A New Hampshire town is in the grips of a culture war set off by a mural alluding to LGBTQ themes
There's a town in the northern United States now considering a most unusual idea: Banning art. Specifically, banning any kind of artwork, in any public space.
If this were to happen, it would mean an end to art exhibits in public parks. The local theatre company is also in limbo.
It's a deeply peculiar tale with several plot twists — including a surprise cameo appearance from an ancient Mesopotamian deity.
Littleton, N.H., is not a distant cultural backwater. It's a picturesque New England town of brick facades, bustling shops and an award-winning main street, called Main Street. It's about an hour's drive from Quebec — so close that some store signs are in French to cater to weekend visitors.
The town also happens to sit at a cultural meeting point, where red America and blue America bump into each other. It's a place where, in the last election, Donald Trump and Joe Biden won a near-identical number of the town's 3,100 votes.
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Most of the time, Littleton residents tend to take a "live and let live" approach, says Courtney Vashaw, president of the local theatre company, Theatre UP.
But now, as in much of the country, the intersection of opposing views has created fertile ground for a culture war.
After a town councillor complained about a mural at a public meeting this summer, the town manager, Jim Gleason, committed to contact the town's lawyers about the possibility of introducing restrictions on art appearing in public places. That consultation is ongoing and a public art ban remains a live possibility, he says.
While the town has not cited specific grounds for the potential restrictions, discussion about it has centred around art with LGBTQ themes.
The issue is that, if the council wants to restrict certain types of artwork, its options are limited.
It can regulate art on public property, but if it is seen to be discriminating against LGBTQ-themed art, it could invite potentially costly constitutional lawsuits.
One of the few remaining options is the nuclear option: banning everything, in every public space.
The final decision on the matter will rest with the municipal council, Gleason says.
"Then their decision is, 'All right, does it bother you enough that you want to ban, then, all art?'" he said. "Or is it like, 'OK, it bothers me, but I don't want to get into a constitutional legal fight and spend taxpayers' dollars and go through on this?'
"That's the decision the [town council] will have to make."
It all started with a 'diversity mural'
This story begins with a mural alluding to LGBTQ themes.
Local organizations, including a Pride group, used funds from a United Way diversity program to commission paintings for a brick wall outside a Chinese restaurant. The paintings, unveiled this summer, included a rainbow-hued colour wheel, trees and flowers, and they were given titles like, "We Belong." An area newspaper ran a story about the new diversity mural.
"That's when the uproar started," says the volunteer organizer, Kerri Harrington.
The town's three-member council leans conservative. And one member is especially upset by what she's seeing.
Carrie Gendreau is a conservative Christian and Republican who also sits in the state legislature. She has said her policies are guided by biblical scripture, and recently told the Boston Globe: "Homosexuality is an abomination."
At a town meeting in August, she complained about some of the art appearing in town. She urged residents to do their own research into these symbols, such as the rainbow outside the Chinese restaurant and, in another local work, the sun depicted as an eye.
Proud to support an amazing leader, a former small business owner, a proud Conservative fighter, and NH’s next State Senator, Carrie Gendreau! <a href="https://t.co/SOETIjnC7e">pic.twitter.com/SOETIjnC7e</a>
Gendreau told the Boston Globe that she follows the work of Jonathan Cahn — a doomsday prophet who says Donald Trump is the fulfilment of biblical prophecy and sees rainbows and eyeballs as demonic symbols. Gendreau did not respond to multiple interview requests, but different people in Littleton told CBC News she has spoken to them enthusiastically about Cahn's work.
Cahn's writing argues, in summary: the Stonewall riots of 1969 which launched the modern gay-rights movement opened the floodgates to another realm, from which ancient pagan deities returned to Earth, including the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar, who is resentful at being marginalized for thousands of years and hungry to return the favour against Christianity.
He pulls together odds and ends from ancient writings that refer to jewels and colours to conclude that the pride emblem, the rainbow, empowers Ishtar.
"It's crazy-making. Mind-boggling," Harrington said.
She says she's always been on friendly terms with Gendreau, calling her smart and saying she's done good things for the community. But when they recently crossed paths, Harrington challenged her about Cahn's writing.
So have other town residents — among them, Vashaw of Theatre UP, who spoke at a town meeting in September. "I am a queer woman. I am married to a woman. And I have not been indoctrinated by Satan or demons."
She also said that art has helped Littleton thrive, drawing younger, wealthier, more educated residents — and they won't keep coming if they see bigotry.
La Cage Aux Folles triggers theatre backlash
Now the theatre group has been tossed into this simmering pot of uncertainty.
It's been preparing to present La Cage Aux Folles, the classic play best known in English as the Robin Williams comedy The Birdcage, about a gay couple pretending to be straight as they meet a son's future in-laws.
But shortly after Vashaw's comments at the town meeting, members of the theatre group got a shock.
At a meeting with town officials on Oct. 10, they received three pieces of bad news. First, their plan to renovate the heritage building they lease from the town hit a snag. They were preparing a $10,000 study into potential improvements, and were hoping the municipality might fund one-quarter of the cost, but the town's involvement appeared to be shelved.
Second, they learned that they could be booted from that historic building, their home for the past decade, after their current lease expires in May.
Finally, they were told the art ban is under real consideration.
"We were all so floored," Vashaw said in an interview.
The town manager, Gleason, was at that Oct. 10 meeting.
He confirmed the theatre group's basic takeaways: a majority of the town board, he said, would prefer not to see it in the old opera house. Gendreau has since suggested holding a referendum so residents can decide the issue.
'I hope your son is happy in hell'
Amid all this, the town manager is wrestling with his own feelings.
Gleason doesn't actually set policies, as a civil servant. His job is to execute decisions by elected politicians on the council.
He's also grateful for this job. Despite what he refers to as his personal baggage, the town gave him a three-year contract, which ends next year.
He's from Florida and held a similar job near Orlando. He said there were policy disagreements with the acting mayor, and it degenerated into an ugly confrontation at a council meeting. He was briefly accused of battery, before the charges were dropped.
He came north seeking a career reset. Yet culture war has followed him here from its tropical American epicentre in his home state, home of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis's hotly debated bans regarding talk of race and sexual orientation.
Another piece of his past stirs inside him.
It's the memory of his son, Patrick, who died seven years ago of cancer. Patrick was gay. A town resident raised this fact recently in the cruellest way.
The town manager shared this story at the end of last week's council meeting. He went from officiating the meeting to joining residents lined up at a microphone.
He said a town resident came pleading with him to cancel the local production of La Cage Aux Folles.
Gleason replied that he couldn't. There are laws guiding freedom of speech, under the constitutional protections of the First Amendment, he said.
He told the resident she was free to respond by protesting: She could refuse to buy a ticket, he said, or even stand outside the theatre and urge people not to enter.
He recalled the woman's parting words as she left the office: "I hope your son … is happy in hell with the devil, where he belongs."
The crowd at the council meeting gasped in shock. Gleason proceeded to urge residents to be thoughtful of each other's feelings.
"What's going on in this town does hurt. It does cause pain," Gleason said.
"I've had to come [into work] and wonder: How do I go forward? How do I focus on my job, which is supposed to be potholes, sidewalks, police and fire, when I've got people in this community telling me my son is in hell — because he was gay? He didn't choose to be anything.
"He was born gay, and I loved him."
As he finished, he drew a vigorous ovation. After all, this is a very nice town.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.
Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca