BY Eric Gonzaba ON April 13, 2015
First off, I’m a Hoosier. Sure, an adopted one (my last name is Gonzaba, after all), but a Hoosier nonetheless. I lived in Indiana for a decade beginning in 2003 and true to form, I’ve eaten my share of popcorn, attended my county fair’s demolition derbies, marched in my small town high school’s marching band, and graduated from the largest public university in the state; Go IU.
I’ve never eaten at Memories Pizza, though. This is partly because the restaurant is in Walkerton, Indiana, and even as a Hoosier, I had never heard of Walkerton, Indiana. There exists this cultural divide among southern and northern Hoosiers and Walkerton is “way up north” as my southern Corydon brethren would say. I’m not kidding about folks from Indiana taking serious pride in their northern or southern status. When I first moved to the state, a gas station attendant asked where my family was from, to which I replied “Texas.” “Ah,” she exclaimed, “you’re in the REAL South now.” I was, and remain, confused.
If you’re not familiar, Memories is a small pizza parlor that became famous a few weeks ago during the national outrage that erupted after Indiana’s passage of the so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). One of the owners of Memories Pizza told a local reporter that her business would not cater a gay wedding if it ever came to it, though gays and lesbians were still welcome to dine in her establishment. Enter the Internet and what it does best—the restaurant was lambasted on Yelp by fake reviews, one who noted that “the food tastes like hate.” Supporters rushed to Memories’ defense and raised over $800,000 in donations to the small business.
There are so many ways to parse the situation in Indiana last month, and being a Hoosier only complicates the matter. On one hand, it’s easy to see how one could be ashamed of their state. How is it that a people could be so intolerant? On another, Hoosiers aren’t New Yorkers, and they pride themselves as such. They are products of outsiders seeing them as backwards and simple people. Even if you thought Indiana’s RFRA was despicable (and you really should, by the way), comments from pop cultural icons like George Takei seemed misplaced. Boycott Indiana? Sure, I understand and appreciate strategies of slash and burn, but were you ever really going to come to Indiana in the first place, much less care about its people? If the answer was yes, does your notion of Indiana reach past the ten-block radius of progressive, urban downtown Indianapolis?
The Memories Pizza incident is another battle of America’s ongoing culture war. No, not the one Bill O’Reilly tries to convince his viewers is about life and death or liberty and tyranny. I like to think of the culture war as a series of contestations between differing values. These incidents are heightened by the fact that America is a diverse place. Her people are divided along religious, generational, racial, gendered, and, most prominently here, geographic lines. For LGBT Americans, these battles are all too familiar: the campaigns of Anita Bryant, a children’s book about gay penguins, the battered controversy over Chick-fil-A. These matters often appear trivial, but they irk so many because they appear to threaten the most matter-of-fact aspects of our lives (the restaurants where we eat, the books our children read).
I don’t want to suggest that our LGBT communities shouldn’t be outraged at Memories. Our communities should fight discrimination wherever they see it, but in the digital age, I’m starting to think that these battles in the culture wars are becoming too easy. It’s too easy to be appalled from behind the safety of our computer screens, to share one’s shame of being from backwards Indiana or to rally behind a homophobic business with your credit card.
We ought not be discouraged that a million dollars can be raised for some business that doesn’t want to cater gay weddings. Rather, like so many opponents of RFRA did in the last few weeks, we need to remain vigilant of laws that only serve to oppress. Furthermore, it’s on us to not always be reactionaries. LGBT and allied communities should meet these challenges before they come to fruition. If there is a silver lining in any of this, it’s that democracy worked in Indiana. National outcry led to a change in the law, and Hoosier businesses cannot use RFRA as a defense for refusing to serve gay people pizza. Granted, it’s not enough (Indiana needs an anti-discrimination law that protects sexual orientation and gender identity), but it’s a start. We can relax tonight and have a slice, just not at Memories.