Annette Siegel Gross is an unusual specimen. She’s a Democrat in Hamilton County, which is a prominently Republican place to live.
Not only is she a Democrat, but she’s one of the organizers responsible for the more than 3,000 people who showed up at an April rally at the Indiana Statehouse to protest a controversial abortion law that was passed. She also gathered thousands to protest the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 2015. Both protests made national news.
But this Bronx-native and current Carmel resident wasn’t always involved in political activism. The retired nonprofit employee began getting involved after her only child, her son Matthew, came out as gay in 1997.
“Other than voting, I was not involved in politics until I came to Indiana,” she said. “I was also working full-time and raising a son, so I had very little time for other things.”
She was a lifelong democrat but still wanted to talk to other parents after her son came out. She joined PFLAG, an organization that supports Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, in 2001. She went to monthly meetings and was invited by an organization called Indiana Equality to join a coalition that was working to get a Human Rights Ordinance passed in Marion County. Around that time, Indiana lawmakers were trying to pass a state constitutional ban of same-sex marriage. She began attending rallies and testifying at Indiana Senate and House hearings.
“I’d say that LGBT rights and women’s rights are closest to my heart,” she said. “I am very disappointed that the Republican majority in the Statehouse would rather pass legislation targeted against these two groups rather than focus on the most pressing issues facing our state.”
Gross made some political friends but the first rally she ever helped organize ended up being a big one: protesting RFRA, the law signed by Gov. Mike Pence that drew national attention.
Many pundits criticized the law for opening the door for businesses to discriminate against LGBT customers, although Pence defended the law saying it is meant to protect religious freedom. The law led to companies threatening to boycott the state of Indiana and many municipalities, including Carmel, passed anti-discrimination ordinances in the wake of RFRA.
Gross had just had surgery the week before Pence signed the law and spent a week at her kitchen table helping organize a rally mostly through a Facebook page event. She clicked and invited some friends, expecting a small crowd of likeminded attendees. But the event was being shared on Facebook. Within a week, more than 3,000 people signed up to attend through the Facebook page. It was getting big.
“I had never put together a rally before, so this was a new experience for me,” she said. “I remember standing at the Statehouse and only seeing about 50 people milling around. All of a sudden I heard a huge noise and then saw hundreds and hundreds of people coming around the corner of the Statehouse. I couldn’t help but cry. It was such an overwhelming experience to see so many people come together for equal rights.”
In April, Gross helped organize The Rally for Women’s Rights after Pence signed a law that restricted abortions. The state law was the second one in the nation to ban abortions sought because the fetus has a disability.
“Gov. Pence signed a bad bill and people became angry,” she said. “I once again created a Facebook page event and began inviting people. The response was unbelievable and within a few hours we saw 500 people signed up.”
Speakers included included Betty Cockrum, president of Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky; State Senator Vi Simpson; Dr. Kate McHugh, a local OB-GYN; Rabbi Paula Winnig, executive director of the Bureau of Jewish Education; Rachel Metheny, pastor at Broadway United Methodist Church; and Cara Roellgen, a mom who explained how the bill would impact her family.
Gross stresses that she had co-organizers help her with both events and she, by no means, wants to take the credit for the success of these rallies. In her enthusiasm, she lists off numerous people who helped her with everything from getting a venue to planning sound and lighting.
Media outlets vary in their estimates on attendance for both events. Some put the attendance in the hundreds and others say in the thousands. No official count is available for either event.
“At both rallies, we told the attendees that the only way they can change what they don’t like is to vote,” she said. “It is my hope that they take our words seriously and do what is needed to change the political climate in Indiana. We need to elect fair-minded legislators who don’t put their religious ideology over the well-being of all Hoosiers.”
ABOUT ANNETTE GROSS
Spouse/Children: Allan H. Gross, husband; Matthew J. Gross, son
Work history: Now retired. Worked for more than 40 years for non-profits. Moved to Indiana and became a legal assistant
Original hometown: Bronx, New York
Current residence: Carmel
Organizations: PFLAG; Indy Pride; Hadassah; NOW; Democratic Women of Hamilton County; Indiana Federation of Democratic Women; Hamilton County Democratic Party; Congregation Beth Shalom
Leadership roles: Past president of the Indianapolis Chapter of Hadassah; president of Indianapolis PFLAG; State Coordinator for the ten PFLAG chapters in Indiana