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30 years ago, M. Sue Wilson and ‘National Free Sharon Kowalski Day’ helped spark the gay marriage movement in Minnesota

On Aug. 7, 1988, activists and advocates championed the rights of Kowalski, a high school teacher and coach who’d suffered a debilitating brain injury but was denied basic spousal rights along with her longtime partner, Karen Thompson.

M. Sue Wilson: "How can you hold the belief that gay people are sinful and evil and at the same time know that that mindset kept her a prisoner in a nursing home?"
Photo by Emily Theisen

Thirty years ago today, “National Free Sharon Kowalski Day” took place in 21 cities across the country.

The marches and vigils that took place on Aug. 7, 1988, were essentially the first gay marriage rallies, as activists and advocates championed the rights of Kowalski, a high school teacher and coach who suffered a debilitating brain injury when a drunk driver plowed into her car in 1983, but who was denied by her family and the courts basic spousal rights along with her longtime partner, Karen Thompson.

The case, In re Guardianship of Kowalski was tried by Minneapolis divorce attorney M. Sue Wilson, who took up the fight against Sharon’s father, Donald Kowalski, who on court approval moved his daughter from her and Thompson’s home near St. Cloud to a nursing home near him and his wife in northern Minnesota. All the while, Donald Kowalski refused to acknowledge that his daughter was a lesbian, or that Thompson, a St. Cloud State University professor, was the best person to care for her.

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“It’s a milestone,” said Wilson. “I think it really helps to remember how we got here, and how much people like Sharon Kowalski suffered because of [discrimination], so that we don’t ever let that happen again. It’s just a human right to be with the people you love. It’s fundamental. The right to marry who you choose is a fundamental right.

“Sharon was an upstanding citizen. Why would we take her rights away? I hope this was part of the movement that changed minds of people. Like, how can you hold the belief that gay people are sinful and evil and at the same time know that that mindset kept her a prisoner in a nursing home? It’s a wake up call, I hope.

“At the time my client, Karen Thompson, had been flying all over the country, attending rallies and talking to the press, mainly the gay press. Slowly this became a cause célèbre in the gay community. At that point we had already lost an appeal. Donald Kowalski was denying contact with his daughter’s partner. He was denying Karen’s rights to visit her. He was made guardian and he had decided that he wasn’t going to allow anyone to visit that he didn’t want to visit, including her life partner, and lots of other people. He wouldn’t even let Karen Clark, the legislator from South Minneapolis who was a nurse by training, visit. She tried, and this was in Hibbing, or Chisholm, actually, and they weren’t allowed.

“At that point, Sharon was kind of being held prisoner. ‘Free Sharon Kowalski’ because she was in a nursing home with old people and not in rehabilitation and not being allowed to have any contact with her friends and life partner. It was about as bad as it could get.”

Thirty years after the one-day vigil and rally, how often does Wilson hark back to that time, when the system so blatantly discriminated against Thompson and Kowalski, who had held a commitment ceremony before the accident?

“I think about the case fairly often,” she said. “I think about it in big terms, like when gay marriage became legal in Minnesota four years ago, I thought about where we’d been.

At the court of appeals, I was asked on one occasion when I was arguing that if they had been married, there wouldn’t be any issue about who the guardian is. And the judge said, ‘Well, what difference would it make if they were married?’ My jaw dropped, and this was a judge I really liked.

“The lack of understanding of the impact of this complete legal discrimination against gay and lesbian people …. That’s one thing I think about. Another is, I mentor young attorneys, and I say to them, ‘OK, you lost a motion. I lost a motion after motion after motion. I lost for seven years. Until finally, the court of appeals overturned the trial judge.’

“It’s a real reminder that, if something is wrong, you don’t stop. Because the legal system has built-in ways of things getting fixed. It just takes forever, and I think Sharon Kowalski suffered a lot because the legal system took so long. But at some point, if you work hard enough, logic and common humanity will prevail.  And that’s what this was: Common humanity prevailed.”

But before it did, Wilson was forced to confront regular instances of what she saw as the institutional homophobia of the Iron Range.

“The court appointed another guardian, a coach who hadn’t even applied to be guardian, because the father wouldn’t visit if Karen was the guardian,” said Wilson. “And I’m sitting there with my high-falutin’ Stanford law school education, and I’m thinking, ‘Where am I? I’m in the movie Deliverance or something.’ It was unbelievably primitive. Are you kidding me? This guy is blackmailing the court into not appointing the clear choice of Karen?

“I had all the [rehab workers] come in and testify. They all said, ‘She’s a different person when Karen’s there. She’s more alive, she’s more animated. Karen can get her to do some of the rehab stuff we can’t.’ Karen’s a professor at St. Cloud in the phys-ed department, so she knew how to motivate people to move, and to do things that were hard. She was a great coach, and she got Sharon moving again, and the judge still wouldn’t appoint Karen because the father wouldn’t visit.

