LITTLETON, N.H. (AP) — The quaint town of Littleton, New Hampshire, is seeing more tourists, drawn to a main street of shops and restaurants where rainbow colors and gay pride symbols can be seen alongside American flags. Its population of 6,000 is growing younger and more diverse, supporting LGBTQ-themed art and a local theater’s gay-themed musical.
The culture change doesn’t sit well with town selectboard member Carrie Gendreau, who also serves as a Republican state senator. Last year, she said that “homosexuality is an abomination” and spoke of regulating art on public property, prompting a backlash and now the resignation of the town manager, whose late son was gay.
“My son is not an abomination,” Jim Gleason told the selectboard in January, to a standing ovation, when he announced his last day was Friday. He accused Gendreau of creating a toxic work environment by repeatedly making derogatory comments about gay people. Friday also was Gendreau’s deadline to file for reelection to the board, but she didn’t, so her three-year term ends in March.
A former mill town in the White Mountains, Littleton reversed a long decline in part through art. Tourists come now for antiques, galleries, boutiques and “the world’s longest candy counter.” They also look at the bronze statue of Pollyanna, erected outside the public library to honor the 1913 book by local author Eleanor H. Porter, whose main character came to define relentless optimism.
Pollyanna’s motto “Be Glad!” — which hangs from banners up and down Main Street — has been tested as townspeople found themselves debating over inclusion, tolerance and equality.
The controversy began in August, after three small murals funded by a diversity, equity and inclusion grant appeared on the side of a building that houses a restaurant and clothing store. Covering boarded-up windows, the murals show a white iris against a color wheel, two birch trees bending under a night sky, and a dandelion reaching skyward from an open book.
“What went up was not good,” said Gendreau, urging the selectboard’s audience to research what such symbols really mean. “I don’t want that to be in our town. I don’t want it to be here.”
The board then sought an attorney’s advice on what they could do to regulate artistic expression on town property and Gendreau gave several interviews, telling The Boston Globe that the iris painting carried “demonic hidden messages.”
The artist, Meg Reinhold, said her “We Are Joy” painting was inspired by Iris, the Greek goddess of rainbows. She told The Associated Press in an email that she hoped to “evoke feelings of joy and empowerment,” add beauty to Littleton, and celebrate people living with pride in the LGBTQ+ community.
“If a viewer looks at these works and sees demons and darkness, what does that tell us about how they view the world?” Reinhold said.
Gleason, who answered to the board as town manager, said he tried to resolve matters. When a woman approached him demanding to stop the November production of “La Cage aux Folles” — depicted on screen as “The Birdcage” — he said she was free to protest outside the theater or not buy a ticket.
She responded by invoking his son, saying “He’s in hell with the devil where he belongs,” recalled Gleason, and he said Gendreau tried to justify the the comments. The woman later admitted sending Gleason a photo of him clipped from a newspaper with derogatory language written across his face. A judge granted Gleason a restraining order against her.
As fears of a public art ban spread, selectboard meetings drew large crowds.
Ronnie Sandler, 75, an out lesbian all her adult life, said she spoke up at a selectboard meeting last fall because some of her friends told her they were scared.
“I have never felt any hatred or anything targeted at me in all of those years,” she told the AP. “Back in the late ’70s, my girlfriend and I used to walk around in Littleton holding hands.”
A group of local business owners led by auto dealership manager Duane Coute submitted a letter signed by more than 1,000 people from Littleton and across the country urging the board to abandon “a path so detrimental to business.”
“Our community is so much stronger because of this situation,” Coute said.
New Hampshire’s Democratic-led congressional delegation stressed “how integral public art and cultural expression are to the economic wellbeing and competitiveness of towns like Littleton and similar communities throughout New Hampshire.” Surrounding towns adopted inclusivity-equality resolutions.
Some people backed Gendreau.
“She speaks for those stakeholders who are afraid to speak out due to personal retribution. She speaks out for those who are afraid for their own personal safety,” Nick De Mayo of nearby Sugar Hill, in Gendreau’s Senate district, wrote in a letter to the editor.
Others called the whole experience disappointing and disgraceful.
“It’s coming from a very small group of people. Unfortunately, that small group of people hold elected office and have some degree of power within the town,” said Kevin Silva, a physician who has lived in Littleton for about 20 years.
The board ultimately announced that they never sought an art ban. Selectboard member Linda MacNeil drew a standing ovation when she said “Whether we agree with the content or not, art is part of the fabric of history and should not be censored.” Roger Emerson, chairperson of the three-member board, did not take a position on the subject.
Gleason, 65, expressed amazement during his resignation speech at an outpouring of support for his defense of the arts, and urged his fellow townspeople to keep working “for civil rights and equality for all.”
“Keep up the fight,” he told the audience in a quavering voice. ’You’ve got a beautiful town.”
Gleason, who was hired in 2021 following a similar job in Florida, told the AP he’s been thinking of his son Patrick, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2016.
“I believe he’d be proud of his dad for standing up, not just for him, but for everybody in the LGBTQIA-plus community, and anyone who has been marginalized or discriminated against in terms of that process,” Gleason said. “This is one of those moments. We don’t always get them in life.”
Gendreau didn’t answer directly when asked for comment on the controversy, but she suggested she wasn’t done trying to change her community. “There’s a lot of undertones that need to get corrected,” she said.
McCormack reported from Concord, New Hampshire.
Nick Perry And Kathy Mccormack, The Associated Press