Pride festival brings color, music and message of inclusiveness to downtown Lexington
This Sunday night, supporters of Lexington’s Fairness Ordinance will gather downtown to celebrate the 20th anniversary of what was then a groundbreaking proposition to ban discrimination against gay people in hiring, housing and public spaces.
But many of them will also be mourning one of the groundbreakers, University of Kentucky professor emerita Joan Callahan, who died June 6 after a long battle with cancer. She is survived by her wife, Jennifer Crossen, her son, David Crossen, and two grandsons.
Callahan was an esteemed academic, a philosophy professor who specialized in gender and ethics and directed UK’s women’s studies program, helping turn it into the gender and women’s studies department. She was also a civil rights warrior, who with Crossen, worked to make Lexington a more diverse and accepting city in both law and attitude.
Before the Lexington Pride Festival was a packed and pulsing two-day party in the heart of downtown, Callahan and Crossen hosted 17 Pride picnics at their farm. Ross Ewing, one of Callahan’s students, and later her attorney, remembers the couple working the phone tree at the Lexington Fairness Alliance to garner support for the fledgling fairness ordinance, which finally passed in 1999. Today, 10 other cities across Kentucky have passed the same law.
“She was always the leader of the movement,” Ewing recalled. “She was the wolf mama of the pack, always this force who led everybody and took care of everybody. It’s hard to imagine what life here would have been like without her.”
From the start, Callahan pushed UK to adopt domestic partner benefits, an issue that has been completely normalized by time and common sense. Like many civil rights issues that we take for granted today (legal segregation, interracial marriage bans etc.), the idea that employers should give gay and straight families the same benefits now seems absurdly obvious, but in 2006, Lexington’s own Rep. Stan Lee and his friends at the conservative Family Foundation collectively shrieked and tried to pass a law stop universities from enacting such rules. The universities won, pointing out as many businesses had, that domestic partner benefits were a useful recruiting tool on top of being, well, the right thing to do.
Eventually, larger resistance crumbled. In 2013, after 25 years together, Callahan and Crossen were married in Massachusetts, where same-sex marriage had recently become legal. In February, 2014, a federal judge in Louisville ruled that Kentucky had to recognize those marriages. Three weeks later, the couple was in Fayette Circuit Court to overturn a 2008 state law that restricted step-parent adoptions to heterosexual partners. “It recognizes her for her quarter century of being my parent,” David Crossen, then 28, told the Herald-Leader at the time.
In June 2015, the Supreme Court made same-sex marriage legal across the country. But Callahan never dropped the fight. Three months later, she penned a blistering column in the Herald-Leader about Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis’ refusal to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples. “Davis, and any other refusing clerk or deputy clerk, should be sent to jail until resignation or impeachment,” she concluded.
One of Callahan’s UK colleagues, Karen Tice, said that Callahan never made a distinction between town and gown when it came to social justice. “She could empower and mentor people to participate in the best kinds of ways,” Tice said. “She lived and breathed all these different ways that people faced obstacles in their daily lives.”
Another colleague, Patricia Cooper, said a former UK dean called Callahan “his conscience.”
“So many colleagues and friends sought her counsel and support during rough times and her companionship in moments of triumph,” Cooper wrote in a remembrance.
That caring extended to the animal world, Tice and Cooper said, as wounded and stray animals would find their way to Callahan, including an orphaned starling that Callahan carried in a fanny pack and fed during faculty meetings.
Lexington has changed greatly since Callahan moved here in 1986. It gets high national marks for LGBTQ-friendly policies, according to the Human Rights Campaign. The Lexington History Museum is hosting an exhibit at the Downtown Arts Center about the history of the Fairness Ordinance throughout June, which is Pride Month, and the Pride Festival will fill the courthouse square on June 28 and 29. Our community supports non-profits such as JustFundKy, which highlights LGBTQ achievement and the Faulkner Morgan Archive, which researches Lexington and Kentucky’s rich LGBTQ history.
It’s much too soon to be complacent. Kentucky still has no statewide fairness ordinance, nor has it banned conversion therapy. Any Google search can find plenty of examples of every day discrimination against LGBTQ citizens. The Trump/Pence administration is attempting and in some cases, succeeding in reversing gains in adoption and transgender rights.
But there is cause for optimism. Fayette Circuit Judge Ernesto Scorsone, one of the co-founders of JustFundKY, compares homophobia to those enormous ice sculptures at a hotel banquet. “It eventually melts away,” he said. “Sometimes people turn down the temperature to slow the melting. Joan turned up the heat.”
In 2008, the Family Foundation, (yes, them again) called out six UK professors because they researched areas like race, family planning, LGBTQ issues and gender studies. Although Callahan was not named, she jumped into the fray, calling out McCarthyite “witch-hunting.”
“The days of exclusion are coming to an end,” she said. “It’s becoming a different world.”
Thanks to folks like Joan Callahan, that’s true.
A memorial will be held for Joan Callahan on Sept. 29 at 4 p.m. at the Unitarian Universalist Church on Clay’s Mill.
Linda Blackford writes columns and commentary for the Herald-Leader.