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February 11, 2009

Campaigning for fairness

The state of the state’s gay rights movement

For Diane Moten, it all began when a co-worker noticed she didn’t have a boyfriend. A line of personal questions followed at the day care center where she worked. That line ended at her termination.

“I remember she said, ‘I’m picking up on the fact that you don’t really date guys, you date women.’ Two weeks after that I was fired. I was told I couldn’t be trusted around kids anymore,” she says. “And that was that. I lost my job because I was gay.”

That was the late 1990s, and Louisville’s gay rights movement was in full swing.

After being fired, Moten became an activist, sharing her story with the city’s Board of Aldermen and pushing for a law prohibiting discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals. In 1999, such a law — dubbed the fairness ordinance — was passed.

 “A lot of folks had been working on it a lot harder and longer than I had,” says Moten, who spent three years on the board of the Fairness Campaign, a group that began fighting for such an ordinance in 1991. “It was long overdue to get passed. But now if someone is fired based on [being gay], they at least have ground to stand on where they didn’t before.”

A decade after the fairness ordinance passed in Louisville, however, some critics have complained that the gay rights movement has sputtered out, saying the Fairness Campaign has become increasingly passive since its victory a decade ago.

There is reason to believe the movement is back on track: Last week, the Fairness Campaign hired its first director, who has ambitious plans for the organization, including a major push toward lobbying in Frankfort.

“Statewide we’ve got a lot of work to do and that is what Fairness is focusing on,” says Chris Hartman, the new director.

Specifically, he has his sights set on convincing legislators to enact a fairness law that applies to the entire state.

With a background in politics, Hartman most recently worked as press secretary for U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth’s 2008 campaign. Now he says he is primed to push the Fairness Campaign to the next level.

In addition to overseeing fundraising and communications, Hartman plans to use the office as a launch pad for a legislative strategy that begins with aggressively lobbying the General Assembly.

Advocates across the commonwealth believe Louisville’s fairness ordinance provides a model for a comprehensive state law. Both Lexington and Covington have adopted similar ordinances, but Hartman says it will take more than urban hubs to pass a statewide fairness law.

Jody Cofer, a board member for the Kentucky Fairness Alliance — an organization that lobbies on behalf of the LGBT community — says he’s glad the Fairness Campaign is expanding its scope, but he reiterates that there needs to be support across the state.

“We will never see major change if we stay with the Louisville and Lexington delegation,” he says. “They can only do so much. And they can’t pass a law by themselves, to be frank.”

That’s why Kentucky gay rights advocates are closely following a movement that’s under way in Richmond, Ky., where the city council is considering a fairness ordinance. Passage of such a measure in Richmond would prove the push for a statewide fairness law is gaining momentum, says Cofer.

But even as LGBT activists make strides, it is impossible to forget that less than five years ago Kentucky voters decisively supported amending the state constitution to explicitly ban gay marriage.

“Many legislators are very hesitant to support fairness due to the political backlash, but it’s changed in the past few years,” Cofer says. “Gov. Beshear has been very supportive. It’s become a little bit easier working with this administration.” In contrast, former Gov. Ernie Fletcher used the state’s ninth annual “Diversity Day” as occasion to issue an executive order removing sexual orientation and gender identity from the state’s anti-discrimination policy.

The first step toward possibly unraveling the constitutional amendment might be House Bill 72, informally dubbed the non-discrimination bill. State Rep. Mary Lou Marzian, D-Louisville, introduced the bill, which seeks to amend Kentucky law to include definitions for sexual orientation and gender identity in the state’s civil rights provisions. According to Cofer, the lawmaker also plans to introduce a hospital visitation bill that would give every adult the ability to designate emergency care visitors, a privilege currently limited only to family members. Marzian did not respond to several calls seeking comment before press time.