Looking Back on 2015

2015 was a historic year for the LGBTQ community. The Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality on June 26, 2015, was a monumental victory and certainly a moment that, going forward, will shape the unending movement for equality and justice. But there were other moments, locally, that influenced LGBTQ individuals in a pivotal way last year. Events, individuals and actual occurrences proved historic in 2015 and deserve closer examination. Chris Hartman, director of Louisville’s Fairness Campaign and a committee member on Kentucky’s Fairness Coalition, talks Modern Louisville through some of these moments to help decode exactly how 2015 impacted LGBTQ Louisvillians.

mayor-fischer-stronger-jaw-chinline_web-850x1024Human Rights Campaign’s Municipal Equality Index 100 Rating

The Municipal Equality Index, put together by the Human Rights Campaign, is a journal that essentially ranks major U.S. cities on how LGBTQ-inclusive they are. The project examines each city’s laws, policies and services and assigns a score out of 100. Last year, Louisville scored a 66; this year, it scored 100.

“We’ll be one of the only cities in the South that has achieved a perfect rating,” relates Hartman. There are others, such as Atlanta and Cincinnati, that scored a 100 in 2014; however, Louisville’s perfect 2015 rating catapults it to the top of the list and illuminates the true nature of the city on a national level.

“It’ll make clear that this is a place that welcomes everyone,” explains Hartman of the significance of the rating. “We’ve always known that here in Louisville, and this just makes certain that our regional and national profile reflects that.”

The achievement of the 100 is due to a myriad of efforts the city has made independently and in conjunction with Fairness. Louisville’s trans-inclusive training and its acknowledgment and effort regarding LGBTQ homelessness and housing issues are just a couple of endeavors that really brought the city to the top. Additionally, Mayor Fisher recently put a policy in place that mandates all city contractors have an LGBTQ non-discrimination policy.

Without question, Louisville is a wonderful and welcoming place for LGBTQ individuals, and thanks to Mayor Fischer, Chris Hartman and city policymakers, now the country can see just how committed Kentucky is to equality for all.

ky_coalition3bwKentucky Competitive Workforce Coalition Launch

On November 19, 2015, Brown-Forman hosted a press conference to announce the launch of the Kentucky Competitive Workforce Coalition. In partnership with the Fairness Campaign, this network of businesses is calling for the passage of a Statewide Fairness Law, which would protect LGBTQ individuals from discrimination.

“We launched it as a coalition of nearly 200 Kentucky businesses from major corporations like Brown-Forman and Humana to small locally owned stores and businesses everywhere from Richmond and Berea to Bowling Green in support of anti-LGBT discrimination,” explains Harman. While these businesses all have their own anti-LGBTQ discrimination policies in place, the ultimate goal is to make these policies law.

But Hartman is proud, for now, that these businesses in the Coalition understand the importance of taking part in this movement. “These businesses just get the fact that when prospective employees are looking at where they’re going to move their families to take a job, they are genuinely looking to move places where they know their families are going to experience the same protections as everyone else and go work for a place where they know they’ll be judged based on the quality of their performance and not on who they are or whom they love,” he reasons.

And Hartman and the Coalition believe strongly that this logic can appeal to individuals of any political affiliation due simply to the undeniably positive impact a Statewide Fairness Law would have on the Commonwealth. “This is the type of conversation that really does speak to conservatives and say that if we want Kentucky to thrive in a national and a global economy, the only way we’re going to be able to do so competitively is to show that Kentucky is open for business for everyone,” Hartman argues.

The launch at Brown-Forman was monumental, and with so many businesses onboard – including Modern Louisville parent company Blue Equity – it seems hopeful that this vast alliance will be able to truly affect change in 2016 and make Kentucky a state with a robust, competitive workforce that is not only treated respectfully but also equally.

thomas-carrier-1-copyThe Inaugural Louisville Pride Festival

On September 19, 2015, a several-block section of Bardstown Road was the site of the inaugural Louisville Pride Festival, which grew from Highlands Pridefest, a much smaller event that took place the year before. It was the first event of the Louisville Pride Foundation, and, based on its success, it certainly will not be the last.

