Rural Americans are changing their views on LGBTQ rights. Just look at this Kentucky town
HENDERSON, Ky. — Inside a packed school auditorium, hundreds of angry citizens, some holding Ten Commandments placards, shouted "Amen!" as fiery speakers denounced a proposed LGBTQ rights ordinance.
The "homosexual agenda," some opponents warned, could turn young people gay and destroy their Kentucky town.
It was the fall of 1999.
The farming and industrial town of 28,000 perched on the Ohio River, had become the third and smallest city in Kentucky, following Louisville and Lexington, to consider a "Fairness" ordinance protecting gay, lesbian and transgender residents from discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations.
The combustible debate, stoked by conservative religion, divided the small town like never before.
The gay pastor leading the fight faced threats. Protesters shouted insults into bullhorns.
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One hearing drew more than 800 people and lasted until 2 a.m. Police ran safety checks on city commissioners.
"The things said by the opposition was unreal," said Phyllis Ward, a retired school guidance counselor whose husband was on the commission. "Death to people who are gay. Shoot 'em. Get rid of 'em. They’d say it right out, holding the Bible in their hands."
The ordinance passed on a 3-2 vote with support from then-Mayor Joan Hoffman, a seemingly improbable victory for LGBTQ civil rights in rural America.
But it wouldn’t last.
Within 18 months, city commission elections, marked by campaign promises to reverse the new law, tilted control to opponents who repealed it. It left advocates defeated, LGBTQ residents on edge and some civic leaders reluctant to revisit the issue.
Now, 20 years after that tumultuous chapter in Henderson, the city commission on Tuesday is expected to give final approval, on the same 3-2 vote, to a similar Fairness ordinance after a campaign that Hoffman spearheaded.
Hoffman, now a private citizen, says it is long past due.
This time, the debate has been notably devoid of 1999’s anger and vitriol. Fears that it would reignite a public anti-gay outpouring haven’t come to pass.
A forum in May drew fewer than 90 people, mostly supporters. Even staunch opponents, who dismiss it as unneeded or a slippery slope toward curtailing Christian religious values, doubt passage will spark another repeal attempt.
To many, the stark difference is the latest sign of the larger picture of growing LGBTQ acceptance in rural America.
In recent years, Americans’ views toward LGBTQ people have shifted substantially, with a majority of U.S. adults now saying society should accept homosexuality, according to the Pew Research Center.
"As the country has changed, so has Henderson," said supporter and resident Glenda Guess, noting Tuesday’s second reading will come four years after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, another milestone she didn’t think she’d see.
“We’d like to think it’s because people are more educated,” but at the very least more “people know it’s no longer cool to say, ‘I can’t stand gay people,'" she said.
LGBTQ discrimination still prevalent
Despite promising signs, discrimination still occurs.
A 2017 survey of LGBTQ Americans for the Harvard School of Public Health found that 22% said they faced discrimination in housing and 20% in jobs.
Without anti-discrimination laws, victims have little recourse apart from filing a cumbersome federal employment complaint.
In the two decades since Louisville adopted the state’s first "Fairness" ordinance to protect LGBTQ people from being fired from a job, evicted from their apartment or refused service, nine cities have followed suit — from Paducah to the 334-resident Appalachian coal town of Vicco, whose size and openly gay mayor helped the issue draw national attention.
About 27% of Kentucky’s population is now covered by "Fairness" laws. They’ve generated more than 200 discrimination complaints to local Human Relations commissions, said Chris Hartman, director of the statewide Fairness Campaign.
The vast majority of those complaints have been in Louisville, resulting in mediated settlements or diversity training.
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The Kentucky General Assembly has refused to support a statewide Fairness law, adopted in 22 other states. That has left small-town Kentucky as the primary barometer of progress in the fight for LGBTQ protections.
"The movement for basic discrimination protections has more and more moved to rural America," Hartman said.
