When I first moved to Kentucky in 1998, I was struck by the vibrancy and broad-based character of its Louisville-based LGBTQ social movement. As a history PhD candidate finishing a dissertation on post–World War II social movements in the US South, I was aware in a general way of an organization known as the Fairness Campaign, which had led the local LGBTQ equality drive since 1991. What I observed on the ground, however, was the truest example I had seen of what has since come to be called intersectional politics1Critical race feminist legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw first named intersectionality as a theory in her classic essay, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” University of Chicago Legal Forum 1989, no. 1 (1989), then the concept became more widely discussed and applied to politics as the century ended by scholar-activists such as Cathy Cohen and many others.—and it was strikingly at odds with the practices of other local LGBTQ rights groups I had known of in other parts of the nation, particularly in the South.
Intersectionality in queer Kentucky
The 1990s was a decade of major expansion of the LGBTQ movement in the United States. Yet it was also a time of increased pushback from opponents—a point in the 1990s culture wars when the Religious Right increasingly charged, especially in southern and border states, that “gay rights are special rights, not civil rights” as a wedge to rouse conservative opposition to LGBTQ protections. These campaigns frequently targeted communities of color, focusing specifically on Black churches and playing to the fragility of Black civil rights gains by pitting them against the ones sought by LGBTQ people. The coalition approach of Louisville’s Fairness Campaign could not prevent such charges, but it effectively countered them.“They often led the way in identifying and organizing around moments when racial injustices infused homophobia, including a march in 1996 against a resurgent Ku Klux Klan.”
Although the organization was founded by two white women and remained majority-white, Fairness activists not only showed up to support racial justice, labor union, feminist, and other social justice causes. They often led the way in identifying and organizing around moments when racial injustices infused homophobia, including a march in 1996 against a resurgent Ku Klux Klan. The resulting movement successfully passed a “fairness” ordinance, as the local LGBTQ antidiscrimination law became known, in Louisville in 1999—among the early crop of laws to include gender identity along with sexual orientation protections.
We still have a long way to go to fully understand the diverse histories and experiences of LGBTQ people in the United States. But the SSRC’s Sexuality Research Fellowship Program (SRFP) significantly expanded that body of knowledge. Some of that expansion was geographic, underscoring the truism that place matters. Examining Louisville’s Fairness Campaign through oral histories as a kind of case study of intersectional movement-building became my next research topic, and I was privileged to be part of the final cohort of SRFP fellows in 2005–2006.
As is often the case, I got sidetracked in the course of my research when I discovered what appears to have been the first full gay marriage trial in US history, which took place in a Louisville courtroom after two lesbians, Marjorie Jones and Tracy Knight, applied for a marriage license there in July 1970. As the gay marriage cases that became Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015 wound their way through the courts and larger public discourses and in the wake of George Chauncey’s short history of gay marriage,2New York: Basic Books, 2004More Info → I too turned some of my attention to unpacking and writing about that significant but underrecognized episode. That case, Jones v. Hallahan, was an important forerunner of the movement’s turn toward marriage equality and one that placed Louisville squarely in the national story yet had previously garnered very little attention from either historians or the larger public, including contemporary LGBTQ activists in Louisville.
Kentucky’s queer public history
My work has since moved more in the direction of public history, partly out of the increased realization that the wider public is unaware Kentucky even has a queer history and of how little Kentuckians, even historians and LGBTQ residents, knew of our own history. What I originally envisioned as a monograph has evolved (so far) into three journal articles, many pieces in the local popular press,3The three scholarly articles include Catherine Fosl, “‘It Could be Dangerous!’: Gay Liberation and Gay Marriage in Louisville, Kentucky, 1970,” Ohio Valley History 12, no. 1 (Spring 2012): 45–65; Catherine Fosl and Lara Kelland, “‘Bring Your Whole Self to the Work’: Identity and Intersectional Politics in the Louisville LGBTQ Movement,” Oral History Review 43, no. 1 (Winter/Spring 2016): 138–52; and Catherine Fosl and Daniel Vivian, “Investigating Kentucky’s LGBTQ Heritage: Subaltern Stories from the Bluegrass State,” The Public Historian 41, no. 2 (May 2019): 218–44. Popular press articles include, among others, Catherine Fosl, “Looking Back at First Women Who Tried to Marry,” The Courier-Journal, July 7, 2015; and Cate Fosl, “Project Seeks LGBT Histories and Historic Places,” The Courier-Journal, November 30, 2015. and, in 2017, the first statewide LGBTQ historic context statement in the United States, available online through the National Park Service.“The resulting narrative is a 126-page introduction to Kentucky’s LGBTQ history that includes substantially more politics, people, and US queer history than what such a document would typically provide.”
Historic context statements, for those not familiar with public history, are documents written in accessible prose and produced to give a social historical overview of a particular topic to an audience consisting mostly of historic preservationists and planners with an eye toward designating historic sites. For that project, I headed a research team that produced the Kentucky LGBTQ historic context statement in partnership with the Fairness Campaign, which remains among the leading LGBTQ activist organizations in the state. The resulting narrative is a 126-page introduction to Kentucky’s LGBTQ history that includes substantially more politics, people, and US queer history than what such a document would typically provide. My work profiles figures like “Sweet Evening Breeze,” born James Herndon—an iconic African American whom several generations of central Kentuckians, queer or not, recall from his strolls through downtown Lexington from the 1930s to 1980s wearing full or partial drag, or from his performing the part of a bride at one of the many “womanless weddings” popular in small-town Kentucky and other parts of the South in the first half of the twentieth century. The narrative also reaches back to precolonial Kentucky, revisiting cross-dressing practices of Indigenous peoples and discussing Revolutionary War veterans Captain Robert Craddock and Pierre Tardiveau, who may or may not have been romantic partners. The two never married, lived their postwar lives on a farm together, and were, at their request, buried side by side in Bowling Green, Kentucky.4The project’s work has been nationally recognized, receiving the 2019 W. K. Kellogg Foundation Community Engagement Scholarship Awards and being named one of the finalists for the C. Peter Magrath Community Engagement Scholarship Award.
Intersectional politics has meanwhile received a great deal of scholarly and activist attention in the years since I began this research as an SRFP fellow. I have watched the term move from a theory (or theories) in the academy into common usage among LGBTQ activists, while intersectional practices like those of the Fairness Campaign have become more widespread (though not uniformly so) even as debates about identity politics have deepened and persisted.
Unsurprisingly, the multiracial, multi-issue alliances that characterized the Fairness movement in Louisville also met more roadblocks as they moved out into the rest of Kentucky, which is among the whitest and poorest states in the nation. Developments such as the Black Lives Matter movement and then the 2016 election of Donald Trump have exposed more dramatically in places like Kentucky the challenges of bridging competing race, class, gender, and sexual identities and ideologies. With new histories in its array of organizing tools, the LGBTQ movement in Louisville and more broadly across Kentucky continues to build broad alliances even as it contends in new ways with the power of wedge politics wielded by conservative politicians and activists.
Banner photo credit: Jason Meredith/Flickr