On an unseasonably cool afternoon in late July, a group of 75 people gather at Memorial Park on the edge of Berea, Ky.’s quaint, old-town area. Around the shelter house, painted in glossy shades of hunter green and cream, children are playing, running back and forth across the grass. Rows of plump hot dogs and juicy hamburgers sizzle on the grill.
At the corner of the shelter house, rustling in the light breeze, is a rainbow flag, the international symbol of gay pride. The blue stripe in the flag is a shade that is mirrored by the T-shirts many in the crowd are wearing. Kentucky blue, they bear the statement “Another Kentuckian for Fairness” across the chest, a reminder of why they have gathered here — to raise awareness about a fairness ordinance in Berea, which would ban discrimination in housing and public accommodations based on perceived sexuality and/or gender identity.
The movement for a local fairness ordinance started nearly three years ago, and it has seen its share of ups and downs in this small town of 13,500 in the Appalachian foothills. Although Berea has a statewide reputation for progressive values — having long been associated with the struggles for racial equality, women’s rights and environmental protection — the movement for a fairness ordinance has been met with a degree of opposition, which has included hate speech hurled at fairness allies during public forums and a reluctance by the city council to take up the measure. Many locals attribute this to the boundaries of Berea, which extend far out of the town’s center into rural areas of Madison County.
In response, a group of residents formed Bereans for Fairness, a grassroots organization that advocates passage of the ordinance and seeks to educate the public about LGBTQ issues. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I am a member of this organization and have written op-eds in support of enacting a fairness ordinance.) Members of Bereans for Fairness are undeterred in their efforts, pointing to the city council’s reestablishment of a local human rights commission in 2011 and the recent executive order by Mayor Steven Connelly to extend domestic partner benefits and include LGBTQ employees in the city’s non-discrimination policy as indications that things are moving in their favor.
Meta Mendel-Reyes, a blunt-spoken, 62-year-old Berea College professor who is active in the organization alongside her longtime partner, hopes the city council will take action on the ordinance in the coming months after an expected recommendation from the Human Rights Commission. “My impression is that what we need is somebody on the council to take some leadership,” she says. “We know we have support there, but so far no one on the council has been willing to stand up and say, ‘I support this and this is why.’”
The situation in Berea is indicative of other towns and cities throughout the commonwealth where change is coming more slowly than the national average on LGBTQ issues. But it is gathering momentum, advocates throughout Kentucky believe, and they are determined to see it through.
Chris Hartman’s face is familiar to many in Louisville and around the rest of the state. As the chair of the Fairness Campaign, a Louisville-based community organization dedicated to equal rights, he has been at the forefront of the movement for fairness ordinances throughout Kentucky. The 33-year-old spends a lot of time in his car, regularly crisscrossing the commonwealth in his work with the Fairness Coalition, a statewide umbrella organization of which the Fairness Campaign is a part. A dark-haired, lanky man with piercing blue eyes, his enthusiasm for his cause is infectious.
“Electric” is the word he uses to describe the current state of the equality movement here, pointing to the approval of a fairness ordinance in the small Appalachian town of Vicco — population 334 — as evidence that anything can happen in Kentucky. Approved in January under the leadership of the openly gay mayor Johnny Cummings, it attracted national media attention, with stories appearing in The New York Times and The Advocate. “Vicco’s passage ignited a firestorm of public dialogue around LGBTQ rights in the state — a conversation formerly reserved for Kentucky’s larger cities, at least at the legislative level,” Hartman says. “All sorts of folks began asking, ‘If this Appalachian town can affirm the inherent dignity of all its people, why can’t ours?’”
As a result, many towns throughout Kentucky have shown what he calls “remarkable progress.” Hartman explains Frankfort is on the verge of adopting a fairness ordinance. In addition to Berea, he says, “Strong grassroots movements have been built in Bowling Green, Elizabethtown, Morehead and Shelbyville. There are literally nearly a dozen other communities in which conversations have begun between residents and city officials.”
