Don Sherfick

A short "time out" from SJR-7 - a 92 county perspective

Filed By Don Sherfick | February 25, 2007 7:48 AM | comments

Filed in: Living, Politics, The Movement
Tags: Confederate flag, Hoosiers, Indiana, interracial, prejudice, SJR-7

As you know many, if not most, of my posts have been on the subject of SJR-7. And I need a little break on a Sunday morning.

So indulge me with a little diversion as I tell you about a venture my other half and I completed recently, about my grandmother, and something about Hoosier attitudes on folks they think are different from themselves.

When I was a youngster in the early 1950's my grandma turned 75, got her first driver's license, and got herself elected Recorder of Martin County in Shoals, Indiana. It's a small hamlet in Southwest Indiana where my dad grew up and I visited frequently. At that age and beyond my Grandma Sherfick amazed me and my cousins by being able to recite, in alphabetical order (forwards and backwards) all 92 Indiana counties and their county seats. Bill Gates wouldn't bring us the Excel spreadsheet and its sorting for several more decades.

So amazed was I that I vowed that someday, when I grew up, I was going to visit all of them, and take pictures of all of their courthouses. Just after this last Thanksgiving Jerry and I completed a 13-month one or two day sets of tours to all 92, and have over 1200 photos and lots of impressions (and squished windshield bugs) to show for it. We're a black and white male couple, making the trips to Indiana's nooks and crannies a conversation piece in and of itself.

Until he came to Indianapolis in 1993 from his life-long home of Baltimore, Jerry, like many folks on the East Coast, had some unfortunately not-so-great notions about our state. Those weren't enhanced by being both gay and black. I won't say that in our almost 13 years together all of those notions have been erased......some have faded, but some have been reinforced. Our 92 county sojourn, in which we typically spent about 20 minutes walking around the town square and snapping pictures of cannons, memorials to veterans, tower clocks both working and broken and oh yes, courthouses, provided examples of both.

When our red SUV with a rainbow sticker in the back window pulled up in front of the stately government edifice in South Bend (St. Joseph County), it felt pretty much the same as when we snapped the City County building right here in Indy (Marion County). When we left State Road 37 and ventured onto the town square in Martinsville (Morgan County) we were largely ignored in a town that still struggles with a past that said: "black man don't stay after sundown". When a rusty muffler-less truck with a big Confederate flag came roaring around the courthouse square in Western Indiana (which will remain no further identified out of mercy for the more presentable inhabitants there) things tensed up a bit, but the stares didn't melt the rainbow sticker or the back window. Just our Snickers bars.....and months before the Superbowl commercials.

In one place, Delphi (Carroll County) an older man and his wife quickly broke whatever negative stereotype we might have otherwise had of them by asking us if we wanted them to snap our picture. We said yes, they did, and we reciprocated. In another county seat, Princeton (Gibson County), two grandmotherly gals and a younger one insisted that we come into their little store where they told us everything we ever needed to know about their beautiful courthouse, and then some. And they were definitely savvy to our relationship.

Although we've been together almost 13 years, Jerry and I still perceive given situations differently. Where I am sometimes perfectly comfortable, he is less so, but often says nothing because he doesn't want to spoil the moment. I say some folks just stare at anything they don't normally experience; his life experience tells him something else. The perception, of course, is the reality.

We came off of our 92-county sojourn with several impressions. One was just an awesome sense of the fact that we had actually traveled to each of them. Another was a real sense of economic disparity, sometimes between adjacent counties. There were bustling town squares with impeccably kept courthouse grounds. There were others, maybe too many others, where too many empty stores and little traffic at high noon meant that the Wal-Mart out by the main highway had taken its toll. There was both obvious and hidden hospitality; there was also both obvious and hidden prejudice.

All of this was the real Indiana that may be voting on SJR-7 in November 2008. When the folks who snapped our picture and joked with us step into the voting booth to decide, will they think about that black and white gay male couple they met some two years before? I like to think that they will, but I shudder to think that because many more of us simply aren't visible to folks like them, the task ahead is a big one, indeed. As to those guys in the rusty truck.....well, maybe they won't register to vote.

