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June 13, 2012

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LEO talks gay rights with lawmakers, activists and Gov. Steve Beshear

Mark Twain’s declaration that Kentucky is 20 years behind the times remains true today, particularly when it comes to gay rights. From the commonwealth’s constitutional amendment banning same-sex unions to state lawmakers’ reluctance to protect LGBT youths from bullying, Kentucky lags far behind much of the nation on this front. LEO Weekly asked a few LGBT rights advocates — Democratic state Reps. Joni Jenkins and Mary Lou Marzian, Fairness Campaign director Chris Hartman, and ACLU-KY director Michael Aldridge — questions about the difficulty advancing their cause, as well as their forecast for the future of gay rights in Kentucky. We also asked a few questions of Gov. Steve Beshear, perhaps highlighting the others’ points about not just the legislature’s conservative make-up blocking progress, but timidness on the part of leadership in both parties.

How long do you think it will take for Kentucky’s constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and civil unions to be overturned, and do you think the federal government or Supreme Court will beat us to it?

Joni Jenkins: I don’t want to forecast when discrimination will end. Instead, I want to work on ending it. I want to be part of the solution instead of allowing the problem to endure.

Mary Lou Marzian: I think the U.S. Supreme Court will recognize equality for all citizens before we overturn our discriminatory amendment it Kentucky. “When?” is the question, but I feel it will be sooner rather than later. More and more people are understanding gay marriage is simply justice, especially young folks.

Chris Hartman: With recent federal court rulings against the U.S. Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and California’s Proposition 8, I expect we will see more action against these discriminatory bans on marriage at the judicial level before the commonwealth takes the issue up … I think the most likely scenario is that same-gender couples will be able to enjoy equal federal benefits of marriage by the close of the decade, with states like Kentucky approving recognition and state sanctioning of unions 15 or 20 years down the road.

Michael Aldridge: Kentucky has not been a leader on marriage equality — unfortunately, we have been a leader in denying the right to marry to same-sex couples. I was on the front lines of this debate when I served as the finance director for the “NO on the Amendment” campaign in 2004 that made Kentucky one of the first 13 states to deny same-sex couples the same rights enjoyed by their opposite-sex peers. Yet the national landscape has changed dramatically …

On June 6, the ACLU had a victory in the federal courts on the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). For the fifth time since the issue has been brought before the courts, judges have ruled the DOMA violates the federal constitution. This is incredible movement on a civil rights issue whose time has come, and it is likely that DOMA will come before the Supreme Court in the 2012-2013 session. That combined with the recent comments from President Obama and the leaked Republican memo encouraging the GOP to “evolve” on LGBT rights indicate we will see movement on same-sex marriage on the federal level long before a repeal of the constitutional amendment in Kentucky.

What do you think is the next legislative victory on the horizon for gay rights in Kentucky?

Jenkins: A legislative priority must be made on ways to keep our children safe. I hope to one day soon see passage of a comprehensive legislative bill that outlaws bullying of children based on sexual orientation or perceived sexual orientation. The number of children taking their own lives as a result of being bullied is staggering.

Marzian: I think we will pass statewide Fairness, prohibiting discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations, in the next few years.

Hartman: I believe the law prohibiting prejudicial bullying and harassment in our schools will come first, followed by a statewide ban on discrimination. Remember, while much of the nation has joined President Obama in taking up same-gender marriage as the pinnacle LGBTQ rights issue in America, it’s still legal in most of Kentucky to fire someone, deny them a place to live, or kick them off a bus or out of a restaurant if someone thinks they’re lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

Aldridge: Kentuckians are ready for statewide Fairness. In a poll conducted … in 2010, Kentuckians overwhelmingly (83 percent) affirmed their belief that no one should be denied a job, a place to live, or service in a public establishment based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Steve Beshear: While it is impossible for me to predict what bills will be successful, I remain supportive of bills that seek to end discrimination against any Kentuckian.

To what extent is common sense legislation in Frankfort defeated because of “fears” that its protections will extend to the LGBT community?

Jenkins: One of my signature issues is extending protections for seniors, women, children DVO and EPO protections to dating relationships is a good example. I have worked on this legislation for over five years, and recently it has passed the House three times but never was heard in the Senate. Kentucky is one of just a handful of states that do not include dating relationships. We know it saves lives, yet on the day it passed the House on the consent calendar this session, I overheard one of my colleagues tell another, “You better go register a ‘no’ vote on that — it’s about gay people.”

Marzian: If the Republicans can use it as a wedge issue, they try to frame legislation (such as anti-bullying) as a “gay agenda.” Then, Democrats who are afraid of speaking up for the rights of our gay students become terrified of losing an election.

Hartman: Defeat of the anti-bullying law for our schools is a perfect case in point. Rep. Marzian proposed a piece of legislation aimed at prohibiting bullying at school based on a student’s “actual or perceived race; religion; sexual orientation; gender identity; physical, mental, emotional, or learning disability; and other distinguishing characteristics.” And though the measure also affirmed a student’s right to religious freedom of speech, House Republicans and conservative activists quashed the bill for fear it would codify “gay rights in our schools.” Just one week later, another Kentucky teenager committed suicide to escape harassment at school.

Aldridge: One only has to look at the recent anti-bullying/harassment bill proposed by Rep. Marzian to see evidence of politics rising above protecting all Kentuckians … A recent study by GLSEN (the Gay and Lesbian Student Education Network) showed a decrease in bullying and an improvement in school climate where enumerated anti-bullying policies were enacted. Our legislators seemed to understand this in 2011 when the bill passed out of the House Education Committee with a 21-1 bipartisan vote. Many legislators remarked that if this legislation could give teachers an extra tool to protect children then there is no logical reason not to enact it. Yet in 2012, this same group of legislators — lobbied by anti-Fairness groups — voted along party lines to defeat this legislation.

Beshear: While it’s impossible to always know or understand the motives behind every vote, I believe the vast majority of legislators oppose discrimination.

Do you support the passage of a statewide Fairness law that prohibits discrimination in employment, public accommodation and housing based sexual orientation and gender identity?

Beshear: I believe bills such as these have the greatest chance of success when they are first passed at the local level in communities around the state. As support for an issue grows at the local level, it will have a greater chance of success at the state level.

Do you think Kentuckians have been served well by the 2004 constitutional amendment that bans both gay marriage and civil unions in the commonwealth?

Beshear: My faith teaches me that marriage is between a man and a woman. I believe the issue has been settled in Kentucky.

In Kentucky, who do you think is a better advocate for the LGBT community: the Democratic Party or Republican Party?

Beshear: I think the Democratic Party is a better advocate for all Kentuckians.

Which is a bigger hurdle to LGBT rights in Frankfort: Republicans or timid/conservative Democrats?

Jenkins: The biggest hurdle is fear. I choose not to point fingers but to educate my friends of all parties.

Marzian: Republicans used to believe in privacy and individual rights, but a few loud and hateful voices have taken over the Republicans. So, in combination with these Republicans and the scared Democrats, it is an uphill climb.

Hartman: … Recent polls indicate 83 percent of Kentuckians — Republican, Independent, Democrat, conservative, liberal — support statewide anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people, yet we can, at the most, convince 11 percent of our elected officials to co-sponsor Fairness. So I don’t see this as a Democrat or a Republican problem in Kentucky but an overall deficit of legislative education.

Aldridge: Civil rights are not and should not be a partisan issue, and I believe both parties need to be held accountable for their lack of leadership in protecting all Kentuckians.

To read our interview with U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth on gay rights, visit leoweekly.com.