Gay in Louisville: A history of injustice, and a march toward acceptance

Jun 15, 2016 at 12:01 pm
Gay in Louisville: A history of injustice, and a march toward acceptance

When the gunman in Orlando opened fire on hundreds of revelers at a gay nightclub, he struck at the core of gays’ hard-earned sense of security, as nightclubs just like Pulse have for generations stood as safe spaces for people looking for shelter from harassment, hate and harm. As America moves toward more acceptance of homosexuality, we’re honor-bound to remember the history of anti-gay prejudice that made places like Pulse necessary in the first place. This long-planned piece, written and edited before the Sunday morning attack, attempts to do just that.

It was a humid and warmer-than-usual night for mid-October 1971, just two weeks before Halloween in the year I was born. Inside the house on Bonnycastle Avenue were dozens of young people — most in their 20s, with maybe half-dozen teenagers — throwing a party. In her room upstairs, 19-year-old Micky Schickel had just slipped on her nightshirt and was getting ready for bed. It was a few minutes after half-past 11 on a Saturday night, and she had to work the next morning.

Outside the house, police paddy wagons idled on the leafy street in what was then, and for many years later, one of very few Louisville neighborhoods where it was safe to be weird in this conventional, conservative city. Police were there to raid the house serving as Louisville Gay Liberation Front headquarters. The raid they were about to launch would impact the gay community in Louisville for years, snuffing out the city’s nascent gay rights movement that had grown up in the wake of the Stonewall Inn riots in Greenwich Village two years before, in the summer of 1969.

But it would be many years before I connected the dots between that little-noticed police action so long ago and the appalling lack of awareness of the terrors and tragedies gay people like me had endured in the long decades of life in a city where, until relatively recently, being gay for the vast majority of Louisvillians meant worrying steadily about your job, your family and even your safety.

But by the time the police had arrived at the house on Bonnycastle, GLF chapters had sprung into existence across America. Louisville’s chapter had officially formed the year before, and it had been busy. Its members were among the loudest champions of a lesbian couple that shocked the city in 1970 by showing up at the Jefferson County courthouse to ask for a marriage license. The GLF set up shop in Margo’s Wig Shop, which doubled as a brothel at Campbell and Jefferson streets, but it soon moved to an apartment on Belgravia Court, amid the converted mansions in Old Louisville. Members launched a community education course at UofL aimed at spreading the word about homosexuality in city where a casual word could, and often did, end a career. Others had led protests at two gay bars, alleging their straight owners’ policies — and sky-high beer prices — exploited patrons who had no other place to socialize.

Indeed, it had been precisely to create an alternative away from the bars for gays that had spurred the creation of Gay Lib houses in city after city, according to oral histories shared with me by UofL professor Catherine Fosl. After all, it was illegal to have gay sex in scores of states. Many cities forbade gay people to gather anywhere alcohol was served, and made it illegal to wear clothing associated with the opposite gender.

In Louisville, a gay man, Jim Fish, agreed in 1971 to rent the four-bedroom home in his name, and open the Bonnycastle house to the GLF. Schickel and her girlfriend moved in to one room, Fish took one and two others were soon filled, too. The group also operated a crisis hotline and — of course — hosted frequent parties.

Shickel was upstairs getting ready for bed when she remembered that another resident was going to give her bus tickets to get to work the next day. She opened the door to the hallway, and she was shocked to find men coming up the stairs, with a beefy man in the lead.

“I had no idea who he was, but he didn’t look like he belonged,” Schickel, who is married now and uses the last name Nelson, later told me.

She was right. He was a police detective, and this was the night the city of Louisville finally moved against the GLF.

Within minutes, dozens of residents and guests were being subjected to a slur-filled lecture by the authorities. The headline in The Courier-Journal the following Monday read: “30 Face Charges After Police Raid Party.” Most were charged with disorderly conduct, but a handful, including the residents of the house, faced drug charges. Schickel told me she only escaped the felony charge because her girlfriend told police that their room was hers alone.

In court, the judge had looked at the couple dozen youths and asked what was going on. A lawyer piped up: They were caught drinking at a party. He wanted to challenge the arrests on constitutional grounds, but the judge cut him off. “I think for a contribution to the Policeman’s Christmas Fund, we can get all this filed away.”

