Pride Leaders Targeted; Community Response Begins

The incident was recently reported in the Herald-Times.

Within weeks of the failure of the Indiana State Legislature to pass comprehensive hate crimes legislation, the home of two of Spencer Pride’s founders was the target of several incidents of hate-driven trespass, vandalism, & theft.

Spencer Pride President Jonathan Balash, his husband Jacob, & 6-year old son live south of the town of Spencer in a home they have lived in for the past 10 years. The married couple, who have been together for 18 years, have resided in Owen County since 2001.

The incidents were described on Jonathan’s Facebook page on April 10 and 13. The couple state that on four occasions during the same week, individuals trespassed on their land with the intent to remove the pride flag that had been proudly flying alongside their rural country road.   The Facebook posts can be viewed here & here.

Jonathan & Jacob have done their best to make light of the situation & drive awareness to hate-motivated acts targeted at the LGBTQ+ community.

During the first few incidents, the perpetrators attempted to force the Balashes’ flagpole down by wrapping the pole with a steel chain and pulling it with a heavy-duty vehicle. This proved challenging due to the robust installation of the flagpole, which had been completed mindful of the fact that it could become a target.

According to an affidavit filed with the Owen County prosecutor by the Owen County Sheriff’s Department, the effort to bring down the flagpole ultimately failed when the vehicle’s bumper was torn off. While the pole did not come down, it was damaged significantly. Damage to the pole & the adjacent limestone wall has been estimated to cost $4,300. A few days later, the same location was targeted again. This time, the flagpole’s rope was cut & the flags were removed. The rainbow pride flag was then stolen. A trail cam that the couple had set up to identify the vandals was also taken.  All the incidents occurred under the cover of darkness at the couple’s home.

Immediately after the couple posted about the incidents on Facebook, the news of what had occurred traveled around the world & was shared by LGBTQ+ organizations in several countries. Social media support for the couple was very positive.  Some individuals responded to the incident by making donations to Spencer Pride in honor of Jonathan & Jacob.

Spencer Pride elected to respond by distributing free pride flags from the Spencer Pride commUnity center, which is located at 17 E. Franklin Street adjacent to the Owen County Courthouse. To date, more than 40 flags have been given out. Most recipients of the flags have volunteered to have their photo taken with the rainbow flag. As a result, rainbow colors are more prevalent than ever in the downtown area & across social media.  Since first announcing the flag distribution, the commUnity center has received increased visitors.  Many of those guests have attributed their attendance to be as a direct result of the flag distribution, or in general as a gesture of support for the LGBTQ+ community during this time.

Many individuals have come out to the Spencer Pride commUnity center to show their support for the LGBTQ+ community in response to the acts against the Balashes.

THE INVESTIGATION SO FAR

The Owen County Sheriff’s Department is treating the harassment of the Balash home as separate incidents & not as a single effort over multiple days. As a result of this decision, charges thus far have only been filed for criminal mischief & criminal trespass.  Both of these crimes are misdemeanors. Theft of the flag & camera, which would be a felony, have not been addressed. While the Owen County Sheriff’s Department’s investigation into the incidents is ongoing, to date only one person has been charged.   On one of the evenings where the vandalism took place at the Balash home, the same teens allegedly broke into cabins & stole thousands of dollars in electronics & miscellaneous items, including a firearm.   Charges related to that case have also been filed.  A preliminary hearing took place on April 18 at the Owen County Courthouse.  For more information on this, visit the Bloomington Herald-Times article that was published on April 19.

Several concerned citizens wrote letters to Owen County Judge Lori Quillen to stress the impact of the type of hate-focused crimes that are alleged to have taken place to the Balash home. Judith Epp, Spencer Pride Director, took the position that it is important to respond quickly & with the full force of the law.  “Treating this offense leniently sends a message that we don’t take it seriously,” Epp stated in her letter to Judge Quillen. “This isn’t about just one family, it’s about the entire community…Do we have to wait until one of us is personally violently assaulted [before action will be taken]?”

Joy Hellman, Spencer Pride Director & Youth Empowerment Lead, also wrote a letter.  Hellman, who has been instrumental in the forming of the Iris Youth Group, wrote her letter emphasizing the impact of this case on local LGBTQ+ youth. “The teens in this group have often spoken to me about not feeling safe due to the hateful acts of other teens.  This could be an opportunity to set a precedent, so that LGBTQ teens could feel more safe in their own community,” she wrote.

In total, at least 7 letters were sent to Judge Quillen to raise her awareness of the significance of this event.  These letters were sent to Quillen for her consideration during the preliminary hearing of the adult charged with the misdemeanor crimes.  To show additional support for the Balash family, approximately 10 local residents attended the hearing as well.

