Mike Pence grew up in Columbus, Indiana. Here's what it's like to be LGBTQ there.

Homophobes are made, not born. Mike Pence — basically the homophobe in chief — was made in Columbus, Indiana.

It's a pleasant, small town in the southern part of the state. It's home to a destination-worthy ice cream parlor, a putt-putt golf center, a surprising amount of world-class modern architecture, and around 45,000 people. It's where Pence grew up and formed the values he would later bring to his work.

Columbus, Indiana. Photo by Graham Coreil-Allen/Flickr.


Pence, who served as Indiana's governor from 2013 to 2017, describes himself as "a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order." His policies during his time leading the state reflected those priorities, placing the civil rights of the state's LGBTQ population in serious jeopardy. Now, he's got the ear of the president and may, one day, hold the office himself.

Vice President Mike Pence delivers remarks as NASA introduces new astronaut candidates. Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images.

So what's it like to celebrate Pride Month in Columbus, the hometown of a man set on using policy to limit the freedoms of the LGBTQ population?

For Sameer Samudra, finding comfort in Columbus didn't happen overnight. When he arrived in 2000, the city was mostly white, Christian, and conservative. Samudra, now 42, a gay man born and raised in Pune, India, says there was a certain degree of culture shock.

"I didn't feel really welcomed or really part of it," he says.

Samudra (left) with his husband, Adit. Photo via Sameer Samudra, used with permission.

Samudra works for the city's largest employer, Cummins, which is a company that designs and manufactures engines and generators. It's under the company's leadership that life in Columbus has improved for LGBTQ people and people of color.

The company began allowing domestic partner benefits in 2000 and recruits employees from all around the world, making Columbus slightly more diverse than neighboring communities. There are now more diverse restaurants and recent immigrants joining the community. It's a welcome sight, even though the town remains around 82% white.

In large part due to the company's push for diversity, Columbus feels more like home for Samudra. He married his husband, Amit, there in 2010. While friends from big cities balked at the idea of getting married in the small community, Samudra didn't flinch.

"I feel like in the U.S., people have these conceptions about 'a smaller town in southern Indiana,'" he says. "There are so many things that you can experience and explore in small Midwestern towns. It's one of the reasons me and Amit... made Columbus our home."

Photo via Sameer Samudra, used with permission.

In 2015, Pence signed into law the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a piece of legislation that essentially allowed individuals and small businesses to discriminate on the basis of religion. The law became a national issue with vocal opponents, including longtime Columbus resident Sondra Bolte, 67, who protested against it. Bolte has lived in Columbus since 1981, and after experiencing harassment and intimidation before she came out of the closet, she knew Pence's policy was a step in the wrong direction.

"It seems like it didn't matter who testified, how much testimony there was in favor of our rights; it just always came down on the other side," she remembers. "It was just really incredibly frustrating, but we'd get up and do it again the next day."

At left, demonstrators gather outside the Indianapolis City-County Building in March 2015. On the right is Sondra Bolte. Photos via Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images and Sondra Bolte, used with permission.

Pence signed a "fix" to the bill just a few days later to assuage concerns, but the emotional toll on the LGBTQ community was immediately felt. Samudra says the policy empowered hateful groups and discrimination.

"It felt like someone just insulted me and slapped me in my face and punched me in my gut," he remembers.

Now that Pence is out of state government, many in Columbus are cautiously optimistic. But mostly cautious.

Samudra believes the negativity and vitriol stirred and emboldened by Pence and the Trump administration may actually have worked against them because more allies are moved to act in the fight for equality.

"A lot of straight allies ... didn't realize how bad it can get," Samudra says. "Now a lot of people are asking me, 'What can we do to change this or help ... the LGBT movement?'"

Samudra at a local demonstration. Photo via Sameer Samudra, used with permission.

Indiana's new governor, Eric Holcomb, has rolled back some of Pence's policies, but the damage to the state, particularly the LGBTQ community, hasn't been undone.

"I think [Holcomb] really cares about governing in the state of Indiana and he cares about the people, whereas I think Mike Pence cared about Mike Pence. Period," Bolte says.