The event featured live music by Karmin, Steve Grand and a host of other local performers and DJs; unique vendors; information booths; bars; and even an interactive art installation that held down the center of the festival.

Hartman particularly enjoys how this event complements the historic Kentuckiana Pride and offers something engaging to the community. “It’s great that we’ve got Kentuckiana Pride during Pride Month, but I think there always needed to be a street festival on Bardstown Road,” he admits. “I like the fact that it’s free, that folks can just stumble upon the Pride Festival and see that LGBT people are just people.”

The festival was exceptionally well attended and received rave reviews from the city. Thomas Carrier, chairman of the board of the Louisville Pride Foundation, looks forward to bringing the festival back and doing even more with the foundation to assert the city’s identity as an LGBTQ-friendly place that loves to have a good time for a good cause. “This foundation is about bringing the Louisville community together as one in support of our friends and neighbors facing discrimination, injustice and inequality,”  he offers. “Louisville Pride is not just an avenue for us to express who we are but also a way for us to celebrate our love for one other as human individuals. Pride is a forum for us to examine what we can do better as a city to be more inclusive and accepting of our differences that make our city a vibrant and interesting place to call home.”

Kentucky Farm Bureau Breakfast Protest/Arrest

Chris Hartman is an outspoken and prominent figure in the community, so seeing him in handcuffs in August 2015 wasn’t entirely surprising. When he, along with two other Fairness Campaign volunteers, was arrested during the protest of Kentucky Farm Bureau at the insurance company’s Country Ham Breakfast, held annually at the Kentucky State Fair, Hartman admits it wasn’t the goal, but it was certainly effective.

Fairness Campaign first started protesting Kentucky Farm Bureau several years ago when a local pastor who was employed by Kentucky Farm Bureau was fired after saying he would not marry anyone until same-sex marriage was legalized. Fairness then got ahold of a booklet published yearly by Kentucky Farm Bureau that made clear its anti-LGBTQ views.

Five years ago, Fairness began protesting at the company’s Country Ham Breakfast, stating that every year, the protest would get bigger until the company altered its policies. “So last year, we really may have gotten them nervous or upset or something because when we showed up this year, there were about a dozen state troopers waiting for us,” Hartman says.

From the moment Fairness arrived this year, officers were continually telling them where they could and could not stand, where they were permitted to hold their signs, etc. But that couldn’t have prepared the team for what was to happen during the breakfast itself.

“All that we did was, after they said the invocation – we waited until after they said the prayer, respectfully – when they started introducing the Farm Bureau dignitaries, we simply stood up silently at our assigned seats that we paid $28 for – and the seats were all the way in the back; nobody ever would have noticed us – and within seven seconds, I was under arrest, and they had two of our other volunteers under arrest,” Hartman recounts.

He was charged with disorderly conduct in the second degree and failure to disperse, and the two other volunteers were charged simply with failure to disperse. The prosecution eventually dismissed the charges with prejudice, and Fairness has now filed a lawsuit against the Kentucky State Police for violating the team’s first amendment rights and for unlawful arrest.

Video of the incident surfaced on social media that same day as folks far and wide watched and learned about the policies of Kentucky Farm Bureau, which they quite possibly wouldn’t have done had the Fairness team not gotten arrested. “Nobody would’ve paid attention to us except that they arrested us, and then everyone was paying attention to it and finding out that Kentucky Farm Bureau has discriminatory policies!” Hartman grins.

Although the aim was never to cause such a debacle, Hartman is proud of the incident and asserts that it may be the most effective year yet. And perhaps, going forward, Kentucky Farm Bureau will be moved to make a change, given that its members continue to drop. “Getting arrested was probably the best thing that could’ve happened for the protest,” he describes, “but it was never our plan.”

kim-davis_webKim Davis Situation

We all saw the YouTube videos that were published in the late summer from the office of the Rowan County Clerk. In those videos, County Clerk Kim Davis was seen refusing to issue marriage licenses to LGBTQ couples. Since the marriage ruling, Davis had been working around the law and not issuing marriage licenses to anyone.

