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Being Gay in Owensboro

“Gay or lesbian people living here have to come to a great compromise with their own personalities. They must project a false persona with all people at all times. It’s a mixture of denial, of self-protection, and it is absolutely necessary for them to do this. It takes a tremendous toll on their spirits,” says Rev. Michael Erwin of New Hope United Church of Christ.

It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that Owensboro has its “gaylesbitran” complement of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transsexuals. Yet one local heterosexual recently told his friend Adam, “I don’t even know any gays.”

Adam is gay.

This is the paradox in which gay men and women find themselves. Some remain in the closet because they fear negative consequences if they tell family, friends and employers about their sexual orientation – while some heterosexuals appear almost willfully ignorant of the possibility that people with whom they live and work may be homosexual.

But this is changing, in Owensboro and throughout the country. Many gay men and women are coming out, demanding fairness and equal rights in all areas. There is, in short, a gay civil rights movement.

This movement is more visible in large cities than in smaller communities such as Owensboro, where gay men and women tend to take a more conservative approach to gaining acceptance. In interviews with several gay people for this story, most asked that we not print their names because they are not comfortable discussing their sexual orientation publicly.

Luther, 36, said that in Owensboro, a gay man can be “out” to his family and to his friends, but still feel the need to keep a low profile in the workplace and the larger community.

“If friends and coworkers know I am homosexual, they will think me very different from them and for the most part will reject me,” said another gay man, Adam, 40.

At the same time, Adam, Luther and others who were interviewed said they believe that they can never gain acceptance as long as people can pretend they do not exist. The hidden status that protected gays in the past, they argued, also allows no progress toward equality and fairness.

“A lot of the time, people have preconceived notions of gay people and because of that, they are afraid of gays,” Adam said. “We need to get people to realize that just because we’re gay doesn’t mean we are different than them. We want the same things, the same jobs, the same families. It’s just that we are attracted to someone of the same sex.”

“I am hoping that here in Owensboro, starting small, through education, we can get people to realize that we are the same.”
Some such efforts are already under way in Daviess County through the work of the Kentucky Fairness Alliance and religious leaders such as the Rev. Michael Erwin of the New Hope United Church of Christ. New Hope welcomes gay members and supports gay civil rights.

At the same time, there are varying degrees of opposition to homosexuality in parts of the community. County voters last year supported a state constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage by a greater margin than the state average. One church, Trinity Baptist, openly condemns homosexuality and some of its members have protested at public gatherings with a bullhorn and signs saying “Fags Burn in Hell” and “No Civil Rights for Sodomites.”

On the other hand, that kind of approach is relatively rare. So, apparently, is violence, at least in recent years. Owensboro Police Public Information Officer Jeff Arntz said there have been no rulings of hate crimes in the city since the state passed a law in 2001 giving judges the power to sentence an offender more harshly if the judge finds a hate crime was committed.  The law applies to crimes committed because of race, color, religion, sexual orientation or national origin.

Still, Owensboro may have a way to go before gay men and women feel they can prosper here. It is Erwin’s view that “The demand for orthodoxy of Owensboro is so oppressive that from the moment young persons realize they are gay -- continuing for their whole lives -- they live, no matter their economic or social status, in a situation akin to poverty. It’s a social poverty and it is so oppressive that it affects their spiritual and physical health and gay and lesbian people come to our church with very unhealthy patterns of living. I’m talking about the way they relate to everybody and everything. Gay or lesbian people living here have to come to a great compromise with their own personalities. They must project a false persona with all people at all times. It’s a mixture of denial, of self-protection, and it is absolutely necessary for them to do this. It takes a tremendous toll on their spirits.”

A view of the past

So what has gay life in Owensboro been in the past? At a recent monthly potluck dinner for gays and lesbians, people described some of their past experiences. Notably, the worst happened 20 or 30 years ago.

“The red-neck guys really bothered you -- fired guns at you, and once even got out frog-giggers,” said Alfred, 38. Everyone at the table laughed nervously. “I’m not sure what they were going to do with the frog-giggers, but . . . . “

“Calvin (who is gay) got his arm broken by a straight kid who is now a police officer,” Donny, 42, threw in. A chorus of, “That’s scary,” ran around the table. Boyd, in his late 30s, says. “I don’t remember the cops ever bothering us that bad.”

Adam added, “In the last 20 years or so I have not heard of anything major going on in Owensboro. I’ve been called a few names, but nothing physical ever happened to me.”

Gays did not always take abuse without fighting back. “There was a place in English Park that had a brick sidewalk,” Boyd said. “A lot of bricks wound up missing because gays threw them through windshields of straights who harassed them.”

And, he went on, “Twenty or thirty years ago it was nothing for people to go to town, jump out of cars, beat up on ‘sissies,’ get in their cars and drive away. You called the cops, their response was, ‘Well, go home.’ I’ve been there. I know. I’ve helped pick up the damned bodies!”

