Threats, vandalism and the First Amendment: Indiana town divided by LGBTQ Pride display

·11 min read
Tracy Brown-Salsman, right, joins the first LGBTQ+ Pride march in Loogootee on June 12, 2022.
Tracy Brown-Salsman, right, joins the first LGBTQ+ Pride march in Loogootee on June 12, 2022.

LOOGOOTEE — Last summer, Kayla Whaley had to wait for local law enforcement to arrive before she could sweep up the shattered glass from her living room floor.

A brick had just sailed through her window, disrupting Whaley and her partner's quiet movie night. It lay amid the glass shards.

That was only the first brick thrown that night. A few hours after the police had taken note of the damages and left, more bricks struck the house's exterior. While the police didn't catch the assailant, Whaley remembers how the nearby cornfield rustled with faint movement, this seemingly invisible enemy quickening the kicking drumbeat of her heart.

For Whaley, it felt like her home, once a safe haven, was now under siege. This fear only solidified when Whaley's car was struck with bricks in their driveway a few days later.

Fearing for her family's safety, Whaley adopted a "Clint Eastwood"-type persona, puffing out her chest and investigating her property whenever their new surveillance equipment picked up any motion.

"I kind of had to pretend to be a Billy Badass and just sit on the porch with 20 gauge so that we could have a little bit of peace of mind," Whaley recalled.

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This incident reaffirmed what Whaley already suspected to be the truth: She and her spouse aren't safe in Loogootee, Indiana.

"I've gotten to the point where I can't even go into the grocery store. I'll have people around me and I will start crying and run out. I have panic attacks in the middle of the night," Whaley said. "I'm so afraid of getting hurt — or worse."

Speaking with The Herald-Times, half a dozen openly LGBTQ+ residents spoke about their troubling experiences living in Loogootee.

Drivers in passing vehicles have extended their middle fingers at one same-sex couple while they walk along the street. Another couple described being called slurs at a public pool. A potential job opportunity dried up as soon as one woman mentioned her partner.

Several people recalled how they didn't often leave their house or speak to strangers soon after they came out.

Local LGBTQ+ activists such as Whaley believe visibility is the first step to acceptance, but when a local gay couple requested decorations be placed on city-owned property for Pride month, city officials rejected it.

While some see this as a case of discrimination, legal experts say it's within an individual city government's purview to decide what is officially celebrated.

"Elected officials are supposed to be responsive to the people they think they represent. So you can't blame them for kind of sticking their finger in the wind and deciding what's going to be the safe decision versus what's gonna be the right decision," said Steve Sanders, law professor at Indiana University.

Couple requests Pride display on city property, faces opposition

For the past 25 years, Tim and Tracy Brown-Salsman have been a source of inspiration and refuge for many LGBTQ+ residents and allies in Loogootee.

"I think Tim and Tracy have really been a catalyst of letting people know that it's OK to be open about who you are," Whaley said.

But the couple's openness and LGBTQ+ advocacy has, at times, come with a price.

Lit firecrackers and glass bottles have been thrown at their house. While many Loogootee residents have been supportive, the couple also has had slurs and violent threats lobbed at them.

The Brown-Salsman family — Tim, Tracy and their rescued pet birds — reside in a defunct grocery store, which they've re-outfitted into a living space, in the middle of the town square.

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The building, now sporting pale pink trimmings on its exterior fixtures, was once the stage for Robert Kennedy during a notable campaign visit only a few months before his assassination.

"Robert Kennedy came in 1968, stood on our porch and spoke to the masses in our town," Tracy said. "Kennedy stood up for civil rights in 1968, and we're still fighting for our rights, right here, to this day."

Across the street from the Brown-Salsman home, there's a triangular piece of city-owned land. It usually hosts holiday decorations — a nativity scene during Christmas time, a dozen American flags on Flag Day. In Tim and Tracy's view, it seemed like the best place for a diversity and inclusion sign celebrating LGBTQ Pride month in June. It would have been the first time the city of Loogootee officially acknowledged the celebration.

Tracy and Tim Brown-Salsman designed and donated this sign to Loogootee, requesting it be placed on a widely seen city-owned land in June. City officials rejected the request.
Tracy and Tim Brown-Salsman designed and donated this sign to Loogootee, requesting it be placed on a widely seen city-owned land in June. City officials rejected the request.

But when the Brown-Salsmans requested their donated sign be placed on that strip of land throughout the month, city officials declined.

In April, months after the Pride display was first suggested, the Loogootee City Council passed an ordinance that stated only city employees can decorate city-owned property. The protocol had been previously unwritten but nevertheless enforced for several years, according to Mayor Noel Harty.

Undeterred, the Brown-Salsmans continued to push the issue until Harty, in an action he would later retract, suggested the city's Beautification Board could decide how the city was decorated. When the Beautification Board members refused to meet to weigh in on the issue, board president Trenton Scott gave permission for Pride flags to be placed in Loogootee's flower pots.

While this was initially counted as a small victory, an undercurrent of opposition soon began festering.

Vandalism, threats begin; city takes down flags after pressure

The small Pride flags were in the city flower pots for less than two weeks before city officials took them down. During that brief time, the flags were regularly stolen or broken in half. Everyday, Tracy replaced the damaged or missing Pride flags, making sure to also file a report with local law enforcement.

A few days after the Pride flags were placed, white flags with religious messages began appearing in the flower pots. Tracy said he didn't have any issue with the other flags, so long as the Pride flags were left alone.

An LGBTQ+ Pride flag flies alongside a handmade Christian flag in a Loogootee flower pot. City officials moved to take both flags out following public outcry.
An LGBTQ+ Pride flag flies alongside a handmade Christian flag in a Loogootee flower pot. City officials moved to take both flags out following public outcry.

