Fayette County

20 years later: The untold story of how Lexington’s Fairness Ordinance was passed

It seemed to come out of nowhere.

On June 20, 1999, the Herald-Leader reported the Lexington city council was considering an ordinance that would prohibit discrimination of people based on sexual orientation in housing, employment and public accommodation.

After two packed public meetings, the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council voted 12-to-3 on July 8 to approve the most far-reaching ordinance in the state of Kentucky banning discrimination against gay, lesbian and transgender people.

It took 18 days.

In Louisville, a similar effort took nearly a decade.

The then-Louisville board of alderman passed an ordinance in January 1999, but the compromise legislation only banned discrimination in cases of employment. Louisville first considered an ordinance banning discrimination based on sexual orientation in 1991, and subsequent efforts failed in 1995 and 1997.

In Lexington, the much more far-reaching ordinance passed on the first try, fundamentally altering the face of Lexington in the two decades that followed.

“People look at our community and see we have a Fairness Ordinance and they understand automatically that we want to be non-discriminatory. It’s a message of welcome. It says we love diversity here,” said Lexington Mayor Linda Gorton, who was a freshman on the council in 1999.

As Lexington celebrates the 20th anniversary of the historic ordinance with panel discussions and other events in the next four weeks, those who pushed for its passage in 1999 talked for the first time about the behind-the-scenes effort to get it passed.

It didn’t come out nowhere.

“Timing is everything in politics,” said Fayette Circuit Court Judge Ernesto Scorsone, who was one of more than a dozen people who worked behind the scenes to get the ordinance passed. Scorsone was a state senator in 1999.

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Fayette Circuit Court Judge Ernesto Scorsone and Debra Hensley pose for a portrait on the second floor of the Lexington City Government Building Thursday, June 20, 2019. Ryan C. Hermens rhermens@herald-leader.com

The group was emboldened by the passage of the January 1999 Louisville ordinance, but they also didn’t want what happened in Louisville — an eight year battle — to be repeated in Lexington.

The Louisville effort was more like an artillery assault, Scorsone said. “It was bloody and long.”

“What we did was more of a drone strike,” he said.

Debra Hensley, who was also instrumental in getting the ordinance passed, said the effort started with then Mayor Pam Miller. Miller was re-elected in November 1998 by one of the largest margins of victory in merged government history.

“She is also one of my closest friends,” said Hensley, who is also a former councilwoman. Shortly after Miller started her second term in January and after Louisville passed its ordinance, Hensley visited Miller in her office at city hall and asked her to back the ordinance.

Miller agreed. She also talked to and convinced Vice Mayor Isabel Yates to back the ordinance. The support of the two longtime city hall stalwarts was key, Hensley said.

“We had a very progressive council at that time,” Scorsone said.

Soon, the group began meeting with individual council members to go over the proposed ordinance and to address any concerns.

Hensley and others also tapped surrogates — people who knew council members personally — to approach them about the ordinance.

Scorsone said conversations with council members continued throughout the spring and summer. Vote tabulations showed they had the eight votes needed to pass the ordinance and they also had a promise from Miller to break a tie.

“We were not going to call the bill up unless we had the votes,” Scorsone said.

But the group wanted to make sure they had more than enough votes. They worked to address concerns of council members who were hesitant.

Dennis Stutsman, a lawyer who was then co-chair of the Kentucky Fairness Alliance, was working with the city’s law department to draft language for the ordinance and to address some council members’ concerns who were still on the fence.

One issue that council members raised immediately: They felt the recommendation to pass such an ordinance should come from the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Human Rights Commission, which investigates discrimination complaints. The commission voted unanimously to recommend the ordinance on June 21.

It was a rise in discrimination complaints from the gay, lesbian and transgender community that was behind the need for the ordinance, Stutsman said.

“One of the frustrations that we had is that we would have employment or housing discrimination complaints that would got to the Lexington Human Rights Commission over the years. They were sympathetic but there was nothing they could do about it unless the person was diagnosed with AIDS, because that was considered a disability,” Stutsman said.