Well, this was supposed to have been a diversion from SJR-7, but the road just turned the corner and here I am back again. Thanks for riding along.



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That was a great story. Thank you for sharing!

In high school in Shelbyville in the 1950s, all students were required to be able to fill in a map of Indiana which had the outlines of all 92 counties with the county names and county seats. I was a smart-ass and memorized it easily - the first kid in my class to do so.

Years later, my seeming knowledge of this State got me the assignment and title of "Counties Coordinator" for the Jesse Jackson Presidential campaign of 1984. A little learning is a dangerous thing!

What a beautiful story, Don. Thanks for showing some Hoosiers just how "normal" we can be - no matter what race or sexual orientation. The two of you have helped to shatter stereotypes all over the state. We couldn't ask for better work - while on vacation!

What a great post and a reminder that stereotypes not only die hard, but are broad charachatures that don't necessarily reflect the people and attitudes they supposedly represent. As you said though, perception is reality. You and Jerry did quite a bit to alter some people's perceptions, I'm sure.

Allen J. Lopp | February 26, 2007 3:39 PM

I live in Harrison County, down near Louisville, and apparently Don and Jerry visited the courthouse at Corydon --- which BTW was the first state capitol.

In September 1999 the KKK decided to hold a rally in Corydon. As pre-publicity about the rally circulated, a community group formed in opposition to the KKK and their rally. After the rally the group decided to stay together, and this group (www.communityunity.org) is still active to this day, distributing diversity awareness and anti-bullying materials to the county's elementary and high schools.

The group does a great job regarding racial, ethnic, nationality and gender issues, and they host a cultural diversity festival every August. If sexual orientation comes up they are careful about being neutral --- they refuse to do anything that can be seen to "promote" homosexuality, but they do put out the message that people have a right to live their own lives and make their own decisions in life. So they do, at least, promote tolerance and work for that to be the community standard. Surprisingly, the group has been somewhat hesitant about addressing non-Christian religions with the same enthusiasm, and a separate group to address inter-faith understanding appears to be forming.

The KKK has not returned to Corydon --- but they have protested (more against Latino immigrants and abortion than against blacks) on the courthouse square in Salem, county seat of Washington County, which is adjacent to the north. The presence of a diversity awareness group operating in a community is very noticeable. (I have been told that the Martinsville/Morgan County area has a similar diversity awareness group, but I have no direct experience with it.)

Last summer I wrote an opinion piece in the county paper about opposing the FMA and its Indiana counterpart, a.k.a. SJR-7; in passing I made clear that I am both gay and a county native. I published my email address and expected at least a few pieces of hateful email. But I received not one, and I did receive a handful of messages supporting me. I thought I might hear from other gay men and lesbians in the county, but didn't. The closet doors in the Hoosier boonies have triple-airtight seals, apparently.

Bottom line, the atmosphere in rural Indiana is backward but not entirely hopeless. Any county in Indiana would benefit from having a diversity awareness group in its midst, and I wager that practically every county is ripe for this --- Hoosiers everywhere watch the same TV shows and are exposed to the same news stories as the rest of the country. Anyone wanting to start such a group would do well to contact the Southern Poverty Law Center, who in turn can provide an exhaustive list of diversity awareness resources.

Regarding GLBT people specifically, more than anything else, if there was just one totally out individual or same-sex couple in each county, I predict that this state would experience a sea change. But the gay men and women in the rural areas all have their reasons for staying in the closet. In my case, I found that such reasons were false justifications for giving in to my own overblown fears. The biggest social factor holding back gay men and women in Indiana is our closetedness. If something like SJR-7 eventually passes in this state, it cannot truthfully be blamed on the religious right --- it will be simply because too many of us are stuck in our own fears, unwilling to push ourselves, unwilling to call up the courage we all are capable of, unwilling to insist to the world on being allowed day by day to be the individuals that we really are.

Don Sherfick | February 26, 2007 7:45 PM

Thanks for that, Allen. Jerry and I saw a lot of places we want to get back to, and Corydon is one. This time we'll go inside any courthouse, something our 20 minute walkarounds, most on weekends, didn't permit us to do. Contact us at the E-mail address associate with this comment and perhaps you can show us some historical nooks and crannies we missed while in your area.