But “things are a lot better now,” he added. “It’s a combination of police themselves having a better attitude and of them being reined-in some from their superiors.”

That’s not to say that gay men and lesbians don’t have reason to be fearful at times. While physical abuse is a bigger concern for gay men than women, Angel, in her late 40s, said women are more likely to experience verbal abuse. “Mannish-looking lesbians, like me, get a lot more negative reactions from men than the lesbians who look more traditionally feminine do,” she said.

“I was in Books-A-Million once looking at a book while standing near the café tables,” she said. “Two guys were having coffee and one of them looked at me and said loudly, ‘That’s disgusting!’ I guess it must have been just the way I look, because I wasn’t doing anything but reading a book.”

A view of today

What, then, is gay life in Owensboro like right now, according to gay men and women?
Luther said the greater visibility of gays and lesbians on televisions has caused straights to be a little more accepting, which allows gays to be more open. Angel agreed, but laughed as she said, “There’s a little bit of a downside in that people now recognize gays easier and this gives prejudiced straight men more opportunity to be at least verbally abusive.”

Also today, the Internet is a new meeting place for gays, replacing hangouts such as the local Little Hurricane Deck, painted lavender and nicknamed ”the queer pier,” said Steve. Lesbians meet over the Internet too, Angel said, but even more helpful is the support they can find in Internet chat rooms. “There is even a listing of ‘Gay-Care’ centers for lesbians and children,” she said.

Still, what’s most important is whether this general acceptance is reflected in their own circles of family and friends, they said.
The first crucial decision for gays, today as always, is whether or not to tell their parents about their sexual orientation. Steve is 23 and only recently came out to his mother and father.

“My parents do know that I’m gay. I told them about two months ago. They were very loving and accepting and understanding of what I went through, which was a long depression. I had grown up in a religious household where it was wrong to be gay, and through the church I had always heard that being gay was wrong, that you would go to hell. I knew going through puberty and adolescence that I was homosexual, but I also knew I never chose to be gay. It took me a long time to come to terms with that. When I finally told my parents, it was like a burden had been lifted off my shoulders. It was just unbelievable. My life has changed completely since then. It’s just so much better.”

Nevertheless, not all young gays find such parental acceptance. Bart, 24, said, “I just told my parents a couple of weeks ago. My dad was okay with it, but my mom ‘beat me with the Bible.’” Matt, also in his 20s, came out to his parents and feels they are struggling with accepting or rejecting his sexuality. “I told them, ‘You have two choices,’ he said. ‘You can accept me or disown me, but you don’t have to decide right now. Think about it for a while.’”

Some gays struggle for years with how to relate to their parents once they’ve told them about their sexual orientation. Lily, a lesbian who is now in her 40s, says she was in effect disowned by her parents when she came out years ago. “Even now they say I am welcome in their home as long as I don’t ‘act gay.’ I don’t even know what that means, so I don’t go to visit.”

Said Adam, “I tried to tell my dad and he would not let me tell him, literally. He knew what I was going to say and he didn’t want to hear the words come out of my mouth. I told my mom and she started crying.”

Luther has never told his parents, but said, “I know my mom knows I am gay.” The issue is never openly confronted, he said. His sister recently did a family tree. “I wanted to tell the family then but was too scared to. I just went into my room and stayed there until everybody left.”

Not long ago, Owensboro had a fledgling chapter of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) led by Richard and Pat Blanton. Richard Blanton said he and his wife gave up the struggle after about three years because they received no solid support from parents (they have since moved to Illinois to be closer to family).

“There were 20 or 25 young gays or lesbians in contact with us and hopefully we were of some help to them,” he said. Erwin, the New Hope minister, said that Richard Blanton used to joke, “I sure have a lot of children. I’m the only parent of a gay person in Owensboro.”
Still, said Steve, many more homosexuals are opting for openness with their families than in the past – and overall, families are more accepting.

“I even know people who are 16, 17, or 18 telling their parents now,” he said. “That’s how much it has changed in just the past five, six or seven years. It’s so much better.”

Challenges in the workplace

Coming out in the workplace is challenging in a different way because it could affect a gay person’s livelihood, gay men and women said. There are no laws in Kentucky either mandating or denying equal rights for gays in the workplace. Former Gov. Paul Patton did issue an executive order mandating fairness in state government job hiring. But the climate of the workplace can be a different story.

“At work some people won’t eat the food I bring to potluck,” said Lily, a state employee. She described one experience when she nervously licked her lips while asking for some papers from a coworker whom she knew to be hostile to gays. The worker complained to their supervisor that Lily had sexually harassed her. “This same worker once deliberately parked her car with its bumper touching the bumper of my car, got out and slammed the door so hard that the force shook my car,” Lily said. Lily said she protested to the worker but then got in trouble with her supervisor for not going through the proper channels. Lily said she had previously complained to the supervisor about similar past incidents and nothing had ever been done.

