I left KY at 17 to escape homophobia and racism. The legislature keeps bringing them back. | Opinion

Leaving rural Kentucky in 1971 at 17, I entered the world a decade behind my peers, because I had to spend ten years unlearning the homophobia and racism I had grown up with. Last year, copycatting Florida and Tennessee, the Kentucky legislature passed a “don’t say gay” law designed to drive out or shut up anyone who doesn’t lock step with the legislators’ gender stereotypes. Now the all-white supermajority is on the verge of passing anti-DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) legislation designed to terrorize teachers, administrators, and students into silence regarding any controversial issues.

These laws are shackling our children with ignorance. Ignorant children are frightened children. Frightened children are dependent children, who have been deprived of the power of knowledge and so they resort to guns. And so it is that violence in the legislature begets violence in the heart, which manifests as violence against the self and against others.

LGBT youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their peers. I would have those children’s names carved into the desk of every homophobic legislator.

Gay people (there, I’ve written it for anyone to read, sue me the next time I set foot in the Commonwealth) are the wild card in the legislature’s efforts to resurrect white supremacy. Legislators be forewarned: there is no way of knowing who is contaminated with aberrant seed. We are lurking in your genes, in your loins, in the very act of procreation. In the heat of passion you sow us like dragon’s teeth and in nine months we spring up, fully armed with our wigs and feather boas, our leather vests and rainbow flags, our insistence that sex is a sacred gift, our delight in life here and now, our indifference to threats of eternity in hell.

A Kentucky observer worried about “don’t say gay” laws producing a brain drain. Brains have always been the Commonwealth’s most valuable export, I responded, offering as evidence Native peoples, Daniel Boone, Abraham Lincoln, the enslaved men and women who self-liberated by the thousands, the Great Migration of black people the legislature drove out of the state, Robert Penn Warren, Elizabeth Hardwick, Sam Gilliam . . . and as capstone evidence, the current legislature’s all-white supermajority, whose actions against their own children and constituents testify to the departure of critical thinking and to the triumph of distant, cynical minds and money over homegrown affections.

The same observer asked if I had given thought to moving back. Sure, I responded, witness these pages. But who wants to live in a state whose legislators are so mean to kids and their parents that they punish those who don’t conform to the legislators’ religious beliefs? A legislature that so distrusts its teachers that it dictates how to teach students they have never met and subjects they have not studied? A legislature that privileges the law over family and friendship?

Educators are bravely stepping up to the plate to object. But where are the voices of the business community and Chambers of Commerce, speaking out against legislation that will make recruiting and retention of diverse candidates more difficult, and may drive away the next generation of the Commonwealth’s best and brightest?

Mercifully and always there are those who love Kentucky so passionately that they will not leave, or who are so bullheaded that they respond to efforts to force them out by digging in their stilettos or Doc Martens. I am not among them, but I salute the courage of those who keep faith and continue the struggle. I think of Louisville activists who camped out for more than a year, demanding justice for Breonna Taylor. I think of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, who occupied the governor’s office in protest of mountaintop removal. Their protests offer a measure of the largeness of their love.

I offer my greatest praise for those who stay in place and practice “positive deviance,” in the words of Dee Davis, founder of the Center for Rural Strategies. Christians motivated by love instead of fear would say “bearing witness,” but each phrase points to the same destination: a challenge to the supermajority legislators to open their hearts to love without shackles.

Nelson County author and educator Fenton Johnson is the author of “Scissors, Paper, Rock,” the 2024 Kentucky Reads choice of the Kentucky Humanities Council, and a 2024 inductee to the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame.