Long before pride celebrations were encouraged and embraced by the greater public, before rainbow flags flew free and before same-sex marriage was legalized by the Supreme Court, a group of 10 Louisvillians gathered on June 29, 1991, to create an organization that would champion for LGBT rights throughout the commonwealth of Kentucky. The Fairness Campaign worked nonstop for a decade before discrimination protections were passed, and they continue to work with allies all across the state to advance LGBT rights in cities like Danville, Frankfort, Midway, Morehead, the Appalachian town of Vicco, and dozens more.
On Friday, June 10, Fairness is celebrating 25 years with a party featuring many of the original founders and current staff, live music, food, drink and much more. Among the performers are DJ Syimone and iconic band Yer Girlfriend, whose members include WFPK DJ Laura Shine, Phyllis Free, Carol Kraemer and Kathy Weisbach.
Insider caught up with Fairness director Chris Hartman and original co-founder Lisa Gunterman this week to discuss the decades of struggle that led to the current state of acceptance and equality.
When Gunterman, who now serves as assistant director of U of L’s LGBT Center, first got involved with Fairness in its early days, she says she did so because she felt her life depended on it.
“As a young, gender queer person, I was ‘outed’ just by showing up,” she explains. “So many aspects of my life didn’t feel safe. I feared for my future — sometimes for my life — and for the future of my LGBT siblings. As a fifth-generation Louisvillian, I was driven by a passion to build a better city where all people were valued, appreciated and able to reach their full potential.”
Gunterman says the gay community was much less visible in the early ’90s, and she hardly knew anyone else who had come out, since most feared the consequences. She has witnessed and heard dozens of stories of anti-LGBT discrimination.
“Examples ranged from being fired from a job because of their identity, being physically attacked, losing their children in a custody battle, living in the shadows out of fear or living on the streets because they were not welcome at home,” she says. “Personally, I experienced too many instances of aggression and discrimination to mention, but some that stand out include not being hired for a position because of my identity; being asked to leave a restaurant; receiving hate mail and death treats; overhearing Fairness opponents joke about sexually assaulting us while waiting to speak at a Board of Aldermen meeting; and someone yelling ‘Faggot!’ and throwing a beer bottle at my head while I was walking on Bardstown Road.”
There were no hate-crime protections at this time, and same-sex relationships were criminalized. Gunterman was the first employee of Fairness and stresses all the accomplishments, including passing the citywide Fairness Ordinance in 1999, should be credited to everyone involved with the organization.
“While I may be a co-founder, the success of the Fairness Campaign belongs to everyone who ever talked to a friend about Fairness, had the courage to come out, volunteered in the office, walked door to door, challenged stereotypes and stood together to build a better community, where all people are valued, included and inspired to reach their full potential,” she says. “While Louisville was behind other cities in passing a non-discrimination ordinance for lesbian and gay people, we were actually ahead of cities like New York in passing legislation that offered protections for sexual orientation and gender identity and expression.”
She says in the early days, Fairness found allies with civil rights activists.
“Beginnings are important, and from the beginning, we were dedicated to building an inclusive movement,” explains Gunterman. “We didn’t have the word ‘intersectionality’ then, but we were educated and mentored by elders in the African-American civil rights community, who played a key role in shaping the anti-racist platform of the Fairness Campaign. From them, we learned the words of Dr. King that ‘we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.'”
Chris Hartman joined Fairness in 2009 and is quick to praise the co-founders, whom he says worked tirelessly throughout the ’90s for LGBT civil rights and racial justice in both Louisville and Kentucky.
“The co-founders’ broad, inclusive vision of social justice has sustained the organization through good times and bad — from the 2004 marriage amendment loss to landmark victories in Vicco, Morehead, Louisville and more,” he says. What he is most looking forward to on Friday is having the past come together with the present. “I can’t wait to see so many of the folks who have made Fairness possible through the years come together to celebrate our history and help shape our future.”
Gunterman also is looking forward to reuniting with old friends and finding out what they’re planning for the future.
“After all of these years, people in the Fairness Campaign and broader social justice community are still like family to me, and Friday feels like one big reunion,” she says. “I look forward to seeing everyone and to also learning more about what the next generation of leaders and activists are doing to lead Fairness forward over the next 25 years. They inspire me!”
During Hartman’s time at Fairness, the organization has doubled the number of Kentucky cities with Fairness ordinances. He has made it his mission to make Fairness a Kentucky value, however, the commonwealth still lacks a statewide non-discrimination ordinance.
“Now that marriage is the law of the land, our opposition has made their chief priority clear: a ‘License to Discriminate’ against LGBT couples and transgender people,” says Hartman. “The Fairness Campaign will continue working to advance LGBT protections statewide, but we’ll be fighting hardest to thwart dangerously broad religious exemption laws that nullify Fairness Ordinances where they exist.”
The Fairness Campaign’s 25th Anniversary Celebration begins at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, June 10, at the Henry Clay, 604 S. Third St. Tickets are $25 and include one free drink and a limited edition silver-plated 25th anniversary lapel pin.