Inclusion Efforts in Evansville

by | Mar 1, 2024 | 0 comments

  • Out Evansville Mayor Dianne Duggan

Community and social connection are hugely protective when it comes to well-being and resilience. As we all know, the unfortunate reality is that small communities can be places where bigotry and hate are allowed to flourish. They are often unsafe for marginalized folks.

Small communities can be places where support and love are unparalleled—where our true selves are embraced, and where you really get to see the power of a few people getting together to speak up.

Make no mistake: The small town of Evansville, between Madison and Janesville, has seen its share of bigotry. If you’ve heard about some of the hateful things that have happened here, it’s because of the very vocal LGBTQ+ folks and allies who are bringing these stories to the news while rallying support. Yes, bigotry and hate exist here, just as they do everywhere. But we also have an abundance of love and support.

Finding Support 

Personally, I ended up in Evansville mostly by accident. When I desperately needed a place to live, a brand-new friend offered a room in her house. After a bad experience in another state, I had sworn off living in a small town ever again. But I told myself I could live here briefly and just keep to myself—I didn’t have to engage with the community. I could protect myself. I didn’t want to be a part of small town life again.

More than eight years later, I am still here. At some point the walls I had built around myself started cracking—just a little at a time—and eventually, one connection at a time, I found myself immersed in one of the most authentic communities I have ever been a part of. It was here in Evansville that I found, for the first time, I was unconditionally embraced as my most true and open self.

In 2020, a lot of small towns in the area and around the country found that there were pockets of people banding together in support of racial and social justice causes, including LGBTQ+ inclusivity and acceptance. But, from what I’ve observed, many of those pockets of people lost steam. As so many of us do, they burned out. They were no match for the pressures of established norms and institutionalized oppression, even at the local level. In many ways, however, Evansville just kept going.

In Evansville, many people have remained connected to an unwavering commitment to fighting against the culture that oppresses and harms LGBTQ+ people. It may have been kindled at the same time that it came up around the country, but it didn’t fade away so easily. We have a lot of work to do here, and those who are doing the work will be the first to tell you this. But we have experienced a lot of progress.

BASE & Pride Business Partnership 

In Evansville, a local nonprofit (Building A Safer Evansville, or BASE) created the Pride Business Partnership—a program where local businesses sign up to be listed as LGBTQ-safe spaces. They post a rainbow window cling in their building to signify that in this space, they have our back. Currently in our little town of 5,000, there are 32 businesses on this list—restaurants, shops, the bowling alley, a dentist, our local live music collective, and churches. The people at these businesses know the cost of broadcasting their support. They know that there are people who will decide not to patronize them. But they also know that the LGBTQ+ residents of our community seek them out.

What’s more: Multiple businesses whose owners have been openly, relentlessly  homophobic and/or transphobic are no longer open. Why? Because people who live here organized and said “That’s not okay.” They raised awareness about the views of the business owners so that citizens could make informed decisions about where to spend our money.

LGBTQ+ people are represented in all levels of government in Evansville, right up to the mayor, who works tirelessly to advocate for our community. We have a Pride flag that goes up at City Hall in June, along with a Pride Month proclamation from the local government.

Each June, there are several Pride Month events around town: We have had a book discussion with the authors of the Wisconsin LGBTQ history book We Will Always Be Here (Jenny Kalvaitis and Kristen Whitson); we have had pride-themed disc golf tournaments at our local park’s nine-hole course; and we have had transportation come to bring young people out to Madison’s Pride Prom, among other things. Within our little town, there are monthly free “community meals” where local residents volunteer to prepare and serve food to whomever shows up to the community center. During Pride Month, the community meal has been hosted by the Pride Action Team of BASE. Just recently, our bowling alley has started hosting sold-out drag bingo in addition to the Pride bowling nights they host in June.

Take note: Much of, if not most of, the work that goes into creating and publicizing these events is done by volunteers. A handful of people consistently go above and beyond with their personal time (and often other resources) to make these things happen. When BASE’s Pride team works on their annual parade float for the Fourth of July parade, they are supported by adults and young people volunteering their time, their vehicles, their tools, their lumber, their artistic abilities, and their space.

In 2021, the first year that the Pride team had a gorgeous rainbow float, it won best all around in the Evansville Fourth of July parade—an honor repeated in 2022. That year, and every year since, we’ve had LGBTQ folks come in from other towns and cities nearby to march and participate in the parade alongside our Pride team.

