30 years later, gay rights case still relevant

11:53 AM, Mar 18, 2013   |    comments
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CLEARWATER, Minn. - Strip away the politics and religion and the glue that binds the human race together is commitment. So easy to say, so much more complicated in practice.

This is the story of Sharon Kowalski and Karen Thompson. If the names are unfamiliar, blame the passage of 20 years.

Perhaps it's best that we start at the beginning.

"We fell in love in 1979," says Thompson, a professor at St. Cloud State University, about the relationship that developed with Kowalski, her former student.

The relationship, kept secret from their families, blossomed. "And we said we wanted to exchange rings and be in a committed relationship. And we considered ourselves married even though obviously we weren't allowed to get married."

By 1983 Kowalski and Thompson were sharing a home and building a life together. It was a life that was about to be forever changed.

"Do you remember who hit you?" Thompson asks Kowalski, her head tilted to one side in a wheel chair. The words do not come easily. "Drunk," she says. "Drunk driver, yes," affirms Thompson.

The crash near Onamia killed Kowalski's four-year-old niece and seriously injured her seven year-old nephew.

Kowalski - who was driving the car - suffered a traumatic brain injury.

She was rushed to the hospital.

Thompson rushed there too.

"I wanted to know where Sharon Kowalski was and no one would talk to me. I wasn't family and I had no legal right to any information," she recalled.

But the battle over legal rights was just beginning. In a decade-long series of court battles, Thompson fought with Kowalski's parents over guardianship, visitation and care.

Thompson wanted to bring Kowalski home. Her family wanted her to remain at a nursing home.

"In frustration we finally wrote the book 'Why Can't Sharon Kowalski Come "home,'" said Thompson. More publicity followed including newspaper articles and national TV appearances. The case became a lightning rod for advocates of gay rights and the disabled.

"Sharon was elected in absentia grand marshal in gay pride parades all over the country," said Thompson.

Kowalski was allowed to accompany Thompson to San Francisco to receive the 'Women of Courage' award from the National Organization for Women, but only if escorted by a nursing home staffer. "Because the judge feared sexual abuse," said Thompson. "What a slap in the face."

But three years later the Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed a lower court ruling and Thompson got her wish. Kowalski came home on April 30, 1993, 20 years ago next month.

Yet the debate over same sex marriage remains as fresh as the headlines. "Nothing's changed," said Thompson. "The fact is the issues in our case are as current today as they were then. If we cannot validate our families, if they're not legally recognized, it leaves us open all the time.

"It would be tidy to end the story here, but remember what we said about commitment being complicated.

As the long battle over Kowalski played out in court, Thompson entered into another relationship with Patty Bresser, a professor at St. Cloud State.

"I made the decision to be open to another relationship, but anybody who would love me would have to know that I'm a package deal," said Thompson. She then turned to Kowalski who was seated beside her and said, "I will love you for the rest of my life Sharon."

Thompson acknowledges she never would have pursued the relationship with Bresser had she been legally married to Kowalski, but adds the level of care required makes the relationship good for Kowalski too.

"We're a differently constructed family so we fight for people's rights to define their families however their families are constructed," said Thompson.

Those who like their commitment in black and white may not find it here, but sometimes life exists in the gray between the shades of the rainbow.

(Copyright 2013 by KARE. All Rights Reserved.)

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