A public exchange recently took place in Shelbyville, he says, after city council member Mike Zoeller mused aloud about the exclusion of the LGBTQ population from the federal Fair Housing Law the body was considering signing. “My question is, did we leave anyone out of this? What about gay people?” he asked. “Could a gay couple be turned down because of this?” His queries prompted the Shelbyville Sentinel-News to publish an editorial outlining the need for a local fairness ordinance, while also acknowledging the conservative nature of the city. “But we also realize that all people deserve equal protection under the law,” the editorial stated, “and any form of discrimination is unacceptable in our society and in our community.”
Hartman explains that recent polling of Kentucky residents shows overwhelming support for fairness protections. According to a survey commissioned by the Fairness Coalition and released in 2011, a staggering 83 percent of Kentuckians support protections for LGBTQ people in the workplace, in housing and in other public accommodations. With such a wide supermajority in favor of fairness, why then the piecemeal approach of pushing for local ordinances? Why not concentrate organizing efforts on a statewide fairness ordinance?
The problem, Hartman says, lies with Kentucky politicians. “Just under 11 percent of our state’s legislators support (fairness protections).” The discrepancy in these numbers, he sighs, is “just bad math.” At no time was this difference more striking than in Frankfort earlier this year during the debate over H.B. 279, the so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act. A piece of legislation that allied Republicans with conservative Democrats, the bill contained vague, sweeping language that protected “sincerely held religious beliefs” from infringement in the absence of “a compelling governmental interest.”
Fairness advocates believed the legislation essentially allowed discrimination under the cloak of religious belief. Sen. Kathy Stein (D-Lexington) concurred, being quoted by the Lexington Herald-Leader: “I think this is about some way to get around the fairness ordinances.” In a strong mark of opposition, Gov. Steve Beshear vetoed the legislation, voicing his concerns of its “unintended consequences” and the specter of murky legal questions and expensive lawsuits. During the House floor debate, fairness ally and Unitarian Universalist minister Rep. Kelly Flood (D-Lexington) observed that the act could have unintended consequences its supporters had not considered — opponents of the bill could now maintain that their religious faith obliges them to disregard Kentucky’s constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and perform ceremonies for LGBTQ couples.
Coming in the midst of Supreme Court cases involving the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s discriminatory Proposition 8, both of which were struck down in landmark decisions just two months later, the debate solidified Kentucky’s national reputation as being antiquated on social issues — and echoing the saying often attributed to Mark Twain about Kentucky being “always 20 years behind the times.”
For his part, Hartman has a message for the remaining 89 percent of Kentucky state legislators who are opposed to or ambivalent about fairness: “Please get with the times. The majority of Americans, including Republicans, support the broad spectrum of LGBTQ civil rights. They believe it’s better for the economy and the community when everyone has an equal opportunity to earn a living, rent their dream apartment and eat at their favorite restaurant without fear of being turned away just because of who they are. Fairness is good for business, plain and simple. Every Fortune 500 company in Kentucky can’t be wrong, and they all have internal LGBTQ-inclusive non-discrimination policies.”
Roy Harrison, chair of Lexington Fairness, echoes Hartman’s analysis of the divide between private corporations and state and local governments. Although Lexington has long had a fairness ordinance in place, the city government does not currently provide domestic partner benefits to same-sex couples, an omission Harrison says damages its reputation and even its operation. Pointing out that Louisville and Covington — and now Berea — offer these benefits to their employees, Harrison believes, “Lexington has fallen behind the region on this basic issue of fairness, and continuing to deny these benefits will handicap Lexington as it attempts to hire the best possible team to run and protect the city.” For prospective LGBTQ employees, he says the decision is simple: “If the choice is to work for the city, or work for a private firm that recognizes the candidate’s family as being equal, then the city will clearly lose out.”