Davis was promptly sued by two couples represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and was ordered to begin issuing licenses. Upon returning to work, however, Davis continued to refuse marriage licenses, claiming that she was working under “God’s authority.” She was found in contempt of court and put in jail. Five days later, she was released with the condition that she not interfere with her deputy clerks issuing licenses.

“We could say a million things about Kim Davis,” Hartman admits. “But the main thing I think is that anyone could have become Kim Davis. And I think that’s important for folks to remember. I mean, yes, it was Kim Davis, and, yes, she’s a Kentuckian. But it could have just as easily been that judge in Tennessee or someone in South Carolina – it was inevitable that someone was going to become the focal point of the opposition.”

An interesting aspect as well is that the majority of Davis’ supporters were not even from Kentucky. “These were folks coming in from out of state  – just like her lawyers – because this was a national movement out to make her an icon and not a local movement, necessarily,” Hartman explains.

While the saga of Kim Davis may be over – for now – the ultimate lesson learned from the whole thing was that there is still work to be done. “The work is not over yet,” Hartman affirms. “Marriage equality in some ways was just the beginning.”

matt_bevin_0-copy_webElection of Matt Bevin

On November 3, 2015, you probably saw a Facebook status about the election of Republican Matt Bevin as governor of Kentucky. Many were quick to criticize Kentuckians for electing someone who vowed to take serious controversial action regarding the state’s health care policies. His staunchly conservative platform and vocal support of Kim Davis understandably made LGBTQ individuals nervous when Bevin took office as governor on December 8. Hartman, however, doesn’t think the issue is so black and white.

“I think we might be able to find an ally in Governor Bevin in ways that we might not have expected,” he ponders. “For instance, he’s great on voting rights restoration for former felons, which is a big issue that Fairness advocates for because it disproportionately affects communities of color and impoverished communities. This is a place where Bevin breaks with most of his Republican rank and file and shows support.”

Indeed, Bevin asserts that he will remove county clerks’ names from marriage licenses, but he doesn’t seem to be waging a war on the LGBTQ community. “He’s never made a statement about Fairness,” Hartman continues. “He’s only made his views on marriage known. So Governor Bevin could be part of this population that agrees that you should be judged based upon your performance but perhaps is unwilling to accept marriage.”

How Bevin’s opposition to LGBTQ marriage will impact his position is yet to be determined, and he remains possibly the biggest unknown factor on this list. As Hartman offers, though, it’s shortsighted to call this a defeat at the moment. Instead, let’s remain optimistic and wait to see what happens in Frankfort.

sydney-1-copy_webFair Event Vendors Alliance

Heather Yenawine-Meyer was at a wedding show in late 2012 when something caught her eye. “There was an LGBT couple there, and they were pretty reticent to approach the vendors,” she recalls. Their hesitance and lack of comfort talking to possible vendors who, at that time, could help them plan their reception they’d have here in Louisville after getting married elsewhere, angered Yenawine-Meyer and prompted her to ask more questions.

She began doing some research and learned that this was a consistent problem for LGBTQ folks in Louisville that needed to be addressed. “Inevitably, they’d be on the phone talking to vendors, and there’d be a moment where they’d have to say, ‘Oh, by the way, we’re an LGBTQ couple – is that okay?’ And they’d have to kind of wait for a reaction,” she describes.

So Yenawine-Meyer took to the Internet and created a directory of LGBTQ-friendly businesses that launched www.fairvendors.org as the Fair Event Vendors Alliance in March 2013. With the help of Stephanie Lindsay, Yenawine-Meyer approached possible members and pitched them the mission. The aim was to connect the LGBTQ community with wedding and event vendors who would not only welcome them as clients but also promote the growth of that community in Louisville.

img_2558-1-copyEven though same-sex marriage was not yet legal in Kentucky, Yenawine-Meyer felt the organization to be absolutely necessary in the community: “We wanted to have FEVA around because we thought we needed advocacy and we also needed to create the online directory so couples had more options. Also, from a financial perspective, we wanted to prevent a great migration where the industry would really lose out because people weren’t feeling embraced here.”

