A Fairness rally in 1995. | Courtesy of Louisville Fairness Campaign

In 1999, Louisville passed a historic ordinance prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexuality or gender. That ordinance came after a decade of fighting, lobbying and building public support by the Louisville Fairness Campaign.

This year, the Fairness Ordinance, or Fairness as it’s colloquially called, turns 20.

The public is invited to celebrate the anniversary on Saturday, Jan. 26, at the Louisville Free Public Library’s Main Branch with “Fairness Still Does a City Good,” an art exhibition opening, reception and panel discussion with movement and community leaders.

To get ready for the event, Insider spoke with Carla Wallace, a founding member of Louisville’s Fairness Campaign, and Fairness President Chris Hartman to better understand the past, present and future of Fairness.

‘If we do not march …’

Carla Wallace | Courtesy

Wallace points to 1987’s March for Justice, as the moment when the seeds for Fairness were planted. There were already several LGBTQ rights organizations in Louisville, but Wallace believes the March for Justice brought people together and solidified the movement.

“It was the first time folks marched out when there were no protections,” says Wallace.

The fact that there were no protections in place for LGBTQ people in 1987 was not some academic or legislative concern for the organizers of the March for Justice. It was about safety.

“There were death threats, there was everything, and the community was split,” she recalls. “I remember going to (a) meeting where some people said, ‘You cannot march, they’ve threatened to attack the march.’ And we said, ‘If we do not march, they will forever use the threat of violence to keep us in the closet. We have to march.’ ”

‘We need to launch something’

The existence the Fairness Campaign was officially announced in 1991 at the fifth annual March for Justice. But it had been growing for several years, as the LGBTQ community was coming out and learning to work together. Once Fairness was officially off the ground and operating, they began reaching outside the LGBTQ community.

Fairness reached out to other groups for help. | Courtesy of Louisville Fairness Campaign

One of the most important parts of that growth was to work with civil rights leaders in the black community to build an intersectional movement.

“Dr. Lymon Johnson, one of the early black civil rights leaders, was one of the people on our advisory council, (as was) Bob Cunningham, longtime Black Liberation Movement leader,” says Wallace. “From the beginning, we said we want to do this in a broad way and connect this to the struggle for racial justice.”

Fairness also reached out to workers’ rights groups, unions and other social justice organizations.

With a coalition in place and a few friends on the Board of Alderman — Louisville’s pre-merger version of Metro Council — Fairness finally got a vote for the Fairness Ordinance in 1991. Members of the group were inside watching the vote happen, and other members were outside waiting for the results.

They lost.

That loss was part of a strategy that separated Fairness from many other LGBTQ rights movements across the nation — they pushed for a vote even when they knew they didn’t have enough votes, and they celebrated their loss.

“The press was outside, and one said, ‘Didn’t you lose? You sound like you’re celebrating.’ We said, ‘We know we lost the vote, but we are winning the battle,’ ” explains Wallace. “I called it losing forward.”

She adds that another key element to the campaign’s eventual success was to include trans voices and protections in the ordinance.

“I want to lift up the leadership of transgender people, in particular, transgender people of color who pushed the envelope and stood with us at great risk to themselves,” says Wallace.

Members and supporters of Fairness after a fiscal court win in 1999 | Courtesy of Louisville Fairness Campaign

Louisville’s Fairness Ordinance was eventually passed in stages. The first victory was an ordinance prohibiting LGBTQ employment-based discrimination. That victory came in 1999, on Jan. 26, with a 7 to 5 vote.

Wallace believes that including trans people and engaging their leadership is what pushed the ordinance through the Metro Council. There was once again a celebration in the streets, but this time for a win.

‘Looking beyond Metro Louisville’

Fairness continued their work through the first decade of the 21st century, expanding and working to advance and protect the rights of LGBTQ people.

Chris Hartman | Courtesy of Fairness Campaign

By 2009, the organization was ready to hire a full-time director, and they chose Chris Hartman, a native Louisvillian with a background in politics and theater. Hartman’s first day on the job was actually on the 10-year anniversary of the passing of the Fairness Ordinance.

Hartman says the Fairness Campaign’s biggest focus currently is working to get a statewide law protecting LGBTQ people.

“We really did have to start looking beyond Metro Louisville to say, if we’re going to make things better in Metro Louisville, we’ve got to make things better statewide and change the statewide laws that affect us,” he explains.

This shift in focus began in 2013 and has been most visible in its success in other cities and towns.  

“The only way to (change state law) is to build support where the legislators live,” says Hartman. “Which is why we launched the city-by-city effort to pass Fairness.”

In other words, get the politicians by getting their voters. Louisville’s Fairness Campaign has been an active partner in helping seven other Kentucky cities pass fairness ordinances, and in total, there are 10 statewide. But Hartman says that in each city, it has been very important to let locals lead the way.

“We are constantly fielding calls from anybody from anywhere across the state who contacts us, who wants to work on building a fairness movement where they live. And we are responding to that in whatever way is appropriate to that community,” he says.

Hartman notes there are several more areas getting close to success.

“There is a lot of movement in Somerset, Bowling Green, Henderson — all of which could become the next city to pass a fairness ordinance.”

The Fairness Campaign has helped seven other Kentucky cities pass fairness ordinances. | Courtesy of Fairness Campaign

Moving forward isn’t the only concern. Hartman and the rest of the folks at Fairness have to keep from moving backward.

“We are constantly playing defense every year in the Kentucky General Assembly against a flurry of bills that seek to target LGBTQ people, their families, their children,” he says. “The reality is every year we’re very nervous that Kentucky will take several steps back and could one day even remove the Fairness Ordinances where they (already) exist.”

It’s impossible to know what the next 20 years, or even 20 months, will hold for the queer community. Hartman offers a long list of issues that the Fairness Campaign, and Louisville, still have to work on.

Queer homeless youth need more help. Health care for queer folks needs to improve. And other types of Fairness are under attack.

“There is still a lot of work to do moving forward and looking forward … (but) I don’t want to diminish the fact that Louisville has been a leader since 1999 on LGBTQ rights,” says Hartman.

Join Hartman, Wallace and a dozen other community leaders on Saturday, Jan. 26, at the Louisville Free Public Library, 301 York St., for “Fairness Still Does a City Good.” The free event runs from 6 to 8 p.m. and is open to the public.

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Eli Keel
Eli Keel is “pretty much” a Louisville native. You may have seen him around town reading poetry, short stories, dancing or acting. He’s a passionate locavore, so you may have also seen him stuffing his face at one of Louisville’s amazing restaurants. When he isn’t too busy writing short stories, he blogs at amanwalksintoablog.wordpress.com.