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Kim Davis Saga Raises Concerns About Kentucky's Image

Protesters outside the Rowan County Courthouse.
Protesters outside the Rowan County Courthouse.

The clashes in Rowan County over clerk Kim Davis' refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples have drawn national attention to the state — much of it negative.

There are growing concerns that the controversy has damaged Kentucky's reputation among lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, as well as their supporters. And for those seeking to lure tourists to Louisville, the episode has underscored the need to continue distancing the city's national image from that of its state.

Stephen Peters, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, said Davis' decision to defy a court order to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples painted “an image for some that Kentucky is not a welcoming place that embraces diversity."

“Projecting such a discriminatory image is bad for any place, because it harms not only the people who live there, but tourism and business as well,” Peters said in a statement.

The perception that all of Kentucky is unfriendly to LGBT people may be driven by heavy news coverage of the controversy in Rowan County. But the state is a mix of diverse cultures and political views, with typically more liberal urban centers and wide expanses of rural conservatism.

Chris Hartman, executive director of the Fairness Campaign, said it’s conceivable that Kentucky and more liberal pockets of the state are going to be painted with a broad brush. He said the state should work to avoid the backlash that Indiana felt earlier this year, after Gov. Mike Pence signed legislation that allowed for discrimination against LGBT people for religious reasons.

“I think Kim Davis and Gov. Pence probably have shared some of the same ire of the country that is mis-representative of the state,” Hartman said.

Hartman added that "it’s not the first time that Kentucky has been the focal point of the national LGBT civil rights movement."

This summer, Kentucky was one of four states that were part of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling that ended state-level bans on same-sex marriage. Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, had defended the state's ban all the way up to the country's highest court.

Davis stopped issuing marriage licenses in June, after the Supreme Court's ruling. She has said her refusal to issue the licenses stemmed from her deeply held religious beliefs.

Her defiance drew national attention. But less noticed is the fact that the Rowan County seat, Morehead, has a city law protecting LGBT people from certain forms of discrimination.

Morehead is one of eight Kentucky cities — including Louisville — with local laws that protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in housing or employment, among other things. Hartman said many of the people at rallies held in support of Davis during her stint in jail were not from Kentucky.

He said Louisville and many other parts of the state don't conform to the perception that Kentucky is unfriendly to LGBT people.

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LGBT advocates say the state legislature could help undo the ramifications of bad publicity by putting into place statewide protections for LGBT people. Hartman said it would help defend the state’s values in light of the national attention surrounding Davis.

Past efforts to enact statewide protections in the General Assembly have stalled.

“There is a huge economic impact to a state not passing fairness laws, particularly after the very Indiana-esque PR we’ve had around Kim Davis," Hartman said, referring to the Pence controversy.

Louisville's tourism agency, which is tasked with marketing the city nationally, is continuing a decade-long effort to distance the city's national image from Kentucky's.

“It’s something that has been on the minds of city marketers for quite some time, that brand difference of Louisville and Kentucky,” said Stacey Yates, vice president of marketing for the Greater Louisville Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Yates said Atlanta and Chicago are good examples of cities with brands that are distinct from their states.

The city's tourism agency has also been seeking to attract more LGBT visitors. A recent part of that campaign included incentives for LGBT couples to get married in Louisville.

“You know, we all love Kentucky,” Yates said. “We are known for the beauty, the culture, the heritage, the bourbon, the horses — all of those things. And it does have some stereotype perceptions that Louisville, quite frankly, I don’t think, shares."

As if on cue, a man who identified himself as gay wrote in a Reddit post earlier this week that he was thinking about relocating to Louisville but was concerned about whether he'd be welcome.

“Ever since the Kim Davis thing, I've been having second thoughts,” wrote the anonymous commenter, who did not respond to requests for further comment, on Louisville’s subreddit. “I don't mind working with conservative religious people, I mean I have some conservative views myself, but on the other hand, I don't want to be working with a bunch of Kim Davis supporters.”

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