Politics & Government

Henry Clay High School students join fairness rally in Kentucky Capitol

College and high school students from across the state flanked the podium during the rally by the Kentucky Fairness Alliance in the Capitol Rotunda in Frankfort on Wednesday.
College and high school students from across the state flanked the podium during the rally by the Kentucky Fairness Alliance in the Capitol Rotunda in Frankfort on Wednesday. Lexington Herald-Leader

FRANKFORT — Ben Swanson, a 16-year-old junior at Lexington's Henry Clay High School, stood front and center with about 25 other young people leading a rally Wednesday in the Capitol Rotunda to support anti-discrimination legislation.

Swanson, president of the school's Young Democrats club, enthusiastically chanted along with more than 200 others at the rally: "Together we stand, together we fight, we demand our equal rights."

Swanson and several of his classmates at Henry Clay took a school field trip to participate in The Fairness Coalition's rally for anti-discrimination proposals in this year's state legislative session.

"I'm straight but I think everyone should have the same rights I do as a straight person," Swanson said. "That's why I'm here."

The Fairness Coalition consists of five organizations working for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality in Kentucky. Its member organizations are the ACLU of Kentucky, Fairness Campaign, Kentucky Commission on Human Rights, Kentucky Fairness Alliance and Lexington Fairness.

The coalition is backing three bills, all of which have appeared in previous law-making sessions.

Senate Bill 28, sponsored by Sen. Kathy Stein, D-Lexington, and House Bill 171, sponsored by Rep. Mary Lou Marzian, D-Louisville, would amend the Kentucky Civil Rights Act to include "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" among classes of individuals protected from discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations.

Marzian also is sponsoring HB 377, an anti-bullying measure that would include lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students among protected classes. It is known as "The Sam Denham and Miranda Campbell Stand Up for All Students Act," named for two Kentucky students who committed suicide after being bullied about their sexual orientation.

"We are making progress," said Chris Hartman, director of the Fairness Campaign. "In the five legislative sessions I've been doing this, we've never had so many show up to lobby as we did this morning. We had over 100."

Supporters delivered to the legislature more than 11,000 constituent post cards advocating passage of the bills.

Asked about the bills' chances of passage, Hartman said he is optimistic that HB 171 this year will get its first-ever committee hearing.

But Martin Cothran, a spokesman for The Family Foundation, said the legislation is not needed.

"We oppose these bills," he said, noting that there already are laws dealing with discrimination and bullying and contending that the bills could hurt freedom of religion and speech.

Marzian told the crowd that the "fight for fairness has come a long way" since she joined the legislature in 1994.

She said legislators who support fairness bills used to spend their time "fighting bad legislation. Today we are proposing good legislation."

Johnny Cummings, mayor of Perry County's Vicco, population 334, said to loud applause that he is "so proud to come from a little town that passed a fairness ordinance."

In January, Vicco became the smallest town in America to adopt an anti-discrimination law based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Swanson said he considers fairness "one of the major issues of our times."

"That's why I got about 12 students from our Young Democrats group and the school's Gay Straight Alliance to come to Frankfort," he said.

Swanson's proclivity to political issues, he said, stems from his parents, Mark Swanson and Nancy Schoenberg, and his participation in the Kentucky Youth Assembly, a three-day student-run model of the state legislature each November.

As president of Henry Clay's Young Democrats, he has helped get the 35-member group to discuss issues ranging from politics in the Middle East to the environment. He is optimistic that anti-discrimination bills now being filed in Kentucky's General Assembly will someday become law.

"I think this is an issue that will take a while and a lot of hard work to become law," Swanson said. "But I think we are on the right side of history."

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