Des Moines, Iowa — The ACLU of Iowa is proud to give one of its highest awards—the Louise Noun Award—to four people who have demonstrated a long-term commitment to our most basic rights and freedoms.
2019 Louise Noun Award Given to Four Iowans
Kenneth Bunch and Tracy Bjorgum are being recognized for their early advocacy work in marriage equality. Tracy died in 1989 and is being given the award posthumously.
The Honorable Mark W. Bennett is being recognized for his distinguished legal career defending civil liberties for more than four decades.
Randy Evans is being recognized for his leadership of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council and career-long commitment to freedom of the press.
The year was 1976, less than a decade after the Stonewall Riots that launched the gay rights movement. But the ACLU of Iowa, on behalf of brave Iowans Tracy Bjorgum and Kenneth Bunch, filed one of the first lawsuits in the country seeking the right of same-sex couples to marry.
Tracy was a 20-year-old student in Iowa City. Kenneth was a custodian at the University of Iowa hospitals, as well as a spokesperson for the Gay Liberation Front. The men appeared in Johnson County District Court, required blood test in hand, and requested a marriage license. It was denied. Months later they did the same in Polk County, were again denied, and the ACLU of Iowa filed a lawsuit on their behalf.
While their lawsuit was unsuccessful, it marked the opening round in Iowa of the battle for marriage equality, a movement that had begun a few years earlier in Minnesota. It was only the second such challenge in the country. In 1971, two Minnesota men, represented by the ACLU of Minnesota, were also denied a requested marriage license and filed the first lawsuit.
It would be more than four decades before the U.S. Supreme Court would decide that the right to marriage applies to all same-sex couples across the nation.
Tragically, Tracy Bjorgum passed away in 1989 from complications from AIDS. His family says that after he was diagnosed in the mid-1980s, he couldn't find any doctors in his hometown of Mankato, Minnesota, who would treat him because of the fear and ignorance surrounding the disease at the time. Tracy found a doctor in Minneapolis-St.Paul who was himself gay and took Tracy as a patient. Through that doctor, Tracy ended up speaking at a number of medical conferences to educate doctors about the needs of HIV patients.
Kenneth continued his advocacy through theatre, including drag. He now lives in San Francisco and in 1979, he helped found The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a satirical theatrical and performance group of men dressed as nuns. VICE magazine wrote about the group in 2017 saying, "The Sisters aim isn't to mock nuns ... although religion itself, and the kind of hypocrisy it engenders in its most dogmatic adherents, is often subject to their satire."
The group has been very involved in HIV/AIDS advocacy as well as "stop the violence" against LGBTQ individuals campaigns. The Sisters have gone international, with "orders" in 60 U.S. cities and 14 countries.
"At a time when the notion of marriage equality wasn't even on the radar for most Iowans, we're proud to have supported the advocacy of these two courageous men," said ACLU of Iowa Executive Director Mark Stringer. "They came out and they advocated for equal rights during an era when LGBTQ activists were even more likely to be openly mocked and be a target for violence. They paved the way for Iowa to become just the fourth state in the nation to recognize marriage equality three decades later in 2009."
At nearly every phase of his distinguished legal career, Judge Mark W. Bennett has been a nationally important and stalwart defender of civil liberties.
For 14 years, starting in 1975, he served as general counsel at the ACLU of Iowa. During that time, he litigated important constitutional, civil rights, and civil liberties cases. One of these cases included the marriage equality lawsuit brought by Kenneth Bunch and Tracy Bjorgum, referenced above.
For a few years, he served as a U.S magistrate judge for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa. Then in 1994, Bennett was appointed to the U.S District Court for the Northern District of Iowa, serving for a time as chief judge. He "retired" in March and has now taken the helm at Drake University Law School's newly-launched Institute for Justice Reform & Innovation.
On the bench for 28 years, he provided bold leadership in fighting the “war on drugs,” racism, and mandatory minimums—so much so that Bennett was featured in a Brad Pitt documentary that won the Sundance Film Festival about the failed “war on drugs” and how it drives racist mass incarceration.
Bennett also pushed for reforms by authoring major cutting edge sentencing opinions, in just two of which, he was reversed 5 times by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals and then vindicated in both cases by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Demonstrating the extraordinary humanity he brought to his position, Bennett traveled around the country to visit more than 250 defendants who he was required to sentence to mandatory life sentences. He later published his experiences during those visits in a scholarly legal journal.
He is one of the nation’s leading experts on implicit bias, training more than 4,000 judges throughout the country. He has published more than 1,400 opinions, 24 law review articles, and numerous other articles in the nation's most prestigious legal and criminal justice journals. He authored one particularly important piece for The Nation, which reverberated throughout the judiciary and impacted public policy makers throughout the country.
"Judge Bennett's vision, leadership, and persistence in criminal justice reform has left a lasting imprint on our state and our country," said Stringer.
Evans is the former Des Moines Register editorial pages editor and the current executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information (FOI) Council.
Under his leadership, the FOI Council has become more active than ever in the protection and advancement of open government. The FOI Council currently is suing the Polk County Sheriff's department for withholding public police records, including body camera footage.
It was also instrumental to the success of the first "ag gag" lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Iowa and other groups. In that case, the FOI Council filed an amicus curiae brief with the district court explaining the burden the ag gag law posed to news-gatherers and investigative reporters.
"At a time when the Iowa Public Information Board has been counterproductive in its role to ensure open government, the FOI Council has become increasingly important. Randy's leadership has come at a critical time for transparent government in Iowa," said Stringer.
Additionally, Evans was an important collaborator with Art Cullen of The Storm Lake Times in his reporting, and series of Pulitzer Prize winning editorials, about the Iowa Farm Bureau’s secretive funding of the Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac counties’ litigation costs in the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit.
He’s also been a go-to media spokesperson for many free speech and open government issues, adding important insights (and always colorful quotes) to the public discussion.
Evans’ FOI Council involvement follows a strong history of being on the right side of many key civil liberties issues of our day. As the long-time editor of the Des Moines Register editorial pages, he was a vocal and stalwart defender of free speech and many other civil liberties issues.
All four will be recognized at the ACLU of Iowa's Bill of Rights Brunch on Saturday, October 12 at the Des Moines Hilton. Details here.
Images of the four award recipients can be found here.