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SPRING 2012 45 “It Could Be Dangerous!” Gay Liberation and Gay Marriage in Louisville, Kentucky, 1970 Catherine Fosl W hen two women known as Tracy Knight and Marjorie Jones applied for a license to marry in Louisville, Kentucky, on July 8, 1970, their request “amused” the county attorney who investigated its legality. The purpose of marriage was “procreation,” according to a statement by James Hallahan, the county clerk who denied the young women’s request three days later. Jones v. Hallahan, the lawsuit the lesbian couple filed in protest—if taken seriously—could, according to Hallahan’s trial testimony, “be dangerous,” causing “breakdowns” in government and retarding “the continuity of the human race.” In a courtroom climate that ranged from raucous to quizzical to aggressively hostile, the women summarily lost their case and a subsequent appeal. What appears to have been only the second legal challenge for same-sex marriage in U.S. history faded quickly from local headlines and made few if any national ripples.1 To most casual observers, gay marriage is a contemporary social controversy rather than a historical one. More than forty years after what a local newspaper pronounced “one of the most unusual trials in Kentucky history,” the significance of the nation’s first lesbian-marriage case has still never been fully examined. Although law-school textbooks routinely cite the case, relatively few people even in Louisville’s sizeable lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender-queer (LGBTQ) community have heard of it. Oral history allows us to recover this neglected story and contextualize it as a key component of the 1970s gay liberation movement that followed on the heels of and was inspired by other 1960s-era liberation movements. Yet the difficulty of finding the lesbian and gay protagonists meant that only a few could be located to interview. While this challenge necessitated reliance on other kinds of sources, the resulting narratives underscore the depth “Who Am I?” The Louisville Gay Liberation Front calls for “human rights for all,” Free Press of Louisville, vol. 1, no. 15 (1970). THE FILSON HISTORICAL SOCIETY “IT COULD BE DANGEROUS!” 46 OHIO VALLEY HISTORY of the challenge Jones and Knight posed to the social and sexual order of the era. Only the oral histories reveal, for instance, that the two women used pseudonyms to ensure their safety in a cultural climate “so rough, so hostile” to homosexuality that, as Jones vividly explains, “you were afraid to go out sometimes.”2 Although the case appeared as little more than a curiosity in 1970 newspaper coverage, the protagonists recognized the significance of the women’s pursuit of marriage rights. In the four months between Jones and Knight’s visit to the county clerk to request a marriage license and the subsequent trial to determine their right to have one, their quest inspired the city’s first open expression of gayrights activism, the early phase of a social movement that has persisted for more than two generations. That was their intention, as Jones hesitantly explained forty-two years later: “We did it to help get a gay liberation movement started,” to “make people begin to realize that we’re human beings the same as [they] are.” Several of the two dozen or so young gays and lesbians who congregated in the clerk’s office and later in the courtroom to support Knight and Jones recall the experience as a galvanizing one, and the county attorney on the case remembered it decades later as “the first important trial” of his tenure.3 Louisville’s early gay-marriage case offers insight into the evolution of today’s debates on gay marriage as well as the emergence of the broader U.S. gay rights movement. The fear expressed in that courtroom in 1970—that gay marriage would rock the social order—simmered at a low boil in Kentucky and nationwide until it motivated enough opponents to launch an anti-gay counter-movement at the end of the 1970s that became increasingly vocal in the late twentieth century. Into the twenty-first century, gay rights opponents led periodic regional and national campaigns and promoted more restrictive laws. They fought for a narrower, more gendered definition of marriage. In...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2377-0600
Print ISSN
1544-4058
Pages
pp. 45-64
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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