How much, they asked? “He said, ‘fifty dollars,’” Shickel told Fosl in her oral history. “We started emptying sticky gum wrappers and whatever in the bottoms of the pocket, and we came up with fifty dollars’”

But The Courier-Journal story listed their names, and, in 1971 Louisville, to be associated with anything gay-related, especially the Gay Lib House, meant ruin. Fish and Shickel’s roommate lost their jobs. Fish had also fallen off the top bunk in the county jail with a stress-induced seizure, Shickel said, and had been taken to the hospital. After he was released, he left Louisville for California. He wasn’t alone.

“A lot of people decided to go somewhere where there was a more liberal environment,” Shackle would tell Fosl years later. “Those like John, who were a little older who had careers, who had an income, who had a decent home, that sort of thing — they lost everything.”

Stepping back

Two years ago, I was in my lovely apartment in Washington, D.C., where I then lived, and caught the HBO adaptation of “The Normal Heart,” Larry Kramer’s searing play about the radical gay rights activism born out of the plague years, as the AIDS epidemic began to take its gruesome toll. I turned the television off with a powerful sense of guilt: Where had I been, when so many other gay people had been fighting, not just for gay rights, but for their very lives.

We all imagine that should the chips ever really fall and a time to be counted comes along, we’d step forward to do what must be done. I hadn’t even heard the call.

So since then, I’ve been studying the history of the city where I was born, and where my father’s ancestors helped settle, but through the lens of the constrained lives so many of its gay residents were forced to live for so long. It’s a task that has grown only more urgent as the country has moved inexorably toward full legal rights for gays. In face of such widespread and welcome acceptance, the memories and markers alike of those old struggles are fading.

My own ignorance bothered me deeply. A bugle had sounded as I was coming into my late teens and early 20s, and I had failed to answer its call. People across the country, and throughout Louisville, had been dying just past the edges of my awareness.

So in April of last year, just after the lawyers for the gay marriage plaintiffs arrived in Washington for oral arguments, I headed home to search for the history that I had never known. I was determined to pay homage to the blood and the guts that had been spent so many years ago in creating a place where arguments over gay marriage could be taken seriously. That’s why, a few days later, I found myself standing at Bonnycastle Avenue with David Williams, Louisville’s self-appointed archivist for the gay community.

A conservative, repressed city

That night in October 1971 is one few people in Louisville remember today, of course. Even at the time, the raid caused but a small ripple in the life of the city. The era of activism in Louisville was on its way out. But by the time police had moved on the Gay Lib House, the mood in America had changed. Young Americans were confronting a harsher decade as the war in Vietnam dragged on.

For gays, the collapse of the GLF meant a return to business as usual. They had known the risks people like Fish were carrying all along, and, in 1971, they weren’t ready to accept them. To be out as a homosexual in Louisville for most of the last century had meant an almost certain end to any kind of middle-class or professional existence. As a result, for decades prior to the 1971 raid, the Louisville gay scene had been underground, hidden and discreet beyond description.

It was certainly that way in 1951, when Jack Kersey moved to Louisville from Washington, D.C., to be with his lover, a dentist, Charles Gruenberger. He told me last year that he knew right away that things would be different. “Just very conservative,” he said. “Everyone was very, very discreet.”

Gruenberger opened a private practice and joined the faculty at the UofL, but the couple’s social lives became far more proscribed and private. The city’s first gay bar had opened shortly before Kersey arrived. It was the Beaux Arts cocktail lounge in the lobby of the Henry Clay Hotel on West Chestnut Street between Third and Fourth streets. We wouldn’t recognize it as a gay bar now, as it was a far more subdued affair. In 1953, the Downtowner — which featured servers in drag, and shows in the back room — opened at Third and Chestnut streets.

Many gay people stayed away.

“Most of the socializing for gay people was done in the home,” Kersey recalled. He said gay people headed to parties in Louisville would arrive in hetero couples to keep from awakening the neighbors’ suspicions, and then they would separate once everyone was inside. By the 1960s, gay people were accustomed to meeting in the newspaper classified section. Male roommate wanted, or female roommate wanted. They were really solicitations for lovers.

