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Louisville celebrates 25 years of the Fairness Ordinance and the people behind it

Pride flag on a pole outside Metro Hall on a summer day
Laura Ellis
A pride flag flew in front of Metro Hall in downtown Louisville for the first time in 2019.

Twenty-five years ago, Louisville became the first city in Kentucky to pass a fairness ordinance to protect LGBTQ+ people from discrimination.

In 1999, activist Pam McMichael was one of many organizers at the forefront of the fight for Louisville’s Fairness Ordinance and a cofounder of the Fairness Campaign, an advocacy organization focused on LGBTQ+ rights.

She’s also a co-founder of Louisville Showing Up for Racial Justice, and one of the chairs of the Kentucky Poor People’s campaign.

Newspaper photo of a woman wearing glasses
Courtesy of Pam McMichael
Pam McMichael advocated for Louisville's Fairness Ordinance in the 1990s.

For McMichael, who is lesbian, campaigning for an ordinance that would ban discrimination on the basis of sexual or gender identity in employment, housing and public accommodations was born from many stories of discrimination she had heard from LGBTQ+ people.

‘“What we did was really put it on the radar of elected officials. Are you gonna do something about it or not? And we won the hearts and minds of this community long before we actually got the vote,” she said.

According to the Fairness Campaign, 24 more Kentucky municipalities have enacted anti-discrimination ordinances since 1999.

Similar measures have come under scrutiny recently. Groups across the country say these laws violate religious freedoms, and Kentucky lawmakers considered a bill this session along those lines.

Last year, Louisville Metro Government attorneys defended the ordinance to a three-judge bench at the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

McMichael is now 70 years old. She said she’s encouraged and buoyed by the activism and courage of young people.

“There are horror stories of isolation and even suicide, and so our work has to be cross-generational, and has to be dogged because we can't lose people this way. It's an indictment of our society to lose people this way,” she said.

As part of the celebration of the ordinance’s 25th anniversary, the University of Louisville Ekstrom Library Archives and Special Collections will host the exhibit “Fairness Does a City Good: A 25 Year Retrospective," with an opening reception on Thursday, April 18 from 5-7 p.m.

The exhibit will run through the end of the year and features photographs and materials from the Fairness Campaign. Admission is free.

LPM’s Divya Karthikeyan spoke to McMichael about her grassroots organizing for the Fairness Ordinance and the climate of LGBTQ+ rights then and now.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you sort of take me back to the moment you began organizing for the fairness ordinance in Louisville, and also why you wanted to do this work? 

You know, every moment that starts something has lots of moments before that, that are part of that story.

So as far back in the ‘80s, when the Greater Louisville Human Rights Coalition first approached the Kentucky Human Rights Commission about a possible ordinance, I was active with that group then, and active also with March for Justice . And these are a couple of the organizations that are precursors to the Fairness Campaign.

So I think a couple of convergent, kind of, contexts were happening. A lot of divide and conquer was happening, pitting gays and lesbians against other groups who were also looking for fairness and justice in our society.

So my interest was twofold, really, to be part of the effort that was going to stop all this oppression and discrimination coming down on lesbian, gay, trans, queer people.

And to also do that [effort] in a way that connected our liberation to the liberation for racial justice and women's equality and freedom and gender equality and you know, just across the board, none of us are free alone.

And gays and lesbians and queer people aren't one thing. You know, we are also racially diverse and come from different classes and have different abilities and different needs. And so it’s, you know, it was never intended to be a single issue. Some LGBTQ organizing is single-issue, identity-focused. Fairness was never intended to be that.

How were you responding to people who opposed the fairness ordinance?

One of the pieces for any group facing discrimination or oppression is to simply get seen as human. So there's an effort in humanizing, you know, where you just tell the stories. And that's why the testimonies of people who were willing to take that risk and tell what happened to them were so critical, and at great risk, because there were no protections then. And [they were] also going out and talking to people on their front doors.

There were aldermen who said, “Oh, no, my people in my district would never go for this.” And we were able to say, “Oh, really, we've talked to X number of people voters in your district and this is what they're really saying.”

So, you know, there's hardly a family that doesn't have an [LGBTQ+] plus person in it. And so when you talk to people face-to-face and door-to-door…you can help build the humanity.

Do you have some memories that you can remember that you still hold on to? Or that come up sometimes when you think back on this organizing?

The Courier Journal did a story with full-color body photos about six lesbians and gay men. And I was one of those six in that story.

And a good year after that, I would still get an occasional letter from someone in another part of the state talking about what it meant to them to see people out in the paper and doing this work. And so it was really impactful to think about, because it was risky and a little scary to do that article, and yet, [there was] impact on people who were feeling isolated.

How do you feel about that climate from 25 years ago, when you were organizing for the fairness ordinance and have this huge victory and the climate now?

I don't know how to speak to that. There are different climates and there's also, you know, there's been gains and there's been setbacks.

There's definitely a huge, well funded, coordinated effort to move this country in conservative directions, painfully conservative directions that throw people away. And that's people of color. That's [LGBTQ+] people. That's women. That's differently abled people, and it's big and it’s huge and it’s more well-funded, and it's coordinated. That's why our efforts on the ground, you know, have to come together.

Divya is LPM's Race & Equity Reporter. Email Divya at dkarthikeyan@lpm.org.

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