“It’s so hard to understand it, but it just reeks of homophobia, and it was so systemic. The legal system was buying it. And I must say that I’m not from Minnesota originally, so I’m aware that there’s kind of this Iron Range way of thinking that at that time was really different than Minneapolis and St. Paul. I’d go to hearings up there and people would all but physically threaten me, like, ‘What are you doing up here? She’s from here. We know how to take care of our own’ kind of thing. And I was like, ‘No! No you don’t.’ It was a very polarizing event around the Iron Range.”

Finally, in 1991, the court agreed with Wilson, Thompson and Kowalski — eight years after the accident and three years after “Free Sharon Kowalski Day.”

“Disabled Woman’s Care Given to Lesbian Partner,” went the December 1991 headline of the story in the New York Times, which quoted Wilson: “This seems to be the first guardianship case in the nation in which an appeals court recognized a homosexual partner’s rights as tantamount to those of a spouse.”

In its decision, the Minnesota court of appeals described Kowalski and Thompson as “a family of affinity, which ought to be accorded respect.”

“It was such a huge relief,” said Wilson. “It was a relief that we finally were heard. I had been arguing the same thing for years, but it finally got a court, and finally the law was followed. I mean, that’s all it was: the law. When you’re a trial lawyer and you know you have a slam dunk, and then you lose your slam dunk and you wonder what’s wrong with you, or is it the court system?

“Well, the court system finally got it, but it took a slam-dunk, almost like there was no opponent on the other side, and we still lost. So the relief was that the correct obvious legal thing happened, and the relief was that Karen would now get the care she needed and be around the people she loved, which was the most important thing.”

Thirty years later, the victory still provides Wilson with a shot of inspiration.

“I was just at Orchestra Hall for a celebration of Nelson Mandela, and I was thinking, ‘It was like that!’ Yes, he’s out of prison and he should never have been in prison, but you just have to celebrate,” she said. “That part is over. Justice has finally happened.  Which for me is very reassuring, but you really should not have the law ignored for seven years before it’s listened to. That should never happen, but it happens because, my current conclusion is that, at least at that time, people didn’t know they were homophobic. They just thought that, ‘Well, you can’t just have this other woman be her guardian.’ But they weren’t understanding that this was coming from a place of bigotry, and taking on bigotry in Minnesota wasn’t something I ever thought I’d have to do. But that’s what it was all about.”

It was a time when gay men’s partners were dying of AIDS and discovering they had no legal rights to stay in their apartments, or share in their estates, or decide where their partners would be buried. It was a time when gay couples stayed underground, out of fear of having to defend the very basics of their lives.

“That decision was kind of a precursor, kind of an opening, and then there we were, in Minnesota, finally having our Legislature pass gay marriage before even the Supreme Court did,” said Wilson. “That’s the ultimate answer to the Sharon Kowalski question: If you can have gay and lesbian marriage, then we don’t have to go through this ever again.”

Beyond the public and political ramifications, and even with the many obstacles they faced together, the Thompson-Kowalski saga remains a great love story.

“It was and it still is,” said Wilson. “Part of Sharon’s brain was destroyed from the head injury, but part of her is there. The point is to let her get the most life she can after this horrible car accident, and Karen’s never, ever abandoned her at all. Anybody who comes into Karen’s life knows that Karen comes with Sharon attached; that they are together. They travel, and she gives her as much of a life as is possible.

“It’s a love story. For me, when you make it this personal about gay rights, that this woman was denied the life she’d chosen because her father had an eighth-grade education, he was from the Iron Range, he had a very rigid and limited view of things that are different, like the fact that his daughter was a lesbian, he never wanted to accept.

“That’s not that unusual, but then look what the effect of it was: It deprived her of medical care that she needed and put her in almost social isolation, away from the people she loved, because he didn’t approve. I hope that that whole story had an impact, because this was all part and parcel of the price that gay people pay from this discrimination.

“It’s personal. These policies really have personal implications. It was like a question of, who are we in Minnesota? What kind of state are we, that we would allow some homophobic father who wouldn’t allow a 28-year-old woman who had been living with her partner for years and had done everything, the insurance policies and rings and a ceremony when they couldn’t get married, all of the indicators of a lifetime commitment, but her father didn’t want to believe it.”

Donald Kowalski died in 2005. Today, after many years in the limelight, Thompson, 71, and Kowalski, 62, live in the St. Cloud suburb of Clearwater.

“They have a very quiet life,” said Wilson. “Karen was not an extrovert. She didn’t love going public with her private life, at all. So this changed her immensely. She did it out of necessity, and ended up being really good at it. She’s returned to a more normal life, and Sharon is still able to function with a whole lot of special care, and she’s getting it.”