LITTLETON, N.H. — It began with three paintings that make up a mural on the side of a private building in Littleton, N.H.
One showed a white iris in front of a rainbow color wheel. Another showed two birch trees in front of blue mountains and a white crescent moon. The third depicted dandelions growing from the pages of a book, with their roots below and stars twinkling in the sky.
While the mural on the red brick wall of the Jing Fong restaurant building looked innocuous to most viewers, Carrie Gendreau looked through the lens of her extremely conservative Christian faith and saw something dark: demonic symbols and, since the paintings were sponsored by North Country Pride, an indication that LGBTQ+ art in town had gone too far.
A state senator and a member of the town’s three-person Select Board, Gendreau spoke out against the paintings during an Aug. 28 Select Board meeting.
“I’m not even sure how to broach the subject,” she said, “because when it’s private property, there’s nothing we can do. But I really think we need to be very careful about what kind of artwork goes up. This last artwork that went up on the side of the Jing Fong building, I would encourage anyone to research what that really means.”
“This group is already talking about, ‘Oh, we want to put more artwork up here, and that’s all public property,” she continued.
“I don’t want that to be in our town,” she said.
“We definitely can regulate public property,” Town Manager Jim Gleason said in response to Gendreau. “Town property, we can keep every sign, no matter what it is, off.”
Now, some local organizations are concerned that the town could do just that, and extend the ban to other forms of public art as well.
Courtney Vashaw, the president of the board of directors of Theatre UP, a local theater company, spoke out against the idea of a ban on public signage at a town meeting in September that drew an estimated 300 attendees.
“As the gayest organization around, we cannot and will not invest in a community that marginalizes us and calls us an abomination and the work of Satan,” she said during the meeting, at which she identified herself publicly as a queer person who is married to a woman.
“This is a terrible plan,” she later told the Globe, speaking about the idea of banning public art. “This is not good for individuals. It’s not good for the community. It’s not good for businesses.”
The theater company’s relationship with the town has grown strained as the controversy over LGBTQ+ art unfolds: Its production of “La Cage aux Folles” is scheduled to premiere on Nov. 3. The Tony Award-winning musical comedy about a gay couple helped to mainstream LGBTQ+ representation on Broadway, and inspired the 1996 hit movie “The Birdcage,” starring Robin Williams and Nathan Lane.
Now, Vashaw is concerned about the future of Theatre UP.
The theater rents its performance space in the Opera House from the town of Littleton. After being awarded a $1 million grant from the Northern Borders Regional Commission, Theatre UP hoped to collaborate with the town on renovating the building. But during a meeting with town officials on Oct. 10, Vashaw told the Globe, Town Manager Jim Gleason told her that the Select Board was unlikely to approve a long-term lease or share the $5,000 cost of a feasibility study because of the theater’s “inextricable link to the LGBTQ community,” said Vashaw.
There are people on the select board and in the community who “would really like to see (us) out of that space based on what (we’re) performing right now,” she said.
Gleason confirmed to the Globe that he told Vashaw two members of the select board were unlikely to approve town funds for the feasibility study. But, he said, a long-term lease had been rejected by voters when it was last brought to a town vote in 2020.
“Under the current environment that we’re going through,” Gleason said, “I think it would be very difficult to get two of the three board members to be supportive of any kind of long term agreement with the group.”
While the controversy is ostensibly about banning public art and signage, Gleason said, “I think this is really much deeper in reference to views about society and the LGBTQ community.”
He said the town is now seeking legal advice on banning artwork altogether, as it would be illegal to discriminate and only ban artwork about or by LGBTQ people.
“You can’t just restrict art that you don’t like,” he said.
The three panels of the mural – “We will not be banned,” “We are joy,” and “We belong” – do have a distinct LGBTQ+ focus, the North County Mural Project explained in an Instagram post.
On Sept. 11, the artist, Meg Reinhold, wrote about the controversy surrounding the mural.
“While I am disappointed that attempts are being made to silence artistic expression in public spaces I am fortified in my conviction that I want to continue making meaningful public art,” Reinhold, wrote on Instagram. “I will fight wholeheartedly against censorship, and will double down when that censorship targets the LGBTQ+ community.”
Lynne Grigelevich, the executive director of Theatre UP, said marginalizing the LGBTQ+ population is unconscionable, as is an attempt to ban art in public places.
