Kentucky’s first anti-discrimination law protecting gays, lesbians, and transgender individuals was approved 20 years ago by the city of Louisville, ushering in a new era of LGBTQ rights.
Since then, more than a dozen communities have passed what supporters call fairness ordinances.
Mark Twain once said “When the end of the world comes, I want to be in Kentucky, because everything there happens 20 years after it happens anywhere else.”
LGBTQ individuals and their advocates are hoping Daviess County joins the national trend of protecting members of the group through a change in local law. Often referred to as a fairness ordinance, it would protect the LGBTQ population in the areas of housing, employment, and public accommodations. Gender identification and sexual orientation would be added to an existing law barring discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin, and age.
Melissa Smith is a lesbian who owns Lady Luck Tattoo in Owensboro. For some Daviess County residents, her business is a haven of sorts.
"I’ve had younger people come in and sometimes they just need somebody to say it’s okay to be who they are," Smith told WKU Public Radio.
A proposed fairness ordinance is now before Daviess County Fiscal Court, which is led by Judge-Executive Al Mattingly. As a Republican and devout Catholic, Mattingly’s position on the issue has evolved over time. He says the number of letters and emails he received in opposition to the measure convinced him that discrimination in his community is real.
"The letters would say, 'I think I should have the right to discriminate in who rents my property,'" Mattingly explained. "'If you pass this, I’ll be complicit in their sin.'”
Mattingly says support for a fairness measure isn’t about condoning a lifestyle, but extending basic civil rights to LGBTQ members.
The Owensboro Fairness Campaign says there have been at least 20 alleged accounts of discrimination against the local LGBTQ population, including tattoo artist Melissa Smith, who says she was denied a rental property six years ago.
"A lot of people that own commercial properties don’t want to rent to tattoo artists, so I was looking for buildings and I would call and I’d ask to look at the building they had for rent and I’d tell them first off we’re a tattoo shop, so if you don’t want that, I don’t want to waste my time," recalled Smith.
"They were like, 'Definitely come in and we can talk about it.' So, I go to the office of the leasing agent. I feel like most people looking at me clearly know I’m a lesbian. He came out of his office and kind of laughed at me and said, 'We don’t rent to people like you,' in front of everyone in the office. It was pretty humiliating.”
LGBTQ individuals have filed few complaints with the Owensboro Human Relations Commission. But Executive Director Joann Kendall thinks discrimination in the area is under-reported.
County Commissioners Mike Koger, Charlie Castlen, and George Wathen declined interview requests for this story, but during a December Fiscal Court meeting, Wathen said he thinks LGBTQ individuals in Daviess County are being treated fairly. He said a non-discrimination law would infringe on the rights of religious conservatives.
"I would say there’s a good chance those who oppose the fairness ordinance would, at some point, be forced to do things that demonstrate they are approving same-sex behavior, and it is against their moral convictions," Wathen said.
A group of local pastors known as the "Joshua 6:16 Mandate" has spoken out against the ordinance and fears the religious community will be forced to be complicit in a lifestyle they see as sinful, but Judge-Executive Al Mattingly disagrees.
"Was Wal-Mart complicit in mass shootings because they sell guns and ammunition to hunters? Is a liquor store owner complicit in a drunk’s lifestyle? We just passed a needle exchange a couple of years ago. Does that make us complicit in those substance abusers lives? I would say no, " said Mattingly. "If you think so, find a sandbox, stick your head in it, and wait to come out when the good Lord calls you.”
The draft ordinance before Daviess County leaders is modeled after a fairness law adopted by the city of Georgetown’s. The Daviess County measure includes an exemption for businesses with fewer than 15 employees, as well as churches and religiously-affiliated schools.
Jordan Tong, the owner of Frantz Building Services in Owensboro, is concerned that the burden of proof falls on individuals having to prove their religious beliefs should they face a discrimination lawsuit. And while he doesn’t doubt that LGBTQ members have felt discriminated against, he hasn’t seen any cases where discrimination can be proven.
"There’s often a comparison made between civil rights and the things that happened to black citizens in the south in the 1950 and 60s," said Tong. "The widespread racism and exclusion from parts of town and exclusion from housing was so widespread and the abuse so great that it required legislation, and I just don’t think we’re even near those levels of discrimination to require even a discussion about such an ordinance.”
Seventeen Kentucky cities have passed fairness ordinances along with Woodford County. The Kentucky Fairness Campaign says 2019 was a record year for passage of local laws. Daviess County might be next following a vote on March 3.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the introduction of a Statewide Fairness Law, which has never received a vote in the General Assembly. A Statewide Fairness Rally in support of LGBTQ rights will be held next month at the State Capitol.