A Columbus high school student’s senior project to host the first gay pride festival in the hometown of Vice President Mike Pence has turned heads nationally and internationally.
Publicity over the April 14 event, heavily linked to the politician’s conservative views, has left 18-year-old Erin Bailey of Columbus Signature Academy — New Tech High School both excited and stunned.
Bailey, who described herself as bisexual, launched the idea in August as a way to show people that a small, conservative Indiana community is open to diverse groups such as the LGBTQ community.
“It’s just been crazy,” she said Wednesday, shortly after getting additional media requests for interviews about her Columbus Pride Festival.
The rain-or-shine event from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on the west end of Fourth Street next to The Commons, will feature food, music from local acts and bands, a drag queen contest, and about 30 vendors.
Bailey said she is uncertain how many people to expect. On the event Facebook page for Columbus Pride Festival late Wednesday, 184 people said they were going and 420 people said they were interested.
“A lot of the youth here are very open-minded,” Bailey said. “And I think that Cummins and other companies bringing in employees from all over (the world) might help the diversity here.”
Three years ago, as governor of Indiana, Pence faced heavy criticism after signing into law the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. It was criticized widely — by business leaders, the NCAA and many others — as being anti-gay for allowing businesses to refuse to serve gay and lesbian patrons. The fallout was so widespread that a revision of the bill was passed containing new language that businesses could not deny service to anyone based on sexual orientation, race, religion or disability.
Alyssa Farah, press secretary for Pence, released a statement about Bailey’s project:
“Vice President Pence commends Erin Bailey for her activism and engagement in the civic process. As a proud Hoosier and Columbus native, he’s heartened to see young people from his hometown getting involved in the political process.”
City officials have worked with Bailey since January when she presented the idea before the city’s Board of Public Work, requesting to have Fourth Street blocked to auto traffic.
“We’re happy to be able to accommodate her project,” Mayor Jim Lienhoop said. “I feel somewhat good about the fact that, as a high school student, she feels confident enough to take on something like this.”
That in itself can be a sign of progress in the local LGBTQ community, which in May 2016 helped push to add sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes in the city’s human rights ordinance, the mayor said.
“People are more willing today to focus on the person rather than the label,” Lienhoop said.
That perception is significant, especially since a June 2011 Welcoming Community II report from The Heritage Fund — The Community Foundation of Bartholomew County alarmed leaders and supporters in the local LGBTQ community. A survey showed that people felt the city overall had become less welcoming to LGBTQ residents than it seemed in 2004.
Jill Tasker, president of Pride Alliance of Columbus, said she is exceedingly proud of Bailey’s work because of the added acceptance it can foster among residents.
“This a solution (to a problem),” Tasker said. “You combat hate with love. What Erin has created is this beautiful opportunity for people to get together and take pride in loving each other, take pride in who they are, and to take pride in the concepts of inclusion, and acceptance and love.”
Tasker, a longtime actress nationally and locally, has been vocal about these issues before.
In October, Tasker directed three sold-out performances in Columbus of “The Laramie Project,” a dramatic play about the 1998 beating and death of gay college student Matthew Shepard in Wyoming. She said the presentations were partly “to remind people of the face of hate.”
Samantha Aulick of Artisan Foodworks in Columbus has helped with marketing and publicity for the upcoming festival. She and her wife, Alexa Lemley, had considered organizing such an event in the past, but they didn’t know how they could devote sufficient time to it and still operate their establishment.
The pair will be among festival vendors, creating rainbow s’mores and offering coffee-infused milkshakes at their booth.
“It’s just heartwarming to see how excited people are in Columbus and around the world to celebrate Pride,” Aulick said. “I do think it’s long overdue, and I am very proud of Erin for putting this together. She is a person with an awful lot of energy and enthusiasm.”
Changes in the world in recent years over sexual orientation attitudes and acceptance, including small communities such as Columbus, have opened the door to such gatherings, Aulick said. In 2000, a segment of the local community erupted in anger — and resulted in more than 160 letters to the editor — when Columbus-based Cummins Inc. extended health insurance benefits to same-sex partners.
“When Alexa and I were growing up, we didn’t know any adult lesbians, really — well other than maybe one,” said Aulick, a native of Madison, said. “We didn’t have the role models that young people have today.”
Julia Stumpff, a founding member of the Inclusive Community Coalition that has supported LGBTQ and other causes, said she can see the event having a major impact.
“This is just going to increase Columbus’ welcoming factor and its sensitivity to others,” Stumpff said. “I think LGBTQ people will feel more safe here that this is celebrated, and that they themselves are celebrated.”
Several people mentioned they would like to see the festival continue after this year, but are uncertain who might organize it.
“OK, so the ball’s rolling and in motion, right?” Aulick said. “I believe things in motion tend to stay in motion.”