Photo: The Rotunda of the Capitol Building in Frankfort, Kentucky. This photo and all others by the author.
Day 7 of Lent
Today I went to the annual Rally Day for the statewide Fairness Law in Frankfort, Kentucky’s state capital. The Rally Day is a citizen lobbying event sponsored yearly by the Fairness Coalition, which consists of the Fairness Campaign of Louisville, its allied organization Kentucky Faith Leaders for Fairness, The ACLU of Kentucky, the Kentucky Fairness Alliance, the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights, Bereans for Fairness, and several other allied fairness organizations across the state.This year the event attracted supporters of fairness for LGBTQ folk from all over the state, from Owensboro to Louisville through Lexington all the way to Prestonsburg, Whitesburg, and Vicco.
The main focus of the Rally Day is to pressure the Kentucky Legislature to pass a statewide anti-discrimination and fairness bill that would prohibit discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodations on the basis of perceived sexual orientation and gender identity. In Kentucky, the cities of Louisville, Lexington, Covington, and (most recently) the small Eastern Kentucky town of Vicco (population 334) have fairness laws, but the remainder of the state does not. Such statewide legislation has been introduced each year for the past 15 years; this year, the bills are Senate Bill 28, sponsored by, among others, my senator Morgan McGarvey (D-Louisville), and House Bill 177, sponsored by, among others, my representative, Mary Lou Marzian (D-Louisville).
The Fairness Bill has, in fifteen years, never even gotten a committee hearing, much less a vote on the floor of the House or Senate.
The Rally Day also sought to advance progress on strengthening Kentucky’s already-existing anti-bullying law to include perceived sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression as specific, enumerated categories protected by the law. A similar bill was introduced last year and made significant progress, especially in light of multiple tragic suicides of LGBTQ youth who had been bullied in Kentucky schools, but the bill was ultimately defeated because lawmakers feared, without significant basis, that the bill would force the teaching of homosexuality in public schools.
In addition to a news-media-worthy rally in the rotunda of the Capitol Building in the afternoon, Rally Day includes a citizen lobbying effort in the morning. The Legislature is currently in session, and legislators are in Frankfort, their schedules packed with committee hearings, caucuses, and meetings with constituents and lobbyists. In the morning, supporters from all over the state gathered and organized into teams whose goal was to get precious face time with their legislator to share why they, personally, want a fairness law. It is an opportunity for constituents to make a direct connection with their representatives on issues that matter to them.
Of course, the Fairness Coalition is not the only one to use citizen lobbying. In fact, today the halls of the Capitol Annex, which houses legislators’ offices and the rooms where committee hearings take place, were full of multiple large, well-organized groups engaged in the same task of trying to speak to their legislators. I saw groups from the UFCW labor union, an association representing Kentucky’s public county libraries, the League of Women Voters, the AARP, and several others whose affiliation I couldn’t clearly identify. This made the halls of the legislators’ offices very chaotic:
Some of us had difficulty even getting to speak to our legislators at all. Some of us had to buttonhole them in the hallway while they made their way to or from a meeting. Others of us, though, were able to go to meetings that had been scheduled in advance, especially those of us who have supportive legislators. It is an imperfect and sometimes chaotic process, but it at least serves the purpose of putting numbers of people and real faces on legislation.
In the afternoon we gathered for the rally in the rotunda of the Capitol Building. I was at last year’s rally, and this year’s had a noticeably larger turnout. The news media was there from most of the major media markets in the state. I have already, as of this writing, seen one report from WTVQ in Lexington, which will give you a flavor of the proceedings. You will also see Rev. Maurice Bojangles-Blanchard and Rev. Derek Penwell (my minister), co-chairs of Kentucky Faith Leaders for Fairness.
I was especially proud to meet a very large group from my alma mater, Georgetown College. In my day (I graduated in 1996), LGBTQ issues were decidedly not on the campus radar at the historically Baptist college. Very recently, though, it has formed advocacy groups for LGBTQ folk and allies, Campus Spectrum and the GC Non-Discrimination Work Group. As a queer alumnus, I was recently granted the privilege of membership in its online group, and today was the first time I got to meet the group in person. They are articulate, passionate, thoughtful, and engaged students, and they make me so incredibly proud of my alma mater. Here is their contingent at the rally (the background of the picture):
I went to this rally last year. I would like it if I did not have to go to one of these next year, since that would mean that fairness laws were on the books, that the legislature had seen fit to recognize that queer folk still face discrimination and bullying, that we are in communities all over this state, working and going home at the end of the day and wanting nothing more than to live and to belong. Will this be the last year such a rally is necessary? My hopeful part wants to say yes, but my realistic part thinks that the odds are long. But momentum is clearly shifting.
If you know me well or have read many of my posts on this blog, you know that I think the problems faced by queer folk are problems of privilege and social structures that legislation and political institutions alone are not likely to remedy. Law and politics are largely shaped by those social structures, and so they provide, in my opinion, a very limited site for contesting the oppression that exists within them. I am not entirely sure how to describe my politics in light of this assessment. It is informed by radical politics and open to radicalism, but I am not sure it is truly radical; having known many radicals I tremendously respect, I am not sure I have earned that label. I will have to let other radicals judge that. But my engagement with actually existing politics is definitely strategic and selective. It is tied to the wider project of liberation for all in the context of communities of integrity and mutual respect. To the extent that supporting a law or a candidate furthers that project, I feel comfortable proceeding forward; to the extent that the politics becomes an end in itself, or works against the goal, I am ready to part ways. To the extent that a statewide fairness law furthers liberation and communities of integrity and mutual respect, and I think it does, I am in favor of it.
So, while we work towards the ideal, we keep pressing forward, one small step at a time. Especially when walking into stiff winds, small steps may be the only steps that one can take.