Scott, the Beautification Board president, said he didn't authorize the white flags to be present alongside the Pride flags but didn't have a problem with both flags being there. If one message is allowed on a public space, a different message has that same right, he reasoned.

Not everyone agreed. Soon after his decision to authorize the Pride flags, Scott began receiving phone calls threatening his safety.

"Be careful while you're working outside on the highway," Scott recalled one person warning.

He later found a handwritten letter in his mailbox.

"You might want to move out of town," the letter read. "You (sic) the only one to support the queers. Flags in Pots is Not right."

When he first read the letter, Scott stood outside on his lawn and stared vacantly at his house for around 30 minutes, gathering his thoughts.

"How could someone be that angry (about this)?" Scott said. "Why can't we all just get along?"

He remembers when he first moved to Loogootee and began a small business. Even though he was an outsider, people were very nice and supportive — until this letter.

Noting he has close relatives who are gay, Scott is an ally of the LGBTQ+ community and considers it a "basic human right" for people to be who they are.

"I think Loogootee is very accepting, but it depends on who you are," Scott said. "It's a small town with a big heart, but that heart needs to include everybody."

Scott has filed a police report about the threats. The investigation is ongoing.

At a subsequent city council meeting, Harty noted his suggestion of assigning this responsibility to the Beautification Board was a mistake since the majority of volunteer members felt uncomfortable.

He relegated it back to city council, whose members mostly agreed the Pride flags should be taken down. Within a few hours, dozens of small flags were returned to Tracy's porch.

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After city officials took down the Pride flags, the Brown-Salsmans, Whaley and other LGBTQ+ activists said they are reaching out to the American Civil Liberties Union to explore their legal options.

Steve Sanders, a legal expert on constitutional law at Indiana University, said a case like this can be complicated.

No private individual or group has the right to place their message on city-owned property, Sanders noted.

"If the city itself retains control of the property and always decides for itself what images or decorations are placed there, then it has pretty wide latitude to choose the messages or images it wants to promote," Sanders told The Herald-Times via email.

Generally, a city's government can pick and choose which holidays to celebrate, though religious observances are more restricted.

"You can express a point of view that it's the Christmas season and we should all celebrate Christmas, but the average observer shouldn't be able to come away and say, 'Well, the city is basically endorsing Christianity and saying all citizens should be Christian,'" Sanders explained. "It can't send that message."

However, if a space has been opened to the public, the city could have a more difficult time defending itself if it favors some messages over others.

"Whether or not the Pride month supporters could prevail in a lawsuit against the city would depend on whether and to what extent the city property has, in effect, been made available to the public for the display of messages," Sanders said.

According to Harty, the triangle area has only been decorated by city staff or members of its boards in the past. Harty noted the city has not had a display request like this from private citizens before, and city officials were uninterested in adding a display for Pride month.

Sanders said city officials have the right to make that decision.

"If you don't like a decision, change the decision makers," Sander said.

Pride display fight reveals a town divided

The small room where the Loogootee City Council meeting was held June 13 was overcrowded with attendees, some spilling out into the hallway.

Though it wasn't on the agenda, a Pride display was on the forefront of attendees' and officials' minds. The discussion concluded with Harty stating official permission had not been given for the flags in flower pots, leading to their removal.

Resident Jason Riggins attended the meeting after he heard about the issue at his church, New Beginnings Community Church. The pastor, Ernest Canell, has been extremely vocal in his opposition of a Pride display on city property.

Riggins also is against a Pride display in Loogootee, saying celebration is fine — as long as it is on private property. Any decoration displayed on city-owned property, should be supported by the majority of the city's population, Riggins said.

Riggins noted he was surprised the issue had grown in a short amount of time.

"It created a life of its own," Riggins said. "What started out as a small incident in town has turned into this huge debate."

Some out-of-town visitors also attended the meeting, including Tieraney Sheetz. Sheetz said she recently considered moving to Loogootee because many of her friends live there. They described it as a nice, small town, she said.

However, once she read about the Pride debate on social media, Sheetz became concerned this would not be an inclusive enough environment to raise her children. She was especially troubled how the sign that had caused this whole debate was simply promoting diversity and inclusion.

"If they're against one thing, they're usually against all things," Sheetz said, looking around the room. "I'm the only person of color here."

Chastin Burris marches with her children, Ezny and Havilynn, in Loogootee on June 12, 2022.
Chastin Burris marches with her children, Ezny and Havilynn, in Loogootee on June 12, 2022.

Following the meeting, city councilwoman Teresa Nolley told The Herald-Times this situation was "totally handled wrong" by Harty. Authority should have never been given to a volunteer committee, Nolley said. It should have always been decided by elected officials.

"Putting up a sign that said we support diversity was not a problem with me," Nolley said, adding, "Nobody asked me."

Nolley said the city council's rejection seemed "personal" and felt targeted toward the people who requested it. Harty said there is no preferential treatment among citizens and these decisions were not motivated by prejudice or discrimination.

The Brown-Salmans said they remain undeterred from their goal of making a more connected network of support for the LGBTQ+ community in Loogootee.

Since the situation began, many have extended support to Loogootee's LGBTQ+ population. A recent Facebook group, titled Loogootee Pride, has nearly 400 members.

"We've been doing this for so long. Nothing surprises us anymore," Tracy said. "We're just trying to make a change for the next generation."

Contact Rachel Smith at rksmith@heraldt.com or @RachelSmithNews on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on The Herald-Times: Southern Indiana city rejects LGBTQ decoration, faces backlash