Kim Davis, the court clerk who became famous for refusing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, has made headlines again — this time for being voted out of office. If that surprised people outside Kentucky, it may have been because they know more about Appalachian stereotypes than Davis’ hometown.
After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled for marriage equality in June 2015, local officials in several states — including Oregon, Texas and North Carolina — refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, citing their personal religious beliefs.
But Davis got most of the headlines, especially after U.S. District Judge David Bunning, the son of a former conservative Republican senator, jailed her for contempt of court when she refused his order to obey the law.
Gay-rights activists across the country cheered Tuesday night when she lost her re-election bid to Elwood Caudill Jr. by about 700 votes. For many gay men and lesbians, Davis was a symbol of bigotry and hypocrisy — she had four heterosexual marriages before converting to fundamentalist Christianity.
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For conservative politicians such as Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin and former GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee — both of whom came to rally with Davis in 2015 — she was a martyr for “religious liberty.”
Davis briefly became a darling of the religious right. A conservative Catholic archbishop arranged for her to have a private meeting with Pope Francis, which became a diplomatic disaster for the Vatican and led to the archbishop’s reassignment. Davis’ lawyers at Liberty Counsel, a fundamentalist legal group, stoked her fame by helping her write an autobiography titled, “Under God’s Authority.”
Her refusal to obey the law cost Kentucky taxpayers more than $225,000 in legal fees awarded to a gay couple who sued Davis for denying them a marriage license.
Silas House, who is gay and one of Appalachia’s most celebrated authors, thinks Davis became a national symbol because she fit many Americans’ stereotype of fundamentalist Christians — and because she was in Appalachia, long portrayed by outside media as a backward place populated by narrow-minded people.
As with most things, though, reality is more complicated than stereotypes.
“Rowan County is a much more complex place than the national media would like people to think,” House said. “It’s one of the most progressive communities in Appalachia.”
Morehead, the Rowan County seat, is a town of 7,800 people and home to Morehead State University, a campus of Maysville Community and Technical College and St. Claire HealthCare, a regional hospital with nearly 100 physicians.
Morehead has its own symphony orchestra, thanks to the university’s outstanding music school. Morehead State’s other distinguished academic programs include the Space Science Center, which is doing cutting-edge research and development of small space satellites.
With virtually no opposition, Morehead became the sixth city in Kentucky to pass a local fairness ordinance in 2013 — two years before anyone outside of Rowan County ever heard of Kim Davis. The county now has two gay rights organizations, and they have organized well-attended “pride” festivals for the past three years.
The area also has several fundamentalist churches. “But they didn’t band together and support her,” said Keith Kappes, retired publisher of The Morehead News and a former Morehead State vice president. “She’s been radioactive to a lot of people.”
Kappes thinks there are many reasons Davis was voted out of office, and the media circus that surrounded her three years ago is only one of them. Davis, whose mother was county court clerk for many years, beat Caudill four years ago by only 23 votes. Some people didn’t like the fact she employed several relatives in her office, although that is legal. Others didn’t like it that she changed parties from Democrat to Republican after the controversy began.
But Kappes thinks this was the biggest reason Davis didn’t get re-elected: Regardless of their feelings about gay marriage, many people resented her refusal to obey the law and do her job. “I heard that from a lot of folks,” he said. “They said she didn’t do her sworn duty.”
House, who grew up in Laurel and Leslie counties and now teaches at Berea College, has focused much of his fiction on portraying Appalachia as a complicated place that defies stereotypes. He is executive producer of “Hillbilly”, an award-winning new documentary film by directors Ashley York and Sally Rubin, that seeks to show the new diversity of voices emerging from the region.
It is ironic that Davis, the symbol, would have come out of Morehead, House said. But, he said, much of the region remains hostile to gay people. He points to the region’s strong support for President Donald Trump’s anti-diversity agenda.
“It’s a constant heartache that I can’t live in Eastern Kentucky as a gay man,” he said. “The voters keep telling me they don’t want us.”