Currently, FEVA operates with over 80 members, connecting vendors directly with the LGBTQ community. And not only does FEVA provide LGBTQ competency training for its members but it also unites them with prospective clientele in an incredibly personal way.

“You can go online and take webinars, but there’s no personal connection,” Yenawine-Meyer relates. “Through our involvement with other LGBTQ events like the Fairness Campaign and the Derby City Sisters and getting to know folks in the community and asking more questions, we’re able to help our vendors understand our community and what their needs are better. We’re just trying to build relationships.”

And with the Supreme Court ruling, Louisville is lucky to have FEVA to make not only LGBTQ receptions but now also weddings easy and effortless.

jaison-1-copy_web#Blacktranslivesmatter

This powerful and provocative movement begins with perhaps the most somber incident described on this list: the January 9, 2015, murder of Papi Edwards, who was fatally shot at a hotel in Fern Creek. A critical aspect of this entire conversation and necessary starting point, however, is how to properly identify Edwards. The police originally identified Edwards as a gay male, but it has proven to be not so clear-cut.

According to many, Edwards identified as a trans woman but in some circles, identified as a male. At the time of their murder, however, they were identifying as a woman, which has been confirmed from video surveillance of the murder. Consequently, the case has taken on a new meaning as it seems the crime was hate-driven.

In response to Edwards’ murder and the nearly two dozen like it across the nation that have since followed, local activist Jaison Gardner, along with Gary Brice and Chanelle Helm, organized a local memorial to honor Edwards. Out of that event came the arrival of the #BlackTransLivesMatter movement to Louisville.

“The murder of Papi Edwards was heartbreaking for me not just because she was my friend, but because it was a harsh reminder that black trans people are rarely safe from the threat of violence anywhere, even in our diverse, progressive city where organizations like the Fairness Campaign have been doing the work of LGBTQ advocacy for more than 20 years,” Gardner expresses. “#BTLM is a declaration; it is a battle cry; and to some degree, it is a prayer. But most importantly, it is a reminder that as we move forward toward racial justice, queer liberation and the smashing of sexism, we must not forget those who live their lives at the intersection of these identities – and are most often the target of violence and murder.”

The endgame with this movement, if it can be said to have an endgame, is to precipitate change protecting trans people of color and preventing violence toward them. The LGBTQ community has rallied to support trans folks of color; however, it will take more than that to make real change happen. As Gardner argues, “#BTLM is a reminder that while we mourn the dead, we must also fight like hell for the living.”

Wedding Rings with Gay Symbols Isolated on White.
Wedding Rings with Gay Symbols Isolated on White.

Kentucky Marriage Equality Plaintiffs

Gregory Bourke and Michael DeLeon married in Ontario, Canada in 2004. Randell Johnson and Paul Campion married in California in 2008. Jimmy Meade and Luther Barlow married in Iowa in 2009. Kimberly Franklin and Tamera Boyd married in Connecticut in 2010. Individually, these Kentucky couples were dissatisfied with the laws surrounding marriage equality in their home state, but together, they ultimately helped change the world.

These four couples came together to create the case Bourke v. Beshear, which challenged Kentucky’s lack of recognition for same-sex marriages performed out-of-state. Meanwhile, two male same-sex couples, Maurice Blanchard and Dominique James and Timothy Love and Lawrence Ysunza, were also moved to challenge the state’s ban on same-sex marriage. Love v. Beshear was thus consolidated into Bourke v. Beshear as a case that sought marriage equality for all in Kentucky.

Though both cases saw initial success, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled to uphold Kentucky’s then-ban on same-sex marriage. But the fight was not over. Bourke v. Beshear was ultimately combined with similar cases from Michigan, Tennessee and Ohio to become Obergfell v. Hodges – the case held before the U.S. Supreme Court on marriage equality. And we all know how that ended.