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The cover the July 9, 1999 of the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Stutsman said by 1999, views on discrimination against gay, lesbian and transgender populations were changing. There were statewide polls that showed Kentuckians believed discrimination based on sexual orientation should be banned.

But Scorsone and others knew the council would be leery of voting in favor of an ordinance if the Lexington community did not support it. Lexington Fairness Campaign commissioned a poll that showed overwhelming support for banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. (Those who opposed the ordinance raised questions about the validity of the poll because of its wording.)

Once they sewed up more than eight votes, they pushed to put the issue directly on the council agenda, rather than into a committee.

They also knew a backlash from the religious community would come as soon as the proposed ordinance became public.

They asked gay, lesbian and transgender people to speak at council meetings about their personal experiences with discrimination.

Stutsman said he still marvels at the courage of the gay, lesbian and transgender people who spoke publicly about their experiences with discrimination at council meetings on July 1 and July 8.

“I was already out. I worked for a small legal aid group at the time who knew I was gay and didn’t care,” Stutsman said. “But you have to remember in 1999, these people were not protected. They could have been fired.”

Gorton, now Lexington’s mayor, had just been elected to council the previous November. Hensley had asked one of Gorton’s close friends and neighbors to talk to her about the ordinance. They continued to talk to Gorton throughout the spring and summer.

But no one knew how Gorton was going to vote prior to the July 8 meeting.

“I am a nurse,” Gorton said. “I wanted to get all of the information. I was also new to council and wanted to make sure I understood everything before I voted.”

Gorton said what ultimately convinced her to vote in favor of the ordinance was not the testimony of the many people who spoke in favor of the ordinance, but the comments of those who opposed it.

“There was a man in a clerical collar who pointed to all of us on council and told us if we voted for this ordinance, we were all going to hell,” Gorton said.

In the weeks leading up to the final vote, Gorton also got phone calls from constituents. Some were nasty. Others were threatening, she said. One told her she was wrong if she voted for the ordinance and ended the phone call with a veiled threat: “I know where you live and I know where your kids go to school.”

Debra Hensley and Fayette Circuit Court Judge Ernesto Scorsone at the Lexington Fayette Government center on Thursday, June 20, 2019. Ryan C. Hermens rhermens@herald-leader.com

“He was an educated man — a doctor of dentistry,” Gorton said. “That more than anything convinced me this ordinance was absolutely needed.”

The ordinance still stands and has never been amended. Nor has there ever been an effort to repeal it.

Stutsman said the importance of the ordinance cannot be overstated 20 years later.

“People in Lexington are free to live, work, buy houses and raise their family without the fear of having to hide or lie about who they are,” Stutsman said.

And if discrimination does occur, there is a remedy.

Today, the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Human Rights Commission receives on average 120 complaints a year. About five are LGBTQ-related, Scorsone said.

“That’s a tremendous step forward in civil rights and for an open society,” Stutsman said.

Upcoming events

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the passage of the 1999 Fairness Ordinance, the city of Lexington, the Lexington History Museum, and Lexington Fairness are hosting various events and panel discussions.

Sunday: 11 am. to 2 p.m. Lexington Legends Pride Day at Whitaker Ball Park

Sunday: 4 to5 p.m. Fairness Ordinance Panel Discussion:”What it was Like Back Then” at Lexington Central Library

Friday June 28: 3 to 4 p.m. Faces of Hope exhibit at Lexington Central Library

Friday June 28: 6 to 8 p.m. Lexington Fairness Hall of Fame reception at 21c Hotel

Friday June 28: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Lexington Pride Festival at the courthouse plaza

Saturday June 29: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Lexington Pride Festival at the courthouse plaza

Monday July 1: 5:30 to 7 p.m. 20th Anniversary of the Fairness Ordinance reception at the LFUCG Government Center

Sunday July 7: 4 to 5 p.m. Fairness Ordinance Panel Discussion:”Where are we now?” at the Lexington Central Library.

Until July 19: Exhibit of the timeline of local, state and national LGBTQ history and the passage of Lexington Fairness Ordinance. Lexington Central Library.