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ICYMI: New York Times: How One Reaction To A Mural Tore A New England Town Apart

In Case You Missed It, The New York Times recently published an in-depth look at how State Senator Carrie Gendreau’s anti-LGBTQ+ crusade last year “plunged Littleton into tumult” and “tore” the town apart. 


Gendreau’s “polarizing remarks” have “created community rifts” and are deeply out of touch with Granite Staters in the North Country. Meanwhile, Rusty Talbot, owner of the North Country Climbing Center in Lisbon, is running for the State Senate against Gendreau to “be a unifying force for the region, focusing on common-ground issues that improve North Country residents' lives.” 


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Few were present at the select board meeting in Littleton, N.H., last August when Carrie Gendreau, one of its members, began to talk about a mural that had recently been painted on the side of a building downtown.


Until that moment, it had not attracted much attention. Its subject matter — a blooming iris, dandelions, birch trees — did not seem controversial.


But for Ms. Gendreau, 62, who was also a state senator representing northern New Hampshire, the mural had set off alarms. She was certain there were subversive messages in its imagery, planted there by the nonprofit group that had planned and paid for it.


The group was North Country Pride, founded four years ago to build more visible support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the rural region.


“We need to be very careful,” Ms. Gendreau said at the meeting. She urged residents to “research” what the mural “really means,” and called for closer oversight of other public art.


“I don’t want that to be in our town,” she said.


Long before Ms. Gendreau raised her concerns, igniting an uprising against her, people in Littleton knew they did not all think alike. Half had voted for Joe Biden in 2020; half supported President Donald J. Trump. Still, they thought they had an understanding: that they would do their best to get along, often by keeping their politics or religious beliefs to themselves. This was New Hampshire, after all, where the state motto is “live free or die.”


As word spread about Ms. Gendreau’s comments, many in the town of 6,000 saw them as a jarring break in protocol.


“I was friends with Carrie,” said Kerri Harrington, an acupuncturist who had followed local government and respected Ms. Gendreau’s diligent work on the board. “I knew our politics were different, I knew she was religious, but there are a lot of religious people here.”


“This was the first time I realized she had that agenda,” Ms. Harrington said.


Ms. Gendreau, an evangelical Christian who said she got calls from as far away as Australia denouncing her in profane language after news outlets reported on her comments, clung to her convictions.


[...]


Ms. Harrington, 52, had helped start North Country Pride and served as one of its leaders. The group had built on the area’s longstanding reputation as a welcoming destination for gay travelers, at a moment when the pandemic had infused Littleton with a diverse influx of newcomers.


Her first instinct was to reach out to Ms. Gendreau. When they met to talk about the mural, she said, Ms. Gendreau urged her to read a book, “The Return of the Gods,” by the doomsday evangelist and best-selling author Jonathan Cahn. It warns of America’s descent into evil, citing gay rights as an example of moral decay destroying the country.


The book helped her see why Ms. Gendreau was upset, Ms. Harrington said. And it left her deeply worried about what might come next.


As in other small towns across the country, the people of Littleton had found a way to coexist despite their differences — at times by avoiding topics likely to divide them. Now, the divide was front and center. And as the anger rose, and the split grew wider, many wondered how it would ever mend.


Before she made the comments that plunged Littleton into tumult, Ms. Gendreau had occasionally injected her religious faith into municipal business. When the board hired Jim Gleason as town manager in 2021, he was startled by the words she used to offer him the job.


“God wants you in Littleton,” he recalled her saying. Not long after that, Ms. Gendreau began starting select board meetings with a prayer.


It had not been easy for Mr. Gleason to leave his home in Florida. His wife of 44 years, a teacher nearing retirement, had stayed behind. They were still grieving the loss of their oldest son, Patrick, who died of pancreatitis at age 35 in 2016.


Mr. Gleason had embraced his son when he came out as gay at 16. He had never expected open homophobia from elected leaders in New Hampshire.


Soon after Ms. Gendreau’s remarks about the mural, residents began flooding the local paper with angry letters. A local bank asked her to resign from its board of directors, she said, pointing to the “hurt” she had caused; she complied. Encouraged by North Country Pride to raise their voices, hundreds of people showed up to condemn Ms. Gendreau’s views at select board meetings in September and October.


Many hoped she might apologize, or step down from the select board — or that the other two board members would publicly reject her views. Instead, they said little, and Ms. Gendreau doubled down.


In October, in an interview with The Boston Globe, Ms. Gendreau called homosexuality an “abomination” and warned of “twisted preferences” she saw “creeping into our community.” She also spoke out against a well-known musical about a gay couple, “La Cage Aux Folles,” that was being staged at the Littleton Opera House by a local theater group that had made the town-owned building its home for a decade.


Before the controversy, the group’s leaders had considered renovating the historic Opera House with grant money. Afterward, fearful of being censored, they resolved to build a new theater instead.


When a woman walked into Littleton’s town hall in October, echoing Ms. Gendreau’s concerns about the production and asking what would be done to stop it, Mr. Gleason did not mince words.


Nothing, the town manager said he replied — the play was protected by the First Amendment.