There is no question that this case was motivated by bias against the Balashes, who are a well-known gay couple that are involved in many organizations, most notably Spencer Pride. According to the aforementioned affidavit, Owen County Deputy Mitchell Fleetwood interviewed one of the individuals who confessed to the vandalism of the flagpole.  The deputy asked why the teens targeted that specific flagpole. The teen responded by saying that the residents of that home were “Big Time Queers.”

Regardless of this admission by the teen, no action is being taken by the Owen County Prosecutors Office to pursue increased penalties related to these crimes. The recently passed bias crimes legislation in Indiana, which does not serve to adequately define hate-motivated crimes, does not go into effect until July 1, 2019. It is questionable regarding whether the legislation would have enough teeth to be utilized in this type of incident, regardless.  The incident has been voluntarily reported to a National Hate Crimes Hotline due to the advocacy of several concerned citizens.

THE COUPLES’ RESPONSE

Jonathan & Jacob are known to be resilient when encountering these types of activities. When their pride flag has been targeted in the past, the couple has repeatedly responded by increasing the size of the flag, adding the flagpole, installing the limestone wall at the base of the flagpole, & other improvements.   The couple are vocal about the importance of LGBTQ+ visibility, especially in rural areas.

Jonathan Balash is currently serving as the President of Spencer Pride, Inc.

“We will not be pushed back into the closet by an ignorant Minority,” said Jonathan when asked about their responses to these incidents. “We continue to become more & more visible every time that someone tries to use our home as a target for their hate. Their acts are intending to scare us. We aren’t going to respond to their efforts with fear & anger. Instead, we choose to focus our energy on how to continue our work with Spencer Pride to make Indiana a more welcoming place for all people.”

Jacob is no less passionate about how the couple responds to the acts of hate. He also noted why comprehensive hate crimes legislation is important for Hoosiers. “This was more than trespassing. It was more than vandalism. It was more than theft. This was a concerted effort over several days to violate our property & terrorize my family. It is scary that people would carry out such actions because we are a same-sex household,” Jacob notes.

Jacob went on: “We are proud to live in Owen County & over the past two decades we’ve been overwhelmed by how welcoming our community is. This is where we have decided to raise our son. We aren’t going anywhere.”

In addition to repairing the damage done, the couple is also working to install power at the end of the driveway to support the installation of lights & cameras in order to deter further vandalism & theft. These efforts are challenged by the distance of the mailbox from their home, which is 1/4 mile down the driveway. While the couple works to put these long-term precautions in place, they have added some additional cameras to the space.

Jonathan & Jacob want to emphasize that crimes targeted at the LGBTQ+ community take place every day throughout the world.  “This isn’t a Spencer, Indiana, issue.  This isn’t a rural issue.  This is an issue from the rolling hills of San Francisco to the rolling hills of Spencer,” Jonathan stated.

Jacob Balash is a member of the Spencer Pride Board of Directors & is the Retail Manager for Unity, the organization’s shop in downtown Spencer.

Jacob immediately added: “We want to raise awareness about this event to serve as an example.  Although this did impact us emotionally, we want people to know that it could have been much worse.  Around the world right now, people are being bullied, harassed, fired, & even stoned to death for being gay.  It has to stop.”

ACTIONS THAT CAN BE TAKEN TO SHOW SUPPORT

Individuals who would like to show their support for the Balashes & other victims of hate-motivated crimes towards the LGBTQ+ community can do so in a variety of ways.

  1. Talk about this incident with people. Share it on social media. Engage with a coworker or neighbor. Bringing visibility to specific incidents like this raises awareness of the need for comprehensive hate crimes legislation.
  2. Proudly display a Pride Flag at your home or business. This tells people that you support the LGBTQ+ community & that you don’t want them to have to stand alone. If you do not own a pride flag, you can stop by the Spencer Pride commUnity center in downtown Spencer for a free one. The organization will continue distributing the flags for free over the coming weeks to help promote awareness of the events & to increase visible LGBTQ+ support in the community. Larger flags are available inexpensively on Amazon & at other retailers.
  3. Make a contribution to Spencer Pride on behalf of the Balash Family. The couple is known to be “Big Time Queers” because of their work with the organization. Making a financial donation to continue Spencer Pride’s work sends the message that we will not be bullied & that we will respond to events like this with more education & visibility.
  4. Become a volunteer with Spencer Pride. Our organization is 100% volunteer-powered & we have a lot of work that needs to be done to further educate our community in support of our mission to make Indiana a more welcoming place for all people.
  5. Attend the upcoming Spencer Pride Festival on June 1st.  Participating in the event shows how important LGBTQ+ people are within our community.  By attending the festival, you allow Spencer Pride to further our important work.

Spencer Pride will continue to provide updates about this matter.  For more information about how you can help Spencer Pride’s mission to make Indiana a more welcoming place, please e-mail info@SpencerPride.org. To learn more about the work of Spencer Pride & to get details about the 2019 Spencer Pride Festival, visit www.SpencerPride.org.