How 1 reaction to a mural tore a New England town apart
The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Wednesday, July 17, 2024

How 1 reaction to a mural tore a New England town apart
Jordan Applewhite, who is transgender, moved to the area four years ago and transformed an oil change shop into a lively LGBTQ-friendly bar, in Littleton, N.H., Jan. 31, 2024. The 6,000 some residents of Littleton, despite having split their votes between Biden and Trump nearly evenly in 2020, had found a way to coexist despite their differences, often by keeping their politics or religious beliefs to themselves — until a town official’s public comments set off a conflagration. (John Tully/The New York Times)

by Jenna Russell

LITTLETON, NH.- Few were present at the select board meeting in Littleton, New Hampshire, in August when Carrie Gendreau, one of its members, began to talk about a mural that had recently been painted on the side of a building downtown.

Until that moment, it had not attracted much attention. Its subject matter — a blooming iris, dandelions, birch trees — did not seem controversial.

But for Gendreau, 62, who was also a state senator representing northern New Hampshire, the mural had set off alarms. She was certain there were subversive messages in its imagery, planted there by the nonprofit group that had planned and paid for it.

The group was North Country Pride, founded four years ago to build more visible support for LGBTQ+ people in the rural region.

“We need to be very careful,” Gendreau said at the meeting. She urged residents to “research” what the mural “really means,” and called for closer oversight of other public art.

“I don’t want that to be in our town,” she said.

Long before Gendreau raised her concerns, igniting an uprising against her, people in Littleton knew they did not all think alike. Half had voted for Joe Biden in 2020; half supported President Donald Trump. Still, they thought they had an understanding: that they would do their best to get along, often by keeping their politics or religious beliefs to themselves. This was New Hampshire, after all, where the state motto is “live free or die.”

As word spread about Gendreau’s comments, many in the town of 6,000 saw them as a jarring break in protocol.

“I was friends with Carrie,” said Kerri Harrington, an acupuncturist who had followed local government and respected Gendreau’s diligent work on the board. “I knew our politics were different, I knew she was religious, but there are a lot of religious people here.”

“This was the first time I realized she had that agenda,” Harrington said.

Gendreau, an evangelical Christian who said she got calls from as far away as Australia denouncing her in profane language after news outlets reported on her comments, clung to her convictions.

“I told them, ‘I hope God opens your vision,’” she said of her detractors. “I told them, ‘I love you, and I don’t want to fight back.’”

Harrington, 52, had helped start North Country Pride and served as one of its leaders. The group had built on the area’s long-standing reputation as a welcoming destination for gay travelers, at a moment when the pandemic had infused Littleton with a diverse influx of newcomers.

Her first instinct was to reach out to Gendreau. When they met to talk about the mural, she said, Gendreau urged her to read a book, “The Return of the Gods,” by doomsday evangelist and bestselling author Jonathan Cahn. It warns of America’s descent into evil, citing gay rights as an example of moral decay destroying the country.

The book helped her see why Gendreau was upset, Harrington said. And it left her deeply worried about what might come next.

As in other small towns across the country, the people of Littleton had found a way to coexist despite their differences — at times by avoiding topics likely to divide them. Now, the divide was front and center. And as the anger rose, and the split grew wider, many wondered how it would ever mend.

Before she made the comments that plunged Littleton into tumult, Gendreau had occasionally injected her religious faith into municipal business. When the board hired Jim Gleason as town manager in 2021, he was startled by the words she used to offer him the job.

“God wants you in Littleton,” he recalled her saying. Not long after that, Gendreau began starting select board meetings with a prayer.

It had not been easy for Gleason to leave his home in Florida. His wife of 44 years, a teacher nearing retirement, had stayed behind. They were still grieving the loss of their oldest son, Patrick, who died of pancreatitis at age 35 in 2016.

Gleason had embraced his son when he came out as gay at 16. He had never expected open homophobia from elected leaders in New Hampshire.

Soon after Gendreau’s remarks about the mural, residents began flooding the local paper with angry letters. A local bank asked her to resign from its board of directors, she said, pointing to the “hurt” she had caused; she complied. Encouraged by North Country Pride to raise their voices, hundreds of people showed up to condemn Gendreau’s views at select board meetings in September and October.

