A Simple Truth

Karen Stewart


Unlike John Boehner, I have never been one to cry quickly or for curious reasons. I believe that, with the possible exception of funerals, crying should be done privately, or at least semi-privately, preferably at home and out of ear shot of humanity.

But on Monday, January 21, 2013, I turned on the television just minutes before Barack Obama said, “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.”

He had just mentioned Stonewall as a battleground for civil rights, for which Janice and I exchanged a fist-bump. But when he got to the second part, I felt tears on my cheeks. I could not move. It was as if the breath had been snatched from me momentarily and I sat there, at once stunned and thrilled that the President of the United States had included me, me in his speech. My LGBT sisters and brothers and me! He included us!! For the first time in my lifetime, for the first time in history, the President of the United States included us in his inaugural address.

And I think I speak for most LGBT people when I say that January 21, 2013 is a date that will live in my heart always as the day the President of the United States stood on the solid rock of reason and affirmed us, us, as equals. It was fitting that he did so at his second inauguration, on Martin Luther King Day, with the United States Supreme Court sitting immediately behind him. It was an unforgettable freeze-frame in time.

With all due respect to my heterosexual readers, I doubt most of you fully appreciate the significance of this. With the exception of not marrying your immediate kin, you have always had the right to marry the opposite sex partner you choose. The world has treated you as normal. You have been given not-at-all subtle clues that your sexuality is to be respected, even though you may marry multiple times, have children by multiple partners and enter into a myriad of unconventional arrangements as a result. Accommodations will still be made for your marital status. Over a thousand legal rights are conferred by the status of marriage. You take those rights for granted, because that’s the way it is. You probably don’t really understand the legal origins of those rights; you may even confuse legal rights with religious beliefs. But the choice of a legal partner has been largely confined to heterosexual unions. When after all this, the leader of the free world openly declares that LGBT citizens deserve equality in our private lives, our universe moves.

I consider myself an old soldier in the war for equal rights, in my personal and professional lives. I came out of the closet in 1978, began studying the issue of LGBT rights at the University of Louisville School of Law in 1982 and passed the Kentucky Bar in 1986.

In 1992, I opened a law practice in Louisville. I took same sex cases at a time when it was not a particularly fashionable thing to do if you were a member of the Kentucky Bar. I became an LGBT hotline counselor. I volunteered my services to the Fairness Campaign of Louisville and donated hundreds of hours of work to them. It was during that decade that the issue of the rights of LGBT people first came out of the closet in Kentucky in a meaningful way. It was an exciting but frightening time to be a lesbian in Louisville.

After years of work in every realm, the Fairness ordinance was finally passed by the Louisville Board of Aldermen in 1999. The political influence and unassailable stature of the Fairness Campaign have only grown larger since then. Just last week, Vicco, Kentucky, population 300, enacted a Fairness ordinance. The hard won justice achieved in Louisville still radiates, like gentle ripples in a pond.

But back then there were Marches for Justice, where we truly worried that we might be shot from a rooftop as we walked together in the streets of downtown Louisville. In the first half of the 1990s, my gay brothers were dying from AIDS. The times were tumultuous and there was way too much to do.

Since then, there has been relatively rapid change and two high profile same sex marriage cases now await decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. But as I look into the mirror each morning and behold my ever-graying 60-something self, I wonder, “Is there still time? Will there be time for me to marry Janice here at home before I die?” I still don’t know the answer to that question, but today I am more hopeful. If the day ever comes, it will be a wedding to remember.

Martin Luther King said something long ago that sustained me through decades of practicing law. He said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” When Barack said what he said in his speech, he bent the arc of the moral universe toward Justice, right before our eyes. Suddenly, perceptibly, our world brightened. As I write this, four days after the speech, I have to remind myself each morning that it is true.

The President struck a mighty blow against the dark forces of intolerant injustice on January 21, 2013. And the dual beacons of justice and equality under the law shine brighter today. Thank you, Mr. President.