In 1983 Karen Thompson and Sharon Kowalski were four years into a relationship--they'd exchanged rings and vows and felt committed to each other as partners in life.
"We talked about coming out," says Thompson, an associate professor of physical education and sports administration at Saint Cloud State University in Saint Cloud, Minnesota. "But she always said her parents wouldn't understand."
Kowalski, now 27, feared that her family would react adversely to the knowledge that she was a lesbian, and Thompson, now 41, wasn't comfortable making their homosexuality public in their small midwestern town.
"But Sharon wanted to come out to the community," Thompson says about her lover. "I didn't. I remember, we went to one concert--it was a Meg [Christian] and Cris [Williamson] show. Sharon was so excited. She said she felt we were part of a family. But I had a different reaction--I ran into two of my athletes and wanted to crawl into the nearest hole."
The choice to stay in the closet ended for Thompson and Kowalski when Kowalski was involved in an automobile accident that left her partially paralyzed. Kowalski now requires round-the-clock medical care. She has only rudimentary communication skills, and she has a short-term-memory problem.
"One of the things I talk about as I travel is that we're much safer out of the closet than in it," Thompson now says. "As lesbians and gay men, our first line of protection is letting people know who we are and what we want. And as a second step, we need to take legal steps--power of attorney, living wills, partnerships, that sort of thing."
Kowalski and Thompson didn't have any of those, and when Kowalski's family discovered the nature of the relationship between the two women they prohibited Thompson's visits and restricted Kowalski's access to her other friends. It was all of Kowalski's fears come true--and maybe worse.
"They called me sick, crazy, and perverted," Thompson said. "I tried to reach out to Sharon's mother, but she just closed the door in my face. Her brother tried to attack me across a table at a court hearing."
Kowalski's father hired an attorney who has managed to keep Thompson away from his daughter since 1985. But more important, and more mystifying, Kowalski won custody of his daughter, then refused rehabilitation efforts and put her in a nursing home. Additionally, the Kowalski family flatly denies that Sharon is a lesbian.
Thompson fought back in court too, demanding better medical attention for Kowalski and visitation rights for herself and Kowalski's friends. "I talked to Sharon as things started to get bad," she explains. "I told Sharon I thought we needed to come out if we were to have a chance of winning it. She understood and gave me permission to fight this, to do anything I needed to do. But each decision is bigger and bigger and there are many times I've wished I could have sat down with her and talked. I've had to follow my heart."
The tug-of-war between Thompson and the Kowalskis became a cause celebre as the legal moves increased. Among others, Jesse Jackson has called for Kowalski's rights to better care and to have a say about her life.
"This story seems to touch different people--men, women, straight, gay, disabled," Thompson says. "Anybody can become suddenly disabled, anybody can become a Sharon Kowalski. This isn't just between me and the Kowalski family. This case is civil rights--and it's not just gay and lesbian rights, it's to guarantee a patient's bill of rights."
Thompson has consistently contended that Kowalski can understand her situation and communicate by pointing to letters on an alphabet board. Tested for competency under court order in September, Kowalski let it be known that she is aware of the conflict between her family and Thompson and that she is willing to risk increased tension to see Thompson and her friends.
Recently, a court determined that Kowalski needs rehabilitation and recommended she be put in a special facility to reassess her abilities and allow her to develop the skills to make life choices. Amazingly, Kowalski's family opposed the ruling and threatened to appeal.
"This takes visitation out of the hands of her father," Thompson says. "I never dared dream we would get documented what we got in that evaluation. It validates everything I've been saying. And that's wonderful."
After a new evaluation, doctors will decide who can visit Kowalski. "Hopefully, they'll decide that I will be getting in shortly," says Thompson, who hasn't seen her lover in three years. "It's the closest we've been to visitation."
For Thompson, the ordeal has been a trying but liberating experience. Her own family proved to be supportive at every turn, something Thompson had not expected. Saint Cloud State University has also responded well, promoting her last year and allowing her a flexible enough schedule to travel and lecture about the Kowalski case. Recently, Thompson documented her struggle in a book, Why Can't Sharon Kowalski Come Home?
In some ways, the "Karen and Sharon story," as many people refer to it, sounds like a romantic fairy tale with a happy ending just waiting to be written in. But Thompson knows it'll never be easy.
"I made a lifetime commitment to Sharon and I have no desire to change that, but I don't know what Sharon and my relationship will be," she admits. "After so much time apart, I don't know how Sharon will be. Look at me: I've changed, I've become a feminist, an activist. Those words were negative to Sharon and me. Will Sharon love me as a feminist? as an activist? I have no idea. I'm realistic that I'm in love with a memory. How will she greet me? Has she grieved me? She's in love with a memory of me too."
What Thompson wants most is to get Kowalski out of institutions. "I want to bring Sharon home, whether it's as a friend or a partner," she says. "You know, I love this woman with every part of my being."
Thompson will speak about her difficulties Tuesday at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "Homophobia, Handicapism, and Sexism: The Struggle Continues" begins at 11:45 AM at the Chicago Circle Center, room 605, 750 S. Halsted. Admission is free; for more information, call 996-8670.