Monday, October 6, 2003

Lexington gains reputation as gay haven

Some area religious leaders express concern over increased acceptance

The Associated Press

LEXINGTON - Religious leaders are troubled that Lexington has become a flash point for gay issues because of a vocal and growing gay population.

According to the 2000 U.S. Census, Fayette County leads the state in the concentration of households headed by same-sex partners. On a national level, Fayette ranks 153rd out of 3,141 counties.

The numbers make conservative leaders nervous.

"They have a very powerful voice," said the Rev. Bill Henard, senior pastor at Porter Memorial Baptist Church. "The sad thing is, because of the political correctness of our nation - and that has permeated all of society - some people are afraid to speak out and say it is wrong."

David Cupps, a steering committee member of the Bluegrass chapter of the Kentucky Fairness Alliance, said Lexington is developing a reputation as a haven for gays and lesbians throughout the state.

Last week, state Sen. Ernesto Scorsone identified himself as a "gay Kentuckian," an announcement Cupps saw as a positive step.

Still, resistance is strong.

Earlier this year, Mayor Teresa Isaac made Lexington the first Kentucky city to offer health benefits to domestic partners of government workers, but the measure was temporarily halted by the Urban County Council.

On Thursday, Kent Ostrander of the Family Foundation organized local ministers to discuss the mayor's policy of extending health insurance to same- and opposite-sex partners of city employees.

"Here we have the mayor attempting to redefine marriage and its place in our society through her benefits plan," said Ostrander, who encouraged the preachers to call their city council members to express their feelings on the issue.

Isaac quietly implemented the plan in July, but the council quickly moved to freeze enrollment for any future domestic partners. Council members objected on a variety of grounds, from budgetary to procedural to moral. A council committee is expected to decide the future of the policy today.

At their private meeting last week, the ministers frowned upon the recognition of unmarried couples, Ostrander said.

"This was not a group to bash gays," he said. "It was just a group to protect marriage and its definition.

"I believe what we're seeing today is the second generation following the sexual revolution of the '60s," Ostrander said. "Then, it was sex between nonmarried people being equated with married people. Now, it's sex of any kind between non-married people that is equal with married people."

Despite the opposition, many gays have found a comfortable home in Lexington.

John Ridener, 25, said that in his hometown of Corbin, he recalls a strange silence hovering over the subject of homosexuality.

"It's almost like your Aunt Mary - the crazy old aunt upstairs who everyone knows is there but no one talks about," he said.

Now in Lexington, Ridener said he's found a new family of straight and gay friends, all of whom can utter the word homosexuality without squirming.

"Home isn't where you live. It's where you're understood," Ridener said. "Because of that, I think Lexington is home to me."

While discrimination still exists, many gays credit the 1999 passage of the Fairness Ordinance with lightening the burden of gays who felt they had to harbor a secret.

The changes started quietly in little gestures, said Jeff Jones, a researcher and historian of gay issues at the University of Kentucky. One gay man told Jones he could "walk a little taller." A lesbian said that after 16 years of working for the same company, she finally felt comfortable enough to prop up a picture of her partner on her desk.

"When the Fairness Ordinance passed, the impact was not just that we would turn to it for legal protections," Jones said. "It's more in that it makes people feel safe, that they have legal recourse and that they are first-class citizens."

Since the ordinance was passed four years ago, the city's human rights commission has records of more than 60 complaints that invoke rights provided in the law. Many cases have been litigated, and at least two have resulted in settlement money.

Now, when out-of-towners ask Jones what it's like to live in Lexington, he tells them it's an "island of relative tolerance" in a conservative state. There are four gay bars, gay-friendly doctors and a downtown theater that occasionally shows films about gay families.

"They're like, 'Well, hey, that sounds a lot better. That's not our image of Kentucky,' " he said.

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