Last March, I told you a story about Indiana Youth Group, bullied out of their fund-raising license plate by the state’s Republican legislature. Now, the story has a much happier ending.
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 LGBTQ 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 its license plate, I could find no trace of them. Can you say confidentiality agreement?
January 17, 2012 was a happy day for the kids of Indiana Youth Group. Indiana became the second state (Maryland was first) to green light a license plate to help an 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, (BMV) 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 terminate the program. Better nobody gets help than 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 his “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 had 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 proudly advertise the fact they reward their most generous 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 like Indiana Youth Group, granted their plates through the BMV? Those would be removed from the program.
P.S. 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 was governor of Indiana at the time, supposedly one of those reasonable “Republican moderates” with presidential ambitions. Surely he would step in to rescue a group of powerless, at-risk kids from being bullied 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 asked him at his March 13 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.”,
That was where On Our Radar ended in March of 2012, with the names and districts of every state senators who signed the letter asking the BMV to take the license plate away from the scary gay kids. (I’ll print them below.) But the story didn’t end there. Mary Byrne, (Photo right) Executive Director of the Indiana Youth Group, decided to not to allow the legislature to bully her kids. She really had no choice, did she? If they want LGBTQ kids not to give up when they encounter hostility in their own daily lives, their mentors have to model that behavior. So they filed a lawsuit. The ACLU of Indiana took the case on. Its Legal Director, Ken Falk, filed a motion for summary judgment last October, and hearings on the matter were continued four times while Indiana Youth Group and the BMV discussed a negotiated settlement, supposedly in good faith. In hindsight, it now appears the BMV was stalling for time.
On April 29, a new specialty license plate bill was signed into law by Mike Pence, Indiana’s current Republican governor. One of its provisions is that non-profit groups must be audited every year to determine how the money they earned from the license plate program is being spent. Yes, the legislature has managed to enact a legalistic snare that allows them to yank the garroting wire around the throats of whatever group might have an expenditure of which they disapprove.
On April 30, the BMV withdrew their offer and ended settlement talks. It appears they were confident the new law would make the gay kid’s complaint moot. Attorney Falk filed for an immediate Summary Judgment Hearing. Arguments were held on May 10. The ACLU was cautiously optimistic. Director Byrne said she believed wholeheartedly that the politics may not be on her side, but the facts were. The government thought their ass was covered, no matter what the Court decided. The judge took the matter under advisement.
May 31, the judge finally ruled. He gave the kids back their plate. Even better, he recognized the legislature had written their new law in a way that would allow them to continue their campaign of bullying the LGBT kids, so he gave them a shield. The ruling requires the BMV to give 30 days notice, and the opportunity to correct or dispute any perceived breach before they can terminate the specialty plate contract.
This is the place we all do the happy dance.
He who laughs last, laughs best, claims the old proverb, yet even as I write those words, I am not confident this will be the last act in this drama. Lets hope the legislature ends its obsession with tormenting a bunch of struggling teenagers, and turns its focus elsewhere. How about a bullying bill or some anti-discrimination legislation without a carve-out for religious bigots? Just a suggestion.
So today we send our congratulations to the kids of Indiana Youth Group. We offer a nod of thanks and admiration to their board of directors and Exec Director Mary Byrne, whose perseverance imparted a lesson about standing up to bullying I predict the kids will long remember. And we send our gratitude to Ken Falk and the ACLU, who made it their mission to get justice for a group of powerless kids who all to often find justice a concept that’s hard to believe in.
Images: Indiana Youth Group Facebook
The State Senators who signed the letter to the Indiana BMV and their 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 – 19
James Buck – 21
May karma visit you ladies and gentlemen, one and all.
Jean Ann Esselink is a straight friend to the gay community. Proud and loud Liberal. Closet writer of political fiction. Black sheep agnostic Democrat from a conservative Catholic family. Living in Northern Oakland County Michigan with Puck the Wonder Beagle.