Gay rights, a gay mayor, and the tiny town of Vicco, Kentucky

—Bernadette Barton

Last November, I was a guest on a radio call-in show based in Baltimore, Maryland. We were discussing my book Pray the Gay Away: The Extraordinary Lives of Bible Belt Gays and the host asked me how close Kentuckians were to marriage equality. Maryland, of course, had just approved same-sex marriage, and residents were abuzz with their victory, or disturbed and grouchy, depending on their perspective. Regardless, same-sex marriage was in the air.

Headphones on, piped in from an NPR studio in Kentucky, I had a full moment of feeling flummoxed. We are, in fact, nowhere on marriage equality in Kentucky. We do not even have a statewide Fairness ordinance that protects gay people and those who are perceived to be gay from being fired from their workplaces, or denied public accommodations and housing. Indeed, activists are extremely careful about the language they use when discussing gay rights. Kentucky passed a statewide anti-gay marriage amendment in 2004 that lawmakers frequently reference when people lobby for gay rights. For example, the state university where I work finally approved domestic partner benefits for employees two years ago. But, if I choose to put my partner Anna on my plan, she would not be referred to as my “partner,” but rather officially called my “sponsored dependent,” a term that conjures up a foster child to me.

Johnny Cummings, the mayor of Vicco, runs a hair salon three doors down from City Hall.

So it was all the more delightful when Vicco (pronounced with a short “i” like “thick”), a tiny municipality in Kentucky with 334 residents passed a fairness ordinance this January. Vicco joins Lexington, Louisville and Covington as regions of Kentucky with a public commitment to gay rights. A young gay male student of mine, “Michael” stopped by my office last week to share the news.

“Dr. Barton,” he exclaimed, “Did you see the New York Times article on Vicco?”

Michael grew up 20 minutes from Vicco on the Kentucky-Tennessee-Virginia border and had experienced much homophobic bullying growing up in the region. Michael remembered Vicco primarily as the place people made alcohol runs since it had a liquor store. We laughed, appreciating tiny Vicco, with its gay mayor/hair stylist, the tight web of relationships characterizing small communities, and the eccentricity of the Bible Belt. While we may be far from marriage equality in Kentucky, Vicco’s bold stand for gay rights is a step forward.

Bernadette Barton is Professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies at Morehead State University in Morehead, Kentucky. She is the author of Stripped: Inside the Lives of Exotic Dancers (NYU Press, 2006) and Pray the Gay Away: The Extraordinary Lives of Bible Belt Gays, (NYU Press, 2012).

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