Regular readers of this blog will know that politics is something I typically steer clear of on these pages. However, and it is perhaps because the recent political controversy in Indiana represents such a significant culture shock to me, I felt the need to speak up this time round. I’m talking, of course, about the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), signed into law last week by Indiana governor Mike Pence.
For the benefit of my British readers (many of whom may nonetheless be informed on the matter), RFRA gives business owners throughout the state the legal authority to refuse service to anyone whose lifestyle doesn’t align with the religious beliefs of the proprietor. In short, business owners with deeply held religious beliefs can, on the merit of those same beliefs, refuse service to members of the gay community.
Of course, such rapid legislation comes at a time in U.S. history when – conversely - an increasing number of states (including Indiana) have ratified laws legalizing same-sex marriage. Such juxtaposing measures, in fact, appear to be a hallmark of the American political landscape in 2015 – especially when it comes to social issues such as gay rights.
Hailing, as I do, from a nation where the separation of church and state - while not 100% guaranteed - is far more apparent, I view the passing of RFRA as an event that should be reserved not for the “land of the free” but for a fictional world within the pages of a gripping Dystopian novel.
And having lived in Indiana for seven years, I probably shouldn’t be too surprised that a measure of this nature was put forward in the real world. After all, my eyes were opened early on to the state’s minor undercurrent of homophobia in possibly the last place I would ever expect: the theatre.
As a professional stage actor, many of the people I’ve connected with over the years have, of course, identified as gay – a fact that has not once caused me to question the merits of that person nor our subsequent friendship. The truth is, a person’s sexuality is of zero significance to me – rather, I am more concerned with the goodness of that person and what they can do. In all my years acting on stages in the UK, I’m not sure I ever met one straight person who didn’t feel the same way.
But the UK and Indiana do occasionally differ on this point. Awaiting the approval of my work visa in 2009, I sought out theatre work in the small city of Anderson where I then lived. After being cast in a show at Anderson’s main community theatre, I soon realized something wasn’t right: in front of my very eyes (and those of her eleven-year-old son), a parent stood face-to-face with a gay member of the cast and declared, “I pray every day that you’ll change your ways.”
My immediate thought was, who let this woman in here? Does she even know where she is? That sort of rhetoric will get you barred from a theatre.
Except it didn’t. Nor was she alone in her thought process. Another cast member – an eighteen-year-old Christian – often made known her opposition to “the sinful act” of homosexuality even while herself pursuing a degree in theatre. Before I knew it, I could count the number of homophobes within the building on two hands. This was most at odds with the fact that I could do the same for the number of homosexuals.
Actually, and this point was almost more unsettling, the number of homosexuals was not itself easy to determine – and not because certain actors kept their sexuality private, but because they remained in utter, heartbreaking denial. Indeed, at the first read-through, I encountered one noticeably flamboyant individual whose sexuality was well known among other gay members of the cast. His voice and mannerisms were not dissimilar to those of a certain Dale Winton.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered a couple of weeks later that not only was this individual "not gay," but counted a wife and children among his family members.
Suddenly a very different picture was being painted; if homophobia and the fear of coming out existed in the theatre, what hope was there for gay acceptance in all other areas of Indiana life?
And then there was the question of religion itself. Despite the presence of the Anglican Church, religion is not by any means as important to most Brits as it is to most Hoosiers. This in itself is not, by the way, an indictment against Indiana. After all, surely everyone has the right to hold any belief they desire, so long as it does not negatively impact the lives of others.
Unfortunately, and I have to say this, it is alarmingly common in this part of the world for residents to thrust their belief upon you – as if it is well understood that your beliefs and theirs are one and the same.
While I should point out that this invasive behavior is no way near the work of all Christians in the state, its existence is nonetheless a sure sign that religious freedom was alive and well long before RFRA was passed.
The same, unfortunately, cannot be quite so definitively stated of gay acceptance. However, the reaction to RFRA across the state has reignited my faith in Hoosiers, the majority of whom rejected the bill’s passing. And so now, as Governor Mike Pence looks set to admit defeat and actually add clarifying language to the bill, perhaps RFRA was the unlikely spark Indiana needed to kick it into the 21st Century. Perhaps bigoted thespians are a dying breed. And perhaps Hoosiers can live a more unified existence, while the church and state do the opposite.
Here’s to hoping.