It’s time to listen. Evansville Living has and always will be a platform to celebrate our city. June is Pride month, a celebration, but also a remembrance of the 1969 Stonewall Uprising in Manhattan, New York, that sparked the Gay Liberation Movement in the U.S.
We want to use our platform to amplify the voices of LGBTQIA+ community members who have lived through the fight (and ongoing struggles) that have led to an open, free celebration of Pride in Evansville and hear what their experiences and Pride mean to them.
We’ve collected six personal essays from several community members to help us learn, grow, and celebrate together. To our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, and asexual audience, we see you and we support you.
Evansville Living has edited these testimonies for grammar and AP style. All personal essays are in the contributors’ own words.
“As an Evansville native, my story is luckier than many here. From supportive parents and grandparents to devoted friends stretching back to high school, to me Evansville has been a great home.
I came onto the LGBTQ scene in the 1970s when disco reigned and the bars were just starting to open up. I watched the AIDS epidemic swallow up many friends. I served on the Aids Resource Group Board for 10 years. We all did what we could to help those in need. As a member of River City Pride’s board, I watch people 30 years younger than me (I’m 62) create safe spaces for youth and promote diversity and inclusion in our city that 40 years ago I would have thought impossible. I was so honored to be one of their Grand Marshalls for the first Pride parade in 2019.
Recently, hundreds of straight folks gathered for Pride events at Haynie’s Corner, cheering for their LGBTQ neighbors. I thought, “If only those who left us so young could see where we are now.”
Love, compassion, and togetherness has grown and developed in our city through the decades. I am proud to serve as the LGBTQ Liaison to our supportive Mayor Lloyd Winnecke, in addition to my other role in city government. My husband Justin and I send our best wishes to everyone during this Pride month.”
— Kelley Coures is an Evansville native and uses the pronouns he/him/his. He is the executive director of the Department of Metropolitan Development, the LGBTQ+ Liaison to the Mayor’s Office, and the Sadelle Berger Civil Rights award winner in 2011.
“I am a proud gay man born and raised in Evansville’s Jimtown and Jacobsville neighborhood. I’ve always felt I was different!
At 13 years old, I came out as gay, luckily with support from my immediate family and friends. I knew things would be tough, but I’d be okay. Unfortunately, that wasn’t always the case.
It was hard being openly gay at an early age. Middle school seemed to be the hardest, because people were mean — and I say ‘people’ because it wasn’t just the other kids; adults as well, including some non-supportive family.
I know now it was just their own stupidity, unawareness, or not being fully educated on what gay actually means. Many times, I couldn’t be myself without others making fun, name calling, and exclusion; however, I did not let that get me down. As years passed, I thought with so much hate and ugly words that I had to stop worrying what others said about me. Instead, I used it to my advantage, and I’ve taken all of the hatefulness, mean words, not being accepted, not feeling welcomed because I’m gay, and turned into an example for how not to treat others, and to treat others how you would want to be treated. I turned my anger into Pride. It was the best thing I did for my own sense of self wellness and peace of mind.
In 2010, I met my husband Ryan VanLaningham. Four years later on June 26, 2014 — seemly just another day at the office — we quickly married after hearing on the radio same-sex marriage was legalized. We are celebrating seven years of marriage this month.
Working in real estate/auctions at Baker Auction & Realty for the past 10 years, we have been happily accepted for who we are and have the most supportive work environment and work family. We were also recently welcomed into the Fresh Air Community of Faith Church with open arms. We feel the love more than ever.
Times are changing and with so many opening their hearts and minds and accepting that love wins and love is love. I’m grateful for all the continued support the community provides to the LGBTQ+ members. I can proudly say I live in Evansville, Indiana, in a community where I can show my Pride and continue to grow without worry of who I love. To have a community that supports and strives for equality and acceptance for all its citizens is a place I proudly call home.”