The fight for 'Fairness' in Henderson
Henderson is a town of trim homes in quiet neighborhoods, where some residents work in factories such as an aluminum plant, a nearby coal mine or in the corn and soybean fields. In the evenings, children play in a riverfront park fountain on a bluff over the Ohio River plied by river barges, with trains rumbling over a bridge to Indiana.
In its well-kept but partly empty historic brick downtown, bordered by streets dotted with mansions from its past as a 19th-century tobacco producer and river-shipping hub, stores sell shoes, ice cream, payday loans and crop insurance. The wall of the Republican Party office urges passersby to "vote pro-life."
There are no outward signs of Henderson's LGBTQ community, such as a rainbow pride flag. The town doesn’t have an active LGBTQ group, community center or gay-friendly gathering place.
For that, residents have to cross the river to Evansville, Indiana.
But inside Just Plus, a women’s consignment shop where Christian music plays, owner Wanda Sauer said that despite her strong religious beliefs, she discreetly serves transgender women. To Sauer, the ordinance is unneeded and is only "dividing generations."
The push to pass the ordinance again has just "brought up a lot of hard feelings."
A short distance away in City Hall, third-term Mayor Steve Austin said this iteration of the debate “hasn’t been an ugly thing, a name-calling thing" like last time.
But he still voted against the ordinance on its first reading because it didn’t seem like "a needed thing."
“I talked in passing to quite a few apartment owners, and I said, ‘What about this?’ They said, ‘I’ll tell you the truth. What we’re interested in is people that will pay their rent on time and not tear up our property … we don’t have any issues other than that,'" he said. “On the employment side they said, ‘What we need are people who can pass a drug test, who can show up on time.'"
Although commissioners added language from the state’s "religious freedom" law, which limits the government’s ability to sanction people who refuse service because of religious beliefs, he said it could still impinge on others.
He pointed to the Lexington company charged with violating a fairness ordinance in 2012 when it refused to print T-shirts for Lexington’s Pride Festival, or the Colorado case where a baker refused to make a cake for the wedding of a gay couple.
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But Henderson resident Natalie Skipworth says she knows first-hand that discrimination happens.
The 32-year-old transgender woman said four years ago she was offered a job at a Henderson auto-repair shop she declined to name.
She asked if she could adjust her schedule slightly twice a month to make an appointment related to hormone therapy. She explained her situation.
"'Hold off on bringing your toolbox. I’m going to need to talk to a lawyer.' Those were his exact words,” she recalled. A few days later she was told. "'I really need someone full time. I’m going to pull the job offer. Have a nice day.' And, he hung up. It’s very obvious the reason why."
"But there was really nothing I could do about it," said Skipworth, who hasn’t worked in town since, opting instead to commute to a job 45 minutes away.
Hartman said the only options for such cases without the ordinance is trying to file a federal U.S Equal Opportunity Employment Commission complaint if the employer has 15 or more workers. The local Human Relations Commission could not investigate.
'Fairness' repeal 'had to be rectified'
In a corner booth a Henderson Denny’s along on a commercial strip filled with used-car dealerships, chain restaurants and strip malls, Hoffman, 77, sipped coffee with a half dozen members of her liberal-leaning church, Zion United Church of Christ, that has been the center of support for the latest "Fairness" ordinance.
“Who can be on the radio with me?” she asked about a coming AM radio talk show where she would talk about her support for the ordinance.
After retiring as a local high school administrator and winning the mayor’s office in 1999, Hoffman said Guess’ son brought LGBTQ residents around a table to tell stories of discrimination and seek a "Fairness" ordinance.
It was the year after Wyoming college student Matthew Shepard was beaten, tortured and left to die near Laramie, galvanizing the push for protections.
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Supporters included residents such as Michael Puckett, 66, who said growing up and living as a gay man hasn’t been easy in Henderson.
"If you were in the closet, you were fine," said Puckett, who supported the effort even though the backlash made him feel unsafe.
