“We use humor and irreverent wit to expose the forces of bigotry, complacency and guilt that chain the human spirit.” That is the mission statement of The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, which uses drag and performance art to raise money for charities. Well, The Derby City Sisters — the local chapter of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence — succeeded last week in drawing out the bigotry in the Kentucky Republican Party.
A photograph the Sisters took with Gov. Andy Beshear crystallized what divides Kentucky progress from intransigence, cities from rural communities, Republicans from Democrats and who’s happy from who’s not. It started when Beshear became the first sitting governor to address the annual Fairness Campaign rally at the state Capitol. There, he announced his support for a statewide fairness law and a ban on “conversion therapy.” Beshear’s message to the crowd was: Every Kentucky citizen counts and is welcome in their state Capitol. So, he posed for pictures with a few Derby City Sisters nuns. Why not?
But Republicans, as cynical, pandering and calculating as ever, saw those photos as a political opportunity to foster bigotry and fear in their rural base. Sen. Phillip Wheeler, a Republican from Pikeville, spoke to a gathering of the Rowan County Republican Party and used the photos to stoke homophobia and political activism. (Yes, the same Rowan County where former Clerk Kim Davis became a national disgrace for refusing to grant a marriage license to a gay couple.)
Wheeler told the group: “I would have never thought that there’d be a day where we’d have people dressed in devil horns celebrating with our governor in our beautiful Capitol in Frankfort, Kentucky.”
On his phone he pulled up the photos, to show attendees. “This is not only a fight for the soul of America. It is a fight against evil, for just the forces of decency,” he said. A video of this gross display was posted by GOP state House candidate Richard White on the Rowan County Republican’s Facebook page (ahead of a special election in Eastern Kentucky that White won).
Using fear and hatred in a political campaign is not new or limited to either party, but Wheeler’s actions are a special kind of disgusting. Yet, watching the video, it might be easy to see why it works. Folks in many rural areas of the state don’t live where pride parades happen every year, as we do in Louisville. You wouldn’t see the Sisters at local events or have even heard about them. As for the party at large, the state Republicans want you to move along… nothing to see here! Senate President Robert Stivers played dumb — said he hadn’t seen the video. Righhht.
The Republican Party of Kentucky refused to return calls from the media. State Democrats demanded that Wheeler apologize and resign or be censured by the Senate. All three should occur. It’s not just that his comments were disgusting and dishonest, but Wheeler is not new to using such tactics. Wheeler, who won a special election in 2019 by about 500 votes, had made a racist post on social media: “Now, as a result of mass refugee resettlement and … blackface-wearing, live baby-killing Virginia Democrat Governor Ralph “Coon” Northam …”
He later apologized and removed the post. But he’s joined in slurring U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren by calling her “Pocahontas.” Democratic Sen. Reginald Meeks from Louisville said of Wheeler, “He has been asked not just to apologize, but to stop, and he has chosen not to do so.” And Meeks’ comments came before Wheeler called the Derby City Sisters “evil.” Instead of showing pictures of the nuns with horns and a KFC chicken bucket habit, Wheeler should have played Beshear’s speech about how everyone — everyone — is welcome.
Still, there was good news last week. Cold Spring in Northern Kentucky became the 19th Kentucky city — and third of 2020 — to pass a Fairness Ordinance. Stivers and the state GOP may prefer ignoring the bigotry. But, while they feed the “complacency and guilt that chain the human spirit,” fairness and equality continues to take root beneath them. Maybe there is still hope that Kentucky can stand united and smiling, rather than fall divided and angry. •