— Donnie Mays is a native of Evansville and uses the pronouns he/him/his. He is a baker, influencer, and real estate agent.
Zairah R. Swain
“I am originally from Las Vegas, and I have been living in Evansville since 2007. When I was asked, “What does Pride mean to you?” I realized that I have never thought about it. So, after hours of thinking and contemplating what to say and how to say it, I came to the conclusion that I am still learning what that means to me.
So many factors go into this question; how does one begin?
I know the first thing I will start with is community. The LGBTQIA+ Evansville community is becoming so diverse with more than just orientation or pronoun preference. It’s cultures coming together for a common goal in our own backyard.
This community has not only become my friends, but definitely family. Pride is diversity, whether it be skin color, religion, or cultural beliefs. Diversity is Pride immersed in love and acceptance. I will never stop fighting for that. Happy Pride, Evansville!”
— Zairah Swan is a hospice aide at Heart to Heart Hospice and uses the pronouns she/her.
“I am a queer man native to Evansville. In my 31 years, I’ve been remarkably blessed by our LGBTQIA+ community with support, stories, friends, and found family. My personal history has been wildly void of any overt hardship or trauma, but I’ve learned to share in the lessons of others.
One important part of Pride, in my opinion, is that shared experience of queerness. They aren’t just transgender issues or gay issues; those belong to us collectively. The diversity intrinsic to our community is what makes us so resilient and beautiful. The love I have found is tremendous and profound. With the steps we’ve taken, particularly in recent years, I can only look to the future with hopeful excitement.”
— Charles Baker uses the pronouns he/him and is the vice president of River City Pride.
“I moved to Evansville from Norfolk, Virginia, in December 1999 with the intent of starting a new career, new home, and a new partner in the upcoming new millennium. That’s how I do things — all at one time.
It has been 21 years since I began those journeys, and the one central theme is that I would never hide who I was or what I was to anyone. I’ve been loudly out and proud since my arrival. I opened the Elements Design Studio in 2004 and I’ve found that mutual respect goes a long way toward acceptance, and I’ve had very little pushback from clients for being out in the gay community.
I work for justice and I am an advocate within the gay community for those who are struggling. Most of the work I do is one-on-one and behind the scenes. But you can catch me out loud and proud on my Facebook posts in which I regularly address injustice issues and promote positive images for those who are LGBTQIA.
I met my husband shortly after moving to Evansville and we are about as visible as a couple can be, living on Main Street and working within the community as business owners and living our lives out in the open. We hope we are an example to the LGBTQIA youth as to what you can achieve if you work hard and educate yourself and others to help build bridges that connect us all to one another.
My best advice is to be yourself and to find and dwell among supporters, because that will provide the positive energy required to succeed on your own terms in whatever you choose to do.”
— David Oldham-Heidenreich uses the pronouns he/him and is the owner and senior designer at Elements Design Studio.
“I’m 32 years old and from Evansville Indiana. I’m currently a full-time barber student at Rogers Academy of Hair Design as well as a full-time registered behavior technician with a private company. As an RBT, I have been blessed to perform therapy with individuals with sensory processing disorder and autism.
I have been an active member of the LGBTQ+ community since I was 21. I perform drag locally and throughout the USofA competition circuit and have for 11 years as Jayden Licious. Traveling and performing have allowed me to share my passion for entertaining and spreading inclusion wherever I can.
For the past three years through donations and fundraising, I began the Stay Licious student help program for youth (LGBTQ+ or anyone in need). We provide backpacks, school supplies, and resource information to services throughout the city.
As a resident of Evansville my whole life, it has been a great joy to see the support from the community as a whole increase. River City Pride in 2019 just showed me how far we have come in accepting others regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. There are far more important things, and if we could all be the change we want to see in the world, how beautiful could our city be?”
— Liam Douglas is a transgender man who uses the pronouns he/him. He previously worked as an RBT at Hopebridge Autism Therapy.
All photos provided by contributors.