On the other hand, said Adam, “There is a lot of bigotry and hatred here, but there’s also silent support -- a lot of people, even straight employers, who support us but won’t publicly admit they do.”

Luther said three or four gays work where he works: “The general policy is, ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell,’” Ricky, in his mid-20s, said, “My boss says the customers don’t need to know that a worker is gay.”

Because of their fear of jeopardizing their jobs, some gay men and women said they are reluctant to participate openly in political efforts on behalf of gay rights. The Kentucky Fairness Alliance, a statewide gay-rights group, is beginning to make inroads throughout the state. It led the “No on the Amendment” campaign in 2004 to oppose a proposed state constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriages. Adam said he was active in the “No” campaign, but “I did not go door-to-door because of my job.”

Some welcoming churches

Some gays said they have felt so unwelcome in their churches that they simply stopped attending. However some congregations in Owensboro welcome gays. Erwin’s New Hope United Church of Christ is listed in a website -- www.gaychurches.org – in a city-by-city listing of “Welcoming Gay Friendly Churches in Kentucky.” His congregation is the only one of any denomination on that list from Owensboro. Even though it’s not on the list, the Unitarian Universalist Association, which has had a congregation in Owensboro since 1987, has been on record as welcoming gays since 1970, and in 1994 voted in favor of the legalization of same-sex marriages. Said Pastoral Associate Claudia Ramisch of Owensboro, “The issue of us welcoming gays has been so long-established that it simply never comes up.”

Some other denominations, such as Southern Baptists, are on record as opposing homosexuality. The lines are not so clearly drawn in other congregations. Father Pat Connell of Trinity Episcopal Church in Owensboro acknowledged that homosexuality is an issue in his church. There are gay couples who are a part of the congregation and who are very open about their sexuality, he said. “I don’t know how many gays we have because I don’t ask anyone their sexual orientation,” he said. “We acknowledge that there are people in the church who do not approve of homosexuality, and feel that homosexuality is morally bad. There is a 2,000-year history in Christianity that mostly has been negative on homosexuality. But there are also contemporary sociological and psychological issues to be dealt with. We are in a faith position and we do not say to people, ‘You are wrong.’ We ask ourselves how we are to work together on such divisive issues.” At the same time, “No persons are going to be excluded from the congregation because they are gay,” he said.

A changing political climate?

While the “No” campaign failed – and the amendment passed – the Kentucky Fairness Alliance has redoubled its efforts to add members and advocate on behalf of gay rights, in Owensboro and statewide.

The alliance was organized in 1993 to fight proposed sodomy laws in the state. It “seeks to advance equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people through leadership development, public education and by encouraging participation in the democratic process,” its mission says.

Its primary focus has been in opposing proposed anti-gay bills in local communities and the Kentucky legislature, and it has helped defeat more than 50, losing on two. One of them was the constitutional amendment. Seventy-five percent of Kentuckians voted in favor of the amendment, 25 percent against.

But gay-rights activists in Owensboro were more optimistic about the results, because the campaign helped organize Owensboro citizens to support gay rights for the first time. “I definitely think we changed some minds,” said Linda Powe, who participated in the local “No” campaign.

The alliance asked Erwin, a straight, white minister, to lead the local “No” campaign in 2004. Erwin said that he and his colleagues followed a “two wins” strategy. Besides winning the election, they hoped to empower the gay and lesbian community and put that energy back into the alliance after the campaign.

The key component of the second strategy was personal conversations with the voters on their front doorsteps, and it worked, he said. Statewide the amendment passed with 75 percent of the vote but in Daviess County with 80 percent. However, in the precincts where the “No” campaign canvassed door-to-door, the local vote against the amendment was at least 25 percent and in some precincts as high as 40 percent, Erwin said.

It remains to be seen whether this effort to build support for gay civil rights in Owensboro will carry over into future elections or issues. Only three people attended a recent forum here that was organized by the fairness alliance. At the same time, the alliance’s communications director, Misty York of Bowling Green, said the organization has grown statewide from 800 members in 2004 to 8,000 today, and energizes supporters primarily through email.

Currently, the alliance’s primary emphasis is on lobbying state legislators in their local district offices. York said that too often, when lawmakers are lobbied at the Capitol in Frankfort, they say, “Well, my constituents are opposed to that kind of thing.” That’s why it’s so important for them to hear from supporters of gay civil rights in their hometowns, she said.

Powe, who has been involved in other equal-rights issues, said she thinks the fight against the amendment will make a difference in the long term. “I think there is maybe beginning to be a backlash against the moral absolutism of the Christian right,” she said. “I think that people are beginning to wake up.”

Lily is especially optimistic. She has two daughters, one still in school, and Lily finds most of the young people far more open than their parents. She tells of the daughter of the woman at work who seemed so hostile to her. The girl made it a point to hug Lily, to let her mother know she disagreed.

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