The fact that six plaintiffs in this landmark case were from Kentucky only serves to further solidify the fact that Kentucky is not only a place for ongoing LGBTQ political activity but also a state ready to change the wrongly held perception held by so many around the country. Kentucky is not a place of intolerance and hate but one of progress and love. These six courageous individuals proved that on national scale.    

Senate Bill 76 Defeated

In early 2015, Kentucky Senator C.B. Embry Jr. introduced SB 76, known to many as the “Bathroom Bully Bill.” The state legislation mandated that all students in schools, regardless of how they identify, use the bathroom that corresponds with their biological sex. Kentucky was the first state to introduce an anti-trans bathroom bill in 2015; however – importantly – it was also the first state to defeat such a bill.

“It was a particularly egregious piece of legislation,” says Hartman of the bill. “The original legislation put a bounty on trans kids’ heads by saying you could collect $25 every time you caught a trans kid in a bathroom.”

The bill itself stemmed from an incident at Atherton High School in Louisville, where school officials voted to allow students to use whichever restroom in which they felt most comfortable. But it went back and forth in Frankfort with a myriad of voting processes seemingly repeating themselves. The bill was at last struck down after what some would argue was a bit too much time spent on such an issue.

Hartman is hopeful that this sort of nonsense does not happen again and believes Governor Bevin may be a leader who wisely chooses to avoid wasting time on such subjects. “I hope that Governor Bevin is the kind of Republican that is going to lead the party and say, ‘We need to focus on fiscal responsibility. We need to focus on the budget this year and get real about the fact that there are problems in the Commonwealth that need to be resolved, and the problems are not where transgender kids go to the bathroom,” he maintains.

Hartman is quick to point out that, although the legislation was introduced, the fact that it was defeated is of even greater importance. “If Kentucky had passed the bill, it definitely would’ve opened the door for another state to be able to pass their legislation,” he notes. “So the fact that we were able to coalesce a strong group of supporters and opponents to the legislation … it made Kentucky another flashpoint for LGBT rights, and it’s becoming a common occurrence … So many times over the past couple of years for good or bad, Kentucky has been the threshing ground for LGBT rights in the nation.”

sayido-1Say “I Do” in Lou Campaign

Louisville is a welcoming city. Everyone here knows it, but it was recently the mission of the Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB) to make that fact known to folks outside of the state as well. Following the Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality, Christa Ritchie and her team at the CVB were determined to attract more LGBTQ visitors to the city.

“We said ‘Let’s do a campaign that welcomes LGBT weddings to Louisville. Let’s do a wedding!’” she recalls thinking. Say “I Do” in Lou was an online video contest where couples of any kind were asked to tell their story. Voters then could decide who they thought deserved to win the grand prize: the ultimate Louisville wedding.

A lesbian couple from Fort Wayne, Indiana won the contest and indeed received a dream wedding including a service on the deck of 8UP Elevated Drinkery & Kitchen and a reception at the inaugural Louisville Pride Festival on September 19, 2015. Other winnings included items and services from The Henry Clay, A Thorough Fare Events, Fleur De Lis Events, VOICES of Kentuckiana, Cake Flour, Jaco Limousine & Transportation, Pizzazzle Events, the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience and more.

Chris Hartman actually officiated the wedding and is glad to have been a part of something that made clear not only locally but also nationally Kentucky’s, and particularly Louisville’s, welcoming and loving attitude. “The CVB was really proactive in their work and were genuinely excited about it,” he recalls. “Some cities may just pander to certain demographics in an attempt to get their tourism dollars, but [the CVB] really tried to be intentional about how to actually create value and investment around LGBT folks coming to the city and having a really fulfilling experience.”

The event was a great success – so much so that Travel + Leisure magazine named Louisville one of Nine Perfect Places for Your LGBT Destination Wedding. Clearly, there’s never been a better place for anyone – and everyone – to say “I do” than in Lou.