At this point, she said, a partnership between Theatre UP and the town is off the table.
“We can’t risk being censored by people who are making a policy based on personal religious beliefs,” she said. “There are only three selectmen on the board, and they all share the same religious views.”
Roger Emerson, select board chairman, declined to comment when reached by the Globe. Linda MacNeil, another board member, did not return multiple requests for comment. But in an interview with the Globe, board member Gendreau spoke candidly about her views.
Gendreau said she approaches the issue of the paintings “from a biblical perspective.” She believes “homosexuality is an abomination,” she said, and has grown increasingly disturbed by the pride signs and flags in town.
She said she stayed quiet because many were on private property, but spoke out against the paintings on the Jing Fong building because she was worried that North Country Pride would try to put up more artwork elsewhere in town.
“I am very concerned about what is basically creeping into our community,” Gendreau said. She said the painting of the iris had “demonic hidden messages” and “demonic symbolism” representing the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar.
Gendreau said she follows the work of Jonathan Cahn, a messianic Jewish rabbi, who believes the US has gone astray by allowing abortion and gay rights, as religion has waned. Cahn focuses on end times prophecies, and Gendreau pointed to his work on how the “principalities of darkness” are making their way back to the United States.
She believes this mural – as well as a painting in Harmony Park that shows mountains, a stream, a small stack of rocks in the colors of a rainbow, and the sun depicted as an eye – are bringing that darkness to Littleton. The production of “La Cage aux Folles” is another example, she said.
“It’s disgusting,” she said of Theatre UP’s production. She said she finds the depiction of a gay couple offensive, and takes issue with the presence of drag queens and burlesque in the show. She also equated drag queens with pedophilia, a false claim that has become a talking point for right-wing activists.
“We want them to live among us and we want them to not feel marginalized, but stop putting their twisted homosexual preferences in our face,” she told the Globe.
While Gendreau said many in the community have voiced their support to her privately, other members of the community have made it clear that they disagree with Gendreau. On Sept. 8, less than two weeks after her comments during the August Select Board meeting, Gendreau was forced to resign from the board of directors of the Woodsville Guaranty Savings Bank.
“We are aware of comments made at a recent Littleton Select Board meeting by a member of the bank’s board of directors about the new mural in downtown, causing hurt to the LGBTQ+ and art communities and to the community at large,” said a Sept. 8 statement from the bank announcing Gendreau’s resignation.
“We want you to know that we truly understand. The comments are not representative of what the bank stands for,” it continued.
Jordan Applewhite, who is queer, is the owner of Slim Pickin’s, a bar and restaurant in Littleton. They said they always thought of Littleton as a very LGBTQ friendly place, but as tensions have ratcheted up nationally, the polarization seems to have had a local effect.
“We have a town government that is actively hostile to LGBTQ people, even if they’re pillars of the community, even if they’re helping with tourism, and helping with the vibrancy of our local arts and culture scene, and even if they’re bringing a lot of money,” said Applewhite.
“That doesn’t feel like responsible government,” they said.
But, Applewhite said, they think most of the population is more moderate and accepting than Gendreau. Their eye is already on the next election cycle.
“This may be a moment where people start to realize that you can’t ignore town government,” Applewhite said. “You actually do have to show up for town elections in March and do a little research about who the candidates are and maybe even consider running yourself.”
At a Select Board meeting Monday night, Kerri Harrington, co-chair of North Country Pride, noted that about 60 people have signed a petition to expand the Select Board from three to five members. Gleason, the town manager, spoke about facing a personal attack from a resident regarding his late son, who was gay. And MacNeil, a board member, spoke against censoring artwork.
“The arts are important, not only to the economic health of any community, but extremely valuable to us as individuals,” she said. “Whether we agree with the content or not, art is part of the fabric of history and should not be censored.” She noted the atmosphere in town over the past few weeks “does not reflect the loving community that I grew up knowing.”
In a statement shared on social media, North Country Pride said the meeting affirmed that the town and surrounding region support the arts and the LGBTQ+ community. They pointed to calls for Gendreau to resign and admonishment of the town for spending taxpayer money on a possible art ban.
Gendreau made a motion to ask Littleton voters if they want Theatre UP to take over management of the Opera House. That would appear on the ballot in March, if approved by the Select Board.
This article has been updated with information from the town meeting on Oct. 23.