After a seven-year legal battle that became a rallying cause for gay rights groups, a Minnesota appeals court yesterday granted guardianship of Sharon Kowalski, 35, a woman left brain-damaged and quadriplegic in a 1983 car accident, to her lesbian lover, Karen Thompson.
"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," said M. Sue Wilson, lawyer for Ms. Thompson.
Ms. Thompson had fought to be named guardian since 1984, over the objections of Donald and Della Kowalski, who said their daughter had never told them she was a lesbian and who barred Ms. Thompson from visiting their daughter's nursing home for several years after the crash.
Ms. Thompson's fight to be reunited with her lover became a cause celebre among groups advocating gay rights and rights for the disabled. Such groups organized vigils and processions in 21 cities Aug. 7, 1988, which was called "National Free Sharon Kowalski Day."
"This case exemplifies the difficulties lesbians and gay men have in safeguarding our relationships," said William Rubenstein, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Lesbian and Gay Rights Project. "The remarkable thing about this case is not that Karen Thompson finally won guardianship, but that it took her seven years to do so, when guardianship rights for a heterosexual married couple would be taken for granted."
Mr. Rubenstein said the Thompson case had struck a responsive chord among homosexuals, coming just as many gay men whose partners had died of AIDS were finding that they had no legal rights to stay in their apartments, share in the estates or decide where their partners would be buried.
The Minnesota Court of Appeals said the St. Louis County District Court in Duluth had abused its discretion in denying Ms. Thompson's petition to become Ms. Kowalski's caretaker and instead appointing a third party, who was a close friend of Ms. Kowalski's parents.
"Thompson's suitability for guardianship was overwhelmingly clear from the testimony of Sharon's doctors and caretakers," the appeals court said.