Many hoped she might apologize, or step down from the select board — or that the other two board members would publicly reject her views. Instead, they said little, and Gendreau doubled down.

In October, in an interview with The Boston Globe, Gendreau called homosexuality an “abomination” and warned of “twisted preferences” she saw “creeping into our community.” She also spoke out against a well-known musical about a gay couple, “La Cage Aux Folles,” that was being staged at the Littleton Opera House by a local theater group that had made the town-owned building its home for a decade.

Before the controversy, the group’s leaders had considered renovating the historic Opera House with grant money. Afterward, fearful of being censored, they resolved to build a new theater instead.

When a woman walked into Littleton’s town hall in October, echoing Gendreau’s concerns about the production and asking what would be done to stop it, Gleason did not mince words.

Nothing, the town manager said he replied — the play was protected by the First Amendment.

“She said, ‘What about my free speech?’” Gleason recalled. “And I said, ‘The way you protest is, don’t buy a ticket.’”

The woman called him “weak,” he said. Then she brought up Patrick, his son.

“‘I hope you’re happy he’s in hell,’” Gleason said she told him.

Two years into his new job, his move had seemed to be paying off. He had helped grow the town’s reserve fund and received positive performance reviews. It was the redemption Gleason had needed after his last job, in Florida, ended badly, with a heated confrontation at a meeting and charges, later dropped, that he had been physically aggressive toward a councilwoman.

Now he wondered how long he could carry on, working closely with a board member who had essentially condemned the son he had loved, in a town where it appeared her public statements had encouraged others to unleash their own intolerance.

Gendreau’s outspoken, fire-and-brimstone Christianity was something of an aberration in New Hampshire. But she was not alone in her beliefs. As a tide of criticism engulfed her, she also had supporters rise to her defense, calling out the hypocrisy they saw in the champions of inclusion who sought to silence her.

“Sen. Gendreau speaks for those stakeholders who are afraid to speak out, to stop this ‘liberal-progressive-socialist-communist-bully-ism,’” Nick DeMayo, a resident of nearby Sugar Hill and the chair of the Northern Grafton County Republican Committee, wrote in a letter to the editor.

Roger Emerson, then the chair of Littleton’s select board, heard from some of those stakeholders, he said — people aligned with Gendreau’s views, who told him that they were cheering her on but feared being attacked if they did so publicly.

“It used to be, when someone said something you didn’t like, you would sit down and talk about it,” Emerson said, “not run to the newspapers and social media.”

Peggy Fujawa, a retired educator who knew Gendreau casually as a fellow Christian, spoke up at a board meeting in January.

Gendreau “has been dragged through fire for her beliefs, and I think that’s wrong,” Fujawa, 76, told people at the meeting. “If you want mutual respect, you need to show some of that.”

She was met with shouting, boos and insults, she said in an interview. “There was no enlightening, no sharing,” Fujawa added. “It was, ‘This is it, and you better learn to like it.’”

Gendreau had grown up in a home where she was taught that “God is the authority,” she said in a recent interview.

At her father’s urging, she attended Bob Jones University, a Christian college in South Carolina, where she served as her sorority chaplain. After returning to Littleton, she worked in insurance sales, owned a clothing store on Main Street, and taught business classes at a local college.

When a town selectman suggested that she run for office, she said, “I was scared to death.” But she had been taught to give back, she said — her father, Gerald Winn, had been the town moderator for 56 years.

She was troubled by the divide in politics, between “red and blue, people who can’t work together.” But she had always made clear that she would serve God first, and then the voters. After her election to the state Senate in 2022 as a Republican, “I told the Senate president, I will listen to my constituents, but if the Lord trumps the majority, I will go with that,” she said.

She accepted that many of her legislative colleagues would not like it when she read from the Bible she carried into debates — and she rejects the claim that it does not belong there. “Our Founding Fathers said we have the freedom to worship,” she said.

Gendreau said she knew, when she first criticized the mural, that most people would not understand — that the iris was a dangerous symbol because Iris was the Greek goddess of the rainbow; that children needed protection from demonic forces threatening to lead them astray.

“We only understand God’s word when we have the spirit of God in us,” she said. “They don’t get it, and I understand that.”

Still, she said, it was unfair for Gleason to link her critique of the mural to hurtful comments hurled at him by others. When she heard about the incident at town hall, Gendreau said, she reached out to the woman involved and urged her to apologize.