That's why Pride Month — in Columbus and across the country — is so important.

For Samudra, it is a chance to celebrate LGBTQ visibility.

"This is a really huge community with their own unique needs and challenges, and [Pride Month] gives us that visibility and that sense of accomplishment," he says.

Revelers hug during Circle City Pride activities in Indianapolis in June 2015. Photo by AJ Mast/AP.

For Bolte, Pride events put faces to the often monolithic "LGBTQ community" designation. These are friends, neighbors, colleagues, and family members — not just faces in a crowd.

Celebrations and events can give people still in the closet a boost, too.

"I believe that things have changed for us because people were willing to be out and take whatever comes their way," Bolte says. "June is incredibly important to help people who are a little bit afraid go, 'I can do this.'"

People like Mike Pence have the means and power to do serious damage.

They can strip away the rights, freedoms, and privileges everyone deserves. But they can't take away passion, resilience, or pride, even in the place they hold most dear. Not now. Not ever.

And that's something to celebrate.

Photo courtesy of Yoplait
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When Benny Mendez asked his middle school P.E. students why they wanted to participate in STOKED—his new after school program where kids can learn to skateboard, snowboard, and surf—their answers surprised him.

I want to be able to finally see the beach, students wrote. I want to finally be able to see the snow.

Never having seen snow is understandable for Mendez's students, most who live in Inglewood, CA, just outside of Los Angeles. But never having been to the beach is surprising, since most of them only live 15-20 minutes from the ocean. Mendez discovered many of them don't even know how to swim.

"A lot of the kids shared that they just want to go on adventures," says Mendez. "They love nature, but...they just see it in pictures. They want to be out there."

Mendez is in his third year of teaching physical education at View Park K-8 school, one of seven Inner City Foundation Education schools in the Los Angeles area. While many of his students are athletically gifted, Mendez says, they often face challenges outside of school that limit their opportunities. Some of them live in neighborhoods where it's unsafe to leave their houses at certain times of day due to gang activity, and many students come to his P.E. class with no understanding of why learning about physical health is important.

"There's a lot going on at home [with my students]," says Mendez. "They're coming from either a single parent home, or foster care. There's a lot of trauma behind what's going on at home...that is out of our control."

Photo courtesy of Yoplait

What Mendez can control is what he gives his students when they're in his care, which is understanding, some structure, and the chance to try new things. Mendez wakes up at 4:00 a.m. most days and often doesn't get home until 9:00 p.m. as he works tirelessly to help kids thrive. Not only does he run after school programs, but he coaches youth soccer on the weekends as well. He also works closely with other teachers and guidance counselors at the school to build strong relationships with students, and even serves as a mentor to his former students who are now in high school.

Now Mendez is earning accolades far and wide for his efforts both in and out of the classroom, including a surprise award from Yoplait and Box Tops for Education.

Yoplait and Box Tops are partnering this school year to help students reach their fullest potential, which includes celebrating teachers and programs that support that mission. Yoplait is committed to providing experiences for kids and families to connect through play, so teaming up with Box Tops provided an opportunity to support programs like STOKED.

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Over the past 30-plus years, there has been a sea change when it comes to public attitudes about LGBT issues in America. In 1988, only 11% of Americans supported same-sex marriage, while in 2020, that number jumped to 70%

Even though there is a lot more work to do for full LGBTQ equality in the U.S. the country is far ahead of most of the world. According to Human Dignity Trust, 71 jurisdictions around the world "criminalize private, consensual, same-sex sexual activity," many of these specifically calling out sexual practices between men.

In 11 jurisdictions, people who engage in consensual same-sex sexual activity face the possibility of the death penalty for their behavior. "At least 6 of these implement the death penalty – Iran, Northern Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Yemen – and the death penalty is a legal possibility in Afghanistan, Brunei, Mauritania, Pakistan, Qatar, and UAE," Human Dignity Trust says.

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When Sue Hoppin was in college, she met the man she was going to marry. "I was attending the University of Denver, and he was at the Air Force Academy," she says. "My dad had also attended the University of Denver and warned me not to date those flyboys from the Springs."