Despite the community uproar and anger, Hoffman said, "I was really proud to have passed a 'Fairness' ordinance after Louisville and Lexington. And it was such an embarrassment to have taken such a step backward."
She gathered support to restore the law despite being implored to leave it alone.
Hadn’t it already been debated? Wouldn’t it tear the city apart again?
Even some LGBTQ residents privately said it could stir up anger and resentment.
But the repeal felt like it "gave people permission to discriminate," Hoffman insisted. “It had to be rectified.”
As culture shifts, divisions remain
For some residents, the renewed debate came full circle in unexpected ways.
Jayme Fruit recalled how in the late 1990s when her young daughter asked about a "Fairness" campaign billboard stating, "Someone you know and love is gay."
She was slightly irked that she was forced to explain it.
But about a decade ago, her daughter, Olivia, now 27, revealed that she was dating a woman.
"I was shocked, but I hugged her and told her it would be OK," Fruit said. Her parents were supportive, but some relatives were not.
She believes the 1999 "Fairness" debate helped residents have a difficult but needed conversation, smoothing the way for increased acceptance.
Oliva Fruit said her generation, accustomed to openly gay figures from television stars and politicians, doesn’t see being LGBTQ as a big deal like older generations.
"I’m glad it’s happening, I just wish it hadn’t taken 20 years," she said.
That's not the way Bill Patterson, a leader of the Green River Baptist Association and former pastor of the First Baptist Church, sees it.
After praying over a stir fry at a local Hibachi restaurant, Patterson said he loved all people, but the "practice of the homosexual lifestyle" was still a Biblical sin.
The "Fairness" ordinance, he said, was a slippery slope.
"This is the engine of the train,” he said. “If the engine goes through, it’s only a matter of time before other things go through" such as rules requiring transgender bathrooms or Drag Queen story hours at libraries.
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Henderson is "a great place to raise a family," Patterson said. "I’d like to see it continue that way."
Yet he acknowledged he’d seen a significant “cultural shift” that had dampened opposition since the last go around.
“There’s not as much fervor against the ordinance," he said. "Many still feel the same way, but they don’t feel strongly enough to show up” or they worry they’ll be “labeled a homophobe.”
Has the needle moved in favor of LGBTQ rights?
So how many residents in Henderson have changed their minds in the intervening years?
Kentucky State Sen. Robby Mills spent 18 years as a city commissioner and helped repeal the law. He opposes the latest version as “a club that can be overused."
And he said he doesn’t think attitudes have shifted as much as it seems — at least not in Henderson County.
Mills had just returned from a legislative conference in Denver, during gay pride week, attending a baseball game where the country’s first openly gay governor threw out the first pitch. He said LGBTQ advocates had successfully “sold their issue,” particularly in urban areas.
“But in rural America, it is still not something that people easily talk about,” he said, arguing that because of “political correctness” and divisions in the era of Donald Trump, people are afraid to talk about politics. “It was 50-50 back then, and I don’t think the needle has moved that much in Henderson County.”
A 2017 Public Religion Research Institute survey found that about 52% of rural residents support same-sex marriage, compared with 64% of urban residents, while 62% supported nondiscrimination measures for LGBTQ people, compared with 72% of urban residents.
When the Henderson City Commission takes its final vote on the ordinance, already approved in a first reading 3-2, it is expected to pass on the same lines.
"Two of the three commissioners that voted in favor of it are relatively young folks, and sometimes young folks have a different idea about things. Their lifestyle is different," Mayor Austin told WKU Public Radio.
Among them is Austin Vowels, a 32-year-old lawyer, who believes the ordinance is needed, particularly after reading more than 30 letters from LGBTQ residents and others in support.
“It’s the right thing to do,” he said. “I’d like to think we’re progressing, but it’s hard to say.”
Follow Chris Kenning on Twitter: @chris_kenning
This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Rural Americans are changing their views on LGBTQ rights. Just look at this Kentucky town