Hide, or they might out you. Pretend to be someone else, or they could fire you. Don’t speak up, or they will harm you.
For many in the LGBTQ community, this is what life was like living in pre-fairness ordinance Louisville. There was no talk of equal rights, marriage equality or acceptance of transgender people. Businesses had the right to fire you because of your sexual orientation or gender identity, people were scared to be outed because it could ruin their lives. But some decided to be proud.
June 27, 1987, March for Justice
The March for Justice was the first gay pride march in Kentucky. LEO spoke with Carla Wallace, founder of the march and co-founder of the Fairness Campaign, who said that many in the community refused to march, especially after the death threats.
“Because of the death threats some of the people in our community said that we shouldn’t march, it’s too dangerous,” said Wallace. “But those of us who believed we needed to march said, ‘If their hatred and threats of violence can force us to stay in the closet, then that is what they will always do.’”
The March for Justice was unlike contemporary pride marches, filled with rainbow banners, loud music, colorful drag queens and festive floats. This march was a much more solemn affair said Wallace.
“It [the march] was very much focused on the fact that LGBTQ people had no legal rights at all,” said Wallace. “And we also connected it to the issue of addressing AIDS, racism and even war. We said, ‘Too much money is going into the war and we needed money to take care of those at home dying of AIDS.’”
But Wallace knew these were unpopular ideas in Kentucky at the time, so she and others reached out to the Kentucky Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, a civil rights group with experience in de-escalating tense situations. They acted as security during the march and she also spoke with the Louisville Metro Police Department to make sure that they would “do their duty in protecting us from those making death threats, which they did when those making the threats showed up.”
A few protesters arrived and hurled hateful insults like “Fags are sinful!” and “Gays are going to hell!”— not uncommon phrases during the time — but Wallace said they continued to march all the way to City Hall chanting, “Money for AIDS, not for war!” “Out of the closets, and out on the streets, a people united will not be beat” and “Racism, sexism, we say no! Homophobia’s got to go!”
“It was a long, hot, empty street march,” said Wallace. “There was no one on the sides to cheer us on, and we chanted the whole way to keep the energy up, but we went on and marched. And I think that was a really pivotal moment because understandably we were all afraid, but it’s what you do with fear in those moments. Do you say we move forward, or do you say we don’t.”
Only 100 people showed up for the first March for Justice, many of whom disguised themselves or hid under large sunglasses and hats, a far cry from today’s pride parades.
Others had instead decided to do what they had done for many years, which was to meet 40 miles out of town at Otter Creek Park, for the pride picnic.
1980–1990 Pride Picnics at Otter Creek Park
Throughout the ’80s various groups held pride picnics and events at Otter Creek Park. They were informal, invitation-only gatherings that gave members of the LGBTQ community a place to be themselves said Elizabeth Stith, executive director of Louisville Youth Group, in a phone interview with LEO.
“It’s more celebratory now, not to say it wasn’t celebratory back then, but it was a more private, quiet celebration than it is now,” said Stith.
Stith explained that there was always plenty of drinking, food and good conversation to be had at the pride picnics. But secrecy and pride are not very compatible, which is why Stith said it was “so bold and important to move the festival out to the [Louisville] Water Tower and out in the open. It was a little more comfortable there.”
1988 Pride Festival at the Water Tower
There was still no Fairness Ordinance in Louisville at the time of the first pride festival at the Louisville Water Tower — no guarantee that people wouldn’t lose their jobs or be discriminated against for attending. But Ken Herndon, former chair of Pride Festival and co-founder of Human Fairness Campaign, said in an interview with LEO that it was important to move the festival out into the open.
“My reasoning was that it was a “pride” festival for Louisville, so it didn’t need to be 40 miles out of town. It needed to be more prideful and more public,” said Herndon. “I was very much in favor of not just moving the event into a more public space, but moving the movement into a more public realm.”
Herndon felt so strongly about holding the first pride festival out at the Louisville Water Tower that he put up his own money to rent the space, in hopes that enough people would show up and reimburse him.
It was a gamble, because while some things were beginning to change, others were not. Herndon said even LMPD was still raiding gay bars with rubber gloves for fear of contracting HIV.
“It just took some brave people to step up and say ‘We’re not gonna hide out anymore. We’re going to step forward. That time of hiding was necessary, but now were gonna do something else,’ and it went well.”
Herndon made his money back and even had enough to start planning the next pride festival as well as a few other pride events.
The annual pride dinner was moved from a private room at Masterson’s to the rotunda of Actors Theatre and there was a film screening of “Before Stonewall” at the Kentucky Theater with the Courier-Journal’s film critic. Herndon had asked him to attend and give a history of gays and lesbians in film, and to many in the community’s surprise he did.
“The whole attitude was to be much much more public. And of course the picnic was the biggest most public thing, kind of like a big coming out party,” said Herndon. “I think that change of attitude, the pride march as well as the picnic being very public events allowed us to lay the groundwork for the Fairness Campaign and ultimately the Fairness Amendment.”
January 26, 1999 Louisville’s Fairness Ordinance Passed
After a decade of marching and protesting by the LGBTQ community, Louisville adopted a Fairness Ordinance to prohibit discrimination against anyone based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. But it wasn’t without its detractors.
