State fair?

Grassroots efforts under way throughout Kentucky to protect LGBT individuals from discrimination

Though election night produced historic wins for LGBT rights all over the country — winning four different ballot referendums, after losing 32 straight — such efforts still remain elusive in Kentucky.

But despite the 2004 passage of a constitutional amendment in Kentucky banning civil unions and gay marriage, a grassroots effort for new laws banning discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations for the LGBT community is picking up steam leading up to next year’s General Assembly.

Last Thursday, Shelbyville residents introduced a new fairness ordinance to their city council, the first of several cities across Kentucky attempting to push LGBT rights at the community level, hoping to provide momentum toward the passage of a statewide fairness ordinance, something both political parties in Frankfort have stymied over the past decade.

Currently, only Louisville, Lexington and Covington prevent such discrimination under law, but activists belonging to the new Shelby County chapter of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth drafted and presented to the Shelbyville City Council their new fairness ordinance, packing the small council chamber full of blue T-shirts reading “Another Kentuckian for Fairness.”

“For me, a fairness ordinance is important because, as a woman of faith, I believe in the teachings of Christ and the golden rule, which promotes treating others the way I want to be treated,” Shelbyville resident Jane Elkin Thomas tells the council. “A fairness ordinance embodies these basic values, which I believe in and which I feel are held by most people in Shelby County.”

Thomas cites a 2010 survey conducted by Atlanta polling firm The Shapiro Group, which said 83 percent of Kentuckians support legislation prohibiting discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations because of a person’s perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.

Ann Ellercamp, a 24-year Shelbyville resident, also addresses the council in support of the ordinance, noting that enforcing such protections would come at minimal costs to the city. According to their fiscal impact statement — based on the frequency of complaints in Louisville, Lexington and Covington — the total costs to city government would be roughly $750 a year, relying on volunteers and free assistance from the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights and the Lexington Fair Housing Council.

While Ellercamp explains that such a fairness ordinance is attractive to prospective residents and businesses, ultimately the issue comes down to granting basic civil rights.

“For me, the Shelbyville fairness ordinance would mean that two of my very, very dear friends could have come with us tonight and openly shared the fact that they are gay without jeopardizing their jobs here in the city or county,” Ellercamp says.

Shelbyville Mayor Tom Hardesty thanks the residents for their presentation and says he and the council members will examine the ordinance and fiscal impact statement before coming out for or against it. However, he doesn’t sound optimistic.

“I don’t really have an opinion, but I think Shelby County is still a very conservative county, and I don’t think that the community will back it,” Hardesty tells LEO.

Shelbyville soon will have plenty of company around the state when it comes to activists pushing for a fairness ordinance. This week, residents of Bowling Green will present an ordinance to their city council, as well as Berea, where LGBT rights allies have been pushing for over a year and are heartened by the new makeup of the council after the Nov. 6 election.

Next week, residents of Morehead, Danville, Elizabethtown and Richmond — which pushed last year for a fairness ordinance after a lesbian couple was ejected from a public park for kissing — will do the same.

Chris Hartman, director of Louisville’s Fairness Campaign and spokesman for the statewide Fairness Coalition, hopes these efforts are successful, but notes that they are part of a growing grassroots effort to change laws at the state level. Kentucky is one of 29 states without such statewide protections.

“It’s definitely a two-pronged strategy,” Hartman says. “To sow some seeds in these communities that don’t currently have local protections, and then to create that broader grassroots movement around the statewide effort as we enter into the 2013 legislative session.”

The chance of such a law passing in Frankfort next year remains slim, but Hartman notes that the statewide fairness bill proceeded further this year than it ever had, being posted in the House Judiciary Committee, but not receiving a hearing.

But as public attitudes toward LGBT rights around the country rapidly change, most assume it is not a matter of if this will spread to Kentucky, but when. Even R. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, admitted to The New York Times that the election shows “the entire moral landscape has changed. An increasingly secularized America understands our positions and has rejected them.”

Patrick King, a resident at the Shelbyville City Council meeting, tells LEO that they realize this fight won’t be easily won in Kentucky, but they’re willing to fight until they do just that.

“Hopefully we at least get someone in our local government to contact state government and say that this would be a great idea for the state,” King says. “But we’re going to try to push this through and do whatever it takes, realizing it may take quite a while.”