As people stood up at meetings into the fall and winter to tell her how her words had hurt them, Gendreau listened quietly and wrote each of their names in a notebook. In the quiet of her home, she said, she read them aloud, and prayed that God might show them the truth.

“If people could see into my heart,” she said, “they would see absolute compassion.”

To those who had assumed they knew her heart already, a probing look had not seemed necessary.

Richard Alberini, a history teacher in town for 39 years, had known her since she was in middle school and was rattled when he learned of her beliefs.

“I taught Carrie the Constitution in eighth grade,” he said. “I taught her the separation of church and state, and the reason for it in the history of the country.”

Duane Coute, too, had known Gendreau for years. Like Harrington, he had asked to meet with her after her comments blew up, hoping to understand. Instead, he said, he felt more bewildered after she described her views to him.

The affable general manager of the local Chevrolet dealership, Coute, 55, was not inclined toward politics or public disputes. But he had spent his life in Littleton and was among the business leaders who had worked hard to remake the former mill town, once in decline, into a bustling tourist hub.

As fall turned to winter, and still the select board did not clearly reject Gendreau’s comments, he could not bear to see the town’s reputation undergo such damage, he said, its fabric torn by the animosity on both sides of the dispute.

Some of Coute’s conservative friends, and some of his employees, cautioned him against leaping into the fray. He jumped in anyway, rallying more than 1,000 business people, residents and frequent visitors to the town to sign a letter he wrote with other business leaders in November imploring the board to “step back from this hurtful path.”

“This is not who we are,” the letter said. “Littleton is a vibrant, broad and inclusive community.”

The rainbow flags that North Country Pride had handed out to businesses downtown were new, but the area’s reputation for tolerance was not. It had been a destination for gay travelers since the 1980s, when the Highlands Inn in neighboring Bethlehem, New Hampshire, began advertising itself as a “lesbian paradise” in gay newspapers around the country.

Jordan Applewhite, a transgender 40-year-old, had moved to the area four years ago and transformed a former oil change shop on the edge of downtown Littleton into a lively, LGBTQ+-friendly dive bar, forging ties with a diverse community that seemed to easily set aside differences.

“What was at stake was who we are as a town,” Applewhite said of what had happened. “It was like an existential crisis.”

By January, after weeks of reflection, Harrington decided to run for Gendreau’s seat on the select board. Applewhite signed on as her campaign adviser. Together, they made a plan to emphasize unity and a commitment to represent everyone in the community.

Gleason, the town manager, reached a decision of his own. Midway through a board meeting that month, he abruptly announced his resignation.

“I’ve had enough,” he said when a resident in attendance pressed him to explain.

Later in the meeting, after the crowd gave him a standing ovation, Gleason grew tearful. Rising to his feet, he made a final declaration: “My son,” he said, “is not an abomination.”

As the meeting drew to a close, Gendreau took the microphone. Watching from her seat, Harrington felt a rush of hope.

But instead of expressing regret, Gendreau began speaking out against acceptance of transgender people. “If a man can be a woman because he feels like one,” she said, “where does this end? Can a grown man attend kindergarten because he identifies as a 6-year-old?”

People walked out, some of them crying. “Shame on you, Carrie,” someone shouted.

On the February morning he left Littleton to return to Florida, Gleason carried a last box of mementos from his office to his truck, turned onto the highway and threaded his way south between the snowy mountains.

The deadline for Gendreau to file for reelection came and went. After prayer and reflection, she said in an interview, she had concluded that God did not want her to remain on the select board.

On Election Day, in mid-March, Harrington easily won the open seat. The townspeople also voted to expand the select board from three seats to five next year, a change sought to add diversity, and limit individual influence, in the aftermath of the discord.

Gendreau said she had no regrets: “I would rather speak out and risk persecution than say nothing and see people end up in hell.”

At her first meeting as a member of the board last month, Harrington and the other two members voted 3-0 to end the practice of beginning meetings with prayer.

Applewhite knows divisions linger in Littleton, and sees work ahead to bridge the gaps, engaging those who fear that their views will be dismissed.

“‘Religion is bad’ is not the takeaway,” Applewhite said. “We mean it when we say we want everyone to feel welcome.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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