West Kentucky LGBTQ Community Reflects On Pride Month Transformed By Pandemic, Protests
LGBTQ people in Kentucky weren’t able to celebrate LGBTQ Pride month in June in public due to crowd restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic. Yet LGBTQ people in west Kentucky were able to celebrate their identities through other means, and many threw their support behind recent protests calling for racial justice and police accountability.
2019 saw several landmark moments for LGBTQ people in traditionally conservative west Kentucky: the city of Murray held its first Pride parade, the inaugural West Kentucky Pride Festival launched in Paducah, and a Paducah-based regional LGBTQ resource center opened, which rebranded itself as Heartland Equality.
Heartland Equality Director of Operations Dustin Havens said despite the pandemic forcing the tentative reschedule of this year’s West Kentucky Pride Festival and preventing people from meeting and using the resource center, youth and transgender support groups were still able to keep in touch through social media and online video conferencing.
“I couldn't imagine what would have happened if this would have been 30, 40, even 10 or 20 years ago, this technology wouldn't have been there,” Havens said. “So it would have been a lot more difficult, and I feel like a lot more people would have got discouraged.”
The center’s youth group met for the first time in months Tuesday, with attendees wearing masks, using hand sanitizer and social distancing. And other Pride month events in the region went online, also. The previous organizers of last year’s Murray Pride parade hosted a virtual Pride event on Facebook this year, instead directing people toward putting resources and effort into racial justice initiatives. Havens said many LGBTQ people have joined recent protests in west Kentucky and across the country against police brutality and racial justice.
“It's so crucial that all groups that have been historically oppressed, we have to stand together or nothing ever changes,” Havens said. “Equality is often taken for granted because it can be taken away with one ruling, one executive order, and we have to stand together. Otherwise, it will all crumble.”
On June 12, the Trump Administration finalized a rule removing non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people in regards to healthcare and health insurance, which is being challenged in court. Yet on June 15, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with LGBTQ employees, ruling the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects gay, lesbian, and transgender employees from discriminiation based on sex.
“I remember five years ago during pride month when the Supreme Court ruled that marriage equality was the law of the land, and that was a huge thing,” said Havens. “And with the protections under the Discrimination Act, it truly is amazing because in a year where Pride is so quiet, because we weren't able to have all these celebrations, it was a big win for the community.”
Havens compared the recent protests calling for racial justice to the Stonewall Riots of 1969, when LGBTQ people clashed with law enforcement during police raids of the Stonewall Inn in New York City. He said current issues with police reform and social justice are still similar in some ways to what was faced back then.
Audrey Kellett has grown up in Murray her entire life, and came out as a lesbian when she was a teenager. She joined protesters marching through Murray in early June calling for justice for Black people killed this year including Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd. Kellett was also one of protesters assaulted with pepper-spray at the protest by a White man in Murray.
“I kind of feel like the gay community knows that we have an obligation to stand with the Black Lives Matter because they are also a discriminated and oppressed group,” Kellett said. “The LGBT community wouldn’t be where we are now without the Stonewall Riots.”
She said she wanted to be an ally for people of color by using a month that would normally celebrate LGBTQ voices to instead amplify Black voices.
Havens said the 2nd annual West Kentucky Pride Festival is tentatively scheduled for October to coincide with National Coming Out Day on October 11, a day that celebrates LGBTQ people disclosing their sexual orientation. But he said plans could still change depending on future conditions regarding the pandemic.