad memories and too many people there who have hurt me," Wagoner said.
But Wagoner doesn't disregard their hometown. When they heard about the pride event in June, Wagoner was more than ecstatic and they wanted to know how they could be involved.
"It makes me happy to know that the work in Loogootee to make queer people less stigmatized is still ongoing and very present," Wagoner said.
Wagoner plans to be one of several performers and speakers. Noting that "a lot of the queer experience is suffering and sadness,” Wagoner thinks it's important to emphasize that being part of the LGBTQ community is a joyful, celebrated experience.
"I think that it's important for me to at least go back sometimes, so that I can show what's been going on with me, because not only do I want people to see how I'm doing and how I am because I was once a resident of the town, too," Wagoner said. "But I think it's also important for the other queer people of Loogootee — and possibly closeted people — the ability to see that, to see me. I want to be a pillar for those people and I want to be a person of inspiration and guidance if they should choose to want it."
Loogootee Pride Fest slated for June 10, organizers seeking donations
While they've secured permission from the city, the work of putting on a pride event is far from finished. Working with a few other LGBTQ residents, Tim and Tracy are at the forefront of planning for Loogootee's first pride festival. Though details are still being ironed out, Loogootee's Pride Fest will have both entertainment and resource agencies available for LGBTQ people and allies.
Organizers are seeking donations to go toward hosting the Loogootee Pride Fest. Donations can be made payable to the Patoka Valley CAG — 2190 E State Rd. 164, Jasper, IN — with "Loogootee Pride" written in the memo.
Visibility is an important step toward acceptance, and Tim and Tracy hope this event can further break down lingering divisions in the community. After the public controversy last June, Tracy said he has noticed more residents vocalizing their support. That's part of why they keep fighting to stay at the forefront of local minds.
“People shouldn't have to leave Indiana to find acceptance. People can find it in their hearts right here so that we're not bleeding talent (and) losing talent every day to a safer space," Tim said.
As many current and past LGBTQ residents have pointed out, there hasn't been a place for them in Loogootee. Now, they're intent on forging one.
This article originally appeared on The Herald-Times: Loogootee, Indiana, to have LGBTQ pride festival in June 2023