For Kersey, realization of just how repressed life in Louisville had become wouldn’t come until he and his lover visited San Francisco in the 1960s. The gay clubs along Castro Street had big windows and open doors. “For the first time I saw what it meant to live out of the shadows,” he said. “I was used to Louisville, where the windows on the clubs were always blacked out.”

Louisville’s gay marriage test

For a brief moment, however, it had looked like things might change. The GLF had rallied behind the two women who had tried to get married. And when they were refused, they went to court. When Jim Callahan, the county clerk, looked up and realized that the women standing in front of him really did expect to get married, he didn’t know what to do. He called the county attorney, a 31-year-old Democrat named J. Bruce Miller, and said: “‘I got a problem,’” Miller recalled in an interview with Fosl for her oral history. “‘Two women are over here wanting to get married.’

“And so I laughed, and I said, ‘Yeah, now that’s a pretty funny joke,’” Miller said.

He told Callahan he needed an hour to come up with a strategy. He and his two deputies decided that some hot-shot lawyer had put the ladies up to the stunt. They were not going to let two women marry.

“You don’t issue a marriage license, and that’s that,” he told Callahan. “Well, it wasn’t long before the lawsuit was filed.”

On the bench was Jefferson Circuit Judge Lyndon Schmidt, who Miller said was even then past 70. Schmidt would make news two years later when women filed a class-action suit objecting to his requirements that they wear dresses or skirts in court. But that day in 1970, he was treated to a sight he’d never seen before in his courtroom. “Two guys, and one guy had dots all over on his cheeks and lipstick on, and I’m thinking, ‘God almighty, this is a clown show.’”

Schmidt called the lawyers to the bench and said his comments were off the record, and sent the court reporter rout of earshot. “He looked down at us, the bench was way up there, he looked down and said, “Which of the two is the he-she, and which one’s the she-she?’ And I stopped and looked that way, and I literally broke out laughing. I couldn’t believe a judge was saying this.”

“He was obviously totally revolted. I mean, complete and utter revulsion of what he was experiencing and being forced to deal with.”

Schmidt ruled against the women, but the GLF continued to mobilize for what activists were finally calling human rights for another year or so — until the night the paddy wagons rolled up to Bonnycastle Avenue. That’s when the energy had left Louisville’s gay-rights scene. Repression and silence were to hold sway for decades more.

Risking it all

Seven years after the raid, Kersey decided he wasn’t going to stay in the closet forever. A television station wanted to interview a gay man on camera — a first for Louisville. Kersey volunteered. “I wanted to come out of the closet and be myself,” he told me last year.

Reaction to his interview was unexpected. Most straight acquaintances didn’t seem to care, he said. That shocked him. But many gay friends were too scared to be seen with Kersey, and they snubbed him.

“This was very hurtful,” Kersey said.

Three years later, a banker, Sam Dorr, was elected president of a national group for gay Catholics. It got him fired, and he made the news. That galvanized some gays, and within a year, several gay groups had formed. By the mid-1980s, Louisville had an annual gay picnic that drew hundreds, and activists met for the first time with an elected official to seek changes.

Despite all those signs, for most gay people in Louisville life hadn’t much changed by the time the ‘70s moved into the Ronald Reagan era in the ‘80s. When AIDS arrived, it landed in still deeply closeted communities, and its toll was breathtaking.

AIDS, self-reflection and shame

AIDS had slowly seeped into the consciousness of even the most sheltered teenager in the ‘80s. Rock Hudson had died in 1985, and Ryan White, born the same year I was, had been diagnosed with HIV in 1984. But in the fall of my senior year at Trinity, my ignorance of homosexuality, and of the life and death struggle happening around me in my city, was still nearly complete. And I didn’t care to know more.

But then, my classmates and I were rounded up one day to listen to an alumnus who had returned from California to talk to us about sex and death and AIDS. Dr. Mark W. Lambertus was 31 and looked young for a doctor, and as I think back on it now, handsome. He told us he was working with AIDS patients in San Francisco, and even I knew that was a city of gay people. But what Lambertus didn’t say, and none of us guessed, was that he was gay, too. This was less surprising, perhaps, given that our school taught the poetry of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson without reference to their sexuality. It also never occurred to me to wonder if Lambertus was gay. I assumed he was a kind of do-gooder or missionary.

