'A victory' for LGBTQ rights as Kentucky's first two historic markers unveiled

Two historic markers honoring Lexington's gay history were unveiled on Sunday at the Livery. The two markers are located at 224 E. Main Street outside the Bar Complex and on Water Street behind the Livery.
Two historic markers honoring Lexington's gay history were unveiled on Sunday at the Livery. The two markers are located at 224 E. Main Street outside the Bar Complex and on Water Street behind the Livery.

224 East Main Street in Lexington has been many different things.

In 1939 it was the Mayfair bar and later the Southern Cocktail lounge. Although not created for LGBTQ people, gay people were allowed to socialize there.

In 1963, two gay men opened the The Gilded Cage at that same location.

"Same sex couples could interact with each other, they could dance," said Jonathan Coleman, a historian.

"224 East Main Street has remained a queer space since the Gilded Cage opened in 1963 — four years before the now-famous Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village," Coleman said at a dedication ceremony Sunday. The Stonewall Inn was the site of the 1969 riots that many credit with launching the gay rights movement.

Later in 1967, 224 E. Main Street became The Living Room. Then, in the height of the disco era, it was renamed Johnny Angels.

It was also where Jeffrey Wasson and 18 other gay men were charged with violating Kentucky's sodomy law in 1985 in an undercover sting operation. Wasson later challenged the statute, and in 1992 the state Supreme Court tossed it out and decriminalized homosexuality in Kentucky.

Two historic markers were dedicated Sunday to commemorate Wasson's successful legal challenge and the significance of the 200 block of East Main Street in Kentucky's LGBTQ history. The markers are the first two in the state to commemorate important historic events in the state's LGBTQ history, according to the Kentucky Historical Society, which oversees the state's historic markers program.

The marker to commemorate the oldest-continuous LGBTG gathering place in Kentucky — 224 E. Main St. — now stands outside The Bar, the current LGBTQ bar in that location.

The marker commemorating Commonwealth of Kentucky v. Jeffrey Wasson is on the corner of Water and Quality streets behind The Livery on Main Street.

The markers were sponsored by JustFundKY, a nonprofit that supports fairness and equality, and the Faulkner-Morgan Archive, which has cataloged Central Kentucky's LGBTQ history.

Ernesto Scorsone, now a Fayette Circuit Court judge, represented Wasson in his successful bid to decriminalize homosexuality in Kentucky. At the time, the men charged with sodomy faced up to 12 months in jail, a $500 fine or both.

Scorsone said Wasson, a Powell County native who died in 2016, was not a paid activist. At the time of his arrest, he was in nursing school.

"This is statement and testament to the personal courage of Jeffrey Wasson," Scorsone said. "A young man who faced injustice and did not bow. He was willing to stand up and challenge that injustice. The risk was great — scorn, rejection, ridicule, threat to liberty and employment. He faced all of that. And then he was still willing to challenge not just for himself but for others."

Several other lawyers who helped Scorsone with the case also attended Sunday's dedication ceremony, as well as retired Fayette Circuit and state appellate court judge Lewis Paisley, who first ruled in favor of Wasson. Wasson's sisters Lisa Morton and Sharon Watts and his longtime partner Terry Rothgeb also attended the unveiling of the markers, which drew hundreds of people to downtown.

Coleman said 224 E. Main Street, like Stonewall Inn, was also the site of other key moments in LGBTQ history. Besides being the site where Wasson was first arrested, in 1970 Marjorie Jones and Tracey Knight were married there. They were the first lesbian couple in the United States to sue for a marriage license.

"With this marker, we stamp Main Street with the story of this place," Coleman said. "Where we can now share this history with every person who walks by where we can cast a shadow of our own in the sun. It's a great day."

Scorsone echoed Coleman's comments.

"This afternoon we are celebrating a victory for LGBT(Q) rights," Scorsone said. "But we are also celebrating victory for privacy and equal protection for all Kentuckians."