License to Bully

They say no man stands so tall as when he stoops to help a child. If the converse is also true, the members of the Indiana legislature have all been severely diminished in stature these last few weeks.

Once upon a time, in the long ago 1980s, life partners Jeff Werner and Chris Gonzales volunteered at The Gay and Lesbian Switchboard in Indianapolis. Every night they fielded calls from desperate teenagers thrown out by their families. Living in cars. Squatting with friends. Bullied at school until they are one “faggot” away from dropping out. Feeling alone in the world. Feeling hopeless. Thinking about running away. Thinking about suicide. There seemed to be no bottom to the misery pool.

Jeff and Chris and a handful of their fellow volunteers at the Switchboard got it into their heads to help these lost and lonely kids, and with more determination than money, they founded Indiana Youth Group. It began as a place where LGBT teens could come to be safe; where they could find an adult who would listen, and maybe even a friend in the same situation. As it grew in both size and mission, the facility sustained itself with private grants and community fundraisers, and most recently, a partnership with United Way. But there were always more kids in need than funds to help them, so when the State of Indiana opened up a specialty license plate program where a charity could keep $25 from each $40 plate they sold, Indiana Youth Group applied. And applied. And applied.

After three years of rejections with only amorphous reasons why they were being turned down, Indiana Youth Group saw the homophobic writing on the wall and with the help of the ACLU, they sued. The suit ended with a settlement. I wish I could tell you what the terms were, but search as I might, outside of the fact Indiana Youth Group got it’s license plate, I could find no trace of them. Can you say confidentiality agreement??

January 17, 2012 was a happy day for the kids at the Indiana Youth Group. Indiana became the second state (Maryland was first) to green light a license plate to help a LGBT cause. And it wasn’t just the money. It was the recognition. Their community cared about them! To kids rejected by their own families, made unwelcome in their own schools, this was no small psychological lift.

The new LGBT plate had a profound psychological effect on the Indiana Statehouse too. They first vented their anger in the direction of the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, who had let this “terrible thing” happen. They immediately began working on legislation to take the program away from the bureau and administer it themselves, but with drastically revised rules.

I may not have been able to find out the terms of the settlement agreement, but I will bet my condo, my 401K, and Puck’s favorite chew toy that it includes language that says the state of Indiana must treat Indiana Youth Group in the same manner they treat every other charity with a license plate. I am convinced of this from the contortions the legislature went through trying to find a way to get rid of that Youth Group license plate without making it look like a hit job.

Their first thought was to get rid of the entire program. Better nobody gets help than that those gay kids should get a hot meal or a job training program. (But that bill was too cold.) Then Rep. Jeff Thompson came up with an idea to refuse plates to any group associated with alcohol, tobacco, drugs, porn, sex outside marriage, or any “lifestyle that is contrary to marriage”. (But that bill was too hot, not to mention too revealing of their true motives.) Next came Rep. Ed Soliday with the idea to remove from the program all the new groups. The excuse  this time would be that with over 100 charities the program had grown too large. (And that bill was just right)

In the end it was Rep. Soliday who officially kicked off the Republican vendetta with a refined version of the “Sacrifice the Newbies” idea and introduced an amendment that would remove everyone who hadn’t sold 1000 plates in the prior year. (Remember, the rainbow plate has only been available for a month, and they had sold around 650 plates in that time.) Soliday referred to this newest scheme as “Good public policy.”

Unfortunately for Rep. Soliday, it turned out that list of low selling plates included a lot of other groups with influential constituencies, like the Indianapolis Zoo and the NRA. The public outcry made Soliday retreat and pull his bill.  Suddenly it was no longer good policy. “I am disappointed,” he opined “I hope for the chance to address this issue again next year.”

It looked like the Youth Group’s plate had been spared. On March 1, the Indianapolis Star declared that with the legislative session ending, for the time being, the issue appeared dead. But just when you think it’s safe to go back in the water, out from under his rock slithers the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, David Long, who announced he had a “new solution”.

The next thing you know, a letter, signed on the very last day of the legislative session by 20 Republican state senators, arrived at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles. The letter demanded the BMV investigate a “contractual violation” by groups who were offering low number plates as rewards to their large donors. The BMV complied, inspecting the websites of all the groups with specialty plates and yanked the plates of The Four H Club, The Greenways Foundation, and, you guessed it, bye-bye rainbow plate.

But wait. The Indianapolis Colts tout the fact they reward donors with low number plates. Surely with so many eyes on them the legislature would insist on applying the law in the same manner for everyone. Nope. They created a loophole instead. The groups who were awarded their plates by the legislature  (like the Colts) could keep their plates and continue to reward their most generous benefactors with low number plates. But the groups granted their plates through the BMV? Those would be removed from the program.

PS People of Indiana, this has nothing to do with the gay kids. Sincerely, Your Loving Legislature.

Are you indignant yet? Not to worry. Mitch Daniels is governor of Indiana. He’s one of those reasonable “secular moderates” the Republicans lusted after to bolster their field of lackluster presidential candidates. Surely he would act to rescue the at-risk kids of his state from an attack by the very people who are supposed to protect them . If the governor has your back, you’re golden, right? But when the local newsies ask him at his March 13th press conference what he thought of the efforts of the lawmakers regarding the specialty plate program, Governor Daniels’ response was memorable, if not quite presidential: “I don’t know, and I don’t care.”

If there is a hell, the people who go out of their way to torment children in distress deserve a special place in it, but as a non-believer I’d prefer to see them punished in this life. Losing their reelection bids would be best, because it’s what pains a politician the most. Unfortunately, all I have to offer is shame. Shame on you Governor Daniels for not caring about at-risk children. Shame on you Senator David Long. Shame on Rep. Jeff Thompson, Shame on Rep. Ed Soliday and on every Senator who signed the letter to the Indiana BMV. Their names and districts are listed below.

James W. Merritt, Jr. – 31
Richard Bray – 37
Carlin Yoder – 12
Ron Alting — 22
Brent Steele – 44
Ryan Mishler – 9
Connie Lawson – 24
Jim Tomes – 49

Greg Walker – 41
Jim Buck – 17
Phil Boots – 23
Sue Landske – 6

Patricia Miller – 32
Dennis Kruse – 14
R. Michael Young – 35
Randy Head – 18

Doug Eckerty – 26
John W. Waterman – 39
Travis Holdman – 19James Birck – 21

May karma visit you ladies and gentlemen, one and all.

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One Response to License to Bully

  1. Mary Byrne says:

    Hi, I’m wondering if it would be possible to use this blog on our website? Love the way you connect Chris and Jeff to the story! Could you contact IYG? Thanks, Mary Byrne

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