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UnCommonwealth: Researchers seek stories, places important in Kentucky LGBT history

Three revelers, including Rick Milam, left, and Robert Morgan, right, posed for a photo inside the Living Room around 1970.
Three revelers, including Rick Milam, left, and Robert Morgan, right, posed for a photo inside the Living Room around 1970. Faulkner/Morgan/Pagan Babies Archive

In 1970, a female couple filed a lawsuit in Louisville that may have been a precursor of the 2015 Supreme Court decision to strike down the limitations on gay marriage.

Jones versus Hallahan drew a 1973 ruling from the Kentucky Court of Appeals that defined only the union between a man and a woman as being the proper container “for the purpose of founding and maintaining a family.”

What a difference four decades can make. In the 2015 United States Supreme Court ruling on Obergefell v. Hodges, the court would hold that the right to marry is guaranteed to same sex couples.

Now a group of Kentucky historians and activists are compiling what they hope will be a comprehensive history of LGBT activity — lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and queer — in the state.

Researchers in Louisville and Lexington, working with the Louisville group Fairness.org and state historians at the Kentucky Heritage Council, are seeking people who have stories to tell about LGBT life in Lexington.

Lexington and Louisville have long been considered gay-friendly cities, says Catherine Fosl, a historian at the University of Louisville and director of the Anne Braden Institute for Social Justice Research. In Lexington the irony is that even as spots such as The Bar have flourished, many gay men still remember anti-gay police “stings” within their lifetimes.

“The gay scene here in Lexington was extraordinarily vibrant and brought a lot of interesting and creative types,” said Jonathan Coleman, a Kentucky historian.

He and Lexington artist Robert Morgan started an archive, the Faulkner/Morgan/Pagan Babies Archive, which collects and preserves LGBT history in Central and Eastern Kentucky. It includes pictures of such famously adventurous Kentuckians as artist Henry Faulkner who died in 1981 and appears in a photo in the archive with hair arranged around his face and lips perfectly made up, looking like a Hollywood starlet.

In Lexington, James Herndon, known as “Sweet Evening Breeze,” took to the streets in the 1950s in feminine ensembles and makeup that made locals gawk. The Living Room bar cleverly marketed itself via its matchbooks as “the gayest place in Lexington.”

It is a history that has been very guarded historically and has not been celebrated outside its own subculture.

Catherine Fosl, a historian at the University of Louisville and director of the Anne Braden Institute for Social Justice Research

A problem with obtaining historic accounts is that creativity is required in the research terms. Gay people weren’t always considered “gay,” says Fosl. Terminology such as “homosexual” and “sissy” was used, she said, citing items such as the Louisville 1915 vice report.

“It is a history that has been very guarded historically and has not been celebrated outside its own subculture,” Fosl said. “Older people may have lived a life that is somewhat out, but it’s not identified as gay or queer or trans.”

Before beginning this project, Fosl had done 22 oral history interviews with LGBT activists in 1970s and ‘80s Louisville. She hopes the research in Louisville and Lexington — a Lexington visit is scheduled for January — enables the production of a “statewide historic context narrative,” a 25-page effort synthesizing everything that is discovered.

Despite the 1973 ruling against the Louisville lesbian couple, in the Kentucky v. Wasson case in 1992, the Kentucky Supreme Court decriminalized consensual sodomy. But Kentucky voters were still unconvinced, adopting a 2004 constitutional amendment that defined marriage as solely the union of a man and a woman.

In Kentucky, it was easy to get mixed signals. So many remained in the closet, Fosl said.

“The major challenge is that, outside of Louisville and Lexington . . . there are a lot of people who feel” unable to come out, Fosl said. “Certainly there are also some ways of being LGBT ... that don’t fit the standard national narrative out of Los Angeles or New York.”

Kentucky researchers need “to work this history differently, to make personal connections,” she said, rather than simply announcing that they’re available to gather LGBT history.

For example, Fosl said that her group is “about 90 percent sure” that the Louisville couple in the Jones v. Hallahan case had a “gay liberation” wedding in the Bar complex in Lexington in 1970, when it was known as the Living Room. They would like to be sure by locating some people who may have attended the ceremony.

Kentucky’s LGBT history, “didn’t start with the Wasson decision here in Kentucky,” Fosl said. “It didn’t start with Obergefell here in Kentucky. ... It really didn’t even start with Stonewall (the 1969 gay demonstrations in New York).”

Jeffrey Wasson, a Powell County native who was the plaintiff in the Wasson case, said in a 1993 Herald-Leader profile that coming out, “is the only way you say to yourself, ‘I’m OK.’”

“I’m glad my case affected the other gay people in Kentucky, but I didn’t do it for them,” Wasson told former Herald-Leader report Kevin Nance. “I did it for myself.”

Cheryl Truman: 859-231-3202, @CherylTruman

Participants needed

The Kentucky LGBT research project will be in Lexington next month to do field research. To participate, call 502-852-6142.

The event will be 5:30-7:30 p.m. Jan. 26 at The Plantory, 501 West Sixth Street. It will include a short panel discussion on Kentucky LGBT history, followed by opportunities to contribute oral histories, archives or mementos.

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