Becoming Better Neighbors 

As time has gone on, those few volunteers who have been stretched to their limits have increased into more and more people actively working on inclusivity-related efforts. In addition to BASE, we have seen the rise of Evansville’s own grassroots organization, Becoming Better Neighbors. BBN was formed in 2022, as a response to “incidents of hate and bias in the community,” according to an early flier. The group began as roundtable discussions on what people could do about racism, and how to handle difficult conversations. As a group overseen by another local nonprofit, AWARE in Evansville, BBN has continued to grow—and continues to demonstrate the commitment of more than a few people in our small town to issues of racial and social justice.

Evansville is far from perfect, but we have a large number of people who are unwavering in their support and commitment to take action when it comes to making our community safer. And they are not backing down. From Mayor Dianne Duggan: “Overall, Evansville is open and welcoming. We are always learning and growing in order to become more accepting. We want everyone to know that they belong here and their voices will be heard.”

As I spend time in and around this little town I have come to call home for the time being, I am aware of the privileges I have that make it a lot easier for me here than it has been for others. It is certainly not all sunshine and rainbows here. A few years ago, Evansville made the news when a young person Snapchatted a video of an “Evansville Pride” sign on fire for the purpose of intimidation. (The culprit was fined.) More recently, Evansville was in the news again because the local “paper of record” routinely published hate speech against LGBTQ+ folks. (The paper has since ceased operations.)

But when I experience Evansville, I experience more love than hate. Evansville Pride signs (and BLM signs, and “We Believe…” signs) adorn lawns in all neighborhoods and in the rural areas surrounding town. More and more, the businesses I frequent have rainbows in their windows. I even started going to church again—because I was able to find a house of worship that visibly demonstrated (and verbalized in published form) its unambiguous inclusion of LGBTQ+ folks like me.

In Evansville, everywhere I go, I run into the people who’ve made the town what it is. For a while, just driving into Evansville meant going past the BASE billboard which proclaimed a welcome for LGBTQ+ folks.

Raising Our Voices 

While riding my bike, I stop to say hello to a school board member speaking on the sidewalk with an ally in her yard about progress on the Pride float. Dana Basch, the school board member and part of the LGBT community, ran for board a few years ago when conflict was hitting a peak at school board meetings. Anti-LGBT propaganda was being spewed from the public too often at meetings, and Dana felt compelled to do whatever she could to make sure there was a voice on the board advocating for our most vulnerable students. A year into her term, she was appointed vice president of the board.

While walking downtown, I notice how many businesses have rainbow decals in their windows—and when I bump into a friend, I point this out. We celebrate together for a minute before continuing on our way.

Attending an outdoor Evansville Underground Music show in the summer, I’m surrounded by a varied cross section of locals and out-of-towners representing an unashamed array of identities—and, quite often, I’m watching performers who are also openly LGBTQ. (It’s not by accident. It’s intentional. And after I first performed my own original song, “I Like Girls,” at an EUM show, I’ve been asked back to perform every June for a Pride Month show.) Going to a church gathering, I compliment everyone else I see who’s wearing shirts or jewelry promoting inclusivity—and there’s quite a few of them.

Still a Small Town 

Evansville is, for better and for worse, a small town. If you live here, you know this. If there’s someone in town you’d rather avoid, rest assured that out of all 5,000+ residents you WILL see them at the grocery store. The best way to get a heated discussion going is to mention the possibility of Kwik Trip or Culver’s opening a location in town. Anytime you need to declutter, you can get rid of pretty much anything at all on the Evansville Pay it Forward Facebook page. If you need to know what the roads are like for your morning commute, you can ask in one of the many Evansville community pages. If you have a late-night craving for food that’s not already in your house, you’re probably going to have to go out of town for it. And everywhere you go, a good deal of the people you pass will smile, wave, and say hello whether they know you or not.

If you’ve never been here, come visit sometime—come out to an Evansville Underground Music show, or visit Just Beyond the Willow for their farmers’ market. Stop in at a shop, bar, or restaurant in our picturesque downtown. Take a walk, bring out the kayaks, or throw a few discs in Lake Leota Park. Maybe you’ve experienced the reality that I have: That in many small towns, most people are unwilling to change their outdated, oppressive views, or accept us for who we are. But as with anything, the stereotype isn’t always accurate. We are not the only small town where progress is happening.

It’s hard to write accurately about a place like Evansville: If I am overly positive, it erases the lived experiences of harm that happen here; if I am overly negative, it erases the hard work of those who are making real change here. The reality is that we have both. It is not an oasis of inclusivity. But it isn’t a bastion of hatred, either. At the end of the day, there is one thing I can conclusively say about Evansville. This small town I’ve ended up calling home for now gives me hope for the future.

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