They waited in line for hours last summer to get married following the district court ruling that made it legal. Their three children were there and the clerk who married them had been a vocal advocate in favor of marriage equality in Indianapolis. It was the first full day of a brief, two-day window during which hundreds of same-sex couples married in Indiana, before the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the marriages halted pending its own ruling.
Michael and Larry Foster felt like the battle for LGBT rights was over that day in their home state. “Our picture was taken by an AP photographer and our special moment was on hundreds of online news sites across the country that used [the photograph]. It’s fun to google my name and gay marriage and up pop our photos!”
But that was before the introduction of Senate Bill 101, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), in the GOP-controlled state legislature. “We were very surprised that marriage happened as quickly as it did in Indiana,” said Michael Foster. “The recent assault with the SB 101 discrimination bill was definitely a step backward.”
Foster, 47, grew up in Elkhart, Ind., feeling isolated due to his sexual orientation. A general atmosphere of homophobia kept him in the closet through his undergraduate years at Perdue University in Lafayette, Ind. He couldn’t wait to head to the big city in 1990 for medical school. “I purposely migrated to Indianapolis knowing I was gay and would have a better chance of finding a community in the largest Indiana city,” he said. “I was not openly out to anyone until I was 22 and in medical school at the time. I stayed closeted until then due to significant negative experiences around me and my perception that I would be rejected by friends and family.” In fact, Foster, now a psychiatrist, found his family to be fiercely supportive, with the exception of one brother.
Foster’s husband, Larry, grew up in the relatively LGBT-friendly bubble of Indianapolis and was out from the age of 18, with the full support of his family. Living there, Foster says blatant examples of anti-LGBT sentiment have been rare, even during the adoption process of their three children, Joseph, now 14, Kaleb, now 12, and Madeline, now 10.
The couple adopted biological siblings Joseph and Madeline from the foster care system, while they were in separate foster homes. “The other foster mother was a fundamentalist Christian and objected to our adoption of Madeline and decided she wanted to adopt her to keep her from going to us. This initiated a huge DCS case conference to have the case workers decide who should be granted the right to adopt. We were grilled by a 15-person panel. We were overwhelmingly chosen to be the best placement, which surprised us since the agency was headed by a very conservative man.”
Eventually, they stopped being surprised at the support they found; from their neighbors in their south Indianapolis neighborhood, and from teachers and administrators at their children's schools. “Generally we are accepted without difficulty,” said Foster. “I fear more negative reactions than we openly receive. Mainly we get ignorant comments such as ‘Which one of you is the dad?’ or ‘Giving the moms a break?’ Our kids are very vocal and proud about having two dads.”
But the intense media coverage surrounding RFRA showed them that many are willing to express negative feelings about people like them and families like theirs, just not necessarily to their faces.
“We have heard more negativity about our ‘chosen’ gay lifestyle in the news than directly from fellow Hoosiers,” he said. “It allowed more closeted Christians to be vocal about how they really feel, but hasn't affected us directly except for making me more militant. The kids have heard a lot of these negative comments about LGBT people and are often vocal themselves about why people would say these negative things.”
RFRA, as originally signed into law by Indiana Governor Mike Pence on March 26, would allow an individual or corporation to use the infringement of their religious beliefs as a defense when facing a lawsuit. Pence and other backers of the law seemed unprepared for the international attention and media firestorm within the state provoked by their actions. Last week, Pence signed an amended version of the law that explicitly stated that it did not authorize a business owner to discriminate against anyone on a number of bases, including sexual orientation and gender identity.
It was the first time those terms had appeared in Indiana law, but it stopped far short of offering real legal protections for Indiana’s LGBT population, according to Jennifer C. Pizer, law and policy project director at Lambda Legal, the organization that won the court victory that legalized marriage for Indiana same-sex couples. She says that as steps forward go, it’s not an impressive one. “It is a legally confusing, ill-conceived solution in search of a problem. Even with statewide nondiscrimination protections for LGBT people, it would be a terrible idea. Without them, it's a recipe for discord, discrimination and litigation.”
Like Foster in Indianapolis, 44-year-old Ray Naldi felt safe living in the university town of Bloomington, Ind.
“We just recently moved back to Indiana from New York because we wanted to raise our children in the atmosphere that we like here,” said Naldi, a stay-at-home dad to 3-year-old Ella and 4-year-old Gavin. “Bloomington is a bit of a liberal island in the red state. But we both enjoyed living here previously and wanted our kids here.”
During their adoption process, the primary resistance encountered by Naldi and his husband Steve, 46, a manager at a medical device company, came not from Indiana, but from Michigan, where they adopted their children. Michigan does not permit gay couples to adopt jointly, so Steve adopted as a single man, in spite of the fact that the couple wed legally in Massachusetts in 2005. The reaction back in Indiana was mostly positive. “For the most part our friends and neighbors were excited that we chose to become parents,” said Naldi. “I think the only cause for concern was that most people didn’t know if two gay men could handle two babies … They assumed two babies would be too much but after seeing we could handle it, they accepted us as parents.”
Seventeen states and the District of Columbia prohibit discrimination in public places of business on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity; another four offer protections only for sexual orientation. With only a few Indiana jurisdictions offering the barest protections, both Naldi and Foster agree that RFRA has highlighted the vulnerability of the state’s LGBT population. “Even with the changes in the religious freedom law, I'm not happy that LGBT people are still not considered a protected class,” said Naldi.
“Statewide protections are still needed,” agreed Foster.
Still, Naldi feels it’s just a matter of time before that changes, too. “I think in the next few years most of these laws will become outdated and changed.”
Events of the past two weeks suggest that economic forces may hasten their end. The governors of Connecticut and Washington announced bans on state-funded travel to Indiana. Indianapolis-based Angie’s List cancelled plans for a thousand-job expansion of its headquarters. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), one of the largest unions in the country, cancelled a conference scheduled for the 5fall, costing the state some $500,000, and announced it would curtail its activity there. According to one estimate, a boycott could cost the state more than $250 million over the next six years. Amid the furor, legislators in Georgia and Oklahoma quietly tabled plans to push SB 101-type proposals in their states.
Pence and other backers of the law seemed taken by surprise.
“The explosion of outrage and exasperation in Indiana only blindsided state leaders because they had lost touch with their own society,” said Pizer. “Living in an echo chamber is risky. America has moved on and “religious liberty” dog whistles are now audible to the broader public who object vigorously to the sound because it tears through the lives of people they know and love. Take-away message? Don't do it. The shelf-life date has passed and the contents now are toxic.”
But there’s a take-away message for same-sex families, too: While the Supreme Court is expected to rule on a number of marriage cases in June, possibly paving the way for marriage equality in all 50 states, winning marriage isn’t the end of the fight for full inclusion and protection.
“Even assuming we achieve the marriage equality victory for which we've been working for decades, so much essential work lies ahead to create the legal and social conditions that will afford equal, safe and respectful conditions for all LGBT people, our children, and those who care about us,” said Pizer. “There are practical, technical legal answers about adoption judgments and other planning. But the larger work is about continuing to engage with everyone in our lives in the ever-expanding project of being visible and being our full, most genuinely fabulous selves. With that, the rest will come.”
From time to time, Michael and Larry Foster talk about moving. The conversations usually don’t go far. In spite of everything, they still feel Indiana is a good place to live.
"We often discuss wanting to go to a more liberal and progressive city. [But] family is important to us and one of the main reasons we have chosen to raise our family in Indiana where our extended family resides. We are very proud to be Hoosiers and generally feel people from Indiana are great people.”