GRIFFITH | Hairstylist Ben Mollin has a warning. 

If Indiana doesn't adopt statewide protections against LGBT discrimination, the state might not look so good – not just backwards in the eyes of others, but literally. 

"When I first found out this discrimination is going on, I thought Indiana is messing with the people who cover your grays and make you look good," he said. "It's kind of ridiculous. If you want to discriminate against them Indiana, you're going to walk around looking broken."

Mollin, star of the reality series "Shear Genius," and other business leaders gathered together Friday at Angel Hair Cafe in Griffith to demand for civil rights protections that would prevent people from being fired or denied housing just because of their sexual orientation.

More than a dozen Northwest Indiana businesses, including Ben Mollin Hair Education, are backing Indiana Competes, a coalition of more than 150 businesses across the state calling on state lawmakers to prohibit discrimination of any kind during this legislative session.

Business leaders are lobbying for a statewide law for legal equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people after last year's Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which sparked national outrage and led to calls for boycotts of Indiana. They say the state needs to show it is inclusive for economic reasons, to ensure it can attract talent and retain young families, and not give tourists a reason to vacation elsewhere.

"Basically it sets us back in time instead of moves us forward," Mollin said. "I remember seeing on social media at the time a road sign that said, 'Welcome to Indiana, turn your clocks back 200 years ...' My clients come in from all over the country. We have to let people know we are an open community, especially if we cater to the arts and small businesses. It's going to be tough for small businesses and large businesses alike, and I think it sets us back 200 years on top of it."

Mollin said diversity helped make his hair salon a success and spark a revitalization in downtown Griffith. But beyond economic reasons, he said sanctioning discrimination was just wrong.

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"I can't imagine sending people away or firing people based upon what they do when they're not at work," Mollin said. "Shame on anybody that's doing this, and anybody that stands behind this."

Other Northwest Indiana business backing the cause include Holy Macaroni Cafe Catering in LaPorte County, Smith Sersic in Munster, Vanis Salon & Day Spa in Schererville, and Lifestyles in Valparaiso, as well as Indie Indie Bang Bang, Miller Bakery Cafe and Miller's Vintage Kitchen, all in Gary

Amy Straka, who owns the Amy Strake Photography business in Michigan City, said she feared a lingering image that Indiana is not welcoming could hurt tourism to Lake Michigan beaches. One of her longtime clients said after the RFRA bill that she would be spending her summer vacations somewhere other than Michigan City.

"Tourism along that lakefront is what makes many of our communities vibrant and prosperous," she said. "This is not business that Hoosiers can afford to lose. It's time to update Indiana's civil rights laws to ensure that people – regardless of race, color, religion, ancestry, age, sex, national origin, disability, and now sexual orientation, gender identity and expression – can participate freely in our state's economy. When amazingly innovative Hoosier companies can attract and retain top talent, they prosper. And so do we."

Young people increasingly want to live in open, welcoming communities, said Munster resident Ann Bochnowski, who's pressed for a local human rights ordinance. Indiana's population could stagnate if it fails to adapt to changing public views.

"If we want our towns to grow and develop, young families are important," she said.

For more information or to sign up your business, visit www.indianacompetes.org.


Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.