Harrison, who joined the LexFair board in January 2012 before assuming the position of chair a year later, is known for his easy demeanor and creative energy. Tall and slender, he strides through a room with a purpose. That focus is clear when he speaks of the organization’s goals. “Two things drive LexFair: contributing to the conversation about making Lexington a great American city, and creating safe schools for LGBTQ kids.”
The issue of fairness is essential to both objectives, Harrison observes. “Becoming a great American city necessarily includes promoting fairness and ending discrimination. A great city today must welcome everyone for the skills and energy they have to contribute, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender expression.” It also means that LGBTQ youth must be protected, an issue Harrison and LexFair are addressing through Project Speak Out, an anti-bullying campaign that “works with educators to create safe spaces and identify adult allies in schools.”
For the 31-year-old Harrison, who was born and raised in Vermont and moved to Lexington nearly six years ago, LexFair’s bullying initiative is especially close to home. While the Green Mountain State now has a reputation for being a national leader on LGBTQ equality issues — becoming the first state to introduce civil unions and the first to enact same-sex marriage by legislation — during his childhood, it was a much less welcoming environment. “It was a terrible time to grow up gay,” he recalls. “My experience growing up in Vermont is what motivates my work in Kentucky. I want to create as safe a space as possible for LGBTQ youth to grow up self-confident and able to contribute to our communities.”
Harrison says he has witnessed a change since settling in the commonwealth, offering as evidence the supermajority of Kentuckians who have indicated support for fairness ordinances, anti-bullying protections and hospital visitation rights for same-sex couples. He even ventures to make a bold prediction — that same-sex marriage will be legalized in Kentucky “within the next five years.”
“Ten years ago, Kentucky overwhelmingly codified marriage inequality, and today a majority of Kentuckians support civil unions,” Harrison explains. “That’s a huge change in public opinion over just 10 years. Now, with the strong rulings out of the U.S. Supreme Court, and new cases being brought that question state constitutional amendments that ban same-sex marriage … the conversation is moving forward in a way that I feel good about. Logistically, it takes a lot of work to amend the Kentucky constitution, but the momentum is on our side. Far from being frustrated, it’s an exciting time to be in Kentucky. I have a sense that Kentucky is becoming more and more welcoming by the day.”
At the Bereans for Fairness picnic, a television news crew from Lexington and a reporter from a local newspaper interview Meta Mendel-Reyes. On stage, she tells the crowd what fairness means to her. She talks about what it was like coming out to her daughter later in life, and her vision for what kind of town Berea has historically been and should continue to be. Later, during a weeklong writing workshop in Eastern Kentucky, she expands on her feelings, the firm set of her chin underlining her choice of words.
“We know that many heterosexuals are standing up for gay people, but I think it’s important to understand that gay people are standing up for heterosexual people by making sure we are living in a place that lives up to its promise. It’s to everybody’s advantage to live in a place where there’s justice and equality.”
Mendel-Reyes observes with a smile that Mayor Steven Connelly was in attendance at the picnic, sharing in the afternoon’s festivities and listening intently from the audience. “Berea has always been a leader, but that has changed,” she recalls saying. “The time has come for us to catch up now to what the rest of the state is doing. Fairness passed in Vicco — but where is Berea? Frankfort is considering an ordinance — but where is Berea? Covington has fairness — but where is Berea?”
Although she is confident that the town will eventually do the right thing, Mendel-Reyes wishes progress would come faster. “People have come a long way,” she says of Kentucky and the rest of the country. “We’re in a season of DOMA being taken down, of there being 13 states and the District of Columbia where we can get married. Things are changing, and I think Berea needs to change, too. Because in changing, Berea really goes back to its tradition of being a place where people could come if they were different and wanted to live in harmony with other people.”
In the end, she says, it all comes down to this — that fairness is an intrinsic human value, a Berea value, a Kentucky value, a tenet of which Kentucky’s elected leaders too often need reminding.