INDIANAPOLIS — At the Tin Roof, a live music joint near Lucas Oil Stadium, where the NCAA’s Final Four basketball tournament concludes Monday, bar manager Brittany Strohmeyer eyed a group of out-of-town fans. Do they view Indiana as she sees it, warm and hospitable? Or do they think her state is run by bigots?
Strohmeyer, 24, sighed. Even on a trip to New Orleans last week, “everyone we met was like: What’s going on in Indiana?”
Lately, the quiet heartland state best known for corn and car racing has become a bulls-eye for American judgment, a magnet for boycotts, a punching bag for late-night comics. Insults have proliferated across the Internet: “Now entering Indiana,” read one viral meme. “Please turn back your clocks 200 years.”
“I love Indiana. I was born in Indiana. All my friends are in Indiana,” native son David Letterman quipped on the “Late Show.” “But I think Indiana’s gone nuts.”
The spotlight has shone most brightly on the state’s controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which many feared would create a legal license for businesses to discriminate against gays and lesbians. The law was quickly amended, but during the past two weeks, Indiana has drawn national attention for other bizarre and troubling developments.
In rural Scott County, near the Kentucky border, Gov. Mike Pence (R) declared a public health emergency after dozens of people tested positive for HIV — the country’s first epidemic outside an urban area in nearly 20 years.
In South Bend, Purvi Patel, 33, became the first woman in the nation to be tried, convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison on charges of “feticide” — for an incident Patel has described as a miscarriage.
In Marion, an assistant fire chief was demoted for handing a black firefighter a rope tied into a noose.
And in rural Walkerton, a Christian pizza parlor employee was publicly pilloried and temporarily forced to close up shop after she told a TV reporter she would never deliver her pies to a same-sex wedding. A Go Fund Me page has since raised more than $840,000 for the store.
“It’s been a tough week in the Hoosier State,” Pence acknowledged Tuesday during a packed news conference about the religious freedom act.
For Pence, a potential presidential contender, the bad press may have personal consequences: His decision to sign the law infuriated some of Indiana’s largest employers, and his efforts to defend the law on national TV have been widely panned. On Wednesday, Politico magazine ran a story headlined, “The Week Mike Pence’s 2016 Dreams Crumbled.”
But Hoosiers everywhere feel embarrassed and misunderstood. On Facebook, they post impassioned pleas: Don’t believe what you’ve heard. On the streets of Indianapolis, they strike up friendlier-than-usual conversations with visiting basketball fans. And at the Indianapolis International Airport, they’ve draped a big, blue banner that reads “Indy Welcomes All.”
“If only they could see who we really are, our Midwest hospitality,” said Scott Prather, a 24-year-old nursing student who was born and raised in the city. “Everyone talking badly about us needs to come visit.”
Mike Huber, chief executive of the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce, can’t recall a time Indiana has endured such negative publicity. The most recent national scandal might have been when former Indiana University basketball coach Bobby Knight infamously threw a chair across a basketball court.
(That, however, is often recalled with a sense of pride. Letterman recently declared: “I’d rather have Bobby Knight as the governor of Indiana.”)
“We can get depressed about it — or we can do something about it,” Huber said. “We’re acknowledging that, as a state, we took some hits that will take years to rebound from. That has a unifying effect on leadership in the community, like nothing I’ve ever seen.”
Some crisis-management mavens already see the spin. Vanessa Stiles, former president of the Public Relations Society of America’s Hoosier chapter who has worked extensively on the state capitol’s tourism brand, said the state can take advantage of the newfound attention and raise awareness for, say, gay rights and HIV prevention.
“The upside in this is: We were always flyover country,” Stiles said. “We weren’t noticed. It’s now our opportunity to be a leader in the situation. We can work hard and show everyone what we’re made of — and have the power to make a national difference.”
For out-of-towners, skepticism lingers. Spencer Smith, 22, drove 10 hours from Norman, Okla., for this weekend’s basketball festivities. The recent controversy, he said, colors his view of Indiana: “It’s like a cloud that hangs over the whole thing.”
But some Hoosiers flatly refuse to be defined by the stereotypes they suddenly hear pouring from talk-radio stations and late-night TV hosts.
At the Indiana State Soldiers and Sailors Monument, a centerpiece of downtown Indianapolis, Lauren Strack, 20, watched tourists snap photos against a back-lit NCAA sign. Across the street, the news of the day looped on a digital marquee above a local magazine’s headquarters: “Governor Pence has signed the clarification of the religious freedom bill.”
Strack flipped her long, red hair and crossed her loosely tied combat boots. “No one can judge us until they’ve been in our shoes,” she said. “We are not hillbillies.”