Marriage Equality Anniversary Hits Home For Kentuckians

Contributing Writer

The passage of the Marriage Equality Act in New York in 2011 ignited one of the biggest movements in history.

A year after the watershed moment,  vibrations are still reverberating throughout the country, echoing from all sides.

“The more momentum that we see, and the more states that continue to strike down The Defense of Marriage Act, can only fuel change in states like Kentucky,” said Lynn Faria, interim executive director of The Empire State Pride Agenda. She added that in the year since New York’s triumph, “We have seen two states pass marriage: Washington and Maryland; we’ve seen several courts rule against the Federal Defense of Marriage Act; and we saw our very own president evolve on the issue and come out and support marriage for all loving, committed couples.”

Since the passage of the act, the New York State Supreme Court has upheld the decision.

Google started the “Legalize Love” campaign aimed at pushing foreign governments to do away with laws that allow discrimination and criminalization of same-sex activities.

President Barack Obama’s televised approval of gay marriage – which was made after Vice President Joe Biden expressed his support first – highlighted a year full of breakthroughs and sometimes bittersweet triumphs.

A slew of celebrities including journalist Anderson Cooper and R&B star Frank Ocean made it a point to officially come out or simply confess same-sex attraction, and the past year also marked the first anniversary of the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Barney Frank also wed his partner, becoming the first congressman to enter into same sex marriage.

Kentucky’s gay community has been energized by the year’s events and New York’s achievement.

“It feels great. It was a remarkable victory,” said Chris Hartman, director of the Fairness Campaign. “It took bipartisan support to pass the measure. Republicans were instrumental. Those are the kinds of victories that we really point to.”

He notes that there’s a definite ripple effect.

“With a victory like New York, I always see an uptick in folks contacting the Fairness Campaign and wanting to get involved,” he said.

In the wake of all the advancements, local LGBT citizens and straight allies are taking a serious look at the state of gay rights in Kentucky.

“Honestly, there’s a little bit of envy,” said Joshua Koch, president of the Kentucky Equality Federation. “We wish we could get something like that done here in Kentucky.”

That’s a wish that some say won’t come for years if ever, but that hasn’t stamped out hope. The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is written into Kentucky’s state constitution and state law. DOMA defines marriage as between a man and a woman.

That didn’t stop local couple Tim and Roy Koonz-McGee from trying the knot in 2007.

“We flew to Montreal to have it done,” said Tim Koonz-McGee, who owns the Comfy Cow Ice Cream parlor with Roy. “It’s still not
recognized here in Kentucky, but we recognize it.”

Koonz acknowledges Kentucky has made considerable strides in gay rights, but also recognizes that he sees it from a privileged vantage point.

“I will say, we live in the Highlands and we associate with a more progressive group, so I don’t think we’re exposed to a lot of (the discrimination),” he said.

“In Louisville, its a little bit of an anomaly compared to the rest of the state.”

In Kentucky, Louisville, Lexington and Covington are for the most part, safe havens for Kentucky’s gay citizens. The rest of the state is a different story.

Outside of those three areas, there are no protections for gay citizens, and its still possible to be denied housing, fired from a job or removed from a public place based on sexual orientation.

According to Hartman, there is a definite disconnect between legislators and constituents.

He said that a statewide survey conducted by Fairness at the end of 2010 indicated that 83 percent of Kentuckians of all political affiliations are in support of simple anti-discrimination protections, while under 11 percent of elected officials support such actions.

That same survey showed that 70 percent of Kentuckians approve of some kind of legal recognition for same gender couples. And the most recent polls reveal that 51 percent of Kentuckians support same gender marriage.

There are still Kentuckians in strong opposition to further anti-discrimination laws.

Kent Ostrander, Executive Director of The Family Foundation, said Kentucky has made its position on gay marriage clear, and there is no need to adjust it

He’s also against more protections for LGBT citizens, saying “It isn’t a crisis.”

Faria has hope for states like Kentucky. According to her, progress starts incrementally with localities passing domestic partnership registries, and citizens electing pro-LGBT legislators into office. She adds that states like New York set a strong example.

“The more we can send a message to legislators all across the country that voting for marriage equality isn’t going to have a negative impact on your future and that you’re going to see support from wide swathes of your constituents when you do the right thing, (the message) is going to be important in places like Kentucky where hopefully you can pass statewide discrimination laws,” she said.

Others, like Sullivan University student Michele Hager-Harrison-Prado, don’t have much faith in Kentucky striking down DOMA or passing any more anti-discrimination measures unless a higher legislative power forces the issues.

“The workings that are going on elsewhere are going to come to fruition before Kentucky ever does anything,” she said.

She and her partner Beth, both of whom are in their early 50s, got legally married last month in Washington DC.

The wave of change is overwhelming for Beth, a retired Navy sailor who fought against “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the ‘90s.

“I came out in 1973, which was less than five years after Stonewall, so I never ever thought that I would get legally married,” she said. “That’s never been part of the conversation.”

The 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York’s Greenwich Village are seen by many as the genesis of the gay rights movement. They began when a group of gay customers at the Stonewall Inn bar, sick of being bullied, rose up and started a demonstration.

More than 1000 protesters joined in and the police had to deploy a riot control squad.

The passage of Marriage Equality in New York meant a lot to Brian Buford, Director of the Office for LGBT Services at University of Louisville.

Like Beth Hager-Harrison-Prado, he never conceived such a thing would happen in his lifetime.

“In those early years I didn’t even know what to wish for,” Buford said. “I didn’t even know what to ask for.”

Buford, 48, came out 23 years ago while he was a University of Louisville grad student.

“There were no resources on campus and there were very few resources in the city. It was hard to know where to turn,” he said. “And then fast forward to today where we actively work to provide services and support. We have a huge presence on campus and a pride week. I’m so excited to be a part of creating that because it wasn’t there for me.”

To Buford, anther indicator of how far Louisville has come is the massive popularity of the annual Louisville Pride Festival.

“I was at one of the early Pride parades in the early ‘90s and there was just a small handful of people. We walked down from the courthouse to Central Park, and there were maybe three food tables. We all just had a soft drink and that was it,” he said. “Now they take over the whole waterfront. It’s remarkable.”

The New York victory hit close to home for local party promoter Daniel Cole, 33, who has many friends in New York.

“There are a lot of people in Kentucky with New York ties. It’s one of the largest cities that’s fairly close,” he said. “Eventually, equality will be in every single state. I have no doubt.”

Cole believes the key to reaching the equality goals of the gay community is to not get complacent or take anything for granted

“I’ve been a little too comfortable, and maybe not as involved as I need to be,” he said. “My generation needs to be more active and get involved.”