Indy Pride And Prejudice

The beginning of the Indy Pride Parade
Photo by Tony Valainis

IT HAS BEEN a rough couple of years for parties. The biggest civic gatherings of the COVID-19 pandemic were the massive, nationwide racial justice protests that followed the police killing of George Floyd, which involved an entirely different kind of catharsis. Those twin crises still weigh heavy on the post-pandemic churn of life in 2022. Indy Pride Inc., which this month hosts its first in-person festival since 2019, has felt that burden more acutely than many local cultural groups.

The nonprofit that organizes the Indy Pride festival quickly reimagined 2020’s event as a digital one when the pandemic struck, then ultimately canceled all Pride Month events in solidarity with the George Floyd protests. In June of that year, the group announced that it would no longer partner with the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department for security at its future festivals, saying in a statement that “for many in our community who have experienced police brutality, the presence of uniformed officers and police at Pride do not create a safe environment.” A kerfuffle surrounding an activist named Joseph Blevins, photographed sporting an IMPD T-shirt while celebrating the virtual Pride festival in 2021, earned coverage from The Indianapolis Star and WRTV, rekindling a decades-long debate about the role of police in the gay rights movement. For years, feel-good photo ops featuring police officers marching with gay activists were a staple of Pride events—something that would be unthinkable post-2020, when some activists assume police to be a mortal threat.

“We are very aware of the impact felt by Black and brown and queer communities when we have police in our presence, and we witnessed the unrest in 2020,” says Shelly Snider, Indy Pride’s executive director. “We know that public safety is important, and that police officers place their lives at risk every day. But we have to highlight injustices and inequalities when we see them.”

The animosity between activists and IMPD predates even the summer of 2020. An account of a February 2020 panel about the appropriateness of IMPD’s involvement held by the group ANSWER Coalition (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism), reported on their website, describes Indy Pride’s former executive director taking criticism from local Black Lives Matter activists.

“If we’re confused about how a Black trans woman would feel with police presence at Pride, we could go back to that June night in 1969, and we could say, ‘Goddamn. What would Marsha P. Johnson do?’” said BLM organizer Jessica Louise about a leader of the Stonewall riots that launched the gay rights movement. “Or we could have trusted the lived experience of the Black trans woman sitting on this panel because she just said she doesn’t feel safe with police anywhere.”

As of this writing, Snider says that Indy Pride continues to seek a private security solution for the 2022 festival. But despite the snub to IMPD, they will still be present in a logistical capacity to close off various roads around the festival as mandated by the city. Indy Pride, then, has put itself in a tricky managerial position, caught between satisfying members of the community who view the police as a threat to their lives and their legal obligations in running the festival in the first place. In this way, they’re far from alone in the world of liberal nonprofits.

“In previous years, being silent on certain issues was an option,” says Brad Fulton, an Indiana University professor who specializes in nonprofit management. “Being silent is no longer an option. But that makes it very challenging for nonprofit leaders.”

That much has been evident for the past two years now, as corporations and nonprofits ranging from the pizza chain Papa John’s to the Audubon Society have voiced their support for the recent social justice movement. The issue became especially salient in Indianapolis after the police shooting of Dreasjon Reed in May 2020, and the spread of viral videos showing rough treatment of Black Lives Matter protesters by the IMPD.

For their part, IMPD (which declined to comment) has made numerous high-profile reforms since then in an attempt to make amends with the community. A civilian oversight board began meeting in 2021 to monitor the department, and all IMPD officers now wear body cameras. In April of last year, Gov. Eric Holcomb signed a bill into law that included numerous reforms, such as formally banning choke holds and empowering the state’s law enforcement training board to decertify offending officers.

It hasn’t been enough to change the fundamental attitude toward policing in the Indy activist community. But even in courting controversy by banning a significant police presence from this year’s festival, Indy Pride has managed not to alienate that all-important force in American civic life: its funders. Salesforce is again the festival’s presenting sponsor, and Delta Faucet is back as the parade’s presenting sponsor. (Salesforce did not respond to multiple requests for comment, and Delta Faucet representatives declined to be interviewed.)

“I’ve been pleasantly surprised about how many organizations in town want to sponsor us because they believe in our mission,” Snider says. “The previous executive director [Chris Handberg] did a really good job screening companies to make sure that they weren’t, you know, just giving us money to have their logo on our events. There’s so much information out there that says that if you put a rainbow on something, you can mark up the cost and sell it for more.”

That practice of “pinkwashing”—a superficial commitment to LGBT activist goals without any measurable follow-through—is despised in the LGBT community. So Indy Pride organizers surely understand the demand for concrete support from other marginalized communities. But sometimes it’s perilous. Indy Pride could release a statement of solidarity with Black Lives Matter protesters but partner with police, earning accusations of hypocrisy from supporters. Or they could lobby for defunding the IMPD, which might alienate wealthy, more moderate donors.

“These aren’t straightforward issues,” Fulton says. “They’re complicated and nuanced. Nonprofits have their constituents, but they also have their funders, policymakers, and the broader community that they’re embedded in, who all have competing values and priorities. This is a challenging spot to be in, but that’s also what it means to be a leader.”

As such, Snider, who just became Indy Pride’s director in January, has her work cut out for her. But for now, the sponsors have still flocked, most of the logistics have locked into place, and Indianapolis seems as ready as it ever has been for a party. It’s not going to be easy. Given the past few years, though, just pulling one off without making anyone too upset might be more than enough.