“She said, ‘What about my free speech?’” Mr. Gleason recalled. “And I said, ‘The way you protest is, don’t buy a ticket.’”


The woman called him “weak,” he said. Then she brought up Patrick, his son.


“‘I hope you’re happy he’s in hell,’” Mr. Gleason said she told him.


Two years into his new job, his move had seemed to be paying off. He had helped grow the town’s reserve fund and received positive performance reviews. It was the redemption Mr. Gleason had needed after his last job, in Florida, ended badly, with a heated confrontation at a meeting and charges, later dropped, that he had been physically aggressive toward a councilwoman.


Now he wondered how long he could carry on, working closely with a board member who had essentially condemned the son he had loved, in a town where it appeared her public statements had encouraged others to unleash their own intolerance.


Ms. Gendreau’s outspoken, fire-and-brimstone Christianity was something of an aberration in New Hampshire. [...]


[...]


She accepted that many of her legislative colleagues would not like it when she read from the Bible she carried into debates — and she rejects the claim that it does not belong there. “Our founding fathers said we have the freedom to worship,” she said.


[...]


As people stood up at meetings into the fall and winter to tell her how her words had hurt them, Ms. Gendreau listened quietly and wrote each of their names in a notebook. In the quiet of her home, she said, she read them aloud, and prayed that God might show them the truth.


[...]


Richard Alberini, a history teacher in town for 39 years, had known her since she was in middle school and was rattled when he learned of her beliefs.


“I taught Carrie the Constitution in eighth grade,” he said. “I taught her the separation of church and state, and the reason for it in the history of the country.”


Duane Coute, too, had known Ms. Gendreau for years. Like Ms. Harrington, he had asked to meet with her after her comments blew up, hoping to understand. Instead, he said, he felt more bewildered after she described her views to him.


The affable general manager of the local Chevrolet dealership, Mr. Coute, 55, was not inclined toward politics or public disputes. But he had spent his life in Littleton and was among the business leaders who had worked hard to remake the former mill town, once in decline, into a bustling tourist hub.


As fall turned to winter, and still the select board did not clearly reject Ms. Gendreau’s comments, he could not bear to see the town’s reputation undergo such damage, he said, its fabric torn by the animosity on both sides of the dispute.


Some of Mr. Coute’s conservative friends, and some of his employees, cautioned him against leaping into the fray. He jumped in anyway, rallying more than 1,000 business people, residents and frequent visitors to the town to sign a letter he wrote with other business leaders in November imploring the board to “step back from this hurtful path.”


“This is not who we are,” the letter said. “Littleton is a vibrant, broad and inclusive community.”


The rainbow flags that North Country Pride had handed out to businesses downtown were new, but the area’s reputation for tolerance was not. It had been a destination for gay travelers since the 1980s, when the Highlands Inn in neighboring Bethlehem, N.H., began advertising itself as a “lesbian paradise” in gay newspapers around the country.


Jordan Applewhite, a transgender 40-year-old, had moved to the area four years ago and transformed a former oil change shop on the edge of downtown Littleton into a lively, L.G.B.T.Q.-friendly dive bar, forging ties with a diverse community that seemed to easily set aside differences.


“What was at stake was who we are as a town,” Mx. Applewhite said of what had happened. “It was like an existential crisis.”


By January, after weeks of reflection, Ms. Harrington decided to run for Ms. Gendreau’s seat on the select board. Mx. Applewhite signed on as her campaign adviser. Together, they made a plan to emphasize unity and a commitment to represent everyone in the community.


Mr. Gleason, the town manager, reached a decision of his own. Midway through a board meeting that month, he abruptly announced his resignation.


“I’ve had enough,” he said when a resident in attendance pressed him to explain.


Later in the meeting, after the crowd gave him a standing ovation, Mr. Gleason grew tearful. Rising to his feet, he made a final declaration: “My son,” he said, “is not an abomination.”


As the meeting drew to a close, Ms. Gendreau took the microphone. Watching from her seat, Ms. Harrington felt a rush of hope.


But instead of expressing regret, Ms. Gendreau began speaking out against acceptance of transgender people. “If a man can be a woman because he feels like one,” she said, “where does this end? Can a grown man attend kindergarten because he identifies as a 6-year-old?”


People walked out, some of them crying. “Shame on you, Carrie,” someone shouted.


On the February morning he left Littleton to return to Florida, Mr. Gleason carried a last box of mementos from his office to his truck, turned onto the highway and threaded his way south between the snowy mountains.


The deadline for Ms. Gendreau to file for re-election came and went. After prayer and reflection, she said in an interview, she had concluded that God did not want her to remain on the select board.


On Election Day, in mid-March, Ms. Harrington easily won the open seat. The townspeople also voted to expand the select board from three seats to five next year, a change sought to add diversity, and limit individual influence, in the aftermath of the discord.


[...]


At her first meeting as a member of the board last month, Ms. Harrington and the other two members voted 3-0 to end the practice of beginning meetings with prayer.


Mx. Applewhite knows divisions linger in Littleton, and sees work ahead to bridge the gaps, engaging those who fear that their views will be dismissed.


“‘Religion is bad’ is not the takeaway,” they said. “We mean it when we say we want everyone to feel welcome.”

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