Bil Browning

Indiana Equality: No stranger to controversy

Filed By Bil Browning | June 19, 2009 9:45 AM | comments

Filed in: Living, Marriage Equality, Politics
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While Indiana Equality's opposition to the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) has raised eyebrows nationally about the organization's leadership, the state equality group isn't new to controversy.

IElogo.pngThe organization, led by Republican fundraiser and organizer Kathy Sarris, has been perceived by some in the community as delaying, rather than hastening, pro-LGBT state legislation. This may be prompted in part by rumors of board infighting and financial mis-management. Several organizations, including the Evansville-area Tri-State Alliance, have either pulled out of the coalition altogether or stopped sending representatives to board meetings. The group's inability to pass pro-gay legislation is only exacerbated by what critics decry as partisan politics.

When asked why the Tri-State Alliance pulled out of the Indiana Equality coalition, President Wally Paynter told Bilerico Project, "The Tri-State Alliance did withdraw from Indiana Equality quite some time ago.  The catalyst to this decision was a disagreement with IE President Kathy Sarris' assertion that [Republican gubernatorial candidate] Mitch Daniels would be better on GLBT issues than [sitting Democratic Governor] Joe Kernan." 

"We also disagreed with her decision not to work with the most influential GLBT democrat in the state with whom she has a continued personality conflict, and the hiring of year-round lobbyists for a part-time general assembly.  At that time Kathy Sarris also opposed any involvement by IE on the Indiana anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment during the first year it was introduced," he continued.

"Earlier this year Kathy Sarris wrote a column stating that Indiana Senate Republicans had seen the light on the anti-gay marriage amendment, by not letting it go forward.  I think this will be interesting, as we look to see if they allow it to be voted on during an election year...next year."

While some LGBT activists point to Kathy Sarris's Republican roots, others are quick to blame too much Democratic influence. Indianapolis gay Republican blogger Gary Welsh has been a frequent critic of the organization. He believes that Indiana Equality "operates as an extension of the Democratic Party."

"In 2007, I broke the story on how IMPD under the Peterson administration had stopped collecting and reporting statistics on hate crimes as provided under Indiana law. The group which represents itself as Indiana's premier GLBT organization, Indiana Equality, refused to take action on the matter because it would shine an embarrassing light on [Democratic] Mayor Bart Peterson, who the group supported over Greg Ballard... Now that Republican Greg Ballard is in office, the group decided something needed done to shine light on the problem," Welsh wrote in January. "It's now taking credit for Public Safety Director Scott Newman's announcement that IMPD is taking steps to ensure compliance with Indiana's state reporting law."

Indiana Equality's non-profit status requires it to be non-partisan.

Other critics are also quick to echo Welsh's claim that the organization is too eager to claim victory for other activists/organizations success. One Indianapolis activist who asked not to be identified blamed the organization for her general burnout on LGBT issues for a few years.

"It's very frustrating to see someone always take credit for your hard work - especially when they've actively worked behind-the-scenes to undermine your project," she commented. "By the time they realize what you're doing will be a success, suddenly they're full of critical suggestions so they can claim they helped you."

She continued, "After a while, you've just had enough. It's why we never get anywhere. Our leadership undermines the grassroots. IE is a small clique of people who want to control everything without getting their hands dirty."

When concerned LGBT activists and gay-friendly politicians organized impromptu grassroots meetings in 2007, Indiana Equality sent representatives but didn't assist in any meaningful ways. Several activists complained at the time that IE representatives were belittling the community members, politicians and organizations participating.

Welsh was also quick to point out the group's insular nature. Responding to news of Indiana Equality's recent condemnation of ENDA, he wrote on his blog, "It's funny that Indiana Equality would be concerned about segregation when that's what it practices daily in the operation of its organization."

"The tightly-knit group refuses to open up its membership and allow open and free elections of its board and leadership. The primary goal of the self-appointed board and leaders of IE is to ensure the perpetuity of their control of the organization," Welsh wrote. "You would think an organization that advocates equality would itself embrace equal treatment among the people it purports to represent."

Paynter, however, speculated that the group might have another motivation. Indiana Equality has never been successful at raising the large amounts of money needed to retain a full-time staff. According to published yearly financial reports, most of the group's income is used to pay Lambda Consulting for lobbying and organizational management services. Not-for-profit charitable giving has dropped considerably around the nation due to the poor economy.

"As for the IE position on ENDA, too often IE leadership appears to be motivated by what will raise the most money.  I hope this is not the case," Paynter said.

Welsh seemed to echo Paynter's general concerns in an early 2007 story after the Indiana Word published a missive from newspaper owner Ted Fleischaker blaming Indiana Equality for a lack of progress on LGBT issues.

"Most of the money raised by IE goes directly into the pocket of [Lambda Consulting principle Mark] St. John to pay his lobbying fees. This is one of the many reasons I will not contribute another dime to IE despite my past support for the organization," Welsh wrote. "At some point, Indiana's GLBT community needs to figure out the extent of the harm IE has done by its past actions and build a new statewide organization that speaks for the larger community, and not just a handful of self-appointed leaders."

Fleischaker's editorial was scathing in it's rebuke of Indiana Equality.

He wrote, "Who speaks for us? Who speaks for you or for I? Do we get to choose or does a small group of often self-important and self-appointed folks claim they are the voice of the gay and lesbian community?"

"Sadly, this newspaper thinks that is the case, as many of the mainstream views we find in the community are either being misrepresented to the outside world or ignored by a small clique who whitewash over the fact that what's being told to the outside is their, not a consensus view of how we as gays and lesbians feel..."

Paynter summed up the general consensus of most people reached for comment, "There are many good people involved in Indiana Equality.  However, the leadership of IE at times is not responsive to alternative ideas and approaches.  This is why many of us are willing to help out, but aren't willing to write a check to the group."


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Donna Pandori Donna Pandori | June 19, 2009 11:19 AM

Keep it coming Bil. Great stuff.

Good grief. I am dismayed by the infighting of a group of people who really need to band together, now more than ever. I had wondered why I was seeing little or nothing about how to respond on a state level to pending legislation that affects the LGBT community.

As a straight (semi-)Republican Christian ally, I am unique in my background and willingness to speak out. I would appreciate guidance in having conversations with legislators, to help them understand the damage of the prejudiced legislation on the books and pending. I was hoping to see some sort of concentrated effort with links and names, etc. so that I might contribute my voice. Guess I need to keep looking.