There is a storage room in the back of the Herald-Leader with shelves of old, yellow folders with typewritten labels of familiar names and topics. I often gravitate to two of those folders: “Homosexuals #1” and “Homosexuals #2.”
Filtering through the yellowed clippings, stamped with the paper in which they appeared and the word homosexual either circled or scrawled in the margins, provides a brief history of the gay-rights movement in Lexington, or at least how it was covered.
I’d be lying if I said this hobby was purely academic. I’m drawn to those folders the way someone is drawn to a mention of their heritage. Lexington’s gay history is my history – it created the freedoms and liberties I enjoy.
The oldest stories in the folder, which span about a decade between the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, are about two former military men. One, Oliver Sipple, grabbed the nation’s attention after he stopped a woman from shooting U.S. President Gerald Ford. Soon after, he was outed. “Gay’s courage brings stripping of privacy,” the headline says.
The other, Leonard Matlovich, was discharged from the Air Force after handing his commanding officer a letter saying he was gay. Matlovich fought against his discharge in the courts, won, but convinced he would be discharged for another reason, took a settlement. “I am going to take the message wherever I can that the gays must be free,” Matlovich says in one of the articles.
Lexington got a taste of the movement two years later in 1977 when two failed candidates for mayor started circulating a petition to support gay rights. Less than 14 days later the petition was dead. Roger Ware, one of the men gathering signatures, told the Lexington Herald he was “beaten up twice in my front yard” because an earlier story about the petition mentioned him.
At the time there were members of the LGBT community who didn’t think Lexington was ready for a gay-rights ordinance. They said so in an article headlined “Gays afraid to assert rights.” One woman said “the moment your sexual preference is known, there is a chance you will be discriminated against.” None of the members of the Gay Services Organization interviewed gave their full names.
There are other articles that lend a more sympathetic ear. Herald reporter Andy Mead did a deep-dive in 1979, detailing the challenges facing Lexington’s LGB community (the T, the transgender community, was left out, as was often the case in the clips). In 1981, the Herald-Leader ran a story headlined “Homosexuality healthy, normal, study concludes.”
But the Lexington Police were still running sting operations on gay cruising spots like Turfland Mall and the parking lot behind the Central Christian Church on Short Street. Yes, these people were participating in public sex, but at the time many of them, especially those forced into the closet, had no other option. The paper called it a “crackdown on homosexuals.”
In one article in the Lexington Leader, the police officer in charge of undercover work, Sgt. John Bizzack, acknowledged the dangers LGBT people faced: “when a man is robbed or beaten by a homosexual lover, he faces a real dilemma, Bizzack said. To report a crime means the victim may be identified in court as a homosexual. It’s an admission that many people are unable to make.”
Plainclothes policemen went to the cruising spots to be propositioned. The newspaper listed both the names and addresses of the men arrested for “solicitation to commit sodomy.”
Names and addresses.
They could have lost jobs. They could have been kicked out of apartments. They could have lost their families. The Herald-Leader outed them.
Fayette Circuit Judge Ernesto Scorsone, the first openly gay member of the Kentucky General Assembly, was a defense attorney at the time and had a strategy to keep his clients out of the news. He learned which dockets the reporters tracked and had his clients plead guilty on the ones they didn’t.
By 1992 Scorsone didn’t need that method any more. He found a client, Jeffery Wasson, who was willing to challenge the state’s sodomy law all the way to Kentucky Supreme Court. With a split decision on September 25, 1992, the court decriminalized homosexuality in Kentucky, 11 years before the U.S. Supreme Court would do the same.
The front page blared “Sodomy law struck down.” The jump page had a pull quote from the dissent, saying the ruling would protect the “private use of cocaine, consensual incest, suicide and prostitution.”
When Wasson’s name appeared in the paper during his legal battle, he was fired from his job. That was allowed. There were no protections for him until 1999, when Lexington passed its Fairness Ordinance.
The organizers who pushed through the ordinance were well-prepared. A month before the vote, they released a poll that showed “just less than 80 percent” of Lexington residents thought it “should be unlawful to fire or not hire people simply because of their sexual orientation” and 77 percent said the same about the ability to refuse to rent an apartment.
As the editorial page cheered on the ordinance, the Herald-Leader ran a front-page article about a so-called “counselor trying to help gays change.” This would feel like a relic, except, despite consensus within the scientific community that it doesn’t work, conversion therapy is still legal in Kentucky.
The next day, the council voted overwhelmingly to pass the Fairness Ordinance. The vote still matters. To this day, Kentucky is one of 28 states that has not passed a law protecting the LGBT community from discrimination.
This is not a full accounting of the LGBT history in the Herald-Leader’s archives. There are articles about Henry Faulkner, Anita Bryant, AIDS, the constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, Obergefell v. Hodges and Kim Davis. But it is a snapshot.
There’s this almost universal thing that happens to gay people. You know you’re different, but you can’t quite place a finger on why. Then you see someone like you on TV, or in a book or in the newspaper and it clicks. That feeling has never gone away, it reminds me that I am okay.
Yes, our paper outed people. It lent credibility to harmful therapies. It focused on straight people’s fears sometimes more often than LGBT people’s vulnerabilities. But it also gave some gay people a chance to see people like them in the local newspaper at a time when that wasn’t always the case.
I pulled these clips on June 4. For two weeks, I wrung my hands about whether I should do anything with them. Much has changed since 1977, but one thing hasn’t: When you out yourself, you are opening yourself up to discrimination.
But I’ve decided that, maybe, by writing this, someone like me will see it and realize they’re okay. And that still matters.
Daniel Desrochers is the Herald-Leader’s political writer. This column is an expansion of an earlier thread on Twitter.