"He didn't say anything about marrying one of them," she says. And so began her life as a military spouse.

The life brings some real advantages, like opportunities to live abroad — her family got to live all around the US, Japan, and Germany — but it also comes with some downsides, like having to put your spouse's career over your own goals.

"Though we choose to marry someone in the military, we had career goals before we got married, and those didn't just disappear."

Career aspirations become more difficult to achieve, and progress comes with lots of starts and stops. After experiencing these unique challenges firsthand, Sue founded an organization to help other military spouses in similar situations.

Sue had gotten a degree in international relations because she wanted to pursue a career in diplomacy, but for fourteen years she wasn't able to make any headway — not until they moved back to the DC area. "Eighteen months later, many rejections later, it became apparent that this was going to be more challenging than I could ever imagine," she says.

Eighteen months is halfway through a typical assignment, and by then, most spouses are looking for their next assignment. "If I couldn't find a job in my own 'hometown' with multiple degrees and a great network, this didn't bode well for other military spouses," she says.

She's not wrong. Military spouses spend most of their lives moving with their partners, which means they're often far from family and other support networks. When they do find a job, they often make less than their civilian counterparts — and they're more likely to experience underemployment or unemployment. In fact, on some deployments, spouses are not even allowed to work.

Before the pandemic, military spouse unemployment was 22%. Since the pandemic, it's expected to rise to 35%.

Sue eventually found a job working at a military-focused nonprofit, and it helped her get the experience she needed to create her own dedicated military spouse program. She wrote a book and started saving up enough money to start the National Military Spouse Network (NMSN), which she founded in 2010 as the first organization of its kind.

"I founded the NMSN to help professional military spouses develop flexible careers they could perform from any location."

"Over the years, the program has expanded to include a free digital magazine, professional development events, drafting annual White Papers and organizing national and local advocacy to address the issues of most concern to the professional military spouse community," she says.

Not only was NMSN's mission important to Sue on a personal level she also saw it as part of something bigger than herself.

"Gone are the days when families can thrive on one salary. Like everyone else, most military families rely on two salaries to make ends meet. If a military spouse wants or needs to work, they should be able to," she says.

"When less than one percent of our population serves in the military," she continues, "we need to be able to not only recruit the best and the brightest but also retain them."

"We lose out as a nation when service members leave the force because their spouse is unable to find employment. We see it as a national security issue."

"The NMSN team has worked tirelessly to jumpstart the discussion and keep the challenges affecting military spouses top of mind. We have elevated the conversation to Congress and the White House," she continues. "I'm so proud of the fact that corporations, the government, and the general public are increasingly interested in the issues affecting military spouses and recognizing the employment roadblocks they unfairly have faced."

"We have collectively made other people care, and in doing so, we elevated the issues of military spouse unemployment to a national and global level," she adds. "In the process, we've also empowered military spouses to advocate for themselves and our community so that military spouse employment issues can continue to remain at the forefront."

Not only has NMSN become a sought-after leader in the military spouse employment space, but Sue has also seen the career she dreamed of materializing for herself. She was recently invited to participate in the public re-launch of Joining Forces, a White House initiative supporting military and veteran families, with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

She has also had two of her recommendations for practical solutions introduced into legislation just this year. She was the first in the Air Force community to show leadership the power of social media to reach both their airmen and their military families.

That is why Sue is one of Tory Burch's "Empowered Women" this year. The $5,000 donation will be going to The Madeira School, a school that Sue herself attended when she was in high school because, she says, "the lessons I learned there as a student pretty much set the tone for my personal and professional life. It's so meaningful to know that the donation will go towards making a Madeira education more accessible to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it and providing them with a life-changing opportunity."

Most military children will move one to three times during high school so having a continuous four-year experience at one high school can be an important gift. After traveling for much of her formative years, Sue attended Madeira and found herself "in an environment that fostered confidence and empowerment. As young women, we were expected to have a voice and advocate not just for ourselves, but for those around us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!