A debate over LGBTQ+ art in Littleton forces a reckoning about the town's identity
When Kelly Flanders used to look across the street from her mom’s porch, just off of Main Street in downtown Littleton, she just saw three boarded up windows. The pair always imagined what else could go there.
A few months ago, those windows were replaced with scenes of colorful trees among stars and flowers. One of them looks like a dandelion.
“It’s like blow me, make a wish,” Flanders said.
The murals, which feature the words of LGBTQ+ pioneers like Marsha P. Johnson and James Baldwin, were put up by North Country Pride. They were meant to both beautify blighted properties and promote a more welcoming environment downtown. Flanders said they’re a welcome addition.
“It's beautiful art,” she said. “Like with the iris, I see a beautiful flower.”
But in the last few months, these murals have been at the center of a larger discussion about Littleton’s identity — about what kind of art, and what kind of people, are welcome here.
A few months ago, Littleton Select Board Member and Republican State Senator Carrie Gendreau started questioning the message behind the murals — and the broader visibility of LGBTQ+ art in town. Citing her Christian faith, she said the North Country Pride murals depicted something sinister, a sign of societal decline.
“I'm taking this platform to say, people, you're running towards a cliff and you don't even know you're running towards a cliff,” she said in a recent interview with NHPR. “I love you, I do love you, but there's going to come a day.”
Gendreau’s critiques led to discussions about a potential ban on all public art in Littleton. The select board hasn't made any final decisions on the policy.
As the debate over the murals was playing out, the select board also put the brakes on the town’s longstanding relationship with a local theater troupe. Theatre UP has used the Littleton Opera House, which is owned by the town, as their home base for nearly a decade.
Gendreau and other critics raised concerns about Theater UP’s production of La Cage Aux Folles, a Tony Award-winning show about a gay couple, being performed this week at the Littleton Opera House. In an interview with The Boston Globe, she called the play “disgusting” and said “homosexuality is an abomination.” She didn’t back away from those comments when contacted by NHPR.
“They can live their life any way they want to,” Gendreau said. “I am expressing how I'm not telling them how to live. I am just expressing what God says in His words.”
The select board hasn’t taken an official vote on the town’s future relationship with Theater UP, but they plan to ask voters to weigh in on that in the spring.
But after the board’s recent actions, it's not clear if the performance group will continue their relationship with Littleton.
Theater UP Executive Director Lynne Grigelevich said they have received hate mail in response to the recent debate over their show. She said she has to consider the welfare of her performers and crew, but she also has to consider whether it makes sense to stay in a community where their creative expression could be stifled.
“If they have the ability to put a ban on public art, that in itself would create a situation where if we were in a lease with the town, they could potentially censor anything that we did based on their own personal beliefs,” Grigelevich said.
Lots of other people in Littleton have also pushed back hard against the select board’s actions and rhetoric coming from Gendreau, in particular.
Many say her words are threatening the inclusive community people have worked hard to build.
Tors and others who have been speaking out on the issue gathered one recent night at Slim Pickins, a local dive bar, to debrief after one particularly heated town meeting. As the taps flowed, cans opened and people played pool, they said the recent efforts to restrict art by or for LGBTQ+ people goes against the “live and let live” attitude of the North Country.
“People that are in the community are coming to our space, [and] musicians and artists that come and perform at the Loading Dock identify with this community, and so do I,” Tors said. “To have that not be recognized by the select board at the town is really discouraging.”
Read more in this NHPR story from 2018: As New Hampshire ages, Littleton's getting younger and hipper... But how?
Jordan Applewhite, who co-runs Slim Pickins, was working behind the bar that night, but they’ve also been at the forefront of the effort to protest the board’s actions.
They said they settled in Littleton with their wife three years ago because it seemed like an open, welcoming community. They've since become active in local politics, running for state representative last fall. The anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment coming from the select board has left them shaken.
“Honestly, it's been kind of brutal,” Applewhite said. “It's very emotionally difficult having to fight this fight where people are kind of attacking your right to exist in public, like your dignity as a human being, saying things like, you're an abomination, you're disgusting. This is an elected leader.”
Applewhite said this moment has seemed to be a wake-up call for a lot of people, reminding them to pay more attention to town government. They said they hope that continues.
Kerri Harrington, who co-chairs North Country Pride, also hopes it translates into more sustained civic engagement. When she moved to Littleton 12 years ago, she said, there were a lot of empty storefronts — but now, Main Street is thriving. It’s been named one of the best small towns in the country, she said, and it’s a lot more diverse.
“We have a lot of great things going on," Harrington said, "but we happen to just be represented by a trio that are not quite as representative of the people that are here, the constituents."
The recent controversy in Littleton has put town manager Jim Gleason in a tough spot. He’s heard from lots of people who are upset by the select board’s efforts to restrict LGBTQ+ art, and he’s tried to explain that he’s responsible for carrying out the board’s policies even if he doesn’t agree with them.
But one recent interaction stung for a different reason. Gleason said a woman came into the town offices and asked why he wasn't stopping Theater UP’s play. He said he tried to explain that, in his view, it was protected by the First Amendment. Then, he said, she made it personal.
In recent news stories, Gleason has mentioned that his son, who died seven years ago of cancer, was gay.
“She said, ‘Well, I read your son was gay. I hope you're happy he's in hell with the devil where he needs to be,” Gleason recalled.
He said he stood there for a moment, as all of the things he wanted to say raced through his mind. Eventually, he responded, “Can you please leave my son and my family out of this? Because that has nothing to do with the issue.”
That interaction happened just a few days before a select board meeting that drew hundreds to the Littleton Opera House, the designated overflow venue since the typical meeting room wasn’t big enough. Gleason usually attends those meetings as part of his administrative role, and he wasn’t planning to participate in the public comment portion. But as others took to the microphone to share their concerns about the ripple effects of the board’s actions, he decided to follow.
“Something just snapped at me and said, no, you need to say what happened Friday,” he said. “You need to make the people realize in this room that your words mean something, and your words can hurt.”
Since then, Gleason said he’s received lots of support, and some people have reached out to apologize. It’s been surprising and heartfelt, he said, and has shown him that hurtful voices don’t define the town.