The Court Cases That Changed Our World

Many of the greatest strides in the fight for LGBT social justice and sexual liberation were the result of court cases, often involving accidental activists simply fighting for the right to live their lives like everybody else.

BY Diane Anderson-Minshall

August 22 2012 4:00 AM ET


Karen Thompson and Sharon Kowalski
Guardianship of Kowalski

By 1983, Karen Thompson and Sharon Kowalski had been together for four years, had been united in a private commitment ceremony, and worked together at the St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. The one thing they hadn’t done, though, is come out to their families.

“We didn’t understand that as long as we were invisible we were vulnerable,” Thompson says.

That year Kowalski sustained serious injuries a drunk driver hit the car she was driving. She fell into a coma, later waking but with an irreversible brain injury that disabled her dramatically. Thompson, a teacher, had to tell Kowalski’s parents that the two women were partners; she was met with disbelief and anger. Kowalski’s father, Donald, gained legal custody of Kowalski, moving her into a nursing home 200 miles away from her home with Thompson, and barring Thompson from visiting his daughter.

A decade-long battle began for the guardianship of Sharon Kowalski became a landmark case of relevance to same-sex couples, especially during the height of the AIDS crisis, when gay men in particular were increasingly concerned about their right to visit with and care for their dying partners.
 
Thompson wrote about the exhaustive tribulations in her book Why Can’t Sharon Kowalski Come Home? while The Sharon Kowalski Case by Casey Charles used the case to talk about the rights of same-sex partners within social, political, and historical contexts.

For Thompson, the case pushed her out of the closet and into a national spotlight over the issue of self-determination for LGBT individuals. She went around the country speaking at LGBT Pride events, at schools, and to gay groups — both to raise money for the legal battle (which reportedly cost hundreds of thousands of dollars) and to encourage same-sex couples sign to durable power of attorney forms, which allowed partners to name each other as guardians if one is incapacitated.

Perhaps most important, the Thompson-Kowalski case made same-sex couples aware that they could protect themselves only by giving their chosen families legal status. After the accident, Kowalski learned to communicate by typing out messages; she repeatedly told everyone she wanted to live with Thompson, but the courts determined she was too disabled to make that decision, which led disability rights activists to rally behind the women.

Five years after the accident, in 1988, the courts decided to address Kowalski’s wishes. Beginning the following year, Thompson was allowed to see her partner twice a month. In 1991, Thompson finally won the right to “bring Sharon home” (as was a protest motto those days) after the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled in Guardianship of Kowalski that Thompson could be Kowalski’s legal guardian.

The long court battle affected both women greatly. Kowalski’s health worsened during those neglected early years without physical or occupational therapy; she requires a wheelchair and communicates using a speech pack. She has short-term memory loss to the extent that when she meets new people she can’t remember who they are. But her recovery accelerated after she returned home and in the years since she has become as much an advocate as Thompson. The two jointly won an award from the National Organization for Women.

The two women continue to live together, along with another woman, in what Thompson calls her “family of affinity,” and they all continue to speak out about LGBT and disability rights. Their story has been documented in the film Lifetime Commitment: A Portrait of Karen Thompson.

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