He would be dead of AIDS before any of us at the talk had finished college. Now when I think about it, the memory of that day brings a sense of shame. Shame from the realization that his talk left such a shallow impression on me. Shame that the struggle that was his life, and death, passed me without as much as a twinge of self-awareness.

Looking back, maybe it’s no surprise that I knew so little. There was so much that I didn’t know then. Across the U.S., homosexuals — and heterosexuals, too — were dying from AIDS, but it didn’t register with me, not in any kind of way that left a mark.

By the end of 1988, 128 Kentuckians, including three teenagers, had died from the disease. The following year, when I entered college, AIDS had killed more Americans of Lambertus’ age than did heart disease, homicide or suicide. In 1992, the year of Lambertus’ death, 57 out of every 100,000 men between the ages of 25 and 44 died of AIDS, more than any other cause, including cancer and car crashes. The numbers kept growing. By 2001, AIDS had claimed the lives of nearly 500,000 Americans, including those of more than 5,000 children.

The things I didn’t know would fill many magazines such as this one. For instance, I hadn’t known that in 1986, Paul Cameron, a former UofL professor, advised the city that it could slow the spread of HIV, if residents were tested when applying for marriage or driver’s licenses. Anyone who tested positive would be given a choice: Be quarantined in their homes, or be forced to wear a letter A.

I shared this story when I returned to Louisville last summer, and many older gay men shook their heads. The AIDS crisis had been brutal. Besides the obvious toll it took, it also pushed many people out of the closet, long before they were otherwise ready.

George Stinson, who owns the Connection and other businesses, told me that one of his bartenders was one of the first AIDS patients in Louisville. “His name was Tim, and he didn’t show up for work one day. I got on the telephone and called. He says, ‘I am sorry I didn’t make it to work but I am really, really sick.’ I said, ‘What’s wrong with you, honey? Do you need anything?’ So I go to his apartment, and oh, he looked like hell.”

They got him to the emergency room. Stinson and his friend and business partner, Ed Lewis, were in the waiting room, when the doctors who had examined Tim said, “‘Tell us about your friend. What’s his lifestyle? We talked to him, and he was kind of evasive. But there is a disease we keep reading about, and it’s called AIDS, and it’s sexually transmitted. So we want to know if he is homosexual?’”

Rather than answer, Stinson went with the doctors back to Tim’s room. “‘They want to talk to you about your sexual orientation,’” he told him. “He says, ‘You mean that I am gay?’ Well, right then they started, I mean the emergency room cleared out, I mean fast. They moved him into an isolated room, and you had to put on all the garb to go see him: the gloves, the suit, everything.”

By the time Tim’s family arrived a few days later, it was clear he wasn’t going to survive. “They were very resentful,” Stinson said. “They got there, and his father said, ‘Are you Timmy’s boss? I said, ‘Yeah.’ He says, ‘We’re out of here. It’s your problem now, not ours.’ Walking out of the room, one of the brothers said, ‘He’s just a queer.’”

Progress, but never forget

Attitudes have changed since then, of course. Not everywhere, and not always, but on most days in Louisville and elsewhere holding your gay partner’s hand is not going to cost you much. On a good day, maybe not even a second glance.

That’s progress.

And when the walkers in this year’s Louisville Pride March, step out this week, many will be happy to remember that this is the first year for such events in a nation that has enshrined gay rights — including the right to marry — in its national charter.

That’s progress, too.

I am hoping that those who take part in the march spare a moment to look back — and not only to the marriage struggles. Look back to shadows that took Jack Kersey so many decades to step out of. To the snickers in the courtroom in 1970. To the slurs that poured out of the mouths of LPD officers 45 years ago. And all those heroes and victims of AIDS — and those, like Dr. Lambertus, who were very much both at once.

For me, it’s more than just an obligation to remember. It’s an opportunity to pay respect to people who lived in a time before this city opened its arms to gay people. A time when it was dangerous, and illegal, to be gay. That’s part of this city’s history, and this nation’s, and even as we celebrate moving beyond it — it shouldn’t be forgotten. •

Michael Lindenberger, an editorial writer for The Dallas Morning News, is a Louisville native and former chief political writer and columnist for LEO. This piece expands on one that ran in The New Republic, “The Vanishing Terrain of Gay America,” and is the basis for a forthcoming book.