How one Indiana lawmaker fought for Ryan White then. And stands for what’s right now.

Tony Cook had to make a decision. Would he stand against ignorance and fear? Would he choose to endure the insults that come with pushing back against hatred? Would he welcome a child who'd been shunned by another community?

It was April 1987 when Cook, principal of Hamilton Heights High at the time, learned that a young AIDS patient named Ryan White planned to attend classes at the school in the fall.

By then, White's story had made headlines around the world when his family had won a court battle to have Ryan readmitted to his middle school in Kokomo after he was diagnosed with AIDS in 1984.

Once back in school, Ryan was forced to use a separate bathroom and to eat with plastic utensils out of fear he would infect other students or staff. Some parents pulled their children out of the school. Ryan's mother said her son suffered verbal abuse and harassment because of his illness.

In high school, Ryan wanted to be treated like an ordinary student. His new principal decided to do all he could to make that goal a reality.

Along with other educators and students, Cook spent the summer teaching the community about the myths and realities of AIDS.

And when Ryan showed up for class in August, he was welcomed to the school without hesitation. Cook and others had overcome fear with facts.

Three decades later, Cook, now a Republican state representative from Cicero, has taken another stand for what he knows to be right.

Cook this time has taken the lead in the Indiana House to push passage of hate crimes legislation in a state that's one of only five in the nation to lack such legal protections against discrimination.

"I've seen the bullying that happens in schools. I've also seen what happens when the bullies become adults," Cook, an educator for 41 years, said this week. "We have a reputation and tradition in Indiana for hospitality. This legislation fits with that tradition. It would show that we don't tolerate discrimination in any way."

Just as he did 32 years ago at Hamilton Heights, Cook has had to dispel myths about what his proposal would do. Four of Cook's fellow Republican House members recently wrote an op-ed published by IndyStar that claimed a hate crimes law would "criminalize the thoughts of Hoosiers."

That's nonsense, of course. The First Amendment remains safe in the 45 states that have adopted hate crimes legislation. Citizens aren't being prosecuted for "thought crimes." No one has erased free speech.

"You can be as hateful as you want as long as you don't act out on it," Cook said. "This legislation focuses strictly on those physical crimes when people act out on their hatred."

But let's acknowledge the elephant in the Statehouse. The opposition to a hate crimes law has nothing to do with concerns about protecting the First Amendment.

Cook's bill and others like it are controversial in the General Assembly only because they include LGBT citizens among those who'd be further protected against crimes rooted in bias and hatred.

Cook knows he'd have a better chance of getting legislation passed if he would agree to strip gender identity, in particular, out of the bill. He also knows doing so would send entirely the wrong message.

The Indiana Chamber of Commerce, the Indy Chamber and major employers such as Cummins and Eli Lilly are lobbying for approval of a hate crimes law in large part because it would erase one obstacle businesses face in recruiting talent to Indiana.

Today, an African-American chemist from Florida might pause before accepting a job with Lilly once she learns our leaders have repeatedly refused to enact a hate crimes law. She may wonder about what kind of welcome she'd receive in her new community and how prevalent discrimination is in a place that refuses to join the legal norm.

Passing a hate crimes law could ease those concerns. But if state lawmakers commit the error of omitting certain groups of citizens out of fear and ignorance they'll risk stumbling into another RFRA-type disaster.

Cook's colleagues need to ask themselves the same questions he faced 32 years ago. Will they take a stand for what's right? Will they risk criticism for embracing those who've been shunned?

Will they send an unmistakable message that Indiana is a place that welcomes and values all people from all backgrounds?



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This article is an example of the need for strong and unambiguous bias crimes legislation. To join our efforts to support this change, visit

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