Wallace said there was a lot of fear mongering by Southeast Christian Church and others. And one man who had edited together a film of San Francisco’s pride parade (which included nudity) with Louisville’s march said that if the Fairness Ordinance was passed, “the gays” would be naked in the streets.
“We said, ‘You know what? He’s telling all of these elected officials that if the Fairness Amendment passes that all ‘the gays’ will run around naked,” said Wallace. “And I said, ‘Well, we should threaten them and if they don’t pass the Fairness Amendment, then we’ll all run around naked!’”
But despite the opposition, Fairness was passed, and it opened the door for other LGBTQ communities in the state as well. Soon after, Lexington adopted a Fairness Ordinance, then Covington and Newport, and recently Midway, Danville, Morehead, Frankfort and even the Eastern Kentucky town of Vicco, with a population of 328, passed a Fairness Ordinance.
But there is still no statewide Fairness Amendment, which means that many in the LGBTQ community of Kentucky are still living under a very real threat said Chris Hartman, director of the Fairness Campaign, in an interview with the LEO.
“Even today folks are very fearful that someone might snap a picture of them at the [pride] festival and it gets back to where they live in Kentucky that doesn’t have a fairness law. Even today in 2015 people could be fired from their job, or kicked out of their apartment, just because of a photo floating around on the Internet,” said Hartman. “Even if we win marriage at the end of the month, you’ll be able to be married today and fired tomorrow for outing yourself in most of Kentucky and in the rest of the U.S., and that’s frightening.”
But it opened up many possibilities for Louisville’s LGBTQ community, like the first Kentuckiana Pride Festival on the Belvedere on June 16, 2001, or the first Gay Pride Parade on June 18, 2004.
June 18, 2004 First KPF Pride Parade
LEO spoke with Rodney Coffman, director of the Kentuckiana Pride Foundation about coming to his first pride parade, which he described as very “liberating.”
“For me personally, it’s been very important to help me grow as a gay individual, to be more comfortable with myself, because I’m 48. Back when I was younger, it wasn’t acceptable to be ‘out,’” said Coffman. “But interacting with different individuals, speaking with them, learning more about them and how they live their lives, and that we’re all very different but we are all a part of this community was very liberating.”
An aspect of the pride parades and festivals that is especially important for those younger LGBTQ members of the community is that many may still be dealing with unsupportive families said Stith, of the Youth Group.
“There are some who have very supportive families, and they are so fortunate,” said Stith. “But there are a lot of young people out there who don’t have very supportive families, and so it’s good for them to see successful adults, in the LGBTQ community, celebrating the community.”
The past year has seen unparalleled attention to transgender issues with Laverne Cox of “Orange is the New Black” fame and Caitlynn Jenner bringing this discussion to the forefront.
“We have young people who have transitioned and are in the middle of transitioning. And I have to say it is really a wonderful thing to see the joy that comes into their faces when they understand that finally, they get to be who they really feel they are, and that is a great joy,” said Stith. “It’s just so important to live your authentic life, and if you can’t be the person that you are it causes all kinds of problems.”
Stith said it’s important for transgender people as well as young LGBTQ people to come out and be a part of the parade not just for their own personal reasons, but because “it’s a lot harder to discriminate against somebody whom you know, because you know their story and their struggles and that they’re human beings just like you.”
2015 and Beyond
National acceptance of the LGBTQ community has grown steadily over the years. In a 2013 Pew Research Center study, 92 percent of LGBTQ members said that they felt society had become more accepting of them in the past decade. Hartman, of the Fairness Campaign, says you only have to look at the growth in the festival and parade to see that change in action.
“Louisville’s parade has just grown by leaps and bounds since I started going to it about seven years ago. It’s just so clear that LGBTQ acceptance has grown,” said Hartman. “First year we maybe had 12 people, next year 25, then 60 or 70, then 125, now over 200 people this year just with the Fairness Campaign. There will probably be over a thousand people marching in the parade, and that’s not counting the people watching.”
And this rise in pride is not only happening in Louisville said Hartman. It’s happening all over Kentucky. Last week Covington held their pride parade; Lexington is having their pride parade the week after Louisville’s; then Owensboro has a pride picnic a few days after that; and Hartman said that it looks like Frankfort will soon have their first ever pride picnic in August.
“Its just so important to show that support throughout Kentucky. The only way we will ever win full equality is with all of our allies (straight supporters of the LGBTQ community). LGBTQ people need to come out and support their own community too, but it’s so important to have those allies, because being more public gains more community and ally support.”
And with this swell of support, many have high expectations for the upcoming Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality, which is why this year the grand marshals of the 2015 KPF Parade are the six plaintiffs of Bourke v. Beshear, currently before the U.S. Supreme Court.
“It’s a fun time, time to be proud, time to be loud,” said Hartman. “Thinking back to when Pride was one afternoon at a small picnic, hidden and invitation only, to think about how far it has come is just night and day, and it’s only been 25 years. But we still have far to go.”
The Pride Parade will begin at 7 p.m. on June 19 and proceed down Main Street from Floyd Street to 5th Street, ending at the Belvedere. There the Kentuckiana Pride Festival will open after the parade, and all are welcome to celebrate with some food and entertainment. The festival will open again at noon on Saturday, June 20. General admission to the festival is $5 at the gate on both days.
Correction: The original version of this article used the phrase “transgendered people,” rather than “transgender people.” We sincerely apologize for our unintentional use of this offensive term.