"People are different here," my mother tells me from my boyhood home in Kentucky.
Trying to explain how the state passed an amendment banning same-sex marriage—similar to Oregon's Measure 36 (M36)—by a three-to-one margin, she finds the outcome lamentable, but not surprising. "They aren't as progressive as you all out there." Indeed, seeing M36 succeed was a fucking blow to many of us here in Oregon, as have been the failed attempts to overturn it. But it could be worse, right?
Right. It could be like it is in Kentucky, home to the University of the Cumberlands. This year, that school expelled a 20-year-old dean's list student for being a 'mo.
We could also have a Republican governor like Ernie Fletcher (whose children, incidentally, used to be in my swim-team carpool). In April 2006, Fletcher specifically removed language pertaining to homosexuals in an anti-discrimination bill and refused to withhold funding to the aforementioned discriminatory private college.
And—despite beasts of our own, like Karen Minnis in charge in Salem—Kentucky's General Assembly is much more detrimental to queers.
"Ever since the progressive Lexington ordinance was instituted in 1999," says Joan Callahan, Director of Women's Studies at the University of Kentucky, referring to a law that protects gays from discrimination. "The state legislature has tried annually to disallow similar local laws, statewide."
Having grown up in Lexington, I was taken aback when someone called anything about the city progressive. But that's what Callahan said about Lexington's fairness ordinance.
"One cannot discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in the city of Lexington," she tells me. Callahan explains that Kentucky's version of Basic Rights Oregon—the Kentucky Fairness Alliance—has been pretty effective against the state's legislature, having blocked legislation that would prohibit discrimination bans. "Before the amendment, of course," she stipulates.
She's talking about Kentucky's Amendment 1, an insipidly titled proposal that was a much uglier and more sweeping sister to M36. The law was specifically tricked out to bar civil unions, and to refuse recognition of those performed outside Kentucky.
Lexington's municipal fairness ordinance does not extend to the University, which—though in Lexington—is a state institution. Professor Callahan, despite working 20 years there, "can purchase pet medical insurance through the University of Kentucky, but can't for my partner of 18 years, nor her biological son."
For those of us in Oregon, such woes seem like problems of a different era—pre-9/11 concerns, maybe. In Portland, I don't hesitate to kiss my boyfriend on the MAX. And having four of five county commissioners approve same-sex marriage licenses is pretty goddamned encouraging.
Alternatively, visiting Kentucky is somewhat like visiting the mid-1990s: Cigarettes are still cheaper than $3; women still use much too much hairspray; and, unless you're telling a joke, the word "gay" is whispered. Callahan, for one, is not hopeful about change there. "Culturally, the state is not now in a place where it's going to do anything to turn this around—until we get different people in there making laws."
Perhaps Kentucky would turn around if forward-thinking fags like me moved back and uttered the word "gay" at a normal volume. But I've been gone over 10 years now and—besides discovering that Portland is worth the extra $5 a pack for Winstons—I've learned that I don't want to move back to the Bluegrass. My mother knows best. People are different there.